Electoral Reform

I spoke in parliament this week about electoral reform.
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill, 22 August 2012

When I last spoke in the parliament supporting electoral reform, I noted my genuine delight in welcoming new Fraser residents onto the electoral roll. I spoke of how each month it is my pleasure to send enrolment forms and letters to potential and newly enrolled electors. But if we are to ensure we increase democratic participation we must also make it easier to vote. For the Labor Party, franchise and participation have always been important. Having as many votes as possible count in the next federal election matters to me and that is why this bill is important.

Since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924, Australian citizens have had a responsibility to elect their state and federal representatives. Voting powerfully symbolises what it is to be part of the democratic process. While the majority of voters still cast their vote in person at a polling booth, more and more are choosing to cast a postal vote. That means we need to make it easier to apply for and process postal votes. In the 2010 election there were over 800,000 postal votes cast. That is in comparison with around 700,000 in 2007; 600,000 in 2004; and about 100,000 in 2001. The same trend can be seen in my electorate of Fraser. The number of postal votes increased by almost 60 per cent since the 2001 election from 3,293 in 2001 to 5,176 in 2010. As more people choose the option of postal voting, we need a more effective and efficient system for processing postal votes. We need to make sure that postal voting is a more accessible option and has minimal hassle while ensuring the safeguards that are critical in the electoral process.

The progressive side of politics has a long history of wanting to expand the franchise to ensure as many people as possible can vote and that voting is as straightforward as possible. In his book Australia's Democracy: a Short History, John Hirst wrote, 'In 1850 Australia did not look like a country that would rapidly become democratic.' He notes that there was a small band of dedicated democrats who called for a widening of the franchise—albeit that they were then looking at male franchise. He notes that in the space of just six years, 1850 to 1856, the share of adult males in Sydney who could vote rose from 34 per cent to 95 per cent. So in this six-year period in the middle of the 19th century we saw the franchise go from just a third of men to essentially all men.

Amusingly, Hirst then relates William Wentworth's reaction to the widening of the male franchise. A member of the New South Wales parliament, Wentworth was a conservative landowner who, along with his friends, was appalled at the success of democrats in expanding the franchise. When he ran for the seat of Sydney after a new rule had been introduced where you needed £10 of property to vote, Hirst writes: ‘he boldly told the new ten pound that he would never have given them the vote’. He only just scraped in. There were three members elected for Sydney and he came third.

The conservative aversion to expanding the franchise in the 19th century is something that we have sadly seen at other moments in history. We saw it with the Eureka Stockade, a powerful movement to which the expansion of electoral rights was central—the fight for the democratic principle of having parliament be representative of the people. And while the miners may have lost the fight on 3 December 1854, they continued to fight for the expansion of the franchise. In 1856 the Victorian parliament mandated white male suffrage. Peter Lalor went on to become the first member of the Legislative Council for the seat of Ballarat in 1855.

Thanks to those efforts, Australia led the world in expanding the franchise. Women received the vote in in Australia from 1902. Indigenous Australians gained the unqualified right to vote in federal elections in 1962. Queensland was the last jurisdiction to permit equal Indigenous voting rights in 1965.

This bill sits in that proud tradition of expanding the franchise and making it easier to vote. It amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to facilitate online applications and ensure that the Electoral Commissioner may use an automated system to receive and process applications for postal votes. In my last speech on electoral reform, I spoke about improving voter participation through making it easier to be on the electoral roll. This bill takes increasing voter participation another step forward. It will ensure that the Australian Electoral Commission can use automated systems to deal with applications for postal voting as quickly as possible.

The amendments have been written not just to take account of present technology but to allow for future technological changes. Complementary amendments increase the number of nominators for an unendorsed candidate from 50 to 100 electors. There is no change to the law with respect to endorsed candidates. This amendment seeks to strike the right balance between providing the opportunity for all eligible citizens to stand for parliament while at the same time putting in place some reasonable thresholds that candidates must meet.

And that is in order to deal with the practical issues of conducting elections. As we have seen, particularly in the New South Wales upper house, if candidate numbers are unchecked then printing the New South Wales Legislative Council ballot paper in a reasonable font size is going to become a real issue. In its submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the Australian Electoral Commission noted that the 2010 New South Wales upper house ballot paper was 1,020mm wide, listing some 84 candidates. It was that size because that was the widest ballot paper the printers could manage to cut. To fit all the candidates, the font was reduced to a size that many voters found difficult to read. In one case, a candidate's surname was split over two lines.

Ultimately when you have ballot papers that are a metre across, and candidates listed in a tiny font, you end up increasing the informal voting rate. That additional complexity acts as a hurdle and ends up making it more difficult for the opinions of the electorate to be given practical effect in the parliament. So this measure puts in place reasonable requirements that a candidate must meet, and that strikes the right balance between allowing citizens to stand for parliament and minimising the complexity.

Labor believes that everyone who is eligible to vote should vote and have their vote count. If we do not have high voter participation then we are not truly representative of our electorate. That progressive tradition of supporting democratic participation is a foundational Labor value.

My electorate of Fraser was at the last election the second most populous electorate in Australia—and it is now either the most populous or the second most populous electorate. Some 94 per cent of enrolled voters in Fraser cast a ballot in 2010. But I want that number to be higher. I want to make it easier to register and lodge a postal vote in order to make sure that every voter in Fraser has the opportunity to have their voice heard–—whether that is for me or for one of my opponents, I want them to participate in the democratic process.

My electorate has a significant proportion of residents who are younger than the national average. That is a result of the many young people who move to Canberra to study at one of the great universities here—whether that is ACU, UNSW@ADFA, the University of Canberra or the Australian National University—or to work in the Australian Public Service. The changes in this bill will make voting easier for younger voters who want to be able to cast a postal vote online. A recent intern in my office, Rebecca Mann, said the suite of electoral reforms we have introduced will make it easier for her. She also pointed out that she may well be in the middle of exams when the next election comes around, and this will make it easier for her to get onto the electoral roll without stress. I would like to thank Rebecca for her work in preparing this speech and I would also like to thank Kyneton Morris, another intern in my office, for his research and comments.

Labor wants to ensure that every Australian has a say in their future and the future of their country. In June 2010 the Leader of the Opposition attempted to block legislation that would make it easier for Australians to vote by lowering the provisional age at which young Australians can register to vote. In response to this, the Member for Eden-Monaro stated:

‘I think that Tony Abbott needs to explain to the Australian people why he does not want to make it easy for them to enrol and vote in the forthcoming election.’

The Labor Party is committed to ensuring that everyone who is eligible has a say in our nation's future. For us democracy is about inclusion and having every Australian represented. We want to make sure we protect and enhance the right of Australians to put their mark on the ballot paper. We want to make it more convenient to vote and make sure that more Australians can have their voice heard.

We want all eligible voters to take their part in the 2013 election, because that will be an important election in deciding the future direction of this nation. We want to facilitate online applications, ensure that the Electoral Commissioner can use an automated system to receive and process applications for postal votes in a timely manner. We want to expand access to elections and expand the number of voices that are heard in this great democracy that I am proud to be a representative of. I commend the bill to the House.

See also my previous speech on electoral reform, which discusses similar themes.

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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.