Parliamentary speeches

Electoral Legislation Amendment Bills

August 25, 2021

I rise today to speak on this package of electoral bills proposed by the government: the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021 and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021. Labor knows that the strength and integrity of our electoral framework are absolutely fundamental to ensuring we have a functioning democracy. Labor takes any proposals for electoral reform incredibly seriously. We've considered these bills and we believe that these amendments will strengthen our electoral system. These bills do a range of things, including, in particular, limiting the prepoll period to 12 days, amending party registration requirements, making clear that electoral violence is an offence, establishing a designated elector register to address multiple voting, and introducing measures which will increase the efficiency of voting and counting through streamlining the processes of the Australian Electoral Commission.

The changes in the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021 have been either requested by the Australian Electoral Commission or recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. One of the biggest changes this bill makes is to limit the prepoll period to 12 days. An extended prepoll period sees the Electoral Commission having to staff prepoll booths for longer. That presents logistical challenges for the commission and for electoral participants, particularly independent candidates and smaller political parties. It also means that people are voting without necessarily having all the information on candidates' policies.

We no longer have one election day but a series of election days. We know that the number of voters who vote during the prepoll period has been increasing at each election, but the figures also show that the large majority of people who vote at prepoll booths do so in the week before the election. At the last federal election, when the prepoll period ran for nearly three weeks, over 50 per cent of voters who voted during those three weeks did so in the last five days before polling day. As such, this change will not impact the great majority of prepoll voters.

Labor support in principle the shortening of the prepoll period, but we need to ensure this is manageable for the Electoral Commission while it juggles the challenges presented by this pandemic. Shortening the prepoll period will mean a higher concentration of people voting across that 12-day period. Of course, Australia is presently in the grip of the third wave of this pandemic. We know that the delta variant is highly infectious and is out of control in New South Wales at the moment, with some experts predicting cases could rise to 2,000 a day. Victoria, my home state, is struggling, as we speak, to constrain an outbreak seeded out of New South Wales. And, unfortunately, cases in the ACT are also rising, as my friend the member for Fenner would be aware of and concerned about. As a direct result of the Morrison-Joyce government's failure on vaccines and quarantine, we're seeing necessary restrictions on people's movements, and there is no guarantee that our vaccination rate will be high enough to avoid these restrictions for many months to come. So, while Labor understand the merit, in the broad, of limiting prepoll to 12 days, we must consider our current circumstances.

The government has indicated there will be further legislation put forward to deal with the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters from its inquiry on the future conduct of elections operating during times of emergency situations. We understand this legislation would allow for the Electoral Commissioner to extend the prepoll period and the reasons for exercising a prepoll vote if those are things required by circumstances. Of course, we all hope we will not need these provisions in the future, but it is important that the Electoral Commissioner has the ability to make such changes if they are necessary to preserve democratic involvement and the safety of the community.

Running an election is a mammoth task for the AEC, made all the harder because at the federal level we don't have fixed terms—something every mainland state in Australia has. Imagine if the AEC were able to plan for the leasing of its counting centres, the booking of school halls for election day and the employment of its large temporary workforce. The budget would be saved millions, although, of course, this only hints at the democratic and practical benefits that would flow to the community from such a change.

Short of implementing fixed terms, this bill includes measures to help the AEC provide a timely result for elections. The bill allows the AEC to open and sort prepoll House of Representatives ballot papers from 4 pm on polling day. However, counting would not be able to commence until the close of the polls at 6 pm. Declaration votes will be able to be removed from their envelopes and placed in a secure ballot box up to five days before polling day. Importantly, scrutineers will be able to view all aspects of this process, and there are increased penalties for anyone who would disclose information prior to the closing of the polls.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021 also contains vote-saving provisions to reduce the number of wasted postal votes. This is particularly important during the pandemic, when we have seen, for obvious reasons, the number of postal votes increase in by-elections in Eden-Monaro and also in Groom. The bill will allow a postal vote to be counted if it's received with, but not inside, a voter's postal vote certificate envelope. This will address the situation where a voter places their ballot paper inside their own envelope rather than the official AEC envelope. Overseas voters will also be able to provide an electronic copy of their passport in order to self-certify their vote if they're unable to find an authorised witness. The bill also increases the number of scrutineers at a Senate counting centre and reduces the requirement for the authorisation of electoral material to include the name and address of the printer. This amendment is intended to reduce the number of frivolous complaints the AEC receives and the burden that imposes. The bill includes other technical efficiency measures, which I won't go into here but which will assist the AEC in streamlining its operations.

As I said at the outset, some of the measures in this bill are the result of recommendations from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. During its inquiry into the 2019 federal election, the JSCEM also looked at enrolment in voting and heard from witnesses in the Northern Territory about issues with polling in remote areas and low enrolment rates in the Territory. On this basis, I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes the bill addresses some of the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters relating to pre-polling and scrutiny of ballots;

(2) further notes that the Northern Territory's enrolment rate lags behind the rest of the country with only 85 per cent of eligible electors enrolled to vote; and

(3) calls on the Coalition Government to close the gap by providing more resources to the Australian Electoral Commission so that people living in disadvantaged, remote and regional communities can exercise their democratic right to vote".

I want to make it very clear to this House, and to the Australian community, that Labor supports the enfranchisement of every Australian, no matter which state or territory they live in, and recognises that the extent of underenrolment in this country is far from uniform. This is something that must be addressed. We are deeply concerned to ensure that everyone has their say on the direction of our nation at election times and, in particular, are concerned by the lower enrolment of First Nations people, especially in remote communities. Resourcing decisions affect this, as all in this place must first recognise and then respond to. We should also be thinking about how younger Australians can be enrolled in numbers consistent with their proportion of the population. Decisions taken here shape their future—rather more than that of those of us who are somewhat older, as I'm forced to concede for myself.

The next bill in this cognate debate, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021, both increases the number of members required for registration of a political party and prevents parties from being registered should their name replicate a word in the name of an existing party. Non-parliamentary federally registered parties will be required to have at least 1,500 members, up from the current 500 members. The current 500-member minimum is a comparatively low number when considering the registration requirements in various states and their respective populations. New South Wales requires a political party to have 750 members before registration; Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia all require 500 members; South Australia, 200; and Tasmania, 100 members. New South Wales has a third of the population of Australia, yet requires a party to have 250 more members than is required federally to be registered within that state jurisdiction. So making this change is intended to ensure that a political party has an appropriate level of community support to attain the very considerable benefits that flow from registration. Many minor parties already meet the new threshold, including the Animal Justice Party; Shooters, Fishers and Farmers; Pauline Hanson's One Nation; Sustainable Australia; and the Liberal Democratic Party. In any case, the current number of 500 is, of course, arbitrary and has not been increased since the party registration requirements were introduced in 1984, when our population was 15½ million; we now have nearly 26 million Australians.

Party registration brings with it significant benefits, as I said a moment ago. A registered party can run candidates in all 151 House of Representatives seats. It can build a profile and name recognition, with that name appearing underneath the name of the candidate on the ballot paper. A registered party's name will also be placed above the line on the Senate ballot paper, increasing its chances of having candidates elected. Parties are also able to nominate candidates without the need for 100 nominators per candidate. As such, it is justifiable that a registered party be required to show it has national support.

The second amendment in this bill relates to the use of similar names and logos by political parties. The bill prevents a party from being registered if its name contains a word that is in the name, or the abbreviation of the name, of a registered political party or has a similar logo. Exceptions apply for function words, collective names for people, the name of a country, the word 'country', the name of a recognisable geographic place in Australia and the word 'democratic'. A decision by the Australian Electoral Commission under these provisions is reviewable by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

So this bill seeks to reduce voter confusion and the influence of big money through the infiltration of small political parties using the name of earlier registered parties. We know that some parties deliberately use words from the names of recognised parties for mischievous purposes. This amendment addresses that issue. Labor believes that these reforms will strengthen, not weaken, our democracy and that they should be supported by this parliament.

The final bill in this package is the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021. This bill would create a new category of 'designated elector' in an attempt to address multiple voting, and it expands the existing offence relating to interference with political liberty. To be clear, multiple voting is something that occurs extremely rarely. In some circles it's much talked about, but the evidence is very, very different. There is very little evidence of multiple voting in Australia, and the electoral commissioner described the number of voters who vote more than once as 'vanishingly small'. It's something like 0.01 per cent. Most instances of multiple voting are of older or infirm people who have forgotten that they may have already voted.

Nevertheless, this bill will deal with this very small number of people who make that mistake by ensuring that only their first vote is counted. The bill allows the commissioner or their delegate to declare an elector a designated elector. To make this declaration, the electoral commissioner must have a reasonable suspicion that the elector has voted more than once in an election. If a declaration is made, the person must be given notice of that declaration in writing as well as information on their rights of review. Decisions by the commissioner are also reviewable by the AAT.

The amendments also prohibit the disclosure of a person's status as a designated elector. That means no-one else will know that a person has been declared a designated elector, including polling booth officials, This is an important safeguard to protect people's privacy. Designated electors will be able to vote only by declaration vote, and this will be in accordance with the rules relating to postal voting, pre-poll declaration voting, and absent and provisional voting. This is not a new concept. The New South Wales Electoral Act contains similar provisions.

I want to make it very clear that Labor has consistently opposed any form of voter ID rules, and we will continue to do so. It is extremely concerning to view what has been happening in the United States in terms of targeted voter suppression—often racist, as well as nakedly partisan. It is disturbing that there are those here, too, who look to that as a model to emulate. It shows how little confidence some conservatives have in their convictions and in the judgement of their fellow citizens—indeed, in a true functioning democracy. Elections should be contests of ideas, not determined in advance through the cynical and sinister manipulation of processes to deny people a real say over their future and that of their country.

Requiring people to provide identification has the effect of discouraging some people from voting and, in turn, undermining our system of compulsory voting, a cornerstone of Australia's democracy that I am very proud of. However, because the drafting of the provisions that are now before us means that polling officials will be unable to identify a voter as a designated voter, there will be no reason for them to ask a voter for identification—no reason. In addition, I place on the record that the government and the electoral commissioner have given assurances that these provisions will not be able to be used to require, or purport to require, a voter to provide identification. On this basis, Labor is supporting this amendment.

The bill before us also makes clear that the existing offence of interference with political liberty can encompass conduct such as violence, obscene or discriminatory abuse, property damage, and harassment or stalking. Violence, abuse and intimidation are never acceptable in any context. In the context of elections, Labor deplores any behaviour which is designed to influence or disrupt those exercising any of their democratic rights and freedoms. This bill increases the penalty for the offence from six months imprisonment or 10 penalty units or both to three years imprisonment and 100 penalty units or both, which is consistent with the penalties for other offences contained in the Electoral Act. Let me be clear: everyone has the right to participate in our democratic processes free from the fear of vilification, discrimination and harassment.

Labor takes any reform of our electoral system incredibly seriously, knowing that the strength and integrity of our system is what ensures we have a functioning democracy. Bipartisanship is important here. We should always strive to reach for it, and the role of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is critical here in bringing all the perspectives in this parliament and the community to bear on the question of making our electoral systems fit for purpose. But this does not, and cannot, mean resiling from a wider vision of how our democracy can be improved. And, while we will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, we will continue to work towards an electoral and democratic framework that's worthy of the Australian people—all of them, every Australian.

We in Labor know that there is more work to be done here, as the persistence of the plague on our democracy that is the dangerous narcissism of Clive Palmer shows us and as does the worrying sense on the part of too many Australians that our politics does not work for them. We must respond to this. That is why Labor is committed, amongst many other things, to wider electoral financing reforms to take the money out of our politics and to remove barriers to democratic participation for all Australians, and, of course, to safeguarding the integrity of our systems through introducing that much-needed national anticorruption commission—something that is present in every other jurisdiction of Australia and something that needs to be a cornerstone of assurance of the quality of our democracy and our system of government in the federal system, as well.

On the basis that I have set out, Labor offers our support for the three bills.