Bill Speech: Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 2018

am very pleased to speak on the Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 2018, and I am pleased to do so not just because it is one of the most significant reforms of the Electoral Act 2002 or because it gives Victoria a robust political donations and disclosure scheme but also because it gives effect to many of the recommendations made by the Electoral Matters Committee in its report entitled Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2014 Victorian State Election. As deputy chair of the Electoral Matters Committee, I am very pleased that this bill addresses a number of concerns that the committee raised, and it will make Victoria’s electoral system clearer, more efficient and more accessible.

I will just clarify some comments that the member for Warrandyte made in his contribution, and I would encourage the member to actually read that inquiry report. He made some fairly inflammatory comments about actions that he alleges occurred in regard to the former member for Carrum. As part of the inquiry into that election, the members of the committee were quite concerned when they had these allegations put to them. The allegations were that complaints had been made about behaviour which were then reported to the official at the polling place, and the polling official apparently had to call the police. We checked with the polling place official. No report was made; no police were called. So I would just like to clarify that and encourage the member to actually read the report and the evidence that goes with it.

No doubt much will be said in the discussion today about the political donations and disclosure scheme in the bill. The political donations and reporting scheme measures are based on the belief that the integrity of the electoral system can be preserved if the voting public is made more aware of the sources of private donations. To that end there is a requirement for real-time reporting of individual political donations equal to or above $1000. A disclosure return must be provided to the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) within 21 days of making or receiving a political donation, and the VEC will publish the return within seven days of receiving it.

A level playing field in the electoral process is also created by capping political donations during each period at $4000, or $100 for anonymous donations, and this addresses the growing concerns about foreign influences on elections. The bill also increases the public funding entitlement to $6 for each first preference vote for eligible candidates in the Legislative Assembly and $3 for each first preference vote for eligible candidates in the Legislative Council.

That is a very brief overview of the political donations and funding provisions in the bill, because I would like to focus on the electoral reforms that arose out of the Electoral Matters Committee report — not only the current report on the 2014 election but I understand that this bill also addresses some of the concerns raised in the previous inquiry into the 2010 election.

There are a number of electoral reforms that make the system clearer and more efficient. They include streamlining early voting procedures and processing along with providing that the early voting period for a by-election is 12 days, which is consistent with the practice for general elections. The Electoral Matters Committee made a recommendation of no more than two weeks, so this is consistent with that recommendation. It arose out of concerns that in the six by-elections that occurred between 2012 and October 2015, four had a four-week early voting period. The evidence presented to the committee suggested that this was unreasonably excessive and placed an unnecessary strain on political parties, independent candidates and volunteers.

The bill also provides that early voting is to commence on the Monday following the final nomination day. This adopts a recommendation of the committee that addresses the issue in the current act whereby it requires that voting commence at 4.00 p.m. on the day that nominations close. That only left the VEC 4 hours to conduct a ballot draw and to print and distribute the ballot papers, and this unrealistic time frame meant that in some cases the voting centre officials had to hand-draw ballot papers in that period before they had received them and that voters were restricted to only being able to vote below the line because the group tickets had not been finalised at that time.

The bill facilitates the faster processing and counting of early in-person and postal votes, and I am really pleased that this is included in the bill. This was one matter that was very strongly supported by the committee. There was widespread concern that the early votes are not being counted at all on the night, and given the increasing proportion of people that are voting early, this would have led to longer and longer delays in getting results. The committee received submissions in regard to this matter, including submissions from the Liberal Party, the Labor Party and the National Party. They all supported this early counting of the votes. I cannot tell you what the Greens position on this is because they did not participate in the inquiry or provide a submission.

There is an expectation in the public that an election result should be available on election night. The bill amends the Electoral Act to require in-person votes that are cast in a voter’s home district or region to be kept separate from the votes that are cast outside, because this was one of the complicating factors with not being able to get them counted — that is, they are all put in the same box and the time taken to sort them is another reason why things get delayed. So the bill will allow the VEC to begin processing but not counting the early in-person votes 2 hours before the close of voting and postal votes from 10 hours before the close of voting. This is subject to safeguards that prevent the early disclosure of voting trends. The bill also removes the requirement for a person to provide reasons for voting early, consistent with reforms in other jurisdictions.

There are also a number of changes to the postal voting process, including providing for online postal vote applications, simplifying the witnessing requirements for postal voting applications, bringing forward the deadline for receipt of applications so that people actually get their ballot papers before election day, allowing postal votes received after election day to be counted based on the date that they were witnessed and received by the VEC, and reducing the current nine-day window for the receipt of postal votes to five days, making this consistent with other states.

There are also additional electoral reforms, including imposing strict time limits for applications to validly register a political party. Essentially the time frame that this bill provides is longer than what was recommended by the committee, but the committee’s focus was that there be a set period. So that is great.

The bill simplifies the authorisation requirements for how-to-vote cards, just requiring authorisation on each side. This is particularly an issue in joint voting centres, of which there were about 97 in the 2014 election. What happens is that if you have got voting messages from two candidates, each one of those messages has to be authorised in addition to the upper house as well, so you have a number of authorisations on the one document. You would know, Acting Speaker, that we had a polling place that was shared by three candidates at Westmeadows. There was yourself, me and the member for Sunbury, so in that case we had the voting messages of three people on the card, with the upper house on the reverse, and in that case all three plus the upper house needed to be authorised. The bill simplifies that completely unnecessary and cumbersome authorisation process, reducing that to just authorising on each side.

The bill also gives the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly the discretion not to issue by-election writs if a vacancy occurs on a day after 30 June in the year of a general election.

There are a number of other amendments, but all of these reforms will no doubt improve and simplify the electoral processes. The one that I am also particularly happy about, which the member for Warrandyte touched on — and we tried to encourage him to talk about it more — is the end of the bunting wars. I think most people who have participated in an election would be well and truly aware of the bunting wars, where volunteers get up at all hours of the night or even the night before. These have been increasing recently, and essentially after they have gone up they stay up for a day, they get taken down and then they go in a bin. It is a complete waste of a resource. I am certainly quite happy to see them go. The member for Warrandyte also went through the requirements of that. There will be an allowable 60 centimetre by 90 centimetre corflute at entrances — that is terrific.

There are a whole range of great reforms in this bill. I am very pleased to support it, I am very pleased that the government has acquitted its response to the inquiry and I commend the bill to the house.