Electoral Legislation Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2018

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell—Special Minister of State) (18:54): I want to thank all members for their contribution to the debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2018. I want to particularly thank members of the opposition and Senator Farrell and his office for working closely with the government on ensuring that this bill was a bipartisan bill and will restore the confidence that all members of this House are seeking to have in our electoral system. I'd like to thank members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their significant work on electoral law modernisation and the impact of section 44 on Australian democracy over the course of the 45th Parliament. The government appreciates the constructive approach and the goodwill demonstrated by all committee members across all party lines. The recommendations of the committee have informed the government's policy decisions and the drafting of this bill.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 is one of Australia's oldest pieces of legislation. While it has served the nation well, it is important that we continue to address deficiencies in this legislation in a non-partisan manner, modernising and improving electoral processes where necessary. The government has discussed this bill heavily with the opposition and I can indicate that, in the interests of progressing changes to the most crucial amendments that are necessary for the efficient conduct of the 2019 federal election, the government has undertaken to the opposition that we will move amendments to remove the less pressing amendments so they can be considered after the election with the benefit of greater reflection by all parties. For efficiency, those amendments will be moved in the Senate by my colleague the minister for finance, who will have more to say about those amendments in the Senate debate.

As amended, the bill will deal with the eligibility of candidates, streamlined processes for forwarding declaration votes, removing a redundant step from the counting processes, allowing earlier checking of declaration votes, streamlining processes for counting and packaging of votes, and extending the six-metre exclusion zone to pre-poll centres, consistent with how it works on election day. Of the parts of the bill that will progress at this time, schedule 1 is particularly important because it will make it compulsory for candidates nominating for election to complete a qualification checklist demonstrating their eligibility under section 44 of the Constitution. This reform will ensure our electoral system protects the integrity of the candidate nomination process by forcing potential candidates to consider specific questions about their eligibility before they nominate. The mandatory checklist will also increase transparency, assuring Australians that candidates are qualified to sit in parliament before they cast their vote.

In a 2018 report, Excluded: the impact of section 44 on Australian democracy, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters proposed that, in addition to legislative changes to require federal election candidates to disclose information about their eligibility to hold office under the Constitution, the Senate and the House also needed supplementary parliamentary processes related to issues of constitutional qualifications. Specifically, the committee proposed that there was a need for each chamber to require disclosures to the chambers following discovery of new information after an election. It also proposes a process for making referrals to the High Court sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns.

Consistent with the proposal from the committee, the government will move parliamentary motions after the passage of the modernisation bill in this chamber and in the Senate to ensure that there is a methodical process for disclosure of qualifications of senators who are appointed to fill casual vacancies and for parliamentarians who need to supplement information already in the public domain. The motions will also provide a fair and orderly process for referring questions about qualifications to a parliamentary committee inquiry process and for, in turn, referring cases to the High Court sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns. Where it is found that an MP or senator has misled a committee, this would be a matter for the Privileges Committee in the relevant chamber. These motions have been shared with the opposition, as I've stated. They have also been provided to the chair of the Senate Standing Committee of Privileges, the chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee of Privileges and Members' Interests, and the chair of the Senate Standing Committee of Senators' Interests.

The reforms in this bill are important and are necessary to support the integrity of Australia's electoral system. Modernising and improving electoral processes will benefit the Australian public. The reforms will assist the Australian Electoral Commission to deliver effective and timely elections. They will also promote public confidence in Australian democracy ahead of and beyond the next federal election.

Once again, I thank all members for their contribution. I commend this bill to the House.