Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (12.51 p.m.)–This is the first piece of legislation that I have had carriage of since I was given the portfolio of electoral matters for the Australian Democrats. I look forward to working in this area with the rest of the Senate in a constructive way for some time.
With this legislation, as with all electoral legislation, we in this chamber find ourselves in the unusual position of being both the legislators and also a major interest group. It is a position that the Democrats openly admit. However, we cannot underestimate the position of trust that is vested in us here when dealing with what is, for all intents and purposes, the basic machinery of our democratic system. It is obviously important that we do it in a way that is seen to be as fair and impartial as possible.
Having said that, the Democrats remain sceptical about most of the measures in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998 and are disinclined to support this legislation. As has just been outlined by the previous speaker, many areas of this bill give rise to great concern for the Australian Democrats as well. Broadly, it has been stated that this legislation is seeking to minimise electoral fraud as well as removing the right of prisoners to vote. It makes a number of other administrative changes which are potentially very far-reaching, such as changes to the disclosure provisions.
Just a moment ago I spoke of being cynical about the motives behind this legislation. That cynicism was only strengthened when I read the House Hansard on this bill where the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration, Mr Slipper, had this to say in his second reading contribution:
The purpose of the legislation currently before the chamber is to ensure that when the result is declared following an election, that result as declared represents the intention of the Australian people as cast on polling day.
If that had been the case in the 3 October poll last year, Mr Slipper would be on the opposition benches. As we all well know, despite 51.3 per cent of the population voting against it, this incumbent government has been able to cling to power because of its dominance in a handful of marginal seats. In terms of the principle enunciated by Mr Slipper, the 1998 federal election was the low-water mark for Australian democracy. The Democrats would like to see an examination of changes to the Electoral Act which will stop that problem occurring, rather than some of the other measures that are contained in this legislation.
In real terms, the term of this government has been underwritten by an electoral system that fails to deliver representation to over two million Australians, which is the equivalent of denying representation to all the voters of South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. This bill does nothing to remedy that situation. Indeed, in some parts, it only exacerbates that situation. The Australian Democrats have made a career out of amending legislation to make it and the government open and operate with integrity and honesty. Electoral law and transparency in funding and donations to political parties is a fundamental part of that.
This legislation deals with measures to enable greater information from the electoral roll to be provided to various people. Most contributors to the debate in the lower house and, I am sure, most senators would desire to keep the electoral roll and its use restricted to people who can be said to have a genuine interest in that information. The proposed amendments, which allow the provision of electoral data to members, senators and political parties, would be particularly attractive to commercial marketing companies. The amendments in this bill relate to giving federal MPs and all registered political parties the details of electors' dates of birth and salutations. I am not sure whether people would be terribly worried about their salutations being made available, but I am quite sure that a number of Australians would be concerned about their dates of birth being made available not only to members of parliament but also to every registered political party.
The Democrats do not support the extension of this information–and for very good reason. One needs only to look at who and what is registered as a political party to see there is a long list of parties, many of which are barely known to the Australian public let alone to the people behind them. Many people would be concerned about that sort of information being made available to organisations that are barely known and, in many cases, difficult to even get in touch with.
Not the least of those political parties that would get access to this extra information is Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, a party that many people from all sides of politics have been concerned about in terms of their lack of accountability in their structure and their quasi-commercial operation style. Throughout this debate, there has been the talk of not allowing commercially sensitive material to fall into the hands of people who may profit from such information. The Democrats support moves to extend the penalties for such misuse, as contained in the foreshadowed amendment mentioned by Senator Faulkner. It is right and proper that we are intent on preventing any commercial entity from gaining an economic advantage through the electoral roll of this country.
Another aspect of this legislation deals with the expansion of donations. The previous speaker has again outlined very clearly why the provisions contained in this legislation would leave major holes in the intent and operation of the disclosure provisions that have been put in place over many years. Let us not forget that part of what has driven that need and that desire for greater accountability and greater openness in terms of who funds political parties in Australia is the desire of the public to know such information.
It is no secret to say that public confidence in political parties is very low and trending further downwards. Measures such as this, which seek to make it easier for donors to hide their donations to political parties, can have no other effect than increasing the level of cynicism amongst the Australian public. Surely that is something that none of us would wish to encourage.
Another serious aspect of this legislation that the Democrats are greatly concerned about is the move to curtail the ability of people to enrol or to change their existing enrolment once elections are called. Again, as the previous speaker outlined, this has the potential to disenfranchise up to as many as 80,000 new voters whenever an election is called. The rationale behind such a measure–the need to prevent electoral fraud–has not been proven, despite extensive investigation by a number of parliamentary committees. With such a lack of evidence of any widespread electoral fraud, there can surely be no justification for producing an amendment which will clearly disenfranchise such a huge number of Australians. This will affect mainly younger people–people we are trying to encourage to get involved in the political process–many of whom, to the detriment of our democracy, are feeling more and more disconnected from it.
There are a couple of measures, mainly minor administrative matters, in this bill that the Democrats are willing to support. If the bill gets to the committee stage, I will indicate those measures then. However, we believe that, on the whole, as the bill contains sufficient negative and serious measures, those few measures that are positive should be removed and put in another piece of legislation rather than being tacked onto something, the vast majority of which is, in the Democrat's view, completely unsupportable. For that reason, we believe that this bill should be voted against at its second reading stage.