Consideration and Noting - Government Administration Committee B Report on the Tasmanian Electoral C

Mrs Armitage (Launceston) - Mr President, I move -

That the Legislative Council Government Administration Committee B Report on the Tasmanian Electoral Commission be considered and noted.

I am pleased to speak today about the Legislative Council Government Administration Committee B Report on the Tasmanian Electoral Commission. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to chair this inquiry.

I thank fellow committee members for their dedication and greatly valued contributions to this inquiry: the member for Windermere and Deputy Chair, Ivan Dean; the member for Rosevears, Kerry Finch; the member for Western Tiers, Greg Hall; the member for Hobart, Rob Valentine; the member for Apsley, Tania Rattray; and the former member for Elwick, Adriana Taylor. I also thank the committee secretary, Natasha Exel and secretariat staff Julie Thompson and Allison Waddington.

The inquiry's terms of reference were to inquire and report upon the operations of the Tasmanian Electoral Commission with particular reference to the administration of the Electoral Act 2004, the resourcing available to the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, any deficiencies with the Electoral Act 2004 and any other matters incidental thereto. Thirty-three submissions were received and hearings were held in Launceston and Hobart.

Broadly, the inquiry found the Tasmanian Electoral Commission does a good job, both operationally and financially. The TEC has done its work well, and generally within budget, a considerable achievement given it has received budget cuts in recent years. Importantly, the inquiry has recommended the TEC be given appropriate resources to do its work and also examine the prospect of implementing electronic voting.

In addition to the Electoral Commissioner, the office has 7.8 full-time equivalent staff. It was concerning to read the following in the TEC's submission to the inquiry -

At 7.8 FTE we simply do not have the critical mass for long-term institutional sustainability. It is imperative that in years ahead we are able to restore our permanent establishment to somewhere around the 13 FTE we had in 2007.

While the inquiry does not make any recommendation about funding being restored to previous levels, it is vital the TEC is appropriately resourced to do its work. The committee's recommendation was that the Government work with the TEC to ensure the TEC is adequately staffed and resourced to perform its functions.

I have to say the state Government's response to this was somewhat underwhelming. The Government notes the findings and comments of the inquiry in relation to the staffing arrangements within the TEC. The Government notes that the Electoral Commissioner, Mr Andrew Hawkey, has advised the TEC is in the process of reviewing the current staffing structure to ensure it meets the needs of a contemporary electoral commission.

The Government notes that the Department of Justice will work with the TEC over the next few months to continue to advance this recommendation.

South Australia's Electoral Commission has 24 full-time equivalent staff. While that state obviously has a larger population than Tasmania, it is worth noting the comment in the TEC submission that, while volumes are different, the range of functions is not. Further, belt-tightening is not a simple proposition for an electoral authority. It may sound trite, but it is impossible to conduct 85 per cent of an election. When considering the recommendation to provide full resources to the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, we need look no further than this year's state budget papers to understand how important the TEC is to our state. The budget papers, reference budget paper number 2, volume 105, note that the Tasmanian Electoral Commission helps to preserve Tasmania's parliamentary democracy through the work that it does.

When I talk about the need to increase resources, I mean staff and technology. One of the recommendations of the inquiry was that the Government consider increasing resources to the TEC to allow it to investigate electronic voting. Despite not supporting that idea, the Government notes that electronic voting is no doubt the future of a contemporary electoral system. The TEC's submission states, 'Our view is that a small jurisdiction such as Tasmania cannot afford to be at the forefront of internet voting, however irresistible the proposition becomes in years ahead'. Former electoral commissioner, Julian Type, told the hearing, 'We will not be moving to online voting unless our budgetary situation improves rather remarkably.'

My question is, how much extra funding would the TEC need to investigate and potentially introduce electronic voting? The public should know how much of an additional investment it would take to implement the system which the Tasmanian Government acknowledges to be the future. In a scenario that electronic voting is not pursued, it still makes eminent sense that the Government provides additional funding to enable the TEC to introduce other technology to help a relatively small staff, when compared with other states, meet the many demands on the organisation.

I draw attention to an excellent initiative by the TEC for express voting at parliamentary and local government elections held since 2014. This has allowed Tasmanians outside the state and unable to vote in time, to email their completed ballot paper and declaration. The Government says the Justice department will work with the TEC to ensure it is sufficiently resourced to do all its work and I look forward to the outcome of those discussions.

Another result of lack of TEC funding is the inability to pursue complaints. This can be extremely frustrating for those making a complaint, as it appears that the alleged offender is getting off scot-free and the electorate rule book stands for little.

In April 2015, Dr Kevin Bonham told the inquiry that informal voting increased in local government elections in the 28 councils contested. In 22 of those, the informal vote went up by more than 50 per cent, and in 10 councils it more than doubled. I note Dr Bonham's comment on this point: 'There is a need for the system to make allowance for the fact that no matter how much you explain things, some people will still make honest mistakes and still leave a degree of record of their voting intention that should be used rather than being discarded because they have fallen a little bit short'.

On this point the inquiry made the recommendation that the Government investigate adopting a provision to ensure the ballot paper that is not fully compliant with voting instructions, but where the voter intention is clear, be counted as a formal vote. In its response the Government notes that instructions on ballot papers should be as simple as possible for people to vote formally and that the local government paper could be simplified. Given Dr Bonham's evidence of an increase in informal votes in local government elections, I hope that the Government makes this a clear priority in the discussion it has with councils and the Local Government Association of Tasmania.

The committee noted that while the TEC undertakes a considerable number of public education awareness campaigns with the resources available, it is inevitable that a proportion of voters will not be fully engaged in the election process.

The inquiry also heard from the honourable Don Wing regarding confusing instructions on the top and bottom of the House of Assembly ballot paper. It was recommended that ballot papers be redrafted by merging the instructions and placing them at the top of the ballot paper to avoid confusion and make it clear that voters have options in casting a formal vote. The TEC has advised they will investigate the possibility of a review of ballot papers.

Robocalls have become part of the landscape of modern electioneering in Australia, particularly in Tasmania. Recommendation 5 from the inquiry states that the relevant minister raise the use of robocalls with the Australian Government in an Australia-wide inter-ministerial forum in an effort to ensure consistency between relevant acts.

The inquiry heard efforts to limit or stop robocalls would require amendment of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900. In its response to this recommendation, the Tasmanian Government fails to commit to take the issue up with the federal government, merely acknowledging by stating -

It is also noted that following the recent federal election the Prime Minister has flagged tighter regulation of robocalls and political text messages.

It appears the state Government will wait for the Prime Minister to pop that on his to do list, whatever time that takes.

With the state election not far away, if ever there was a good time for the state government to commence dialogue with the federal government, it would be now.

The inquiry made important recommendations about campaign donations. Recommendation 10 was the Government legislate for the compulsory disclosure of campaign donations from all sources. In response, the Government says all political funds in Tasmania must comply with disclosure obligations under the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the Government is aware the Tasmanian division of the Liberal Party has strict internal party processes that ensure disclosure obligations are fully complied with for each candidate. Further down in its response to the inquiry the Government says -

Non-party candidates and some third-party activists may not have disclosure obligations applied to them in the same way they are applied to political parties.

On that point, doesn't it make eminent sense for the Government to adopt recommendation 10 to legislate for compulsory disclosure of campaign donations from all sources? I would have thought so as the inquiry was told Tasmania is Australia's only jurisdiction without campaign donation requirements for the House of Assembly or local government candidates.

I refer to the Hobart City Council General Manager, Nick Heath's comment to the inquiry -

Donations are part of the political landscape in Australia. I think it is how you deal with them. At the moment in Tasmania in the local government context there are no rules around it. We are here saying that you need to put some rules around it and those rules need to be based on transparency, probity and confidence in the public decision-making processes.

The winner from adopting this recommendation is the public and if candidates, regardless of whether they are independent or party-affiliated, are fair dinkum then they will have no problem with transparent disclosure of campaign donations.

Recommendation 11 of the committee was that greater clarity be provided as to the status of in-kind donations and whether they should be disclosed. On the point of transparency, more clearly defining whether in-kind donations should be declared also seems like a no-brainer.

Free billboard space over an election campaign could save a considerable amount of money for a candidate, particularly if the billboard is large and in a prominent location. This recommendation is about giving the public full information about the candidates and where their support is coming from and keeping a level playing field for all candidates.

An area of some contention was the general manager's roll. The inquiry heard evidence discrepancies had been identified in details of electors on the general manager's roll during the Hobart City Council elections and a number of votes had consequently been rejected. The committee found general manager's rolls can provide opportunity for non-citizens and voters with genuine stakeholder interest in the local government electorate to participate in local government elections. It was recommended a review of the criteria, processes and oversight of general manager's rolls be conducted.

The inquiry resulted in 27 findings and 17 recommendations. The inquiry found the Tasmanian electoral system is complex and presents a number of challenges. It received evidence the TEC was generally highly regarded as an effective and efficient organisation.

In closing I note the Government believes many of the local government issues raised will be covered within the scope of the targeted review of the Local Government Act, the Minister for Planning and Local Government having released a discussion paper in April 2016 with submissions closing on 10 June 2016. While I note the steering committee wants to consider all feedback and make recommendations to the Minister for Planning and Local Government in August 2016, it would appear that it is not publicly available. Perhaps the Leader could advise whether this feedback and recommendations will be publicly released and if so, when.

Mr President, I note the report.

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