The right to vote is something that is really important to all of us, and possibly those of us in this place understand the system as well as we should and we study it and it is of deep importance to all of us. I know from listening to the speeches we have heard today that there is a great deal of understanding about the way the system operates and also, I think, about the history of the democratic practice in our country . It is so valuable that we, as community members, can understand the history of democracy in Australia and the struggles that went to achieve the right to vote. I know that a couple of years ago in this place we talked at length about the amazing struggle to obtain the right to vote for women and about the joy and celebration with which people received that vote and actively used it.
Our system that protects our right to vote is also important to all of us. We have heard in this place today about how well regarded the Australian electoral system is, both at home and abroad, and about how our people are applauded for their efficiency and dynamic role in developing practices in the electoral process and are also valued as international observers. People from Australian electoral systems are invited-in fact, encouraged-to share their knowledge overseas and to work to encourage people to be involved in democratic practices and make sure that their voting systems are open, transparent and free.
An integral part of this whole process is a genuine review of electoral processes. After each major federal election we have an intensive review of the way the system operated and suggestions for how it can change and an agreement that this is a dynamic system. It cannot stay untouched; it must be reviewed, taking into account changes in community knowledge, community activity and also technology. Certainly we have heard much about the increase in the role of technology in the electoral processes in the last few years, and that is valuable.
People will not always agree on the best way that the electoral system should operate and we see that in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2006. I am very unhappy with some of the changes that are being pushed forward in this legislation. I do value the fact that we have the opportunity to debate these processes in this place. It would make me particularly happy if we felt that any of this volatile debate could lead to some changes in the result-but I think we have already heard that that is unlikely at best. Nonetheless, the fact that we have a genuine interest in the system and that people are able to put forward what they believe is the best practice must be celebrated. A lot of the responsibility for that must go to the Australian Electoral Commission. I have had the pleasure and the honour to meet many people who have worked in the Australian Electoral Commission over many years. I have worked with them in the public sector and I know the responsibility, the commitment and the enthusiasm that so many of those staff members have for their job and for their system. I know that they work extremely hard and that they have an absolute knowledge of the best and most effective ways for the electoral system to be practised in this country.
On that basis, when I look at some of the things that are being pushed forward in this legislation I find it difficult to understand why, under the guise of workload pressures for the Australian Electoral Commission, the government is pushing through what is probably one of the most frightening aspects of this compendium legislation before us today, which-as has been noted by many senators on this side of the chamber during the debate today-is the change which effectively closes the rolls on the day that the election is determined.
We hear of that in the media; we all wait for that in our processes in Australia. It is very rare that there is a snap election in the Australian system. We know, we feel and we are told through the media that a election is probably coming up. In fact, nowadays you probably get more leaks about what is going to happen in the future than ever before. So it is unlikely that people will be suddenly surprised that there is going to be an election tomorrow. However, in terms of the current knowledge of and confidence in the system of Australians across the board, what we find-and it has been clearly documented, election after election-is that a lot of Australians are not on the roll for their current address and with the details needed to exercise their vote.
We also have documented that when the election is called, when the media responds to the call from Government House that the election is on, people flock to sign up to the roll. They do not run away from that responsibility. We have the numbers-we have heard them in the House today-of how many people are reminded of that once an election is called. There is that sudden pressure. I will not use the language that possibly would be used at the time, but they say, 'I've got to go and get the roll fixed up so that I can vote.' It is positive; people do it. That is one of the more exciting elements of our democracy. No matter how much we may be disappointed with the complaints and the whingeing that sometimes occur when people realise they will have to vote again, the large majority of Australians accept the responsibilities that come with the wonderful chance we have to be part of our democratic system and they are stimulated to fix up their enrolment so that they can vote.
We have heard people who have worked in the system for many years-people like Senator Faulkner and Senator Carr-talk about historical perspectives, about times when rolls have closed early and the impact that has had on the voting public. We know, simply on the data from the last three elections, that hundreds of thousands of people in Australia update their electoral enrolment after the election is called. That process has been part of the way we operate; it is an entrenched practice. We also know that there is an understanding when you sign the little piece of paper to get on the roll that you will advise the Australian Electoral Commission as soon as you can of any change and get your roll details up to date. Possibly as politicians we are even more aware of that because of historical circumstances surrounding some of our predecessors who may not have had that process effectively done and who have found out the hard way about the penalties of not fulfilling their enrolment requirements.
Nonetheless, the message is not as clear as we would hope across the rest of the community. That is not the fault of the people who work at the Australian Electoral Commission. They have identified the need for greater community education programs for many years. One of the most successful parts of the Electoral Commission process is their education program. But it should be and must be much greater. In terms of the changes that are in the legislation before us today, when it gets through-when the vote is finally taken and government has its way-I want to at least make sure that there will be a resultant upgrade in education processes by the Australian Electoral Commission for all the other elements of our society to ensure that people understand what these changes mean.
One of the saddest things that could happen when the next election is called-regardless of your political position-would be that Australian citizens will not have their right to vote. That, to me, defeats the whole concept of democracy as we know it. The numbers roll off the tongue: hundreds of thousands of people in the last election had either not enrolled for the first time-they would normally be young voters-or had not made their address changes, so they were effectively disenfranchised for the area in which they live. Those people are not necessarily those who do not want to vote. The kind of work that we have done in the past was going through enrolment campaigns. Those people are genuinely regretful that they overlooked the issue and, in most cases, as soon as they have the opportunity they make the change. That leeway will not be offered be in future.
When you add the further complication of the proof of identity issue, you have a double whammy for people who need to enrol and, if they only have that short period, to enrol quickly. We have heard it explained earlier today, but the thing I find most offensive about this legislation is that the people who will be damaged by it most are those whom we should be most actively seeking to include in the process. There is no doubt that people who do not have standard housing arrangements, who move a lot, who perhaps are not as well educated as others and, in some cases, people from Indigenous communities will be those who will be most excluded by these changes.
As I have said, I worked with people from the AEC over many years. One of the programs that I enjoyed most, which was in place for many years, was one in which identified officers in the commission worked exclusively with Aboriginal communities to raise awareness of the whole electoral system and encourage people from those communities to take part in the process and enrol. There was a dedicated program for that until 1996, when that program was canned. I find it difficult when I think that there was a program in place that worked with people who may not have been comfortable with our system but had every right to be part of it. So there was a program to respond directly to those needs but it does not exist anymore. When you look at it clearly-as has been done by a number of people who gave evidence to the Senate committee looking specifically at this legislation and also through various community consultation on the process-you see that people have come forward and identified who would be most likely to be excluded from our democratic process by the changes to the enrolment processes. I think it is simplistic to indicate that one group of people who will support one side of politics will be more affected than others. I have heard that argument and I think it is very difficult anywhere now to presume which way people will vote. I have personally never been asked which way I vote. People probably know now! But in the days when people would do polling after the event, no-one ever asked me how I voted. However, the AEC has told me that it is something people often keep very quiet about. They go in and fulfil their responsibility as community members but do not often come out and proclaim which way they voted, so an analysis that says, 'People in this group will be more likely to vote this way than others,' is probably a little simplistic. So the government's push to make these changes to disenfranchise people who do not have their electoral details accurate or who may be in a mobile situation may not translate as easily to their advantage as some may hope.
We hope for some genuine understanding on both sides of this place that it is just bad policy. Doing anything to make it more difficult for people to take part in our democracy does not bring honour to any parliament. Our role must be to encourage people to be part of our democratic system. I find it so ironic that at the time the government is pushing through changes to make it more difficult for people to vote it has killed an education program that was most effective in our country. It trained and educated young people in our democratic practices. The Discovering Democracy program that was at work in schools across this country-which worked with young people to tell them how our system worked, how electoral systems worked and how parliament operated and gave them a chance to learn more about their community and the way that politics was a natural part of the community and not something that could be dismissed easily-was defunded. So if there were a genuine commitment from the government in pushing through tighter regulation for how to become enrolled and the time it took, based on the premise that if you had been an effective citizen then you would have all those details accurate, I would have thought it would be effective to have this kind of training and understanding in schools so that, as people were working through their education programs, a practical knowledge of the system was in place. But, no, that is not there and it is not planned to be returned. So you change the system without giving people the education and the confidence to work best with it. That again does not bring honour to anyone pushing through these changes. One of the previous speakers in this debate said: 'Where do you start talking about the things you have trouble with in this legislation?' I will not cover all the topics that worry me. But I will say that I do not like this legislation. One other point I want to make in the time I have is the issue of taking away the voting rights for people who are in prison. We heard from one senator, with whom I normally agree on many things to do with the system process, that the responses to the removal of this right have been emotive, that they possibly have not been based in realism. For those people who feel that, I want to quote from a good friend of mine who does extensive work with people who are in prison in Queensland. Debbie Kilroy works with Sisters Inside. I have spoken with Debbie over many years about women who are imprisoned, about how they feel and about making sure that they are not completely removed from their role in society, so that they feel as though they still have lives and families and are able to come back out and pick up their lives. When I spoke with Deb about these changes she said: 'Removing voting rights from prisoners just further disenfranchises the most disadvantaged and makes them more invisible. This is just another attempt to make the most marginalised more distant. It makes them the other, separate from us, further punishing them for our own purposes.' I am not sure why the government is so keen to bring in this system of disenfranchising people in jail. As with so many other changes in this legislation, the justification does not seem to be strong. It is an opinion from the government, reinforced by only one submission to the Senate inquiry, that for these people it should be part of their punishment that they should not be able to take part in our electoral processes. What that shows is their assessment. It certainly does not reflect the views of many Australians. It reinforces the distancing and the labelling of people who are Australians, who are on the roll-or have been on the roll up until now-and who should have the right, as with all other Australians, to take part in our democratic practice.
Once again, though, we label and we distance. One of the previous speakers talked about the Americanisation of the process, which has been picked up in some of the donation elements about how much money people can donate now to particular political parties without having it made public. But, as for the Americanisation process of the voting system, in most American states prisoners do not have the right to vote. This is yet another piece of evidence about how we are following what I think are the less valuable elements of the American culture. While there are so many that are good, we seem to concentrate on those which are not.
Where we go next is that these changes will be pushed through and we will find out in the next campaign that there will be a number of people who will be disenfranchised. But there is another thing that I am concerned about. You have heard that I have been asking for community awareness programs for education so that people can understand where they fit and for some attempt to ensure that people will make sure that their enrolment details are accurate, that they know where they are going to be on election day and all those sorts of things so that they can choose to be part of our democracy. What I fear will happen is that there will be another burst of government advertising that will happen leading up to the next election. It will be justified on the basis that this is an education campaign to ensure that all Australians know their rights and can take part in the electoral process. But I think it will be very difficult to totally divorce the elements of education from a promotion campaign in government advertising. In terms of the way that will operate leading into a campaign we will have yet more taxpayers' money being spent for particular purposes that were not the intent of the people who developed the Australian electoral system.
To the people who are working in the AEC: good luck in implementing the changes that will be put before you. I do note that some part of this legislation indicates that, where possible, divisional returning officers will be in the appropriate divisional electorate. That is something that many of us have been talking about for a long time. I note that the minister has the ability to override that as well, that ministerial approval can be used to say that you can have a divisional office in another place. I know that many AEC staff have been saying for many years now that the divisional office of the AEC should be in each federal electorate. I think that is part of the education process, the identity process, that should be celebrated. We have opportunities as Australians to take up the honour, the responsibility, of taking part in our system and using our vote. We as a parliament must ensure that every Australian can do this with confidence, knows how the system operates and has their right to vote for the party whom they choose either on election day or during the process that is put in place to allow them, because of distance, to vote elsewhere.
16 June, 2006