Statement on Report: Electoral Matters Committee – Civics and Electoral Participation in Victorian State Parliamentary Elections

Ros SPENCE (Yuroke) (10:26:43) — I am very pleased to speak today on the report of the Electoral Matters Committee on their inquiry into civics and electoral participation in Victorian state parliamentary elections. As this is the final report of that committee for this term, being the deputy chair, I do want to acknowledge how well the committee has worked together. I thank the committee chair, the member for Brighton, as well as the members for Pascoe Vale and Nepean and the members of the committee from the other place. Also assisting the committee have been the executive officer, Mark Roberts, and his team — Nathaniel, Maria and Bernadette; I thank them as well. I would also like to thank all those who made submissions, attended hearings or met with us during this inquiry; their insights were of great assistance.

This inquiry allowed the committee to look deeper into a number of issues that were identified in previous inquiries, in particular the committee’s inquiry into the 2014 state election. These issues are covered in the terms of reference for this inquiry, and they included programs to ensure Victorians are adequately informed and able to effectively participate in elections; strategies to reduce informal voting; strategies to increase participation amongst groups that experience barriers to electoral participation, such as young Victorians and multicultural Victorians; as well as looking into matters regarding Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) staffing in the context of a changing society.

In undertaking the inquiry the committee looked at what programs and strategies are currently in place for the teaching of civics, both in the education system and through the VEC, predominantly through their Passport to Democracy program. We then made recommendations to complement and build upon these teachings. One of the most significant programs that the committee investigated is included in recommendation 2:

The committee recommends the Victorian Electoral Commission learn more about CIVIX’s parallel election program Student Vote, with a view to integrating, over time, the practice and principles of a parallel election into Passport to Democracy.

This program is run by the organisation called CIVIX, which originated in Canada. Whilst we initially learned about this program in a submission from Elections Canada, it was also raised with us by a number of inquiry participants, as some saw it as the ideal strategy to increase political engagement and understanding and to decrease vote informality in young people. Essentially this program involves a parallel election across Canada during their federal elections, where students vote in their schools for the candidates and on issues in the federal election.

During the 2015 Canadian federal election, 922 000 students cast votes in the student vote ballots. They came from 6662 schools representing all 338 ridings. Candidates attend the schools in the ridings they are in, and the schools are provided with extensive support and the program is widely supported by schools, teachers, institutions and government agencies. Importantly, it is also widely supported, as we learned, by the teachers association, because the teachers actually had buy‑in from the very beginning as to how to structure this program, so they are hugely supportive of it.

The independent assessment of the student vote that takes place after the federal elections also showed that the program was widely supported by students and their parents, who reported having a greater understanding of electoral issues, because what was happening in the school was then brought home and discussed generally around the kitchen table. So there was a much broader flow‑on benefit from this. The committee concluded that this would be really beneficial to Victorian students if it were adopted, but we also acknowledged that there would be significant resources required to do it, which is why we recommended that it be integrated over time.

We also had a look at what could be done in the short term. Given that student representatives on school councils are now voted for within the school, we thought there was a good opportunity to replicate an election process as much as possible, and recommendation 3 goes to that. It recommends that the VEC, working with the Department of Education and Training, as much as possible, replicates the general election process when the student council elections are taking place. This goes to removing that uncertainty when young people first go to vote and they do not know the processes that are involved; that was something that was raised as being a great concern to young people. If we can have them participating in a vote in an election before they actually present as an 18‑year‑old, or thereafter, for their first vote that would be beneficial. I highly commend the report.