Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Amendment (Joint Parliamentary Committee) Bill
Debate resumed from 8 May.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE [11.08 a.m.]: The Christian Democratic Party supports the bill, which was introduced by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. Everyone is aware of the importance of the role of the State Electoral Office. The committee, which the bill will establish, will give support and assistance to the Electoral Commissioner to carry out his heavy duties. The object of the bill is to amend the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act 1912 to establish a joint parliamentary committee to be known as the Committee on the State Electoral Office, which will have the power to veto the proposed appointment of persons as Electoral Commissioner, and monitor and review the exercise by the Electoral Commission of the commissioner's functions under the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act 1912 and any other Act. The functions of the committee will not extend to the monitoring or reviewing of a decision made by an electoral officer or officials in the scrutiny of votes in a particular election.
The bill will insist that the person appointed as Electoral Commissioner be someone above criticism and able to carry out that very important role without any political bias or prejudice. I do not know of any electoral commissioner who has been criticised. Normally in those circumstances a veto would be applied. It is important for that power to be available, if required. I do not believe that would ever be necessary because the availability of the power would be further insurance that, irrespective of which political party was in power, the person who was appointed would always be above criticism.
The Electoral Commissioner indicated that budget restrictions have limited certain activities that some members of the House would like carried out by the State Electoral Commission, for example, investigations. Over the years I have requested that investigations be carried out, and it has been pointed out to me that it is difficult to do that without an investigations staff. There are no staff at the State Electoral Commission whose role is to investigate whether a party has made misrepresentations in its application for registration. I am aware that the commission writes to members of Parliament, but that is more of a clerical approach.
There are no field investigators whose role is to interview people and conduct investigations. I believe that if a joint parliamentary committee were established, the Electoral Commissioner could give evidence about inquiries conducted by the commission and various other matters. Moreover, the committee would be able to ascertain the areas of responsibility of the Electoral Commissioner that need more support and provide backup for the commissioner in carrying out his very important duties. The Christian Democratic Party supports the bill.
The Hon. PATRICIA FORSYTHE [11.11 a.m.]: I strongly support the bill introduced by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I wish to put a brief perspective on this issue, but in doing so I mean no personal criticism of any particular returning officer. I have been involved in the very close scrutiny of election results for two seats during the years I have been a member of Parliament, and I have been closely involved in Federal elections. I wish to contrast the conduct of electoral office processes in the 1995 election for the seat of Manly with the 2003 election for the seat of Willoughby. In both cases I closely watched the scrutiny of every vote for every day of the count. In 1995 in Manly we had an outstanding returning officer who was well briefed, and we had most adequate rooms in which to conduct the count. Moreover, the returning officer ensured that all polling clerks were briefed and he was able to give clear instructions to the staff and keep representatives of each of the political parties informed. In my view that person was appropriately trained and adequately resourced.
I contrast that with what I saw in the electorate of Willoughby during the recent State election. The accommodation that was provided for the returning officers was not as it should be, namely, a large room and perhaps some small offices; rather, it was a series of small offices. Except for on the Sunday recount, which was done in small groups and extended well into the evening—I returned home at approximately 9.30 p.m.—there was not a single room that would permit a sufficient number of tables and people to count the significant number of votes. We were using the former offices of some business in the Willoughby electorate and, as offices go, the space was totally inadequate for the task of counting votes.
I suspect that premises in the Willoughby electorate would have low vacancy rates and high rents, and that the State Electoral Commission was probably constrained in its choice of available premises. The issue of resources becomes very relevant. The sheer physical nature of the premises certainly impacted on the work of the polling officials and the capacity of all party representatives to conduct adequate scrutiny. If a joint parliamentary committee were established it would be appropriate for it to examine the adequacy of resources to enable the work of the State Electoral Commission to be carried out appropriately. The resources for the task in Willoughby were most inadequate.
Over and above that—and I reiterate that I do not want this to be construed as personal criticism—the level of training of the staff, from the returning officer through to the polling clerks, was woeful; it was totally inadequate. The clerks showed a total lack of understanding of the role of scrutineers. The comment was frequently made that scrutineers were present because they thought the polling clerks were doing something dishonest. They had no appreciation of the need for scrutineers to obtain an understanding of the result, forecast the result, and look at preference flows. They even did their best to make sure the scrutineers could not make a preference determination. It was an absolute shambles. In the counting for the Manly electorate in 1995 I can only assume that the staff had been adequately trained, that adequate resources had been provided and that there was a very well briefed and efficient returning officer.
The absurd lack of training of the people at Willoughby came to a point on the last Monday of the count before the requested recount took place. The returning officer instructed his polling clerks as to how the distribution of preferences was to be conducted. He advised them to eliminate the last candidate at each booth to achieve an outcome. That advice was simply wrong. I see the Hon. Amanda Fazio smiling because she was there on a number of occasions and realises how wrong that instruction was. The protests from all the scrutineers were loud and strong. I was fortunate to have with me on that occasion a former member for Wakehurst, John Booth, who is a well experienced scrutineer. He borrowed my mobile phone and contacted the State Electoral Commission.
A stop was put to the process, but three booths had already been counted. They had to be re-sorted and the State Electoral Commission felt it was necessary to send out the Deputy Electoral Commissioner and others to supervise the remainder of the process. I again point out that I do not make these remarks as personal criticism of any individual, but there was a clear lack of understanding of the process and a lack of proper training of the staff. At the end of the day, that comes down to the selection and training of polling clerks, and the training that is given to the returning officers.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: And the resources.
The Hon. PATRICIA FORSYTHE: As the Deputy Leader of the Opposition says, at the end of the day it is a question of resources. One wonders what would happen if the government of this State should depend on the result of polling in one electorate. In Willoughby we could not conduct an accurate count of votes for days because on many occasions we were denied the opportunity of seeing the preference flows, despite our best efforts and protests. If the Government of this State had depended on that standard of process, the State would have been inadequately served owing to the inadequate offices and the inadequate training of staff. I cite that as an example and entreat members of the House to think about examples they might have seen. It was totally inappropriate and inadequate. The only way to ensure that it does not happen again is to establish a proper oversight committee, as is the case with other commissions in this State. I strongly urge the House to support this legislation.
The Hon. Dr ARTHUR CHESTERFIELD-EVANS [11.20 a.m.]: I support the bill, although I have some misgivings about it. No doubt the problems identified with the State Electoral Office [SEO] are real and something needs to be done about them. That office, which is small by national standards, obviously does not have enough funding to do its job. It has a poor computer program that experienced problems during the election, but eventually it ran properly. Surely some money could have been spent on entering data in a dummy run to allow the processing to go ahead. The Government has been dishonest in allowing this to happen; I believe it massively changed the voting system in the upper House and did not give the SEO a sufficient budget to advertise the fact. As all the preferences from the minor party candidates were exhausted the Government gained the result it wanted, which was far more seats than the percentage of its vote warranted.
That attack on democracy by the Government was compounded by the Just Vote 1 campaign. The Government used that campaign extensively in the Auburn by-election, where on every road approaching the polling booths there were Just Vote 1 notices. To say that the Government is not to blame for what the Labor Party does is to draw a very long bow. One could not seriously consider that idea. The idea that the Government cannot control its party when it wants to control everyone else in the State is an absurd notion. The party contesting the election was quite happy to put up posters, which made certain that the Liberals, who had tied up a lot of preferences funnelled to them, would not succeed in their tactics. Most people assumed the posters were put there by the SEO for the information of the public. The Liberals, having criticised that process, did exactly the same thing in the recent State election with their Just Vote 1 posters.
Those two groups, which are well funded by developers and others, undertook disinformation campaigns, but the State Electoral Office had no significant funding to run any electoral information campaign at all. The solution suggested in this bill is that a parliamentary committee supervise the functions of the State Electoral Office. That is all very well, but having seen the way in which the major parties have succeeded in increasing their percentages of the seats relative to the votes, thus rendering that electoral system in this State less democratic than it was by mutual agreement, I have some doubt that a parliamentary committee is the way to solve the problem. The power should go back to the people.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: The committee is to supervise the election.
The Hon. Dr ARTHUR CHESTERFIELD-EVANS: No, the committee is to supervise the State Electoral Office, which obviously may well influence the way it works. We have not gone to the farcical situations of the Indonesian or American systems. The Americans have hanging chads, pregnant chads, different voting systems in each State, deliberate non-enrolments in specific areas, and Supreme Court voting exactly in proportion to those who appointed it as if the separation of powers does not exist. And, surprise, surprise, America has ended up with a President who did not attract the majority of votes, and he then took the world to war by making major foreign policy decisions. This State has not quite reached that farcical stage, but we need to have an electoral system that works. Disregarding the ribald interjections, it must be acknowledged that changes to the State Electoral Office have delivered to the major parties a greater percentage of the seats than they had before. Effectively, that was a structural gerrymander.
Additionally, as the SEO is not funded it cannot sufficiently explain the electoral system to the public. As election advertising begins—funded by developers and other vested interests to the major parties—there is increasing management by the media and increasing spending on election campaigns to the point where we follow the American route. According to the psephological journals everyone follows the American system so that money can be turned into votes. Of course, what is needed in a democracy is the will of the people to be turned into policy, not money to be turned into a conning system. The Government has gone one step further: it has more minders and more control at a Cabinet level than has ever been achieved in the history of government in New South Wales. Certainly there needs to be some restriction on election advertising and on the almost endless budget for minders and spin doctors. At the recent election that process resulted in taxpayers effectively funding the Government's propaganda machine in a way that has not happened since Goebbels's time.
A lot needs to be done to make New South Wales a purely democratic State. Personally I regard the only proper democracy to be one that has a proportional representation system under which the number of votes corresponds to the number of seats in Parliament and that there be a spectrum of opinions in the Parliament as there is a spectrum of opinions in the committee. Legislation should not go through in a pure form which just one section of the Parliament, the Government, wants. In business and industry every proposal is modified in an attempt to achieve a consensus, rather than have a winner-take-all or first-past-the-post distorted voting system. Those problems with democracy need to be addressed. Control of the SEO and a lot more effort in checking the registration of voters are needed; it is critical to avoid gerrymanders.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: This is not control of the SEO.
The Hon. Dr ARTHUR CHESTERFIELD-EVANS: I acknowledge the interjection by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I am merely talking about the problems with the workings of democracy in New South Wales. Admittedly the workings of the SEO and the committee overseeing it will not solve all these problems. However, if we do not define the problems we will not go very far to solve them. The conservatives have taken more interest in the rorting of voting systems, and established a strong case that that has occurred. That problem needs to be given more attention than has been given in the Australian political consciousness to date. Obviously strengthening the SEO is a start along that road. Bringing the office under the review of a parliamentary committee at least means that it will have more scrutiny than it has hitherto. Therefore, I support the bill. However, as I have outlined previously I have various other problems with democracy in Australia, particularly in New South Wales, which I will address at another time and possibly with other legislation.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER [11.27 a.m.]: I support the initiative of the National Party and the Opposition in introducing a bill to amend the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act so that in New South Wales we have a committee of both Houses of the Parliament to oversight some aspects of the administration of the electoral laws by the State Electoral Office. The committee would monitor and review the exercise by the Electoral Commissioner of the commissioner's functions under the electoral laws of New South Wales. Although honourable members have made it clear, it is important to note that a parliamentary committee would not interfere with the electoral process. Of course, that would replicate the operations of the parliamentary oversight committee in relation to the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the parliamentary committee which oversights the NSW Ombudsman and the Police Integrity Commission. The Australian Electoral Commission, through a process of interrogation, was able to educate people. Some of its operations, such as scanning and its computerised analyses of votes, were not well understood by the general public.
The Hon. John Della Bosca: Through a process of inquisition.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER: In those early stages it could have been seen as a bit of an inquisition. It helps professionals in electoral offices if they are able to put their case in the public domain. They are better able to explain the processes. It also keeps them on their guard and it ensures that they account for their activities in any election campaign. So a report is regularly presented to the Parliament on the conduct of each general election.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: It is better to be accountable to the Parliament rather than just to the Premier or a Minister.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER: I think it is essential. Even if it is wrongly based there is always a suspicion that some deal might be done behind the scenes. Other honourable members have referred to the resources of the State Electoral Office. I reinforce some of the comments that were made earlier by the Hon. Patricia Forsythe. In 1995 counting for the seat of Bathurst was conducted in a function room while kitchen preparations were going on—a totally undesirable venue for that important process. Of course, that was a close seat.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: A very small number of votes.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER: In the end, just a handful of votes determined the seat. In 1999 the same thing occurred. The venue, which was Dubbo courthouse, should have been seen as a reasonably secure venue. However, I do not think I have ever seen a less secure venue. Garbage bags full of ballot papers were left for days in the main entrance of Dubbo courthouse. While the court was not necessarily in session, people were going about their daily business.
The Hon. John Della Bosca: We have reason to be paranoid too.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER: I am not suggesting that the Minister does not have good reason to be paranoid. That is why the Coalition believes there should be some scrutiny. We should be helping the State Electoral Office to put its case for resources more strongly in the Parliament.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: What about Bathurst?
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER: Vote counting in Bathurst in 1978 was one of the all-time classics. A ballot box was found under a whole pile of stuff in a counting room at Bathurst. The National Party, which was very disturbed about it—and I do not doubt that the Labor Party was disturbed about it—issued an injunction as to the declaration of the poll at that point. It was obvious that the place was in complete chaos. That was one of the most famous cases. During counting it was decided that the ballot boxes had to be locked up in the police cells. So every night the ballot boxes were sealed, taken to Bathurst police station and locked in the gaol. Every morning David Simmons, Mick Clough's wife and I would go to the gaol and release the ballot boxes so that they could be counted.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: In 1984 Murrumbidgee was similar.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER: Murrumbidgee was an all-time classic. State district returning officers are not appointed for the full life of a parliament; they are appointed only for a particular general election, unlike the full-time officers of the Australian Electoral Commission. The seat of Murrumbidgee was held by the Australian Labor Party for 43 years. Adrian Cruickshank was the National Party candidate. In that election the seat was determined on preferences.
The Hon. John Della Bosca: Peggy Delves was the Labor candidate.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER: Peggy Delves was the Labor candidate. The district returning officer [DRO], who was counting the ballot, was about to announce that the Labor Party had won the seat. However, that was because the Labor Party had always won the seat of Murrumbidgee. The district returning officers, who had never had to count preferences before, did not know how to do it. The National Party received a phone call from a district returning officer who said that the seat was about to be won by the Labor Party, but the numbers just did not stack up. The National Party put Sir Adrian Solomons on the next plane and he ascertained that the DRO simply did not understand that he had to count preferences if the Labor Party had not received 50 per cent, plus one. That was an extraordinary event. In the end Adrian Cruickshank, and not Mrs Delves, was rightly elected. That is another classic example of why some of these things must be exposed. In the case of the Australian Electoral Commission—
The Hon. John Della Bosca: There were other great by-elections.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER: Gwabegar, Gosford, Coogee and The Entrance come to mind. I could go on. Perhaps I should write a book about it. The most famous by-election that I know about is the one in Tenterfield—Tim Bruxner could tell honourable members about this by-election—where the district returning officers used to ring in the votes. When there are really close seats the Prime Minister might not know whether the Government is going to be returned. Throughout the 1990s the Australian Electoral Commission held what might be called close seat seminars, which involved professionals from various political parties. Members of political parties and candidates who attended those seminars were able to establish how to make things flow a little better so that there were fewer misunderstandings.
As a result, the Australian Electoral Commission became more professional and it was seen to be less controversial. It is less stressful for everyone if they have a better understanding of the processes. It is good that the Australian Electoral Commission has been able to take into account the views of other people. I support the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Amendment (Joint Parliamentary Committee) Bill. It would be in the interests of the public if the State Electoral Office were to become more professional. It might also help the Parliament to better understand some of the electoral processes. The committee's terms of reference include a provision that requires the Parliament to refer particular matters of interest to it. Some specific issues, such as counting processes and constitutional provisions relating to the upper House could at some stage be referred to the committee for further analysis. Some aspects probably need updating. The Parliament in its wisdom could refer those matters to this committee. I commend the bill.
The Hon JOHN DELLA BOSCA (Special Minister of State, Minister for Commerce, Minister for Industrial Relations, Assistant Treasurer, and Minister for the Central Coast) [11.38 a.m.]: The Government does not support the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Amendment (Joint Parliamentary Committee) Bill in its present form. As has already been stated in debate on the second reading, the Commonwealth Parliament established a joint standing committee that can inquire into the holding of each election and other broad subjects relating to electoral matters and electoral reform.
The Commonwealth committee examines and reviews electoral policy based upon the experience of each election. The Government accepts the notion that there is some merit in establishing a joint committee in similar terms to that established by the Commonwealth Parliament. A committee of this type would also provide a useful forum in which to consider broad electoral reform in an open and consultative manner. In that sense, we are committed to discussing the bill of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in its current form but we will not support the legislation as drafted. The bill seeks to establish a joint parliamentary committee that differs from the Commonwealth Parliament's joint standing committee in some significant respects. The bill is not sufficiently focused on broad electoral reform but seeks specific oversight, targeting—I do not use that word in an offensive manner—the activities of the Electoral Commissioner and the operations of the State Electoral Office.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: It is based on your legislation for ICAC so that is a criticism of your legislation.
The Hon. JOHN DELLA BOSCA: There are horses for courses, and the administrative arrangements that apply to the Independent Commission Against Corruption would clearly not apply to the State Electoral Office. Apart from anything else, there is consensus even in this Chamber that the office operates efficiently and professionally. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition seems to be particularly concerned about the count in the recent Legislative Council elections. The Government recognises that the public, and indeed candidates standing for election to this Chamber, would like to see election writs returned as soon as possible so that the electorate and the candidates might know the result. Therefore, the Government immediately sought advice from the Electoral Commissioner as to the causes of the recent problems and delays and questioned whether practices could or should be changed to improve the process in the future. The Electoral Commissioner advised that the problems that delayed the count were the result of a configuration problem with the computer software and a subsequent data entry problem. These technical problems have now been identified and resolved and the Electoral Commissioner has advised that they will not occur again in the future.
However, notwithstanding the technical problems that were the subject of considerable media comment during the counting of votes in the recent election, I note that the final Legislative Council result was still made known earlier than in any previous elections. The result was declared only 24 days after polling day, which is almost 30 per cent quicker than in 1995 and four days quicker than in 1999. The result was declared despite a 31 per cent increase in the number of postal votes admitted to the count compared with 1999. If the technical faults with the computer had not occurred the result would have been declared even earlier. On the surface, there is no evidence of any problems with the systems and associated procedures for vote counting or with the administration of the State Electoral Office. In fact, like other honourable members who have spoken in this debate, I take this opportunity to congratulate the senior officers of the State Electoral Office, the Electoral Commissioner and the Deputy Electoral Commissioner on their efficiency and professionalism. It is generally agreed that they displayed great integrity in carrying out the onerous tasks of preparing for and conducting the election and of scrutinising and counting the votes.
I am pleased to note that on election night a new computer system was introduced that allowed results to be displayed on the tally board and on the Internet within three minutes of their being entered by returning officers in the electoral districts. This improvement made information available sooner, and the Government looks forward to its continued use in future elections.
The Hon. Don Harwin: There's still no two-party preferred voting results on the web.
The Hon. JOHN DELLA BOSCA: I think the Hon. Don Harwin will be sad the day that happens because it seems to me that all the fun has gone out of Commonwealth election nights. The priestly esteem in which party officials were held because they were the only ones who could interpret the bizarre statistics and make early, reasonably reliable guesses about the likely winners has evaporated quickly. The computer has displaced their unique insight at Commonwealth elections. The game of chess has been similarly affected by technology. First they invented a computer that could beat an average human chess player but not a good player. They then invented a computer that could beat everyone except the top 100 chess players and the 40 grandmasters. They then invented a computer that could beat the grandmasters apart from the world chess champion. Now I think a computer has beaten the world champion more times than he has beaten it. That is sad, but the march of technology is irrevocable.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: In the past, conservatives doing ABC commentary were confronted with the old computer system that assumed a Labor win and worked back from there. That was always disconcerting on election night. Technology has now gone beyond that.
The Hon. JOHN DELLA BOSCA: The Australian Electoral Commission has a rather dastardly piece of software nicknamed the Grim Reaper—that may even be its official name—that calculates alignments of swings by polling booths in each electorate infinitely faster than any human being could. I had the misfortune to be in Bankstown on the evening that the Keating Government was defeated and the Grim Reaper knew before anyone else exactly what had happened. I do not know whether it calculated the result from the platform of a Labor win or a Labor defeat, but the outcome was the same.
Although the jurisdiction of the proposed committee is to be limited so that it cannot monitor or review a decision made by an electoral official in scrutinising votes, there is some anxiety—we would have to resolve this problem before adopting the model—that it could undermine the authority or integrity of the electoral process. Furthermore, the Electoral Commissioner could spend much of his or her time appearing before the committee answering questions and responding to complaints. We would not want to compromise either the resources of the State Electoral Office or the commissioner's integrity. The proposal could place unnecessary and inappropriate strains on the resources of the State Electoral Office so before the framework of any committee of review is established we will need to be satisfied, as a responsible Parliament, that that will not occur. I think we are lucky that our electoral process and our officers are respected widely for their competence and integrity. There is a valid role for the Electoral Commissioner in advising Parliament on electoral reform generally. However, it would obviously not be appropriate for the Electoral Commissioner to deal with complaints and appear before an oversight committee—
The Hon. Duncan Gay: The commissioner doesn't have a vehicle.
The Hon. JOHN DELLA BOSCA: That is conceded in the substance of my remarks. I am simply highlighting those areas where the Government believes caution would have to be exercised. I think all honourable members should ask: Should a body such as this function as an oversight committee or as a committee of review? The Government believes it should be a committee of review designed to improve the framework of parliamentary scrutiny, and there is support for that view. The problem with this bill as it is currently devised is that it crosses the line between review and control. We do not want to put another check on the commissioner as that would compromise both his real and notional independence.
A number of checks and balances are already built into the process, which I think all political parties and candidates have found to be satisfactory. As a final resort there is an entitlement to apply to the Court of Disputed Returns to challenge a result in a particular election. However, every petition to the Court of Disputed Returns must be filed with the court within 40 days of the return of the writ. This ensures that such matters are dealt with in a timely manner. We would not want a dispute about the integrity of an election result to drag on for months or years as it would affect the perception of Parliament and of any government elected under such a cloud.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: This committee is not going to change the result.
The Hon. JOHN DELLA BOSCA: I appreciate that. However, we want to make sure that the framework does not allow an election result to become a feature of any review. We would not want to create uncertainty about results, although we accept that any review of the process must be seen to have integrity. Parliament gives the commissioner the capacity to critique the work of the office, and the Government accepts the validity of that aspect of the bill. Other decisions of the Electoral Commissioner are already subject to review in the Supreme Court, as highlighted by the recent cases involving the registration of particular parties.
I also note that individuals can appeal to the Local Court if they disagree with a decision of the Electoral Commissioner. There is provision for powers for the Local Court to make decisions concerning enrolments on the electoral roll. Further, the Electoral Commissioner is empowered to investigate any irregularities brought to his or her attention. It is important that the irregularity process also be independently examined by the commissioner as a returning officer. The commissioner may well be subject to Parliamentary review about his processes and systems for doing that but we do not want to convert that role into one that would be supervised or controlled by the Parliamentary committee. I think that would be to the detriment of the electoral process.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: Exactly the same thing applies to the ICAC commissioner.
The Hon. JOHN DELLA BOSCA: That concern requires further discussion. We do not want the committee to be turned into a vigilance authority with an Ombudsman-type focus on the carriage of the commissioner's role, but to be viewed rather as a review body that is used as a tool by this Parliament to give assistance and advice to the commissioner on behalf of members of the public and to enable the commissioner to have an ongoing review of his or her work.
Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile: A supportive body.
The Hon. JOHN DELLA BOSCA: Yes, that is a very caring and sensitive way to put it. I could tell a few war stories but I know the time of the House is marching on. The Government understands that the Opposition will agree to adjourn the debate today to the next sitting day. The Government looks forward to the balance of the debate.
The Hon. DON HARWIN [11.51 a.m.]: The Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act has been my constant companion through most of my working life in one form or another so it is a great pleasure to speak very briefly to the bill. The establishment of a committee has been one of my strongly held views and beliefs. In fact, it is something I called for when I delivered my inaugural speech in this place. I am delighted to support the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Amendment (Joint Parliamentary Committee) Bill introduced by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I am sure that he will not mind me saying that a number of my suggestions to him have been incorporated in this bill so I almost feel a sense of the joint stewardship with it. I am gravely disappointed with the Government's response. The Government effectively says that the model of committees in this House which monitor and review the exercise of important statutory officeholders—the Ombudsman, the ICAC commissioner, the Commissioner for Children and Young People and the Police Integrity Commissioner, all creatures of statute in this State—is not good enough for the Electoral Commissioner. That is absolutely extraordinary.
I refer honourable members particularly to the proposed changes to section 190. It is quite clear that the committee will only monitor and review the exercise of the Electoral Commissioner's functions. Yet the Minister suggested control of and interference in how the Electoral Commissioner could carry out those statutory responsibilities, and that is complete nonsense. To characterise the bill in that way is extraordinary. The Minister suggested that the Electoral Commissioner could be monitored and reviewed through the Local Court or the Supreme Court. The electoral system is the very basis of government and of how society is governed. All our democratic institutions and electoral processes are incredibly important in terms of their effect on government, on the way we elect our governments, and through that on how we live our lives. The Minister suggested that, unlike the ICAC commissioner, the Ombudsman and the Police Integrity Commissioner, the Electoral Commissioner cannot be monitored and reviewed in exactly the same way. That is an extraordinary suggestion and I am extremely disappointed.
The Minister compared the proposed committee to a committee in the Federal Parliament, but I am surprised that he did compare it to the existing committees that are creatures of statute and are appropriate models in this Parliament. The Minister made one valid point in relation to the structure of the functions of the joint committee with which I agree. There has been an oversight in not making sufficiently clear that review of the Act, and of electoral legislation generally, needs to be made a stronger focus of the proposed committee. However, that could easily be dealt with by way of amendment at the Committee stage.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: The ICAC Commissioner attends only once a year. It is not as if the Electoral Commissioner will be at every meeting.
The Hon. DON HARWIN: Indeed. I note the valid interjection of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. A small widening of the brief to include electoral reform could be taken care of in Committee and need not be a reason to frustrate passage of the bill. The bill offers an appropriate model. It only replicates statutory arrangements that apply to the ICAC commissioner, the Police Integrity Commissioner, the Ombudsman and the Commissioner for Children and Young People. Over the past four years I have had the great pleasure of serving on the committee that monitored and reviewed the work of the Commissioner for Children and Young People. That tremendous committee has helped to add value to the work of the commission, but it has not tried to do what the Minister said would happen with the Electoral Commissioner. This bill tries to make useful and helpful suggestions to the Electoral Commission so that it does its job better and thus makes our electoral system more effective. The Minister correctly said that the Opposition is happy for this bill to be adjourned.
Debate adjourned on motion by the Hon. Don Harwin.