Senator BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (10:38): I would like to contribute to the discussion we are having here. I am inspired to do so, seeing that inspiration was taking hold in the chamber just before, to address some of the issues related to Senator Xenophon’s specific amendment but also to address some of the broader issues that Senators Ludlam and Ryan have both so eloquently addressed. Senator Xenophon’s amendment, as he has highlighted, follows from concerns related to the most recent South Australian election. That 2010 election saw some reprehensible conduct. Elections, sadly, do from time to time. In that instance the Labor Party in South Australia decided that dressing up as Family First volunteers and handing out how-to-vote cards purporting to be Family First how-to-vote cards that directed preferences in a manner-
Senator Conroy: No they didn’t. That’s outrageous. They did not purport to be Family First cards.
Senator BIRMINGHAM:They certainly did purport to be Family First how-to-vote cards. They were designed very much, Senator Conroy, to look like Family First how-to-vote cards. Michael Brown, the state secretary of the Labor Party, obviously was very inspired by the decision he made there. I do not know whether he was either Senator Conroy or Senator Feeney’s candidate for the national secretary’s position. I know Mr Brown was very hopeful of his chances there briefly, but, thankfully, those grubby tactics of the South Australian Labor Party were at least not deployed to the national office of the Labor Party on this occasion when you came around to choosing your own national secretary.
It was a very grubby act. We had the partners of Labor Party candidates dressed up in Family First T-shirts handing out how-to-vote cards.
Senator Fifield: No! Was it that blatant?
Senator BIRMINGHAM: It was that blatant, Senator Fifield. The partner of the member for Mawson, Mr Bignell, was there in her T-shirt purporting to be a Family First volunteer, handing out how-to-vote cards purporting to be from Family First but directing preferences in totally the opposite way to that which the actual Family First how-to-vote cards directed them.
So there was a serious issue at play here. It is an issue that has been canvassed by parliamentary committees in the previous federal parliament and, indeed, by the South Australian parliament but also by amendments to the act in this place already. We sought to tackle this issue of misleading how-to-vote cards. This, in the end, is the critical aspect here-that a how-to-vote card authorised by Mr Brown, the Labor Party state secretary, was directing preferences very clearly in a way that the party which it looked like they came from did not wish those preferences to go.
We have sought to address that here by making clear changes to the Electoral Act that ensure future how-to-vote cards must match up with those from the party of the authorising person. Those changes were passed prior to the federal election. Senator Xenophon obviously believes those changes did not go far enough, but I think it is important to note that the changes we made were what should be done in our very fair, robust electoral system in this country. That is where we identify problems. We should narrow in on the problem and try to solve that problem, not broaden it and create potential unforeseen implications by proposing far wider solutions.
That is the concern with the amendment that Senator Xenophon has proposed. Yes, he is right, in a sense, that this amendment is narrow at the point of application in that it relates to the point at which a vote is cast; but it is broad as to the potential arguments that could be mounted around it. The notion of misleading and deceptive conduct at the polling booth is potentially far, far broader than the instance in South Australia with the written material of a how-to-vote card, which we have attempted to rectify through other changes to the act.
I would argue that this amendment would have potentially far more sweeping implications than the changes which we have already made that sought to address the particular problem that was identified. Whilst the intention behind this amendment-the desire to knock out misleading and deceptive conduct at polling booths-is sound, the potential arguments that could occur around that are very broad indeed.
When we think about the many, many thousands of Australian volunteers-volunteers for the most part-who give their time on polling day to stand at polling booths to attempt to encourage people to exercise their vote in a certain way, in most instances it all occurs in a very friendly manner. In most instances, the volunteers get along quite well and some unique and strange friendships are forged. But, from time to time, people cross a line in the way they behave at those booths. But, in crossing the line, it is very hard to argue where that line is drawn. It is very hard to judge the throwaway comments someone may make or the discussion they may have with a voter as they are entering the polling booth. hese sorts of comments could all be captured by this amendment, and that is why it is, I think, a step too far in relation to tackling a particular problem-of misleading how-to-vote cards and misleading information given at the polling booth-that the parliament has already sought to tackle.
I will make some comments more broadly on Senator Ludlam’s second issue, in relation to truth in conduct of elections, truth in advertising at elections and those general principles. There is probably very little I can add to the very sound arguments of my colleague Senator Ryan in this regard, but once again there seems to be a South Australian element or flavour that comes to this debate. Senator Ludlam has held up the truth-in-advertising standards of the South Australian electoral laws as a potential model for future debate in this place. Much as I would love, as a South Australian senator, to stand here and try to convince the Senate that the standard of conduct of elections in South Australia, the standard of debate during elections in South Australia, the quality of that debate and indeed the honesty and integrity in that debate are somehow greater than in federal elections or in any other state, I would, I fear, be guilty of misleading the Senate were I to make such claims.
Those laws have stood in South Australia for quite some time now. I have worked on numerous campaigns under them, and can I say they are little more than a pain in the proverbial for all to deal with rather than anything that actually promotes or delivers a higher standard of political debate or conduct. Unfortunately, though once again they were put in place with good intentions, the reality is that they have delivered very little. The examples that Senator Ryan highlighted and the issues that he highlighted of the Electoral Commission becoming the arbiter of what is fact, what is not fact, what is misleading, what is not misleading, what is deceptive and what is not deceptive are indeed exactly what happens under the South Australian provisions. My entire job in one election campaign, for the last two weeks of that campaign, was to write letters to the South Australian Electoral Commissioner either alleging misleading behaviour in Labor Party material or responding to Labor Party allegations of misleading behaviour in Liberal Party material. That was pretty much the sole thing I did for those two weeks: to draft for our state director the arguments that were put backwards and forwards.
A large number of those cases were not resolved until after voting day. In almost all of the cases, the arguments were dismissed because, of course, they were all largely politically motivated arguments put by the different parties, and in the end I think there have been but a handful of examples-and there are some examples, but they are but a handful-where parties have been required to undertake corrective action for statements they have made. But, even where they have been required to undertake that corrective action, frankly it has been of little consequence. Often the corrective action is masked in a way so as to look like yet another piece of party material, and the actual correction is a bit like the corrections you will sometimes see buried away in newspapers; nobody much notices the correction when it is compared against the initial misleading statement in the first place.
So I would say that in this broader debate we do risk the problems that Senator Ryan highlighted: that we set up independent electoral commissioners as arbiters of political debate. That is something that would be most undesirable in our system. Trying to write these laws and trying to create and instil these principles of truth of political conduct or political advertising is a fine and noble principle, but in practice I do not believe it makes a jot of difference in South Australia. I do not believe that it works there. I do not think that it has broadened or enhanced the standard of our democracy there, and I would be very reluctant to see us set up a similar system at the Commonwealth level that would simply promote the same types of arguments between the parties and see us undergo the same types of wasting of time and resources not just of the political parties but of the Electoral Commission, who would be cast in that role of arbitration. So I would urge caution on that broader issue.
If I can return to the particular issue of Senator Xenophon’s amendment, in closing I again emphasise that the issue we are talking about here, I believe, was broadly dealt with or specifically dealt with in the amendments passed to the Electoral Act that looked at how-to-vote cards and the structure of those how-to-vote cards. If there are particular things we can do to those amendments to strengthen them, I personally am most open to looking at that and I would hope the coalition would be as well, but I think it is important that, where we tackle those issues, we tackle them with a narrow focus not just on where they are applied but also on where there can be room for argument. I think the amendment proposed by Senator Xenophon unfortunately leaves a very broad scope for argument and for potential incidents at polling booths that we would not seek to be covered to become points of argument. I think that would be an undesirable consequence of the amendment.