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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Centenary of Canberra

I spoke in parliament last night about the Centenary of Canberra in 2013.
Centenary of Canberra
20 March 2012

One hundred years ago Walter Burley Griffin said that he wanted to design a city for a nation of 'bold democrats'. On 12 March 2013 Canberra will celebrate its centenary, a celebration that all Australians can be proud of. Tonight I want to speak about two exciting aspects of Canberra's centenary. The first is the opportunity to speak in greater depth about what our history means and where it has been going. It is my pleasure this evening to engage in one aspect of this—a forum hosted by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects entitled 'Sex in the city' in which noted architecture writer Elizabeth Farrelly presented her views on gender and urban development. I would like to thank Paul Costigan, Diane Firth, my fellow commentator, Gary Rake, and many others for an important discussion about where a great Australian city is to go. Better understanding your own city is the first step towards improving it.

The second aspect that Canberra's centenary will highlight is the importance of understanding our local communities. When I wrote a book on social capital - the community ties that bind us together - it turned out that Canberra was the place in Australia with the strongest social ties, and I think part of this harks back to our strong urban form. But there are still worrying trends. For example, from 2007 to 2010 the number of informal votes in my electorate rose from 2,679 to 5,171. That is more than 5,000 people whose votes did not affect the outcome of the election. It is important to re-engage Australians with our polity, and part of that will be through the Portrait of a Nation process. I am pleased to be the patron of Portrait of a Nation, which will involve Canberrans coming to better understand their suburbs.

Canberra suburb and street naming is unique to the nation's capital. Most of the suburbs and streets are named after famous, sometimes forgotten, Australians. Portrait of a Nation will be a chance for Canberrans to delve deeply into the history of their suburb, whether that be holding a street party on the birthday of the person after whom their suburb is named or simply getting friends and family together for a street party. I have found that street parties are enormously valuable in improving the social bonds that tie us together. My wife, Gweneth, and I have held our street's party in three of the last six years. We have found it is a great way of getting to know our neighbours better and getting to know those who have moved into the street over the previous year.

The Centenary of Canberra also involves many other important events. For the centenary the motto of the ever-energetic Robyn Archer is 'seed now, blossom in 2013, flower for another hundred years'. One of the events will be You Are Here, a 10-day curated festival showcasing the energy, innovation and talent from Canberra's thriving creative and independent scene. Dollars for Dili recognises the sister city relationship between Canberra and Dili and will focus on building the capacity and education of young people. It is based on the principle that it is better to give than to receive.

There was an exhibition entitled 'Devotion, Daring and a Sense of Destiny', launched by Mr David Headon, which showcased the key role played by surveyors in the early history of Canberra.

There are many other projects that are being discussed as part of Canberra's centenary. I know that you, Mr Speaker, have ideas as to how the quarter-centenary of this very building could be incorporated as part of the centenary of Canberra. It will be an exciting year for Canberrans and an exciting year for all Australians. I urge all Australians to be part of this tremendously important celebration of our nation's capital.
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Great Northside Places - Part I

Following my praise of the northside of Canberra, my southside colleague Gai Brodtmann has fired back a couple of recent salvos. So I've decided that only empirical evidence will settle our north versus south dispute.

As a first step, let's answer a simple question: is the coffee better or the northside or southside? To test this, Gai and I will each nominate our favourite cafe. We'll subject ourselves to the decision of a trio of members of the fourth estate.

So if you're a coffee-loving journalist, and would be willing to judge, please get in touch. And if you're a northsider with a favourite cafe, please let me know.

I find it hard to imagine that any cafe in the south can hold an empty coffee mug to Roasters, Wilburs or Black Pepper, but we'll soon find out what some independent assessors think.
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Chris McElhinny

I spoke in parliament today about the late Chris McElhinny.
Chris McElhinny
19 March 2012

Dr Chris McElhinny, Senior Lecturer in Silviculture at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, died on 18 February 2012. Chris's first career was as a craftsman and teacher in wood. He taught at the then Canberra—now ANU—Institute of the Arts from 1983-1991. Amongst other distinctions in that role, he made the furniture for the Parliament House suite of the President of the Senate.

My neighbour Brian Turner tells me that Chris's curiosity led him to then enrol in an undergraduate forestry degree. He flourished in a brilliant second academic career, being awarded the Schlich Medal for his undergraduate studies in 1998, a University Medal on completion of his Honours degree in 1999 and a PhD in 2004 for his research on the structural complexity of woodlands. Chris joined the academic staff of what is now the Fenner School in 2005 and his capacity to engage and motivate students, to help them learn and to challenge them to excel were inspiring to his colleagues and students. So too were his talents to help his students publish the results of their work and the quality and collaborative spirit of his own insightful research about Australia's forests and woodlands. Chris's courage and good humour in the face of an untimely and ultimately terminal illness were equally characteristic.

I extend my sympathy to his wife, Sarah, and their children and family. Chris's professional legacy endures in the many graduates of his courses, through those he supervised in his and their publications and in the beautiful woodwork that helped catalyse his interest in Australia's forest and woodlands.
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Reframe @ ANU

On 4 April, I'm speaking at an ANU event around Eric Knight's book Reframe.

Details, details:
Venue: Molonglo Theatre, JG Crawford Building 132, Lennox Crossing, ANU
Date: 4 April
Time: 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
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The Politics of Fear

I have an article on the ABC Drum website today about the politics of fear.
Power-seeking politicians walking the low road on fear
ABC The Drum Opinion, 19 March 2012

For centuries, power-seeking politicians have recognised that scaring the public is an effective tactic to win support.

Today, with ready access to a media that's hungry for shocking stories, any parliamentarian who wants to whip up fear will usually find a ready audience.

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of fear of crime. Most Australians – particularly those whose major source of information is talkback radio – believe that crime is high and rising. And yet as a report earlier this month from the Australian Institute of Criminology showed, most categories of crime in Australia have been falling over time.

Alas, some members of the Federal Opposition this week decided that they would take the low road, and exploit community fear of crime for partisan ends.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott spoke of a 'reign of terror on the streets of Sydney'. For anyone who missed the first dog-whistle, Scott Morrison added, 'If you can't stop the boats, you can't stop the guns'. Neither admitted that officers from customs and police – working with their European counterparts – had successfully shut down an attempt to smuggle guns into the country. Spreading misinformation on any issue is damaging, but it's particularly harmful in the case of crime.

Indeed, it was the great legal scholar Jeremy Bentham who first suggested that crime might have an impact on non-victims. A violent crime, Bentham suggested, did a 'primary mischief' to its victim. But it also caused a 'secondary mischief'. As reports circulated, people would go out of their way to avoid the spot where it happened. Some might spend money to protect themselves. Others could be too scared to leave their homes at all. Bentham's work showed that the ripples of crime spread out well beyond the event itself.

A few years ago, as an economics professor at the Australian National University, I carried out a study with UK economist Francesca Cornaglia in which we aimed to test Bentham's theory in Australia. Matching up surveys of mental wellbeing with data on police crime reports, we found that an increase in crime was associated with lower levels of mental wellbeing for people who were not a victim of any crime. When crime surged, people in the neighbourhood who hadn't been victims tended to experience more emotional problems, nervousness and depression.

Moreover, we found that media reports of crime act as a 'multiplier' – causing crime to have an even larger negative impact on mental wellbeing. This suggests that misleading media reports – including those fuelled by self-serving politicians – could lower people's mental wellbeing.

On crime, perhaps more than any other issue, there is a tendency for increases to be reported more than decreases. Good education results make a perfectly decent newspaper story, but no TV news reporter ever started off the evening bulletin with saying 'There weren't any murders today'. Yet because of the impact that crime reports have on mental wellbeing, accurate crime reporting matters.

That puts the onus on to politicians to act in the national interest, and speak responsibly about crime rates. Every time a politician gets a sound-grab on the evening news that misleads people into thinking that crime is rampant, thousands of Australians reassess their evening plans.

As we know, political fear campaigns run by people like Pauline Hanson and Jean-Marie Le Pen weren't brilliant tactical manoeuvres – they just reflected a willingness to walk the low road. Frightening the public isn't difficult – it's just an approach that most politicians choose not to adopt.

Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser and you can find his website here.
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The Future of Community Organisations

On ABC Radio National last night, I spoke with Waleed Aly about joining, volunteering, the health of the Country Women’s Association, and my book Disconnected. The other guest was Jennie Hill, Queensland President, Country Women's Association. You can listen to the conversation here or here.

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Chatting with Ross Solly & Gary Humphries

On ABC 666 this morning, I spoke with Ross Solly and Liberal Senator Gary Humphries. Topics included the benefits of a profits-based mining tax, why the government chose the most capable person to run the Future Fund, and the importance of not bringing into play the character of a victim of an alleged sexual assault. Here's the audio.
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A New R18+ Computer Games Classification

I spoke in parliament yesterday about the new R18+ computer games classification.

Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (R 18+ Computer Games) Bill 2012
14 March 2012

It is important to say at the outset of the discussion of this Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (R 18+ Computer Games) Bill 2012 that there are many terrific uses of computer games. Many Australians enjoy computer games and although I am not a big gamer myself, my two little boys, Sebastian and Theodore, love getting on the iPad any moment they can. Their favourite game is Angry Birds. It is a chance for them to work on their fine motor skills, a little breather for their parents and an opportunity for them to work together as brothers. However, there are many computer games in Australia to which I would not want children exposed and certainly not without their parents' knowledge.

This bill reflects the fact that Australia today is out of step with the international gaming classification systems. As best as I am aware, we are the only country without an R18+ rating for computer games. This bill brings the classification categories for computer games into line with the existing categories that are used to classify films. It makes the Australian classification regime more consistent with international standards. The new R18+ classification will inform consumers, retailers and, most importantly, parents about what games are not suitable for minors.

Bond University has conducted research of over 1,200 Australian households on computer game use and attitudes to those games. Ninety-five per cent of Australian homes with children under the age of 18 had a device for playing games. The average Australian gamer is aged 32 and women make up 47 per cent of computer game players. Gone is the day when the only gamers in Australia were teenage boys. PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that the Australian gaming industry is worth just under $2 billion. By 2015 this is forecast to reach $2.5 billion and globally the interactive game market is predicted to reach $90 billion by 2015 with an annual growth rate of eight per cent a year. The gaming industry is enjoying Chinese style growth.

Computer games are a big part of modern life in Australian families. As the member for Blaxland noted in his second reading speech, a lot of Australians are pretty passionate about this reform. There has also been research that has examined gaming and its place in Australian families. As I have noted, nearly all families with children under 18 play computer games. Almost half of parents said they play games as a way of spending time with their children. Over 70 per cent of parents used computer games for educational purposes. Most parents talked about computer games with their children. They had a great awareness of and use of parental controls on gaming devices. Sixty per cent of parents said they are always present when games are bought by their children.

There is an important need for the R18+ classification. In 2009 the Attorney-General's Department released a discussion paper on the introduction of the R18+ classification for computer games. That inquiry received more than 58,000 submissions, with 98 per cent of those supporting introduction of an R18+ classification. The R18+ classification provides a system to protect children from material that might be harmful. All parents understand how quickly children pick things up from their environment. A friend of mine told me about her 11-year-old boy who was watching a TV show and he said one of the characters was snorting coke. His mum asked, 'How do you know that?' He replied, 'I know it from Grand Theft Auto.' As a parent I want to be sure that I know what is and what is not suitable for my children, and I know many other Australian parents do too. The introduction of an R18+ classification helps prevent children and teens from accessing unsuitable material while still ensuring that adults are free to make their own decisions about the computer games they play.

Research from the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States has confirmed that a teenager's brain is still different from an adult's brain, still a work in progress. There are great changes going on in the parts of the brain in the frontal lobe responsible for self-control, judgment and emotions. Some of those changes continue appearing in the brain into a person's 20s as the brain develops, laying down foundations for the rest of the young person's life. That is good and bad news. It means we can train the teenage brain but it also means, as Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health has said, 'You are hardwiring your brain in adolescence. Do you want to hardwire it for sports and doing maths or for lying on the couch in front of TV or a console?'

Perhaps the most positive vision of computer gaming is that set down by Jane McGonigal, a game designer, researcher and author. She argues in a terrific book I read over summer and which I commend to other Australians called Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World that games can make us better, that games have the capacity to change the world. I did not agree with everything I read in the book. I have been a bit sceptical of computer games and their impact on social connectedness in Australia. But McGonigal makes the most articulate case for the positive role that gaming can play our society. She proposes a bunch of ways in which games can help us be happier in everyday life, stay better connected with those we care about, feel more rewarded for making our best effort and discover new ways of making a difference in the real world. She gives the example of Lexulous, the online word game on Facebook played between family and friends. It is like Scrabble but online chat. It is a great excuse for many players to talk to their mum every day.

While playing the game there is often chatting taking place. Players might say, 'Your dad says hello.’, ‘The knee still hurts and I'm putting ice on it.’, or ‘Have you started your internship yet?'

McGonigal gives the example of the extraordinary: web and mobile phone applications designed to help people contribute to their community. The motto is: 'Got two minutes? Be extraordinary.' Players can browse a list of micro volunteer missions, each mission helping a real-life, non-profit organisation accomplish one of its goals. One mission is designed for Crystal House, an organisation helping children living in poverty get the education, nutrition, health care and mentorship they so desperately need. It asks players to write a short text message of encouragement or support to students in Mexico, Venezuela, South Africa or India, before they take important tests and exams.

So we should not turn away from the benefits that games and gaming can bring. But, as this bill recognises, at the same time we should not dismiss the risks that unsuitable material can have on children and adolescents. An R18+ classification helps better inform parents of what is not suitable.

Gaming is now a ubiquitous part of modern Australian life. Nine out of 10 Australian households now have a device for playing computer games. I know that many Australian parents share my concerns about making sure their children do not access harmful material.

It is important that the Australian classification system has parity with comparable overseas systems. Games like Call of Duty warn of blood and gore, drug references, intense violence and strong language. In the United States Call of Duty has an M17+ rating but presently only attracts an MA15+ rating in Australia. We need a quick and easy system for classifying the material in computer games. Many parents have told us just that. While the member for Mayo has written about the dead hand of government, the government can also offer a helping hand. It can amend the Classification Act 1995 and align the R18+ computer rating with the R18+film classification rating. It helps inform parents of what games are not suitable for their children as they grow and develop. It ensures that they enjoy the fun and interactive and educational benefits that computer games can and will bring to Australian families.
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Sky News AM Agenda - Thursday 15 March

Kelly O'Dwyer and I had a pleasant chat this morning on AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert. Topics included the Gillard Government's company tax cuts (opposed by the Liberal Party) and Opposition scaremongering on guns and crime.

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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.