Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (11:55 AM) —Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this debate, and I will start by acknowledging the number of people in the public gallery joining us here today—witnesses to, in effect, the democratic process in operation right now. It is also worth pointing out that this debate on the billthat is being discussed is about enhancing people’s participation in the democratic process in this country.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Provisional Voting) Bill 2011 looks at repealing the requirement for provisional voters to provide evidence of identity as a precondition to their votes being included in an election. As has been reflected upon earlier in the debate, there are four main reasons that a person wants to cast a provisional vote: firstly, their name cannot be found on a certified list; secondly, a mark already appears on the certified list, which indicates a person has voted; thirdly, the polling official doubts the person’s identity; and, finally, the voter is a silent elector.
The Electoral Act and the referendum act currently require a person casting a provisional vote to provide evidence of identity by the first Friday following polling day, and if the voter cannot provide evidence of identity by the deadline the vote does not progress to preliminary scrutiny and is not counted. This requirement—again, this has been commented upon in the course of this debate—was put in place by the previous government in 2006. Mind you, a lot of those opposite had been elected to office in 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004, but they decided in 2006 that this was such a significant issue that they needed to deal with it. This resulted in a situation where provisional votes were dealt with in a way inconsistent with the treatment of other types of declaration votes—namely, absentee votes, postal votes and pre-poll votes.
At the 2010 election, over 28,000 votes were rejected because the voter did not provide evidence of identity by the deadline. It is worth noting that about 14 million people in the 2010 election cast a vote, of which 28,000 were rejected under the system put in place in 2006 by the former government. Again, it is important to note: the requirement for a provisional voter to provide evidence of identity leads to an inconsistency in the treatment of different types of declaration votes. I want to emphasise the point and support the comment made by the member for Banks, where he indicated that the changes being put forward by the government are supported by the Australian Electoral Commission. The AEC are the independent authority that we all support in their ability to oversee and operate the democratic process during elections. They do that not just during federal elections but in other elections where they are called upon by third parties—namely in union ballots, I make the point—to ensure the integrity of the process.
On that word ‘integrity’: my ears always prick up when the opposition use that code word. They talk vigorously about the need to defend the integrity of the roll. Rather, I think it reflects paranoia about the processes, probably championing conspiracy theorists and their fascination with this issue of votes being counted or being excluded. We will often hear cited Dr Amy McGrath, who from time to time has made it her life’s work to deal with the issue of why some votes have been counted and others excluded. Again, I think it is important that the AEC is scrupulous in its defence of process. Frankly, the use of and overreliance on this word ‘integrity’ in relation to the roll is code for those opposite advancing mechanisms to prevent people from casting a vote and finding ways to exclude them from the roll—particularly young people, as has been evidenced in the past in terms of the conditions for ratifying their enrolment ahead of an election—including, as we have seen before, differentiating between declaration votes and putting forward these onerous issues in relation to identity.
We need to be vigilant about hurdles that prevent participation and, as the member for Melbourne Ports observed in this place last night, our challenge is to find a way to get the 2.5 million people who did not cast a vote in the 2010 election to vote. Fourteen million people did; 2.5 million did not. That is a serious issue. Obviously, there are a whole host of reasons why people might not participate in the voting process, and we can canvass them. It may be, in some part, a reflection of disillusionment in the democratic process that makes people opt not to cast a vote. But there are other reasons as well, and I would certainly advance the idea that we have placed before them hurdles that make the process more difficult. From my perspective, removing the ID hurdles is an important measure.
In the electorate that I have the great honour of representing, Chifley, the proportion of people who have drivers licences is amongst the lowest in Western Sydney, and there is a reason for that: the state government has changed the way you get a drivers licence. Bear in mind that those opposite have said: ‘What’s the problem? If you just present a drivers licence then your identity has been verified.’ I would dispute that. To come back to the point, in New South Wales learners—unlike many of us in here who obtained our licences in years past—have to undertake 100 hours of driving to obtain a drivers licence. Again, some would say, ‘It’s not that big a deal.’ But, in fact, if there is no-one in the house who has a drivers licence and/or the learner is from a low-income family—and in the electorate I represent there are a great deal of people from low-income families—there is no-one at home who can participate with them in the driving requirements that are mandatory for getting a licence. Their only alternative is to pay for driving lessons to obtain their licence, and that in itself is a problem because they will not have the funds for it. So they are the hurdles to getting your drivers licence in New South Wales. While those opposite are advancing the idea, ‘Merely present your drivers licence; that’s okay,’ the fact is that drivers licence requirements such as those in New South Wales present a big problem for us.
I return to the fact that we need to find a mechanism to get the 2.5 million people who did not cast a vote in the last election to vote. Australia does have complex systems of voting. There are the optional preferential differences between federal and state elections. For example, in the New South Wales election, you have optional preferencing; in the federal election, you are required to fill every box with a number. As an aside, I would say that our system is way better than the US system, where there are enormous complexities and differences between the states in the way that people cast their votes, and that does disenfranchise people. At this point, I am also mindful of comments made by former Prime Minister Whitlam, where he recommended—and I do not want to cause a collective heart attack in the chamber; wait for it—that federal, state and local government elections all be held on exactly the same day—
Mr Anthony Smith interjecting—
Mr HUSIC —It certainly caught my attention, Member for Casey! When Mr Whitlam made that point, he was looking at the US system, where people vote on the one day. Some of the reasons he made that point and the reason I make this point now is that there is an issue of voter education—that is, holding those elections all at the same time gives people the opportunity to be informed about and to better understand the processes in place, and what they need to do to cast a valid vote. From my perspective, the AEC needs to increase its focus on education.
As the member for Banks said today, the top 12 electorates in the country—many of them with high levels of informal voting—are located in Western Sydney, and the diversity within those seats is worth considering. There are different literacy rates. There are people for whom English is a second language. There are people who have come to Australia from backgrounds where democracy is not necessarily as strong a proposition as it is here. They may not know that, under a compulsory voting system, you need to undertake certain things to be able to obtain a vote. These are serious issues.
I do not think that advertising alone in the lead-up to a federal election is good enough—that is, using mass advertising mechanisms to educate people on how to cast a vote. While I understand it is considered an efficient way to get a message out, I think other ideas need to be considered to ensure that people understand the voting system and, thereby, that they cast valid votes.
One idea I would put forward for consideration by the AEC is that they identify seats where informal voting is high and where demographic triggers would warrant escalated education processes. By that I mean that the AEC conduct face-to-face briefings with people in those electorates to ensure that they do understand the democratic process—that is, the way that they can cast valid votes. That type of work could be done by divisional officers. I understand that, as always, budgets and the level of support provided to the AEC for this function will be a worthy point of consideration, but I think that AEC officials conducting face-to-face briefings with large groups of community members to better explain the democratic process would be enormously valuable. I note the presence of the Special Minister of State in the chamber, and I would hope that this would be something that could be considered for future election campaigns as a measure to improve voter education.
We also need to maintain close scrutiny of proposals to improve enrolment. I note that last night in the chamber the member for Mackellar made some points about this. I quote from Hansard, where the member for Mackellar said:
I am concerned, for instance, with the proposition that has been put forward that for future federal elections we might go the way of, say, the New South Wales Labor government, which has changed enrolment provisions to encompass automatic enrolment whereby people’s details will merely be taken from other agencies such as the Road Transport Authority, school rolls or whatever they decide can be dealt with.
The member for Mackellar, judging by the way she referenced it in debate, believes that this issue is a problem. But, in actual fact, the number of databases that exist within government provide an easier mechanism to enrol people to vote. Given that the identity requirements—the provisions that are put in place to validate a person’s identity through drivers licences or other forms of identification—sit in multiple databases, there is already an avenue for us to verify the person’s bona fides, their address et cetera and to improve enrolment processes. I think this is something that is worthy of consideration in improving people’s engagement in the process.
I note that those opposite often refer to the fact that it is easier to vote than it is to get a video card. There is a good reason for that—there are fewer video stores these days, because that mode of technology and people’s reliance on DVDs and videos is fast disappearing. There is also a commercial imperative for video store operators to put in place—
Mr Anthony Smith —That’s a killer point!
Mr Hartsuyker —What a demon debating point!
Mr HUSIC —Well, you guys advance it as some reason as to why—
Mr Hartsuyker —Well, it’s true.
Mr HUSIC —Well, you refer to video cards, and you are referring to an outmoded form of technology and the fact that there is a commercial imperative to establish the bona fides of people seeking membership. Whatever can be done to harness existing technology and modern processes to improve the ability of people to participate and to tackle the challenge of 2.5 million people who are not casting a vote needs to continue, and I would certainly urge the government to consider this in the years ahead.