Australia is proud to have a free, fair and robust electoral system. In fact, the latest evidence from the Pew Research Center shows that our current electoral laws are among the best in the world and the envy of many democracies. I believe that we should be doing all we can to ensure every Australian has the opportunity to vote at elections, especially given it’s compulsory. We should be very cautious of any laws that could possibly undermine this right.
This bill, if passed, will nominally require all Australians to present a valid form of identification before casting a vote. If a person cannot produce valid ID or have another person attest to their identity, they’ll be offered a declaration vote, which will require them to list their address and other personal details. I believe these measures are unnecessary, poorly timed and will create barriers that disincentivise people from participating in elections. And that’s simply not healthy for our democracy. As an independent, I scrutinise every bill that comes before me in this place on its merits. I ask whether the bill is based on evidence and community need. I’m afraid to say that this is a bill in search of a problem that I can’t possibly see exists.
I have met with the Special Minister of State about this bill and, when I did, he could not point to any hard evidence that demonstrates voter impersonation or multiple voting is a systemic problem in Australia that requires an intervention such as this. In fact, the evidence is quite the opposite. This idea originated from a government majority committee, nowhere else. The Australian Electoral Commission recently described multiple voting issues in Australia as ‘vanishingly small’ and I’ve heard so many members in this place describe that exactly. And, at the last federal election, the AEC only referred to a handful of suspected cases of fraudulent voting to the Australian Federal Police, which led to zero convictions.
The government is also trying to argue that perceptions of fraud in elections are a problem in Australia. And there’s absolutely no evidence for this—in fact, quite the opposite. New voter ID laws in the US, pursued under the Trump administration, clearly show that such laws are discriminatory and discourage many from voting on election day, particularly in underprivileged communities. The political language used around voter ID laws also encourages scepticism and further distrust in a system that is already working. That’s why I am particularly concerned to see the government partner with senators on this bill who actively stoke this kind of scepticism without basis.
Mandating voter identification will also create harmful, unintended consequences that aren’t proportionate to the supposed problem that the government is seeking to solve. For example, it’s unclear what the administrative impact on polling booths would be if election staff need to check voter ID for every voter who walks through the door. Last election, some eight million Australians voted at polling stations on election day. At some booths, people waited for over an hour to vote. Potential administrative blowouts from checking eight million ID documents could see longer lines around street corners and drive some Australians to just pay the $20 fine for failing to vote instead. Perhaps some members could be overstating this; we don’t know. But the thing is that the need for change is simply not compelling. And to make these changes, when they’re not clearly necessary, is absolutely unhealthy for what is a thriving democracy.
The government also intends to introduce these ID requirements before the next election, which could be called anytime between now and May. Even if the bill passes, there’s simply no time to effectively administer a voter ID scheme with appropriate safeguards and an effective communications campaign. And that’s really important, particularly for people who might now misinterpret the new rules as a sign that they’re ineligible to vote if they don’t have valid ID. And this includes, as we’ve heard from many members, members of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where voter turnout is already low; people with a disability; culturally and linguistically diverse people; low-income communities; and many among the elderly. To think that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons in remote communities have immediate access to a hardcopy letter from a local land council or trust is, frankly, farcical. The $5.3 million the government has committed to community engagement and a communications campaign is really abysmally small for a major, sweeping and unnecessary reform so close to an election. Voting, Mr Deputy Speaker Zimmerman, as I know you know, is an absolute right under our Constitution. It’s not a luxury. It’s not a privilege. We should respect it as such. The government has argued that Australians need to present ID to collect a parcel from the post office or to visit a member’s club. While this may be so, collecting mail or having a meal at an RSL are not activities that are absolutely core to our democracy like voting and to compare the two is a very dangerous distraction.
As a parliament, we should be debating laws that would clearly improve our democracy, like the need for a robust federal integrity commission to stamp out corruption or political donations reform. The government has repeatedly blocked my bill, for example, for an Australian federal integrity commission for over a year and has sat on its own dud model for almost three years. It’s clear to me where the government’s priorities lie when it comes to true democratic reform in this country. In my electorate of Indi we are passionate about encouraging everyone to get involved in their democracy, to step up, to use their voice, and there are few times when it’s more important to use your voice than voting during an election. I’m committed to promoting and defending that right—by golly I am!—and I’ll call out any attempts to water it down. I have serious and very considered reservations about this bill, and it’s on that basis that I simply cannot support it.