Senator Murray on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (11.29 a.m.)–I would like to speak in relation to the Democrats' position on this issue. I have refrained from speaking to date. I have listened to some of the various views that have been put forward. As has been said by one other contributor, drafting or amending on the run is a fairly risky process, particularly when you are dealing with a reasonably sizeable act like the Electoral Act. The issues that have been raised are very important ones. The Democrats have also had similar representations from community organisations.

I think the concerns that have been put forward by Senator Crossin and others and the representations that the Democrats have received are sufficiently strong that we would not be of a mind to support the section of the legislation, as it stands, that seeks to amend the act.

I do take on board Senator Harradine's concern about the need–and this is obviously the intention of the amendment–for the presiding officer, as an impartial officer of the Electoral Commission, to witness the vote to ensure that the person's vote is being cast in the way that they intend. Although I must say that if there are two people in a polling booth talking in a traditional Aboriginal language and the presiding officer does not know the language, then I am not sure how they are going to be able to be sure about whether the voter's desires are being fulfilled anyway. I suspect that is something that would be very difficult to absolutely guarantee without requiring access to translators and so on, which would obviously become impractical. But it is an important issue.

A lot of different competing issues come in, such as the privacy aspect that was raised–the problem of having, particularly in smaller areas, smaller towns, two or three scrutineers watching over your shoulder and seeing how you vote and being able to wander off down the road and tell the rest of the town, or the prospect of that anyway. That is certainly a serious concern, and certainly a fundamental component of our electoral system stretching back many years is the right to a secret ballot. I think it is important to emphasise–in fact, from memory, from reading through a few of the submissions that have already come in to the current inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters–that that is an issue that has been raised by a member of the public in relation to the fact that visually impaired people actually do not have the right or the opportunity to be able to cast a secret ballot in many circumstances currently.

It is important to emphasise that because it is a fundamental principle of our act and of our electoral tradition. On the surface this may seem like a small matter but it actually deals with some fairly fundamental principles in respect of the operation of our Electoral Act–whether it is a secret ballot issue as against, obviously, another crucial issue of whether the person's vote is being cast in a way that meets their wishes. It is also very important to maximise the opportunity to guarantee that.

Those are some of the competing issues that are involved in this part of the bill. Certainly, as it stands, to require only the presiding officer to be able to mark the ballot paper and also to enable any number of scrutineers to witness the whole operation is something that the Democrats believe is not an appropriate solution to what the government is trying to address, and we do not support this section of the bill as it stands.

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