Expanding the franchise in Australia

Kate Mallinson

The second Electoral Reform Green Paper was released for comment on September 23. Since 1918 the Commonwealth Electoral Act has only been rewritten once, in 1984, and consequently much of language contained in the Electoral Act is outdated, complex and in need of reform.

The Green Paper sought to address this, and opened for comment a broad range of discussion issues relating to Australia’s electoral structure and processes. The paper invited comment on issues including the possible methods to maximise voter participation, the use of new media in enrolment and election processes, coordination of State and Federal electoral laws, the distribution of electoral boundaries and the structure and functions of the Australian Electoral Commission. Most importantly for Liberty, the paper welcomed discussion around the voting franchise.

The Electoral Act currently contains exclusions around the right to vote for prisoners serving a sentence of three years or more. This has been a particularly contentious issue, and was addressed in the High Court case of Roach v. Electoral Commissioner ([2007] 233 CLR 162) when the Court struck down an attempt by the Howard Government to impose a blanket ban on all prisoner voting. Liberty’s submission to the Green Paper suggested that the loss of prisoners’ voting rights constitutes extra-judicial punishment, which only serves to further isolate and stigmatise incarcerated persons from the community.

The Green Paper invited suggestions on the issue of how best to engage members of the community that tend to be isolated from the electoral process, specifically, young voters, persons experiencing homelessness and Indigenous voters. In order to address research findings that Australians aged between 15 and 35 have limited knowledge of Australia’s political system, Liberty’s submission suggested the establishment of civics education in secondary schools.

Liberty also suggested amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in order to remove barriers in the legislation that currently prevent homeless persons from exercising their vote, for example, by making the Electoral Act more flexible around the provision of mobile polling booths and electoral information.

The Green Paper also invited discussion on the current ‘close-of-rolls’ period. Australia’s Federal Elections have no fixed date, which means the closing date of the electoral roll is a critical issue. Reforms to the Electoral Act in 2006 shortened the amount of time available to enrol or vary enrolments. This effectively disenfranchised a large number of eligible voters. The Australian Electoral Commission estimates that in the 2004 election, when there were seven days from the issue of the writs in which to enrol, 423, 975 people used the close of rolls week to change their details.

Liberty suggested in our submission that the close of rolls period be extended to seven days from the issue of the writs. The current close of rolls period disenfranchises voters and runs contrary to the key principles suggested in the Green Paper.

Liberty trusts the Federal Government will take advantage of the opportunity to reform the electoral laws in order to ensure the franchise is available to all eligible members of the Australian community.

Kate Mallinson is a Liberty Victoria volunteer.