In Parliament

Bill Debate - Regulatory Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2022

BILL DEBATE.

‘REGULATORY LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (REFORM) BILL 2022’.

Thursday, 10 February 2022.

Mr NEWBURY (Brighton) (10:07):

I rise to speak on the Regulatory Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2021.

This is an Omnibus Bill. It covers a variety of issues that are loosely held together
under the umbrella of streamlining regulation. Though some of the proposed
measures are not contentious, others are highly dangerous measures that have
been slipped into the bill under the guise of being benign.

For background and in summary, changes are being made in response to the
pandemic, including things like making changes to online meetings and AGMs,
fee relief to accommodate loss of earnings and changes in relation to tobacco
inspectors. There are also changes in relation to the world becoming more digital.
Those changes relate to legislative requirements for public notices, a matter that
I will be speaking about later; electoral maps being moved online; and changes
in relation to pharmacies. There are also changes being made in relation to the
teaching crisis in Victoria—changes in relation to the registration process, and I
will speak about that matter later too. Finally, in substance, significant changes
are being proposed to the electoral process—electoral reform—some of which
include clarifying the number of posters that can be displayed, bans on mobile
billboard advertising and, most dangerously, the postal voting process, and I will
speak about that in substance. There are also some other changes in relation to
some tidying up.

A month ago, President Biden gave a speech on protecting the right to vote, and
in that speech, he said:

… for the right to vote and to have that vote counted is democracy’s threshold
liberty. Without it, nothing is possible, but with it, anything is possible.

And further:

To them—

the ‘them’ he was referring to were people undermining, in his view, that right—

too many people voting in a democracy is a problem. So they’re putting up
obstacles.

These electoral reforms proposed to postal voting are designed to create an
obstacle to postal voting in Victoria. They are aimed at bastardising the
availability of vote information and options available, including options and
information available to the elderly and to the disabled groups we know are the
parts of the community that most benefit from the option of postal voting. If I can
use an analogy, we will all understand, the postal voting reforms proposed in this
bill are designed to run sandpaper over the Victorian electoral cricket ball. They
are aimed at squeezing the life out of postal voting. We will oppose this Bill, and
in Government we will restore those rights for the community.

Almost 1 million people in Victoria receive information at each election about
postal voting, primarily through political parties providing an application form to
the community. Parties provide information to the community, and to a small
degree—a very small degree—information is provided through the Victorian
Electoral Commission. The best part of 1 million people at a state election would
receive information that way and the electoral commission would provide
information to, as it currently stands, roughly 80,000 people. 80,000 people are
registered for a permanent postal vote and almost 1 million people receive
information—paid for by the parties, mind you, not paid for by the taxpayer—
through that process. This Bill proposes to stop almost 1 million people receiving
that information and cut it down to the 80,000 people or anybody who gets added to that list prior to the election. It is extraordinary and, as I started with, it flies in the face of what is happening in democratic systems around the world. It flies in the face of what other major countries, like the United States, are doing. In fact, the United States is currently battling on these very issues, fighting on these very issues, and I will come back to that later.

To give some background further to those statistics on postal voting, of all votes
cast at the last election 7.6 per cent were postal votes. There were roughly
3.5 million votes cast—3.7 million if you include everything that was knocked
off—and 281,000 were cast via postal vote. So almost 300,000 people cast their
vote by post. Think about that. Almost 300,000 people cast their vote by post, and the electoral commission has a list of 80,000 people.

So, you can see the difference between what the Electoral Commission will provide if these reforms are approved by the Parliament: the gap is not even a third compared with how many people cast their vote by post. And I think we all expect, and know, that the number of people who will vote prior to election day will only substantially increase. I understand the Australian Electoral Commission is anticipating half of all voters at the federal election will vote prior to election day, and I think we can all probably expect at least a similar number in Victoria. At the last election almost 300,000 people cast their vote by post, and I think we can expect a significant increase in all forms of prior-to-election-day voting. This reform will clearly put a dampener on that. It will bastardise that process.

Interestingly, out of the 3.5 million voters there were 119 complaints about postal
voting. Even if you look at the almost 300,000 people that cast their vote by post,
the number of complaints about postal voting was tiny, infinitesimally small, and
we see proof of that point in the satisfaction rate of people who cast their vote by
post. In fact, postal voters were some of the most satisfied people of all voters in
information provided by the electoral commission to this Parliament in a prior
committee. Postal voters were happy with the process.

We also know that postal voting is on the increase. There was almost a static
number change at the last election, but there certainly has been over time a
substantial increase. And interestingly enough, the Electoral Commission noted
that part of that increase—and I will refer to their submission to the committee of
this Parliament:

… was due to the fact that some political parties had distributed information
encouraging people over the age of 70 to apply for—

general postal vote—

… status.

The Electoral Commission confirmed that especially for people over the age of
70 there was an increase in participation because political parties had distributed
information encouraging people to vote. And Labor knows that. The Government
knows that. That is what these reforms are about—these reforms are targeted
political reforms to undermine the anti-Labor vote.

I mentioned earlier that under these reforms there will be significant restrictions
on the way people can receive postal vote application information both through
the list currently held by the electoral commission, which the commission advises
me is 80,000 people, roughly speaking, and through Australia Post. Well, the
electoral commission has advised the Parliament that ‘very few obtained their
postal vote application from the post office’. It was 5 per cent at the last election.

When I asked in Government briefings, noting this enormous reduction in
information provided to the community, provided to the elderly, provided to the
CALD communities, how this policy reform will address those concerns and what
the election commission will do—I asked on notice for that information to be
provided—you will be surprised to hear that the Government did not answer that
question. They have not answered the question. In the briefing their initial
response was, ‘The CALD community can find out when they go to the post
office to pick up an application form, and there could be alternate languages on
the back of the form’. So, they can find out they can apply when they fall into a
post office, accidentally come across an application form, turn it around and
perhaps find a language that can be read. I mean, you would almost have to fluke
it, because only 5 per cent obtain their postal vote application through the post
office anyway.

Mr Wakeling interjected.

Mr NEWBURY: They clearly will not know that it is there. It will be a fluke if
people in the CALD community find out, and the Government has no response—
absolutely no response.

I mentioned earlier the number of complaints about postal voting. There were
also specific complaints related to postal vote material—77, and I will put that
into context. At the last election there was a total of 861 complaints made to the
Victorian Electoral Commission, with 77 relating to complaints about political
parties distributing postal vote applications—77 of 861. If I can refer to the
Electoral Matters Committee report on the last election in relation to postal vote
complaints, there was an infinitesimally small number of complaints relating
specifically to the material that was provided. So, of the 77, from memory five
complaints were specific to the material inside. As the VEC said to the committee:

Five complainants were unsure if the material had come from the VEC or the
Liberal Party but felt that it must be against the rules.

So, of all the complaints received, which were from a very small number of the
people who vote—3.5 million people voted, 861 people made a complaint,
77 people made a complaint about postal votes—five complainants were unsure
about the difference between the material and a party. Five. On that hook the
Government has put this reform before the Parliament—using that hook.

We can see the debate going on in the United States at the moment about changes
to voting rights. There have been extraordinary changes across the States to
voting rights—extraordinary changes. In fact, last year there were over
2200 election-related bills introduced into state legislatures. Thirty-eight States
enacted at least one voting law reform last year. If you go to Voting Rights Lab’s
recent report, A Tale of Two Democracies, 22 States enacted legislation to
expand or improve mail voting, two States adopted new voter mail systems and
11 States enacted restrictions to that process, including restricting third-party
ballot-related reforms, which is what we are talking about here.

I referred to President Biden’s remarks at the start of my contribution. If I can add further to that, and he is specifically talking about state reform here:

And what’s been the reaction of Republicans in Georgia? Choose the wrong way,
the undemocratic way. To them, too many people voting in a democracy is a
problem, so they’re putting up obstacles … voting by mail is a safe and
convenient way to get more people to vote, so they’re making it harder for you to
vote by mail.

‘They’re making it harder for you to vote by mail’. Further:

That’s not America. That’s what it looks like when they suppress the right to vote.

That is what this Bill does. It is aimed at suppressing the right to vote.

By contrast, in New South Wales, with four by-elections this coming weekend
the New South Wales Government empowered the Electoral Commission there
to provide a postal vote pack to every elector. Talk about a sharp contrast to this
state. We are ripping the option away. We are strangling the right—the
Government is proposing to strangle that right—and in New South Wales they
are providing a vote pack to every single voter. And I will note the Opposition
there has been supportive, and they have also talked about the impact of reforms
of this nature on the CALD community. They have been outspoken on that. To
know that the Government has provided no assurance to those communities—no
assurance that they will not be disenfranchised in this State—is disgusting.

We will oppose this Bill—we absolutely will oppose this Bill—and in
Government we will restore those rights to the almost, at the last election,
1 million Victorians to receive the information they need to make a decision about
how they vote. On this one measure alone Victorians should be concerned.
Victorians should be concerned about the pattern of behaviour from this
Government in undermining democratic institutions, a Government with a track
record of closing Parliament and trying to kill electorate office attendance. I
mean, this Government’s record on democracy is shameful, absolutely shameful.
It is not the only electoral reform. That one is the most pernicious, but there are
also other reforms that do not make sense.

The Labor Party, in the committee stage of the 2018 state election inquiry,
recommended that mobile billboards have a 100-metre ban from early voting
centres, so of course the Government has used its Parliamentary power to pick
that up as a reform in this Bill. When questions were asked about that proposed
reform and its workability, there were no answers. The proposed law does not
provide any discretion; it just says that if a mobile billboard passes the 100-metre
space, that is a breach. What about voting centres on main roads? That is a breach. It is a breach. It is totally unworkable.

I will now move to the publication element of the reforms, and this should have
every regional member in this place concerned. Anyone who represents a regional
community should be deeply, deeply concerned, because in simple terms what
this Bill does is it moves the publication requirements of certain Government
matters online.

Has anyone thought about what that does to regional media? Has anyone
engaged? Because as far as I have seen, the engagement on this Bill has been zip.
I think Departments have spoken to each other—I am sure that is the case—but
regional media partly survives on some of these publications and the capacity for
work to be published. And the local communities want it; the local townships
want to read about what is happening in their community. I worked for a former
Premier who would go back to front of his local newspapers, and he would know
every single thing that was happening in that regard. I would refer the Chamber
to the Leader of the House’s comments in this place in June, when she said, with
crocodile tears:

… the ongoing decline in the number of regional journalists and regional media
outlets that is contributing to an ongoing diminution of the ability for regional
communities and regional voices to have their stories told …

… we are witnessing the ongoing, sad decline of regional media newsrooms.

She then gives a whack to the federal government and says they should be
focusing on support for regional journalism and regional newsrooms.

I would say to the Leader of the House and the Labor Party: look at your own
Bill. What crocodile tears! The Leader of the House stood there and through
crocodile tears wept for regional media, and then has been part of a Cabinet that
has spearheaded a knife through regional media. The Victorian Country Press
Association wrote yesterday:

Regional news providers across Victoria including our own have deep concerns
about—

this bill—

which will be presented to the Victorian Parliament in tomorrow’s sitting.

The reforms, if passed will take away the Government legislated mandate for
local councils to place their public notice and community information classifieds
in regional Victorian local newspapers, taking away yet another revenue source
and effectively negating even more council connection with their local
communities. It will also potentially lead to all local Government classified
advertising migrating to a purpose-built Government web platform. This could
potentially remove local regional newspapers from receiving any local
government advertising. Internet in country areas can be unreliable and unlike
city folk, country people rely on their local paper for this information.

The Warragul Gazette said:

This Bill amendment I believe is happening tomorrow will be another huge nail
in the coffin of regional publishing. The threat is real, that if this bill is passed
that we, like many the regional publishers will be hundreds of thousands of
dollars in ad revenue down, being redirected to a platform that provides no
community interest, no investment in local jobs, no avenue to the community for
council and political parties, and removes one of the primary roles a regional
newspaper does which is be a source of local news and information for the
community we serve.

Well, that is emphatic, isn’t it? And where is the Leader of the House now,
protecting regional media? Trying to fix a Labor implosion, talking about who
has been kicked out of Labor caucus—

Mr Wakeling interjected.

Mr NEWBURY: Yes, threatening to kick people out of Labor caucus. Instead of
standing here talking about, through a Members Statement, what you think you
should say, why don’t your actions meet your words instead of doing the exact
opposite? This Bill will hurt regional media, and every regional Member—and as
I look around there are very few in the Chamber—should touch base with their
outlet and ask them what effect this Bill will have.

I would finally like to mention the reforms relating to the teacher shortage and
quote from media reports:

Almost one in three secondary school teaching jobs in Melbourne’s north and
west are going unfilled and teachers warn the situation will grow worse amid
expected staffing shortages forced by the Omicron wave.

Further:

The Department of Education and Training report reveals specialist subjects
including languages and technology are chronically short of qualified teachers,
with roughly three in 10 advertised roles resulting in no appointment, while
20 per cent of advertised maths and science roles go unfilled.

And further:

… regions suffer the greatest recruitment challenges.

And where is the shortage? To quote another media report:

… the number of Victorian teachers applying for jobs in Queensland has grown
from 0.1per cent in 2019 to 2.9 per cent this year.

This Bill does attempt, almost three years into a pandemic, to address that. There
is a crisis, just like there is a crisis in health, and this Bill attempts almost three
years into a pandemic to do something about it, so perhaps within the next year
or two years there will be an effect, with the changes made in this Bill.

This bill is dangerous. This Bill hides dangerous changes to the democratic
system in what is being put up as an Omnibus Bill, a simple Omnibus Bill that
makes regulatory reform.

How many media releases have you seen about the bill and the electoral reform—
how much fanfare from the government of fanfare? None.

We will oppose this Bill, and in Government we will restore the right for people
to choose to vote through post and provide them with the information they rightly
deserve.

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