Standing up for Canberra

Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012

It gives me great pleasure to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 today. The right to vote is a very precious and valuable entitlement. It is the cornerstone of our democracy and a right we must cherish and respect. As a woman I am acutely aware of the value of the right to vote because it was so hard fought for by my sisters of the past. Over the centuries people have fought and died for the right to vote. It is a very fundamental, valuable and precious right, but I am concerned that it is not cherished as such. I am a strong supporter of the right to vote and a strong advocate of compulsory voting.

It really disappoints and saddens me that certain sectors in the Australian community take it for granted and do not value the right to vote. Recently, the Special Minister of State said that he was targeting the 1.5 million Australians who are entitled to vote but who are not on the roll. That is one in 10 eligible Australians who are not enrolled, representing an average of 10,000 people in each of the 150 federal divisions. It disappoints me at so many levels because of the fact that so many people have fought for the right to vote and for democracy over the centuries, and particularly my sisters over the last 150 or 200 years.

It disappoints me, because Australia has a long and proud history of assisting in the governance of democracy and in elections. One of my earliest memories of being in foreign affairs is in 1994 when I spoke to a woman who had just returned from Mozambique. She had been part of a group of 18 Australians who were there on behalf of the UN to observe the first democratic elections, held in October 1994.

She told me amazing stories of how people were so excited and grateful for the opportunity to vote that they had been queuing up for days, so much did they cherish that right, because it had been such a hard-fought-for right. The queues wended their way around little towns and cities.

I also had friends from the AFP, the ADF and DFAT who were involved in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, the UNTAC operation, which was established to supervise the ceasefire and subsequent general election in Cambodia.

That was the first election held in Cambodia after more than 20 years of conflict. A large force was sent: 12 infantry battalions, support units, military observers, civilians and police, totalling 22,000 personnel from 32 different countries. Those who were around at that time will have memories of the fact that the military component was commanded by Lieutenant General John Sanderson. Australia's contribution increased as the election came closer. Between May and September 1992 we sent a movement control group with members of the three services. Between May and July 1993, the period covering the general election, we sent an additional 115 Australian troops and six Black Hawk helicopters. It was a tense deployment.

By July 1992, the Khmer Rouge had effectively withdrawn from the peace agreement and it was feared that they would disrupt operations. There were a number of small skirmishes and mortar attacks. An Australian signaller was taken hostage when he and three Thai military observers were captured by the Khmer Rouge and detained for several hours. This is what I mean about the value of democracy: it is a very, very valuable and precious right. Australians were out there, getting themselves into strife at times, to ensure that, after 20 years, the Cambodians could have the right to vote.

The AFP also sent a detachment to UNTAC to serve with the civilian police component. Personnel from the Australian Electoral Commission were there to help prepare for the general election. Much of their work related to voter education and registration— so important. As I said, Cambodia had not had a free election since the early fifties and did not have that democratic tradition. By January 1993, 96 per cent of those eligible to vote had registered. That is an extraordinary figure. I will soon talk about some figures relating to young Australians' views on democracy. When the general election took place in May, 90 per cent of those who were registered to vote voted. That was a considerable success. Those are two fantastic examples of Australia's active involvement in assisting in the governance of democracy and the right to vote in other countries, which is why it really does sadden me that so many Australians have not enrolled when they have the right to vote: 1.5 million is a significant number.

The figures for young Australians are rather sad. In 2011 the Lowy Institute conducted opinion polls in Indonesia and Fiji which included questions on democracy and human rights. They wanted to see how their views compared with views in Australia. The results suggested some Australians—not surprisingly, given the figure of 1.5 million—are quite blase about democracy. Participants were presented with three statements about democracy and asked, 'Which one of these three statements comes closest to your personal views about democracy?' Just 60 per cent of Australians say that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, similar to the proportion of Indonesians, at 62 per cent and Fijians, at 53 per cent. Interestingly, only 39 per cent of Australians aged between 18 and 29 hold this view, with support increasing with age to 74 per cent for those 60 years and older. Nearly a quarter of Australians—23 per cent —say that in some circumstances a non-democratic government can be preferable. That figure is higher than that for Indonesians, at 16 per cent, but is similar to that for Fijians. Most tellingly, 15 per cent of Australians say, 'For someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have,' with a quarter— 23 per cent—of 18- to 20-year-olds holding this view, while 17 per cent of Indonesians and 21 per cent of Fijians say that.

As you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, these figures are incredibly alarming given the fact that women have fought so hard for the right to vote, given the fact that so many people have died for the right to vote and given the fact that Australia has such a strong track record in assisting people in other nations to have the right to vote. It is quite tragic. I do encourage young Australians particularly to enrol and to take part in their democracy.

The amendments presented today bring into force changes that have been unanimously recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I understand, from listening to previous speakers, that coming to a unanimous decision is telling. It is not often that we see unanimous outcomes from committees, and these outcomes reflect the considered views of all sides of the parliament. These unanimously endorsed minor amendments make sensible and necessary changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984.

There are some important changes here that address the size and complexity of ballot papers. Having a large number of candidates on expanded ballot papers does create difficulties for voters. I speak from experience here, having scrutineered many an election, including during the early days of the ACT self-government elections, where we had the modified D'Hondt system and very large ballot papers. Scrutineering was a real challenge and not too good for the eyes. So establishing requirements is a useful way to make sure prospective candidates recognise the seriousness of participating in the electoral process. As I said, this is a valuable and precious process. There are measures here that increase the deposits required for nominating as a Senate or House of Representatives candidate. These changes have been made on the basis that it is reasonable that unendorsed candidates are able to show a level of community support for their candidacies.

One of the amendments will delete the changes proposed in the bill in relation to the unsound mind provision and consequential amendments. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters proposed that the term 'unsound mind' and the current requirement for a certificate from a medical practitioner should be continued. The concept of unsound mind has not always been properly understood.

The references to 'unsound mind' were going to be removed from the bill in its original form on the basis that the term was considered by some people to be outdated; there was some concern in the community about this term. The bill, as originally introduced, removed existing references to 'unsound mind' which were included in the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902. These references have been maintained in the current Electoral Act as a reason for disqualification from being enrolled. In their place, the bill in its original form provided for a disqualification from enrolment if in the opinion of a qualified person the potential elector does not understand the nature and significance of enrolment and voting.

It is important to note that the definition of 'qualified person' was adopted from the Freedom of Information Act 1988 and includes medical practitioners, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. On the subject of this definition the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters carefully considered submissions from the Australian Electoral Commission as well as from other interested organisations. The committee examined submissions from disability advocacy groups and others before unanimously recommending that the existing references to 'unsound mind' and provisions for electoral disqualification should remain as currently provided for in the act.

The joint standing committee certainly recognised and acknowledged the views of those in the community who find the term 'unsound mind' outdated. However, the proposed amendments, in their current form, could serve to broaden disqualification and potentially disenfranchise some electors. That is why the committee recommended that the term 'unsound mind' and the current requirement for a certificate from a medical practitioner be retained. Based on the evidence received, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters found that there was not a pressing need to remove or substitute the phrase 'unsound mind'. The committee also confirmed that professions other than medical practitioners should not be able to make determinations about a person's capacity to understand the nature and significance of enrolment and voting. Under Australia's system of compulsory enrolment and voting, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters decided that it is worthwhile having in place a mechanism that is able to address any concerns about individuals who are incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting. These government amendments protect the integrity of elections and help those who might otherwise have to find out from the Electoral Commission why they are not complying with their enrolment and voting obligations. 

In closing I come back to the preciousness of the right to vote and to the fact that it deserves respect. I encourage all those who can vote to enrol to vote. As I said, voting is a precious, hard-fought-for right. In my latest electorate bulletin I promoted the fact that people, particularly those who are about to turn 18, need to enrol to vote in order to take part in the ACT elections and the federal elections next year. The right to vote is precious, and we should cherish, protect and promote it. To all of you in the gallery I say: I do not know how old you are, but please enrol to vote when you can.

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