THE ELECTORAL AND REFERENDUM AMENDMENT (IMPROVING ELECTORAL ADMINISTRATION) BILL 2013
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:21): The Greens do support the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2013. Much of the substance of this bill comes from the work of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into the 2010 election. I do congratulate the chair of the committee, Daryl Melham, that he was able to gain consensus, often under difficult circumstances. While there is disagreement on aspects of this bill, there is also considerable agreement. On one of the areas, around the premature opening of ballot boxes, we were able to work out agreements, and I understand that the government has made some amendments there following on from the raising of those concerns.
There are really four aspects of this legislation we have before us. First, it sets out the time line where an additional round of objections is needed during a redistribution. Second, there is the issue about the electoral roll itself, as the bill will allow the Australian Taxation Office to share relevant information with the Australian Electoral Commission. Third, there is the issue about the ballot boxes—changes in procedures for dealing with ballot boxes if they are opened prematurely. Fourth, there is the issue of postal and pre-poll votes with regard to changing the rules that cover those two aspects of the electoral process.
I will just take up two of the issues that have come up. I mentioned the ballot boxes, and I understand that this has been largely covered and that there will not be any amendments to it because the government has amended its own bill, and it is good that we have been able to sort that one out. It is interesting to note the ongoing very strong objections that are coming from the coalition with regard to the Australian Taxation Office sharing relevant information with the Australian Electoral Commission to assist with direct enrolment. This is something that the Greens do support. We see that it is very important in terms of the integrity of the electoral roll because any measures that can be taken to educate and encourage people about voting, and to improve the electoral roll in terms of its reach of covering all those people who are eligible to vote is so very important.
What we have before us is a tightening up on some of the legislation that we have passed previously that has addressed this issue of sharing of information between government departments. The passage of the 2012 legislation that allowed this form of direct enrolment was certainly welcomed by the Greens. It is where the AEC uses government data to enrol new voters and to update existing enrolments without specific action by the voter. That is something that I think will in time see a great advance, and I am quite confident it will become widely accepted as people understand the importance of this and how we all have our role to play in casting our vote come election time.
Within this program, the Australian Taxation Office can share addresses of taxpayers with the AEC to allow them to enrol those taxpayers or update their enrolment. I have been interested in and followed closely what the coalition have been saying about this. Despite their claims that it will increase voter fraud, they still have not brought forward any evidence of that. It certainly appears that their opposition is largely due to the fact that direct enrolment will result in the enrolment of many voters who normally are not enrolled. I think that is worth focusing on, because that is what is driving this very heated attitude coming from the opposition about this all important issue of direct enrolment.
When you start getting voters, usually disadvantaged people who may not have had the same opportunities to gain an education and who, for various reasons, have not got onto the rolls and are now being enrolled, to my mind that is a very significant aspect of strengthening our democratic process. I remain concerned with some of the arguments I have seen conducted on JSCEM itself as well as in the other House and in the Senate when this issue comes up. These people who now have the opportunity to get on the rolls have every right to vote and we have, I believe, a responsibility to ensure that our electoral roll covers all those people who are eligible to vote. I believe that this is important legislation and on behalf of the Greens I am very pleased to be able to support it.
SPEECH TO AMENDMENTS
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:45): The emotive language that Senator Ryan used to justify the coalition's amendments opens up a window, giving us an insight into the coalition's approach. When you start talking about conscripting people onto the rolls, clearly that is not what is happening at all. What we have is an attempt by the coalition once again to muddy the waters and not to face up to their attempts to restrict getting people on to the rolls, which is clearly a responsibility of the government and the AEC. Now with the new technology that we all benefit from we can improve the very integrity of the roll. The language is quite misleading.
It is interesting that Senator Ryan then started dealing with the Australian Taxation Office. He said that he is concerned that they are not aware of the sensitivity. It certainly sounds as if he suddenly thought, 'Maybe I've gone too far,' because he followed that up by trying to appease, saying he was not alleging anything about the Australian Taxation Office. Clearly, there was an implication there, an implication that is in no way justified. No wrongdoing has been found with regard to how the personal data that the various government departments hold on us is managed.
We are all deeply committed to the issue of privacy and that needs to be followed, but to say that sharing is wrong, another favourite phrase of Senator Ryan, is plain misleading. We have the opportunity now for the ATO and the AEC to share data, so effectively we have an important extension of the direct enrolment provisions that we went through last year. Under those provisions, the AEC uses government data to enrol new voters and update existing enrolments without specific action by the voter.
I find very troubling the degree of effort that coalition members in this place and the other place have put into this, because it exposes their elitist attitude. We can improve the enrolment of people who find it tough for a whole range of reasons or whose chances of getting enrolled are reduced for whatever reason. These are equity measures, but the opposition do not want this improvement to the roll. This speaks volumes about their attitudes to people and to the democratic process. The Greens are very pleased to support this amendment.
SPEECH TO AMENDMENTS
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:53): Senator Ryan has certainly displayed a great sensitivity about this issue. On the one hand he talks about the concerns that he has, but what we have heard from him is that he makes out that he and his party are in no way committed to limiting, and nothing they are doing would limit, the number of people on the roll. But clearly that would be the result if you followed through on the final form that the coalition want this act to take. There is the right, and I believe the requirement, when you are a citizen of this country to participate in the democratic process. Clearly people have a choice, but what we are talking about here is the roll, and the sum of the coalition's position would limit the number of people on the roll. That is what it boils down to. For all the bluster that we hear from Senator Ryan, that is what we need to recognise. Again, he tried to cover his tracks by bringing in an extraordinary tirade that he engaged in about the current debate around the media, doing the running yet again for newspaper and media proprietors. Again, that shows the self-interest that is a theme right through how the coalition is handling this. It is about effectively excluding people from the rolls. We have a real benefit that can come here to the democratic process by this sharing of information.
There is integrity in the process, there is a respect for privacy and it is a real step forward in what we are achieving here. The fight that the coalition is putting up and also the emotive language and the sensational comparisons that the senator has just made about the media debate, I think, is very revealing. So, again, the Greens certainly will not be supporting these amendments.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that amendments (14) and (16) on sheet 7360 moved by Senator Ryan be agreed to.