PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: Australia is a truly great democracy. We are indeed one of the great democracies of the world, the longest continuous democracy on the planet despite our relatively short history as a nation. We have never had a coup. We have never had a revolution. When we have elections at the state and federal level they are abided by. People go and cast their vote peacefully, generally without interruption. The ballot is cast, the votes are counted and the decision is made, and people adhere to that decision.
In fact, I often pose a question to members of school communities when I am speaking in their civics and citizenship classes. I ask: ‘What normally happens after we have had an election and the government has lost the election? What normally happens the next day?’ They look at me and scratch their heads and wonder what I am talking about, but of course the answer is that the next day after a government has lost an election, just like the Howard government did in 2007 when they lost to Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party, you go into your office and you pack up your office quietly. You go to your files and you shred some of your files, you tidy it up and you leave very peacefully. And you hand over the keys to what had previously been the opposition. That is what happens. It is a remarkable thing about democracies that this occurs. You do not need the police to come in. You do not need the military to come in to assess that or ask one party to leave and to hand the keys over to another party. No, it is all peacefully done, and enormous power is transferred from one group of people to another on the basis of an election.
The reason that that can occur is that we have integrity in the voting system. Both sides of this House and the Australian public know there is integrity in the voting system because we know that there is a system whereby people have to enrol to vote and that there is integrity in that process and we know that there is integrity in the process where the roll is marked off, where the votes are counted and where there is scrutineering all through the process.
I am deeply worried about the bills before us, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012, because I think they will damage this integrity. That is my primary concern in relation to this legislation, because this legislation enables the Australian Electoral Commission to use a variety of sources of information—which are unspecified to date—to update the electoral roll, whereas presently the system is that an individual must go and enrol to vote and must go and update that enrolment record if he or she has changed their circumstances, such as by moving address.
We on this side of the House are concerned that the system which is proposed here by the government and is outlined in this legislation will lead to a number of negative consequences.
One of the essential pillars that does indeed underpin our great democracy is the confidence which we have in our voting system. There are many components to that. There is the way that the elections are conducted on the day and the way that the counting is done subsequent to the day, including having scrutineers and the like. But a critical component in us having confidence in the system is that we also have confidence in who is enrolled on the electoral roll and therefore who is eligible to vote. It is immensely important for all of us in this chamber, and indeed for everyone across Australia, to have confidence in that so that we can have confidence in the system overall. My great concern is that the amendments that have been put in front of us will diminish the confidence that we have in our system and that the integrity of the enrolments will indeed be diminished.
The legislation allows the Australian Electoral Commission to automatically update the voter records by taking into account a number of sources rather than leaving that in the hands of the individual. It is not clear exactly what sources the AEC will use to update that information, but it could have quite dramatic consequences if they get it wrong. That is our concern. You would think that they would look at, say, tax file numbers from the Australian Taxation Office, follow that path down its track and use the information to update voter records. But, if they did that, they could very well have many mistakes. An ANAO report found quite recently, in the last census, that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia. Information as concrete as that, which you would think you would be able to rely on and therefore use to update the electoral roll, is in part not accurate. In fact, there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals, and 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. There are some quite extraordinary figures from what we would typically regard as a very reliable source of information, let alone what they would be if we went to other potential sources.
I will use another example. We might think that Medicare is another source of information which is rock solid and something which the AEC might be able to use to update its records for the electoral roll. Again, though, I point out that an ANAO report found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased. So their records can be considerably wrong, and this report found half a million active Medicare enrolment records were, indeed, possibly wrong. That is one of our concerns. The last thing we want is for records which are incorrect to be updated because that will reduce the overall integrity of the electoral system.
The second problem I have with these amendments is they take away individual responsibility. We on this side of the House believe that individual responsibility is an incredibly important principle which should infuse all policymaking. We hold individuals responsible for enrolling to vote, accurately maintaining their enrolment at their permanent place of residence and casting their vote when an election is called, and we ask them to fully extend preferences to all candidates contesting elections for the House of Representatives in their local electorate. These are the basic responsibilities which individuals have, and we on this side of the House believe that individuals should rightly retain those responsibilities and the responsibility to update their records.
The third and final argument which I have against the amendments in front of me is privacy. This has been spoken about by the speakers before me. There is a significant concern that, if records are updated without the knowledge of individuals, they may not even be aware of being on the roll to start with or of what district or electorate they are enrolled in. Further, they may not be aware of the information which the AEC holds or what information the AEC is using to update their records. We believe there is no need for these amendments to occur. We do not believe there is a case to be made for changing the way the electoral roll has been managed so far. We believe the single most important principle is maintaining integrity in the electoral roll and, to date, both sides of the House have found, by and large, that we can have confidence in the electoral roll. We amend these laws and change this system at our peril. If we reduce the integrity that is inherent in the electoral process, that will be a poor result for democracy overall.