Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (4:49 PM) -Madam Acting Deputy President, you and I and everyone else in this chamber take for granted the right to exercise a free, independent and secret ballot, but that is not a right that blind and vision impaired Australians have been able to exercise at will in this nation.
At the last election, as Senator Ronaldson indicated, the then coalition government provided for a trial of electronically assisted voting for blind and vision impaired Australians. Those voters who took part in that trial reported a great degree of satisfaction with the avenue of voting that was available for them because for many of those Australians that was indeed the first time they had ever been able to cast a genuinely secret ballot. So it was with great and understandable concern that blind and vision impaired Australians received the news from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, who were inquiring into the conduct of the last election. I recall Mr Melham from the other place publicly stating that he did not feel good about the recommendation of the joint standing committee’s report, which was that the trial was too expensive. I do not have a particular issue with the committee or Mr Melham for making their particular finding on the basis of the facts presented to them. However, I have a great issue with the fact that at that time the federal Labor government did not indicate that they would be taking steps to ensure that at subsequent elections the option of a genuinely secret ballot would be available.
I think the people who took part in the trial were able to appreciate that perhaps the particular form of voting which was in place might not have been cost effective. I think they were perfectly prepared to take on board the findings of the JSCEM but were looking for a commitment from the government that the option of a genuinely secret ballot would be available at subsequent elections, although it might be delivered with different and lower cost technologies. This is a matter which I have pursued at some length through Senate estimates hearings with both the current and the former Special Minister of State. I want to commend the Electoral Commissioner, Mr Killesteyn, and the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, for getting together and working through a range of options to provide the opportunity for a genuinely secret ballot.
I was quite concerned at the last Senate estimates hearings when I asked Minister Ludwig if he was able to provide a commitment on behalf of the government that legislative changes would be put in place to enable a secret ballot. At that time, on 9 February, Minister Ludwig said, ‘I am not able to provide that commitment.’ That was of concern to me and it was of concern to blind and vision impaired Australians. The Electoral Commissioner made it clear at that Senate estimates hearing that, although he would dearly like to provide the option of a secret ballot for everyone, section 234 of the Electoral Act prohibited him from doing so because it currently provides only for assisted voting where a poll clerk records an individual’s vote. Mr Killesteyn was seeking an amendment to section 234 and I am pleased that the ministerial statement, which Senator Sherry tabled today, says:
The amendments to the Bill will provide a legislative framework to allow electors who are blind or have low vision to cast a secret and independent vote at future federal electoral events.
I assume that is in reference to a change to section 234. I am concerned by the minister’s description of the voting mechanism. I recognise that it is put in terms of a short-term arrangement for the next election and that work is being done to look at a longer term option for a secret ballot. I will read from the minister’s statement:
As an interim measure, at the next federal election, electors who are blind or who have low vision will have the option of attending an AEC Divisional Office to cast a secret vote.
That sounds okay. It continues:
It is intended that eligible voters will be provided with a private environment and be connected to a call centre where two trained call centre operators will complete the ballot papers according to the voter’s verbal instructions.
At first reading, that sounds as though it is a situation not entirely different to that which currently pertains. At the moment, if a blind or vision impaired person goes to a polling place they can receive assistance and they can indicate their vote verbally to a poll clerk. On reading the minister’s statement, it would sound as though this is the same mechanism, whereby you walk into a divisional office, you pick up a phone and someone records your vote. What is not clear from this is whether there will be protocols in place to ensure that this is a secret ballot. I hope that is the case. Maybe the divisional office will make a call to the call centre verifying that the voter standing there is entitled to vote and that that voter then has their vote recorded by the person at the call centre who does not have any knowledge of the voter’s identity. That might be a way of ensuring that the vote is indeed secret. We do not know from the minister’s statement if that is the case. If that is not the case, then it should be examined immediately. I will be consulting with the disability sector and blind and vision impaired representative groups to see if they are satisfied with this interim measure. If it is, as it appears in this statement and as identified by Senator Ronaldson, simply a telephone equivalent of walking into a polling booth, then clearly it would not be acceptable because it would not be a genuinely secret ballot. I am pleased that the act is being amended to give the Electoral Commissioner greater flexibility, but we need additional information from the government to determine if this does give effect to a genuinely secret ballot. We encourage the government to continue to look at options to provide a genuinely secret ballot, not just at this election but at subsequent elections.