Local, Independant and Effective

Government called to support young people in community life

Posted October 21, 2016


Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (19:10): The focus of my grievance concerns how we treat our young people, and the systemic failures by our institutions to protect them and support their full participation in our democratic processes. An AEC submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into electoral education said:

As at 30 June 2015, it is estimated that 80.4 per cent of eligible adults aged 18 to 25 are on the federal electoral roll. This compares to the rate for all ages of 93.2 per cent.

In a submission to the JSCEM, the United Nations Youth association of Australia noted that the federal electoral system poses substantial barriers to young people participating in our democracy and that Australia's electoral system is failing our young people. In 2015, polling by the Lowy Institute found that fewer than half of 18- to 29-year-olds declared democracy to be preferable to any other form of government.

Our democratic system is failing our young people, and in my electorate of Indi we have had firsthand experience of the way young people actively engaged in the political process have been treated by our institutions and how the system has failed them. The Australian on 27 September 2014 reported:

The idea that something might have been seriously amiss—

in Indi in the 2013 election—

was first raised by senior Liberal Party officials with federal parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters … in a formal submission …

In the newspaper article, individuals were named, accusations were made, the report was syndicated and the smearing process began.

The AEC took these accusations seriously, and in their submission to the JSCEM inquiry into the 2013 election they discussed what they called the 'close seat analysis', in sections 7.1.47 to 50, which address this submission from the Liberal Party. Their answer, in short, was that there was no evidence of systemic fraud. Freedom-of-information documents show that, on three separate occasions, allegations were made to the AEC and investigated, and each time the analysis did not indicate any evidence of unusual activity.

But then something changed. On the fourth occasion, the AEC referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police, and, by 30 April 2015, one team leader and eight team members of the AFP had spent 1,740 hours of AFP time conducting an investigation, with the result that, from the 27 referrals, four briefs were provided to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, on 18 and 19 May, in respect of allegations that four individuals had provided false or misleading information to the AEC.

The source of this was a question asked by the Western Australian Liberal senator Dean Smith, to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 28 May 2015. This is not the last time Senator Smith has indicated a strong interest in this Indi matter. Eventually, on 5 April this year, prosecutors withdrew charges in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court. The court decided that there was no case to answer. 'It smelt like a rat, it looks like a rat, and fortunately common sense has prevailed,' was the reported quote from Rob Stary, a Melbourne lawyer involved in the case. He also said that this has been 'a terrible waste of resources from both AFP and prosecutors'.

So tonight I want to put the record straight. There was no false or misleading information. There was no orchestration. There was no incitement. There was no deliberate attempt to fraud. There was no loophole. There was no conspiracy. A significant number of young people who had the courage to engage in democracy were punished. Their reputations were tainted. Their parents, and their friends and housemates, were interrogated about their children's living arrangements. Acquaintances living as far away as New York and London received phone calls from the AFP, and they were questioned intimately about the living arrangements of some of these people.

This generated enormous fear, anxiety, worry and, worst of all, loss of trust, and there has been significant psychological impact. To quote from a letter one of these young people sent to me, 'It has been a terrible time. But over time and with some strategies I've learnt from the psychologist. I no longer have the anxiety attacks when I see a police car or see police at the train station or, indeed, read anything about politics.'

The 2013 election in Indi was clean—it was honest—and the AEC advice still holds for the 2016 election.

What if I live in more than one address? The answer on the website is that you should enrol for the address which is your permanent residential address. This is the address you intend to return to even if you are living somewhere else temporarily. For example, while studying at university, you can remain on the electoral roll for your home address. This is what the young people of Indi did.

In this whole case there are many unanswered questions. Why did one national newspaper call into question the integrity of 27 young people? Why did so much of the media blindly follow suit? Why did the AEC decide in 2014 to refer the case to the AFP when on three separate occasions they had said there was no case to answer? Why did the AFP investigate this case for 1,741 hours when it was clear even to them that there was no case to answer? Who was counting the cost? This is particularly so in comparison to other instances in the 2013 election. There were 7,743 cases of alleged multiple voting and, of these, 2,013 admitted to voting more than once. The AFP investigated 65 cases, and none were referred to the CDPP.

Who should take responsibility for ensuring that there is a public apology to the young people and to their families and their communities? This episode has caused enormous damage to the young people and their families, and to rural communities, where so many people use their home address as their permanent address. It has caused damage to our democracy and to the trust in our political institutions. In the eyes of many young people, this is even more reason why it makes no sense to engage in politics.

The saga has caused reputational damage to the Australian political system. Why did we let this happen to our young people? Why did no-one stand up for them? It has damaged the reputation of our political media among young people. Where was the accuracy? Who was leading the investigation? This has caused reputational damage to the Liberal Party. Having lost the election, they proved to be really bad sports. And to add insult to injury, somebody photocopied all these articles and distributed them widely throughout the electorate. Sadly, it has caused reputational damage to the party that says it represents rural Australia, the party that says it stands up for country people. Why did the National Party not stand up for these young people or for the rural FIFO workers or for the many itinerant workers who travel throughout rural Australia?

The problem of confusion about young people's enrolment was not new. In 2009-2010, the Australian National Audit Office made a number of clear recommendations. Why has so little been done by this parliament to address these recommendations? They include developing government arrangements for the management of electors' personal information and assessing the nature to which access to electoral roll information by non-government agencies adversely impacts on the willingness of Australians to enrol to vote.

In closing, I want to explain why I have taken the opportunity to raise this matter in this grievance debate tonight. I thought it was over and done with, but this is not so. Sadly, there is someone out there who is not content to accept the court's decision. On 5 May 2016, just before the campaign was announced and a full month after the court had said there was no case to answer, the Liberal senator for Western Australia, Senator Dean Smith, asked 10 questions in writing—again, to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. What is going on there? Why is this topic of interest to the Western Australian senator.

This is part of my grievance. Not only has the damage been done; it has been perpetuated. It must stop for the sake of young people, to whom it has done so much damage. Who will call the Liberal Party to task on this? Who will take responsibility? I want to set the record straight and to also ask the government to show us how it will work in the future to encourage and support young people to participate in our democratic processes and, in turn, community life. Part of the answer may lie in the appointment of a minister for young people and in providing support for infrastructure to address systemic barriers that prevent young people from civic participation. (Time expired)

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