Electoral Bill 2017

14th November 2017

Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 17:42 ): I contribute to debate on the Electoral Bill 2017. I state at the beginning that while I agree with most of the bill, I do not support the part that places independent candidates at what I believe to be a distinct and unreasonable disadvantage when choosing to contest elections in the future. Although I start on what might sound a negative note, I draw to the attention of the House the size of the bill before us. This is a substantial document that takes a lot of time and energy to pore through and to understand. We need to be able to understand the issues that exercise the minds of those who have contested elections in this State in the past as well as those who will contest elections in the future. I acknowledge members of the Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, who have sat on this committee for a number of years. It plays an important part in the electoral process and, as the member for Kiama said, it is important that we ensure that we stamp out electoral fraud in this State. At the same time, we must ensure that we do not make the system so complex that we inadvertently deter people from standing for election and thus becoming involved in our democratic system.

This bill will provide some long overdue reform to aspects of the State's electoral laws. The one aspect I cannot support is the perhaps inadvertent impact it will have on independent candidates that will make it hard for them to compete with those standing under the umbrella of political parties, particularly the major parties. Division 3 of part 7 of the bill specifically proposes that independent candidates for election to either the Legislative Council or the Legislative Assembly will in future require 50 nominators before they can lodge an application. This stands in stark contrast to the 15 nominators currently required. It also stands in contrast to the fact that someone standing on a party ticket simply needs the party to nominate them and will not be required to seek 50 signatures, plus a few extra for good measure just in case some nominators are found to be ineligible.

I note that the bill was introduced to the House by the member for Lane Cove, and Special Minister for State, on behalf of the Premier and following considerations by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. In his second reading speech the Minister said that this specific change would help to reduce the size, cost and complexity of the ballot. I appreciate that there have been occasions when the ballot paper, particularly for the upper House and perhaps only for the upper House, has been large and somewhat difficult for voters to wrestle with in a small voting booth. However, that is democracy, and while we can improve the system we need to be careful that we do not overstep the mark. While there should be a reasonable test for those wishing to stand for election, the impost should not be unreasonable.

I believe the provisions of the bill, as they stand, will impact unreasonably a person wishing to contest a lower House seat as an independent candidate. It might seem that I have a vested interest in making this point, but, as a reasonably longstanding member of this House, having contested numerous elections as an Independent member, I would say that I am in a fairly good position to collect 50 nominators. I am trying not to reflect on my experience but rather on how this might impact on other independent candidates who do not have the advantage of being known in their electorate.

There is no doubt that the electoral system will always find a critic, and rightly so. We cannot legislate for all the issues that will manifest in some instances, and therefore it is appropriate that we continue to review the rules and regulations in the legislation governing this system. I believe my view is shared by the Independent member for Sydney, who has been very vocal about the implications of this clause of the bill. In a joint letter to the Premier in October, we asked the Government to reconsider that aspect of the bill and retain the status quo when it comes to the requirements for independent candidates standing for election. The member for Sydney and I said that healthy democracies do not restrict who can run for office; they do not actively or even deliberately seek to exclude some people from election simply by making it harder for them to nominate.

It is important also that they do not achieve that outcome inadvertently, as I believe could be the case for lower House candidates. I do not believe that there has been any ill intent in proposing this change, following good discussions with the staff of the Premier. However, I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters did not recommend that the number of nominators be raised for independent candidates seeking election to the Legislative Assembly and neither did any submission. The recommendation from the committee related only to candidates for the Legislative Council; however, following discussions with the staff of the Premier, I understand why members of the committee believe that there may be risks in having different positions for the two Houses. In general terms, large ballot papers are not an issue in the Legislative Assembly, so I can see no reason to discourage independent candidates from running in the lower House. I will not give the statistics for the number of candidates who have contested Legislative Assembly seats in New South Wales, but overall relatively small numbers have contested on each occasion.

I speak from the position of having had some experience when I say that organising 15 nominators, the current number required, in a short window has been relatively difficult and time-consuming. Some members might think it is an easy task, but members of parties have probably never experienced this process. The idea of organising 50 nominators in that short period puts those people at a distinct disadvantage. Being positive now, what I am pleased about is that the Premier and her staff, particularly Tom Payton, have been forthright and helpful in discussing the reasoning for the bill being drafted this way and have been open to the argument about the differential impact on independent candidates for the Legislative Assembly. Considering the understandable desire to implement changes recommended by the Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I believe a better outcome would be to reduce the proposed number of nominators to an equal value of, say, 25 for each candidate, a figure that requires greater effort to achieve but which should be reasonably doable.

Having discussed this and reached agreement with the Government, I foreshadow an amendment which will achieve this, along with a number of minor amendments, which have been found to be needed from the drafting of the bill. I will speak to those later, but I am happy to include them in my amendment on behalf of the Government. I have provided a number of copies of the amendments which were drafted by Parliamentary Counsel this afternoon, including to the member for Liverpool. I acknowledge that it was provided late.

Mr Paul Lynch: But we still agree.

Mr GREG PIPER: The member acknowledges that the Opposition is still in agreement with those amendments. With the amendments as foreshadowed, I am pleased to support the bill, which I believe is a comprehensive review and a very worthy attempt to make sure that we retain a modern electoral system that does exactly what we want to keep fraud out of our electoral system, and to make our democratic system accessible to everyone.

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