Standing up for Canberra

Electoral Referendum (Provisional Voting) Bill 2011

I rise today to speak in favour of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Provisional Voting) Bill 2011. I do so because I fundamentally believe that what this bill will achieve is the correct and moral thing, despite the way that the former speaker was outrageously construing it. It is a fact that in the 2007 federal election over 27,000 votes were rejected at a preliminary scrutiny because of issues over the provision of identity. In 2010, more than 28,000 votes were eliminated—hardly the small number that was suggested by those opposite today. What concerns me about this figure is that, in a later examination of the votes, it was found that the name was in fact on the roll in over 12,000 cases.

I was also shocked to hear that the current state of provisional voting has not always prevailed. In the 2004 election, almost 50 per cent of provisional votes were included in the final count. In the 2007 election, this figure plummeted to 14 per cent. Of the more than 168,000 provisional votes cast, just over 24,000 were counted. Why was this so? Was there a sudden and dramatic increase in potential voter fraud? No, there was not. What actually happened was that the then Howard government decided to change the electoral laws. Perhaps, in a similar fashion to which it was motivated to make changes to laws on the closure of the electoral roll, the Howard government was motivated by the realisation that provisional voters have a tendency not to vote for the coalition. For example, following the 2004 election, the national twoparty preferred vote was 53 per cent to 47 per cent in favour of the coalition. This contrasts with the exact opposite which is seen when analysing the two-party preferred breakdown of provisional votes.

Whether or not this was a conscious decision of the previous government to disenfranchise those voters who traditionally did not support them I do not know. What I do know is that, as a result of these changes to both provisional voting and the electoral roll, thousands of Australians who should have been given the chance to choose their government and their representatives were denied their political rights. The kinds of changes that came in 2006 disproportionably affected vulnerable groups—groups we should be encouraging to participate in our electoral system. These include the young, those voting for the first time and people with particular vulnerabilities: the marginalised. While I understand that there is a need to strike a balance between the integrity of the electoral system and the enfranchisement of the people, I do not believe those changes in 2006 were motivated by concerns of integrity, despite what the previous speaker was saying, and nor did they achieve it. It was not a victory for democracy in this country—quite the contrary.

It is a sad truth that in many countries various provisions have been used to disenfranchise voters at elections while still providing for universal suffrage in theory. I note in particular the various Jim Crow laws in the United States that were used so effectively in ensuring that African-Americans were prevented from enrolling and voting in elections. These kinds of laws create obstacle after obstacle that a potential voter must overcome in order to achieve what is a fundamental human right. Article 21.3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

I believe it is our responsibility as members of this parliament to ensure that Australia lives up to this article. I believe we must, wherever we can, make such laws as enhance the enfranchisement of the Australian people.

There are a number of legitimate reasons why a voter may have to cast a provisional vote. First is if their name cannot be found on the certified list. Others are if their name is marked as already having voted, if there is some question about identity or if the voter is on the silent elector list. As the law stands, a voter is required to provide proof of identity by the first Friday following the polling day. If it is not provided, the vote is removed from consideration. There are any number of reasons why a voter may not be able to provide appropriate identity—for example, if they do not have a drivers licence or a passport and so have difficulty in supplying appropriate documentation. There is also a stunning contradiction at the heart of the law as it presently stands. This requirement to provide proof of identity applies only to provisional votes and to no other form of declaration vote. That is right: no other method of voting is subject to this rule. This leads to an absurd situation. If the voter had instead decided to lodge an absentee ballot, their vote would in fact have been counted. This contradiction exposes the incoherence of the provision and possibly also the discrimination that I fear lies behind it.

Significantly, the provision disproportionately affects more vulnerable groups compared to others in our society. There are those who for reasons of homelessness, disability or other vulnerability find it difficult to navigate the bureaucratic complexity of modern life. And it is not only the vulnerable who find this difficult; for many, the vicissitudes of life have placed burdens and responsibilities on them that consume all their energy. I have some sympathy for those labouring under the burdens of everyday life. Coming from the background that I do—being the daughter of a mother who single-handedly raised my sisters and me, I can readily understand that having the time to deal with bureaucratic niceties can be a bit of a luxury. For reasons that are sadly familiar, those who are in this situation are often, if not mostly, women. I can therefore understand why some people simply do not have the ability or time to provide the documentation required under the current legislation. This does not mean that they are any less deserving of a vote at our elections—any less entitled to that most fundamental of human rights: enfranchisement.

A number of organisations, including the Australian Electoral Commission, support this legislation. It would indeed be a cause for celebration if those opposite could bring themselves to join in with their support and atone for their imposition of a discriminatory obstacle to the exercise of a political right. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case. This legislation will enhance and modernise our electoral system and our democracy, and I commend it to the House.

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