Making Sure Everyone Has a Say

I spoke in parliament today on a bill to help ensure that all Australians have their say in the democratic process.
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill, 12 March 2013

This is the third bill on which I have spoken regarding reforms to the administration of our electoral system. I have a great passion for expanding our democracy. That passion is shared by a great number of electors in Fraser. At last count, we had 131,000 electors in Fraser. That compares to an average of 94,000 electors per electorate at the last election. Mine is either the largest or the second largest electorate in Australia, and I welcome more people onto the roll in the ACT.

Before this bill, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill introduced important amendments to enhance voter participation and update the electoral roll. We have introduced this suite of changes because, unlike our conservative counterparts, we understand how crucial inclusion and participation are to our system of democracy. That passion for expanding access to democracy is centuries old. It goes back to the times when William Wentworth, a conservative, campaigned to maintain the property qualification for voting. It goes back to those conservatives who stood against expanding the suffrage to women in Australia. It goes also today, in Queensland, to those members of the Queensland LNP who are campaigning to get rid of compulsory voting. At every turn you see progressives wanting to expand the franchise and conservatives opposing the expansion and wanting the shrinkage of the franchise.

This is fundamentally part of a fair go. I want people on the electoral roll regardless of how they vote because I believe the very act of participating in our democratic process is an important one. I will often urge young people who are interested in politics to get involved in political parties. It is great if they want to get involved in my political party, but if they want to get involved in another political party that too is a good thing.

This bill introduces administrative procedures to assist the Australian Electoral Commission in producing a more inclusive electoral roll and timely processing of postal vote applications. That will include bringing forward the date to dispatch voting materials for postal votes. It will include allowing the Australian Electoral Commission to receive certain information from the Taxation Office for enrolments and updating enrolments. In themselves these are small steps, but they are part of that bigger story of democracy, civic engagement, inclusion and using the role of government to strengthen our great democracy.

Today is Canberra's birthday. It is appropriate to acknowledge the words of Walter Burley Griffin, who said that he was designing a city for a nation of ‘bold democrats’. Bold democrats should want everyone to participate in our electoral process, and that means administrative amendments that expand the franchise.

The number of eligible voters who are not on the electoral roll has risen significantly since 2001. Without the administrative changes introduced to enhance electoral procedures and voter participation, on average 10,000 eligible voters per electorate would have been unable to cast their votes later this year and to exercise their right to elect their political representatives.

There are only a dozen or so nations around the world that have compulsory voting. We have compulsory voting because we believe that with rights come responsibilities, that it is the responsibility of everyone to have their say in the democratic process. Indeed, as a Centre for Independent Studies report pointed out a number of years ago, getting rid of compulsory voting would lead to a bias in those who remain. In which way would it bias? It was quite clear from the authors, Derek Chong, Sinclair Davidson and Tim Fry, that getting rid of compulsory voting would advantage the conservative side of politics and it would do so not in a fair manner because those who voted under voluntary voting would be unrepresentative of the Australian population as a whole. As a social laboratory for the world, we have been a world leader in implementing compulsory voting and it is a good and important reform that ensures inclusion. It ensures that those of us in this place are an accurate representation of the political views of the Australian people. Voluntary voting would breach that guarantee.

In opposing these reforms, the opposition is again demonstrating a preference for political gain over the national interest, the democratic interest, of all Australians, over the right to vote and the right to ensure that our parliament is representative of the population as a whole. Why won't it support these amendments? Part of the answer is in a November 2011 radio interview from the opposition leader. He said that only the right kids should stay on at school beyond year 10. He said, 'It's all very well and good keeping kids at school past year 10 but they've got to be the right kids.' It appears here that that is the approach the opposition is taking to electoral reform: 'We want voters but only the right sorts of voters.'

The coalition attempted to block a bill that would make it easier for Australians to vote by lowering the provisional age at which young Australians can register to vote. When that bill came before the House in 2010 the member for Eden-Monaro correctly 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.' We know the answer, as the member for Melbourne Ports has pointed out. Statistically, it is likely that, as you increase the number of younger people on the rolls, they will not be natural supporters of the coalition.

The principle here is the principle of expanding the franchise. We need more civic engagement. And that is in the face of a decline in civic engagement. In my book Disconnected, I charted not only the collapse of Australian political party membership right across the spectrum but also a decline over recent decades in the share of Australians casting a valid vote. What do you have to do to cast a valid vote? You have to do two things. You have to show up to the polling booth and not spoil the ballot paper. Despite an increase in education levels in Australia, we have seen a decrease in the share of electors casting a valid vote, with now a tenth of the citizenry effectively failing to participate in the poll, either by not turning up or by spoiling the ballot paper. In that environment it is absolutely critical that we expand the democratic process, that we ensure that more and more people can get engaged.

It was somewhat surprising recently to see defence of an inclusive democracy and election system coming from an unlikely source in Queensland. In January this year, the Newman government released a discussion paper that raised the prospect of scrapping compulsory voting in state elections. Clive Palmer responded to the proposal with the following tweet:

‘Qld govt plan to scrap compulsory voting shows it's panicking about loss of support. Compulsory voting a feature of our democracy.’

And in a media release he made the perfectly sensible point:

‘The more people who participate in a democracy the better and it is good for the whole country if citizens accept the responsibility to vote.’

If you want to see a preview of what Australia might look like were the Leader of the Opposition to move to this side of the House then you only have to look at the Newman government in Queensland. It is, frankly, a shame that some of the LNP in Queensland do not understand, as it turns out Mr Palmer does, that participation in the democratic process is essential to a fair society.

Minister Gray argued earlier this year that Australia's electoral system should not be changed for the sake of protecting partisan political interests. He correctly identified concern about the increase in informal voting and the need to address this. While I am not sure Minister Gray would regard Clive Palmer as being his natural ally, the point is indeed clear. As the minister has said:

‘Our system has delivered stable government and a custom and practice which means voters at federal elections are most likely to know how to … make their vote count. Voting systems should not be changed for short-term partisan advantage.’

The Australian Electoral Commission received over 800,000 postal vote applications at the 2010 election. It is an increasingly popular way to cast a ballot. This bill will amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act to remove the requirement for a prepoll ordinary vote applicant to complete and sign a certificate. The Australian Electoral Commission will be assisted in processing the applications for postal votes by bringing forward by one day the dispatch of postal voting materials. The bill clarifies that prepoll voting can only commence on the fourth day following the declaration of nominations. In addition, a small amendment to the Taxation Administration Act allows certain personal information collected by the Australian Taxation Office to be received by the Electoral Commission. This information, obtained from a credible government source, will enable the commission to update the electoral roll so that it is as inclusive as possible, demonstrating a commitment to ensuring that as many Australians as possible can have their say in our great democracy.

The progressive tradition of supporting democratic participation is a fundamental Labor value. Labor believes that every Australian should have their say in the future of Australia. We are committed to ensuring that everyone who is eligible has a say in the nation's future, because we are the party of democracy and of the franchise. The right role of government is to protect the rights of Australians to put their mark on the ballot paper and make it possible for them to do so. The right role of government is to ensure that we get those estimated 1½ million voters who are off the electoral roll involved in elections. That comes from fundamental values which are not just Labor values; they are Australian values: equity, fairness and participation. People who are voting for the first time should be encouraged to get on the roll. That means all of them—not just what the Leader of the Opposition might call the right voters but all voters.

These administrative changes are part of a larger story, a story central to Australia. They are part of an Australia which has always believed in inclusion, civic engagement and democracy. It is an Australian tradition which does not look at politics through a partisan lens and recognises that we must always welcome greater participation and ensure that those who move are able to stay on the electoral roll, that young Australians are encouraged to join the electoral roll and that new citizens are able to join the electoral roll. It is always a great pleasure and a privilege to speak at citizenship ceremonies, to speak to people who are joining the Australian project for the first time. I often say at those ceremonies that the new citizens are now part of a larger Australian project, a project which stretches back generations. It is not just a project run by politicians; it is the job of all of us to leave Australia a little better than we found it. The way in which new citizens so often look to do that is by getting on the electoral roll and getting involved in elections.

These democracy-enhancing reforms are fundamentally about ensuring that movers, young Australians, new citizens and, frankly, those who are just a little bit forgetful do not get left out of our great democracy. Just because you forget to update your details to the Australian Electoral Commission it does not mean that you should be left out of having your say in our nation's future. Australia's democracy is too important to be left to a subset of Australians. The job of Australia's democracy falls on all of us, and that is why we must do all we can to expand the franchise. I commend the bill to the 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.