Statement by The Hon Gary Gray, AO MP
Special Minister of State
Tom Dusevic’s article, ‘Automatic enrolment puts Coalition seats at risk’ (The Australian, December 10, 2012), misses the point with respect to the important electoral reforms passed by the Parliament earlier this year.
These reforms are not concerned with how people vote but are aimed at ensuring that citizens who are eligible to vote are able to exercise that important right.
In this regard, the legislation targets the 1.5 million Australians who are entitled to vote but are not even on the roll.
The new laws give the Electoral Commissioner power to directly enrol electors, if he is satisfied they should be. The legislation does not provide for automatic enrolment. It simply improves the integrity of the roll as conceived by the Australian Constitution.
Before directly enrolling an elector, the Australian Electoral Commission will undertake a rigorous data matching exercise to check the identity and eligibility of each elector to ensure they meet the legislative requirements for enrolment and voting.
Any potential elector will also be given an opportunity to dispute the information, before any action occurs.
The Electoral Commissioner has advised me that the commission will adopt a cautious and staged approach to implementing direct enrolment and update. In contrast to the suggestion in Mr Dusevic’s article, it will take several electoral cycles for the Electoral Commission to make substantial inroads into the 1.5 million missing electors. As the Electoral Commissioner, Ed Killesteyn, said recently on ABC 24, he hopes that over two or three electoral cycles (6-9 years) about 500,000 to 600,000 might be enrolled. Mr Killesteyn has also indicated that for the remainder of the “missing” voters, significant numbers will not be covered by the program due to the stringent identity and address checking requirements to be met before a person can be direct enrolled or their address updated.
There are a multitude of reasons why 1.5 million of our fellow Australians are not enrolled:
Every month of every year more than 22,000 Australian citizens turn 18 and become eligible to enrol. Only about one in two will enrol, based on best estimates. We also know that young Australians who do not get on the roll are more likely to stay off the roll and disengaged from electoral responsibility.
Ironically, many of them are very actively expressing their views – tweeting, blogging, social media, voting for anything and everything online.
But enrolment has declined since the mid-90s and this undermines the quality of our voting process. And it requires a response from both the unenrolled and the Australian Electoral Commission. Accordingly the Electoral Commission has designated 2012 as the Year of Enrolment. During this year the Electoral Commission has targeted young people and Aboriginal people with online advertising, a mail-out to all households as well as DVD and other material. This year is the 50th since indigenous people began voting in Federal elections.
This year we celebrated the 100th anniversary of compulsory enrolment.
The Commonwealth Constitution reflects the concept of adult universal suffrage by providing that members of Parliament shall be “directly chosen by the people”. The idea that actions should not be taken to assist Australian citizens to be placed on the electoral roll is intrinsically repugnant.
As Professor Brian Costar and Rob Hoffman of the Democratic Audit of Australia have previously written:
“It would be a strange political party in a democracy to seriously claim it would be disadvantaged by a more complete electoral roll.”
The right of every Australian to participate in the political process is enshrined in our Constitution. Our enrolment system is a reflection of the right of every eligible Australian to vote.
Compulsory enrolment and voting are the fundamental underpinnings of Australia’s democracy and Australians have readily accepted this with their enthusiastic participation in the electoral process.
The legislation passed by the Commonwealth Parliament also harmonises Commonwealth enrolment procedures with those in our most populous states – NSW and Victoria – which already have these measures which strengthen the integrity of electoral rolls.
As the AEC has noted:
“The greatest risk to the integrity of the electoral roll relates to its completeness.”
It is of course right to observe that there is an obligation on all Australian citizens to get on the roll. The Government supports this concept, as does the Coalition.