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Speech to Parliament: Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill 2010

I rise to speak in this House for the second time, and on this occasion I am conscious that I no longer have the privilege against interjection which I enjoyed the first time I spoke. But I rise to speak as the member for Bradfield because, as a number of people have already pointed out in this debate, one of the provisions in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill 2010 was triggered by events which occurred in the Bradfield by-election on 5 December 2009. That is a date that will be burned into my memory for the rest of my lifetime. It was a day of great celebration for me personally and for all of the people who worked so hard to assist me in the very successful result that the Liberal Party was able to secure in the Bradfield by-election—notwithstanding the complications which arose by virtue of the fact that there were 22 candidates.

At the end of the process of contesting the Liberal Party’s preselection, which involved 17 candidates, I thought to myself that at least I would not find I was up against such a large number of candidates when I got to the by-election. But I had not counted on the ingenuity of the Christian Democrats and, particularly, their campaign manager Michael Darby, a man who I understand is no longer associated with that party. As we have heard at some length, there were nine candidates put forward by the party. He originally proposed to have 11—that being, I think he was quoted as saying, the number of disciples with the exception of Judas. That, I understand, was the logic that he offered.

In practical terms, though, the question is: what was the impact on voters in the by-election of the fact that there were 11 candidates appearing under the same party banner? There can be no doubt that voters found it confusing and annoying. I can say that on the basis of direct personal feedback which I received during the course of the Bradfield by-election. Voters were conscious of the fact that it required them to fill out a ballot paper with 22 choices to be made—22 boxes to be marked. They were conscious of the fact that it created extra opportunity to make an inadvertent error which would frustrate their intention in registering a valid vote. I also understand, from conversations with the AEC’s returning officer after 5 December, during the counting process, that it was discovered that a significant number of voters had become confused by the need to rank their vote from one to 22. A particular complication was the difficulty that all parties faced in providing how-to-votes, which made it easy for our supporters, whichever party it might be, to exercise their democratic will. So there is no doubt that it was an unfortunate outcome which frustrated the intention of a number of voters who sought to cast a valid vote but were unsuccessful in doing so, and there is no doubt that it caused significant anxiety and concern in the electorate of Bradfield. Regrettably, it was one of a number of factors which caused significant anxiety and concern.

Another factor which caused such anxiety and concern was a deeply offensive survey which was issued by the Christian Democrats during the by-election. It contained questions such as: do you agree with the statement that the federal government should have the power to deport any Muslim? Do you agree with the statement that Australia needs no more Muslim schools and no more mosques? I want to make it clear once again here in the House of Representatives that I absolutely dissociate myself from those statements in that survey issued by the Christian Democrats in the Bradfield by-election, and I condemn that approach as being offensive and wholly inappropriate.

We heard from one of the earlier speakers in this debate that the consequence of there being 22 candidates, including nine Christian Democrats, was that the informal vote was much higher in the December 2009 by-election than it had been in the 2007 general election in the division of Bradfield. It is correct that the informal vote was much higher, more than double, in 2009 than it had been in 2007. The member who made that point neglected to mention another significant causal factor, which is that the other major political party in Australia could not be bothered presenting a candidate to give the people of Bradfield who may have desired to vote for that other major party an opportunity to do so. I think it is a matter for regret that the Labor Party chose not to put forward a candidate in Bradfield. It is undoubtedly another factor which increased the informal vote, because there would have been a proportion of people who could not bring themselves to vote for me and who therefore would choose to vote informal. I respect the feelings of voters who took that position, and I do think it is a matter for regret that there was not a candidate in the by-election from the other major political party in this country.

Let me make it clear that I have absolutely no quarrel with those who voted for the Christian Democrats, because almost without exception they showed considerable wisdom in their allocation of preferences. But I do think it is a significant matter for regret that this confusing and complicated tactic was imposed on the people of Bradfield, who were already being required to come out and exercise their democratic choice in the face of difficulties such as the absence of a candidate from the other major political party. Therefore, I want to put on record my strong support for the proposed amendment, which would prevent this tactic of multiple candidates under the banner of one party being adopted in future.

Let me turn now to the other major aspect of this bill which I wish to comment on—that is, the issue of the date on which the rolls are closed. There has been a lot of rhetoric about that issue in what we have heard from the other side here today. There is clearly a balance to be struck between competing objectives. One of those objectives is maximising the capacity for as many Australians as possible to participate in the democratic process. But another very important objective is protecting the integrity of our electoral process and maximising protection against the risk of fraudulent behaviour. I think the words of a great hero of conservative political thought, Ronald Reagan, are very wise and relevant to this situation. The principle that Ronald Reagan adopted is that we should ‘trust, but verify’. That was the principle that he adopted in dealing with the Soviet Union on the issue of missile reductions, and I think it is an appropriate principle in dealing with important issues such as the integrity of the electoral roll.

On our side of the House we make no apology for the fact that we believe that citizens who come to put themselves on the electoral roll and exercise the important right and responsibility to vote in a general election or, indeed, in any election should be required to meet certain minimum obligations. It is not a difficult or an onerous job to get yourself on the electoral roll. Like others in this House, I commend the Australian Electoral Commission for the work that they do, including the work they do to make it as easy as possible for people to get on the roll.

But there is an important issue of personal responsibility here. It is not an onerous requirement to say to Australians who want to participate in an election: ‘You should get yourself on the roll and you should be on the roll within the specified time after moving to a new address. This is one of the responsibilities of citizenship and if you wish to exercise the precious privilege of being able to vote then you should get yourself on the roll.’ As we look at this issue of how we ought to properly balance up the two competing considerations—the first consideration being to maximise the number of Australians who are in a position to participate to vote, and the other consideration being protection against electoral fraud—we say the balance is properly struck in the way that the law presently stands. That is, the rolls are closed when the writs are issued.

One of the relevant questions here, obviously, is an assessment of the likelihood of electoral fraud occurring. If the risk were remote and theoretical the balance might, perhaps, be struck in a different way. But I am sorry to say that the risk is not remote and the risk is not theoretical. As a very new member in this place, I have been informing myself about a circumstance in which fraudulent behaviour, regrettably, occurred in all too tangible a fashion. I refer, of course, to the events described in the Shepherdson inquiry, an investigation into electoral fraud in which a gentleman named Mike Kaiser—I think it is a matter of legitimate inquiry for this parliament as to the circumstances in which electoral fraud occurs when we have before us a piece of legislation about whether there ought to be changes to the procedures which today are designed to protect against electoral fraud with regard to governance in relation to the electoral roll. It is a matter of the highest relevance to that important public policy question that we ask ourselves what circumstances there might be in which electoral fraud has been committed in the past, what might be the motivations of the other side of the House in putting forward this legislation and what interest has been demonstrated by very senior members of this government—ministers in this government—in the career of individuals who may have been involved in that kind of deeply regrettable behaviour.

As I come to look at this piece of legislation, to weigh up my responsibility as a member of this House and to assess the wisdom of what has been proposed in the legislation brought forward by the government, the conclusion I reach is that it is unwise in the extreme to vary the present balance which applies between those two competing considerations: on the one hand, maximising democratic participation in the election process and giving as many Australians as possible the capacity to vote and, on the other hand, the importance of protecting the electoral roll and maximising the protection against the capacity for fraud.

What we have seen and what I was shocked to discover as I read the Shepherdson inquiry report is that there are examples on the very recent public record of fraudulent behaviour when it comes to electoral rolls and they involve a whole range of people who are cited in that report including Mr Mike Kaiser. It seems the present Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, has a solicitous interest in the furtherance of Mr Kaiser’s career. I think that the public policy questions that raises are significant and weighty indeed. What we have seen is that there is regrettably—if that inquiry is to be believed and I see no reason why it ought not be believed—a culture of cavalier disregard for the legal regime governing the application of the electoral roll. In the face of that tangible, recent and thoroughly troubling evidence of such culture, it is no surprise that, on this side of the House, we view with a considerable degree of scepticism the proposal that is being put forward for a change to the timing of the closure of the roll.