The government and opposition are developing new laws to regulate misleading and vilifying campaign material, after a Senate inquiry heard yesterday that current electoral laws wouldn’t cover the material.

While the High Court deliberated on whether or not it would let the postal survey take place, the inquiry heard the complex ways many government departments are working towards implementing the postal survey. While the Australian Bureau of Statistics is the main government agency delivering the postal survey, the inquiry yesterday heard from the Department of Human Services, the Australian Electoral Commission, Australia Post and the Department of Finance, as well as the ABS.

Usual laws covering elections don’t apply to the postal survey, but chief legal officer to the Australian Electoral Commission Paul Pirani told the inquiry current laws only cover content that is misleading about the actual casting of votes, and the requirement for advertisements and campaign material to carry authorisation messages.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is already in the process of printing survey forms, at a cost of $5.3 million, and had already spent $14 million of the $122 million allocated for the process by yesterday. Of that $14 million, $6 million was on an advertising campaign and a further $15 million advertising campaign will start next week.

The AEC says it has had “hundreds and hundreds” of staff working overtime to process the thousands of transactions, including address updates and new enrolments, that have come as part of the process to close the electoral rolls. It believes there will be extra costs in distributing survey forms to silent voters, a process that can’t be taken by the ABS.

The Department of Human Services is also involved, running the information phone line for the ABS, which has had more than 80,000 calls.

The committee also heard that Australia Post will be placing dedicated staff in its sorting centres to make sure returned survey forms get back to the ABS in a timely manner.

The ABS was quizzed on what arrangements were in place for people voting from overseas, especially the proposal that people travelling overseas ask a “trusted person” to fill out their survey form on their behalf. Greens Senator Janet Rice asked what measures were in place to prevent fraud, with the ABS says every voter will have a personal code that will be scanned by the agency. If someone reports that they are a victim of fraud, they will have a new code issued and the first one will be cancelled out.

Peter Fray

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