Electoral Reforms

I spoke in parliament today about reforms to increase democratic participation.
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011
21 March 2012

My electorate of Fraser has one of the highest number of enrolled voters in Australia. As a result, we send out hundreds of enrolment forms to potential new electors and it is my pleasure to be able to send out every month hundreds of letters to people who have joined the rolls. It is a genuine delight to welcome somebody onto the electoral rolls.

In Australia, since 1924, we have had compulsory voting. We have recognised that with the many rights of citizenship there are responsibilities as well. One of those responsibilities is that every three years or so an elector should be required to vote in federal elections and, every four years or so, in state or territory elections. It is a right of all Australians and it is a great privilege, I believe. As other speakers have noted in this debate, there are many countries in the world in which people fight and die for this very right.

High voter participation matters because we know that, in countries where voter turnout is low, voter turnout is unrepresentative. In the United States and the United Kingdom, where about half of the electorate votes, you end up with those who vote not being a representative slice of the electorate. They are too often more affluent, older and better educated. As a result, governments are elected that do not truly represent the demographics of the entire electorate.

When we on this side of the House look at the issue of the electoral roll, we look at it through the lens of Labor values of equity and fairness and that all should participate in the electoral process. But so often we have seen those on the other side of the House approach the issue of enrolment through a partisan lens. In a contribution last night in this debate the member for Moreton referred to the point at which the Howard government closed the electoral rolls, in 2007, attempting to deny tens of thousands of people their say in that election, as one of the more shameful moments in the Australian democracy. That attempt to shut down the electoral rolls is something that this country should never see again.

Why did they do so? We know why. Study after study, including some of my own work, has shown that younger voters are less likely to support the coalition parties. Making a purely political judgment, those on the coalition benches have decided that they should do what they can to deny a say in the electoral process to younger voters.

It is also the case that people who were born overseas are less likely to vote for the coalition. I am sure that those opposite know this as well as me or any researcher in this space does. That is why they, during the Howard government era, under-resourced efforts to ensure that new migrants join the electoral roll. They have under-resourced efforts to ensure that young people maintain their electoral enrolment.

We on this side of the House do not believe that elections should be won or lost depending on who you manage to get onto the electoral roll. We believe that all Australians should be on the electoral roll and that election results should turn on the views of all Australians. So, we are not prepared to sit back and let an estimated 1.5 million voters stay off the electoral roll.

We are seeing a widening gap between the number of eligible voters and the number who are on the roll. The Australian Electoral Commission has estimated that since 2001 there has been an increase of over half a million electors who are not on the electoral roll. They estimate that by 2013 one-and-a-half million eligible voters will not be on the roll and will not be able to cast their votes. That is an average of 10,000 people per electorate—10,000 people who do not get to have their say in choosing the direction our nation should take. They do not get to participate in the choice that we will face at the next election between an optimistic, nation-building government—one that is prepared to tackle the big challenges, to make the investments that lay the prosperity for Australia's future—and a constantly carping and negative opposition. They will not get to make that choice. I think it is a pity for any Australian not to get to make that choice.

The reforms in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 have been described as one of the most significant since the very introduction of compulsory voting in 1924. Yet the opposition do not support the bill. They, as a result, are managing to keep people off the electoral roll. It is almost as though they believe only the right Australians should be able to vote in elections. Those were the words of the Leader of the Opposition when asked about school retention. Last November he said:

'It is all very well keeping kids at school past year 10, but they have got to be the right kids …'

The opposition's opposition to this bill reflects the same philosophy. It is all very well having people on the electoral roll, but they have to be the right sort of voters. For those opposite the right sort of voters are not younger voters or overseas born voters, because they know that those voters are particularly unlikely to support the coalition parties. The Leader of the Opposition should explain which voters do not deserve to be on the electoral roll—which voters should not be participating in our electoral process.

The Labor Party is founded on democratic principles. It was the progressive parties that saw the introduction of the universal franchise, first getting rid of the property qualifications, then extending the franchise to women and then extending the franchise to Indigenous Australians. All these expansions of the franchise have occurred thanks to the progressive side of politics—and each has been fought by the conservative side of politics. You can go all the way back to the Eureka Stockade movement to find those in the progressive movements in this country encouraging the expansion of the franchise against the conservative moneyed interests who wanted the franchise as restricted as possible.

Labor believes that casting a vote is a basic expression of democratic participation. We want all Australians who are eligible to vote to do so, particularly young people, who are becoming increasingly disengaged from politics. We want them to be engaged in the democratic process. I took the opportunity to look at the share of Australians in the last half-century who have cast a valid vote—the share of Australians who have turned up to the electoral polling place and not voted informally—and that share has been declining. There is a greatly concerning downward trend in the share of Australians, even conditional on being on the roll, who are actively participating in the democratic process. I think that is a pity, and it is something we need to reverse.

As a result of this bill the Electoral Commissioner will be able to directly update an elector's enrolled address following receipt from reliable and current data sources from outside the AEC. That will be particularly important in my own electorate of Fraser, which has a high level of mobility—many Australian moving here to study at one of the great universities in the ACT or to work in the fine Commonwealth Public Service. This bill will enable them to maintain their democratic rights to vote and participate by making sure that their record on the electoral roll remains accurate. At the moment eligible electors are being removed from the roll despite the AEC having accurate information of their current address. That is having a detrimental effect on enrolment rates, and we want to change that.

Under this bill an elector will be notified of the intention to enrol them at a new residential address. They will be given an opportunity to object to the change, and people who are not on the roll will still need to enrol in accordance with the current requirements of the Electoral Act. In response, there has been some scaremongering, and I think this scaremongering has been put to bed most nicely by the member for Melbourne Ports, who has noted that between 1999 and 2010 there were six electoral events, including a referendum, and 72 proven cases of electoral fraud. Within those six events, approximately 72 million votes were cast. As the member for Melbourne Ports points out, this is a fraud rate of one in one million. This is not a problem that should cause us to hold back 1½ million Australians from the electoral roll.

I am proud of the fact that my own electorate of Fraser has a lower informal voting rate than the national average, but I am concerned by the fact that that informal voting rate has risen—from 2,679 voters in 2007 to 5,171 voters in 2010. I do not want to represent an electorate in which everyone has not had their say. I want that informal voting rate to be as low as possible. I want Australians to be participating in the democratic process.

In Disconnected I encourage civic engagement, contacting politicians and participating in the political process. In recent elections we have seen one out of 10 Australians failing to participate in the electoral process, even those who are on the roll—either failing to show up to the polling booth or spoiling the ballot paper. That is emblematic of a wider disengagement across other aspects of civic participation. In Australia it is a democratic right and responsibility to cast a vote and have your voice counted in the choice of government.

The next election will be a critical election for our nation's future. It will be one in which the Australian people have a clear choice between the economic management that saw us through the global financial crisis and an approach to economic management that says, 'When downturns hit, governments should cut back and cause Australia to slide into recession.' We have an opposition with a $70 billion black hole—$70 billion of undisclosed cuts—and whose first priority will be to cut taxes on the most carbon-polluting goods, to cut taxes for the big miners and to reinstate a private health insurance rebate for millionaires and billionaires but who, when asked about an issue like a national disability insurance scheme, say, 'Well, we don't know if we can do that straight away; that's not a priority for us.' The opposition, if elected, would cut 12,000 Public Service jobs, and they have said that the axe would swing hardest on the ACT. The member for North Sydney talks about making 12,000 Canberra public servants redundant. When the issue arose, we heard the member for Kooyong interject, 'And that's just for starters.'

We are proud of our record. We are proud to go to the Australian people. We want to go to the next election with the biggest rolls possible—with as many Australians as possible on the rolls and eligible to participate. Ours is not a philosophy that the franchise should be restricted—that it should be kept to only the right sort of people. We want those 1½ million eligible Australians to be able to cast their vote at the next election, because we believe in the fundamental values of equality, democracy and fairness. I commend this bill to House.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.