Senator WILLIAMS (New South Wales—Nationals Whip in the Senate) (13:43): I rise today to report on a visit undertaken by me and Senator Mark Furner to Georgia on 1 October this year as part of the international contingent of election observers. It was a rushed trip without much notice, as I do not think too many people were keen to go. We had the invitation just a week before, and I am certainly glad that I took part in what I consider to be a very important observation in Georgia.
It is important to bear in mind the brief history of this country before its independence and democratic elections.
It is not a big country—only 69,700 square kilometres—and is bounded on four sides by Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is a country that was part of the Soviet republic and was one of the first to take steps towards independence. That fight for its own identity really began on 9 April 1989 when Soviet soldiers brutally crushed a peaceful rally in the capital, Tbilisi, and 21 people were killed.
Elections in October 1990 put an end to Soviet Georgia and, six months later, a referendum on the restoration of the country's independence was overwhelmingly approved. The first presidential election was held in May 1991, but the President only lasted until January the following year when he and his supporters were expelled from the country. Georgia was then run by a military council until the Constitution was adopted in 1995 and presidential and parliamentary elections were held. Georgia elects a president as head of state for a five-year term and 150 members who are elected for four-year terms. Seventy-seven of the seats are elected through proportional representation and 73 are in single-seat constituencies.
And so it was to this tiny country that Senator Furner and I travelled to observe these democratic elections, which were the seventh legislative elections held since independence. On election day, 1 October, we started at polling booth 19 in the capital, Tbilisi. We noticed how long the queues were and the reason was that, in fact, there were only three voting stations in the polling booth.
The situation was similar at polling booth 14 in Tbilisi. We asked why there was such a hold-up and we were told that if you do not vote on that day, you do not vote. There is no pre-poll voting, no postal voting and no absentee voting. The only exception is for the defence personnel serving in Afghanistan, who could make a pre-poll vote.
Senator Furner and I travelled to another polling booth in the city and to two around Gori, which is 60 kilometres west of the capital—the birthplace of one well-known Mr Stalin. Although there was not the same congestion it was obvious that people were very patient, waiting in line.
One of the big problems for the Central Election Commission in Georgia is the uneven distribution of electors in the 84 electoral districts, although there were 71 election precincts for last month's elections. There are 3.6 million people eligible to vote but, in the 84 election districts, numbers range from 154,000 in election districts 6 and 10 to just less than 6,000 in election districts 29 and 46. So basically one member of parliament may have up to 154,000 constituents in their seat while others may have just 6,000 constituents. Of course, we in Australia are used to having electorates of a similar size, population-wise, with about a 10 per cent tolerance—excluding Tasmania and some of their lower house seats.
One thing that did impress us was the need for voters to provide photographic identification when entering a polling booth. Maybe that is something we need to look at in Australia. If we had computers established and linked right around Australia then, when you showed your identification and voted, you would be marked off as having voted. There would certainly be no opportunity for fraudulent voting here in Australia.
Senator Furner and I have made three recommendations to the Central Election Commission in Georgia. The first recommendation is that there be more polling booths at polling stations to ease the congestion. They work on about 1,500 voters in one polling station but, when you go in to vote, there are just three little cubicles. So people are lined up.
It is a voluntary system of voting. Some people are of the view: 'If we have to line up for hours, then next time I'm not going to vote.' I think it is a hindrance just making people wait in line, whereas in Australia when you walk into a polling booth there might be 10, 15, 20 cubicles where you can vote.
The second recommendation is that the commission investigate pre-poll, postal and absentee voting to ensure everyone gets a chance to cast a vote. If you are not in your electorate on the day between 8 am and 8 pm you cannot vote, unless you are in the armed services in Afghanistan. So if you are sick or you have to go away to the country for some reason or you are in hospital and cannot get out there, you cannot vote. That is why we are suggesting pre-poll postal voting and, if you are away in the country, absentee voting such as we can do in Australia.
Overall, the Georgian election was conducted in a mood of goodwill and it is good to see a country that was once under the iron fist now celebrating democracy. I believe that it is the first time in 100 years Georgia has changed government without a revolution.
Since returning, Senator Furner and I have met with the Georgian ambassador. Just this week the Australian Georgian Parliamentary Friendship Group was formed with Senator Furner as chair and me as deputy chair. We
would like to thank the Australian parliament; the government of Georgia; the Central Election Commission of Georgia; Mr Giorgi Kiknadze, the Georgian parliament's protocol officer; and a special thank you to Ms Sarah Kelly, Second Secretary of the Australian Embassy based in Ankara. Sarah did a wonderful job of organising our meetings, our travel and our appointments. She was so helpful. That was the first time I had ever been in that neck of the woods—that part of the world—and observed one of these elections. We will forward to the Georgian ambassador here in Canberra what we recommend. Hopefully, they may consider taking up those recommendations.
What a great country Georgia is, with a lot of potential. They do have to learn how to grow food better. They have good farming country—black basalt soil, alluvial flats and, it would appear, a good supply of water. Yet they import 80 per cent of their food. We in this parliamentary group can work on this to help them later on.
I was amazed that, during the Second World War, Georgia had a population of just 2½ million people—300,000 were killed. That was 12 per cent of the population, including men, women and children. It was a huge contribution to a terrible war. I believe this country needs support politically and economically—anything we can do for them. I thank you, once again, Madam Deputy President, for the opportunity to be part of this observation, where some 1,400 observers from around the world went to see and help in the conduct of this election. I, and also on behalf of Senator Furner, seek leave to table our report, which I understand has been circulated previously to all the parties and crossbenches.