Accessibility Issues for Voters with Disabilities: Statements

I have great pleasure in welcoming the Minister of State and I call on him to address the House.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his welcome.

I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad this evening on accessibility issues for voters with disabilities. I am happy to contribute to this debate and to answer any questions Senators may have on this important matter.

Electoral law contains specific provisions designed to make voting as accessible and as inclusive as possible. While much has been achieved in improving accessibility for voting for people with disabilities much more needs to be done. Much of the focus in recent years has been on physical access to polling stations and measures to ease difficulties presented by inaccessible polling stations. It would be useful at this point to outline the various measures that apply. Provision is made for voting at an alternative polling station if a person with a physical disability is unable to vote at his or her local polling station. There is a requirement on local authorities when making polling schemes to seek to select polling places where there will be at least one polling station that is accessible to wheelchair users.

There is a requirement for returning officers to give notice of polling stations that are inaccessible to wheelchair users in order to allow the voters concerned to seek alternative arrangements. There is also a requirement on returning officers to put in place practical arrangements in polling stations to make it easier for wheelchair users to mark their ballot papers and place them in ballot boxes. It is also worth mentioning that postal voting is often the preferred option for voters with physical illnesses or disability. For those in nursing homes, special voting arrangements apply.

Despite these measures, a number of polling stations remain inaccessible to voters with physical disabilities. While the number of such polling stations has decreased and is relatively small in the context of the total number nationally, the aim must be to make all polling stations accessible. While we work to achieve that aim, we must recognise also the need to be ready to conduct elections at short notice. To meet this requirement, returning officers must be able to provide a sufficient number of polling stations at every polling place in their constituencies. Polling stations will normally be villages or other population centres and the returning officer will be required to locate polling stations as conveniently as possible for the use of the electorate in each polling station. Where a sufficient number of polling stations cannot, for one reason or another, be provided at the appointed polling station, a returning officer can arrange for polling stations to be provided at any other convenient place. In selecting locations to serve as polling stations, the traditional approach has been to use schools. This is understandable given their generally central locations in communities. It is especially so in rural areas where viable alternatives to local schools may be difficult to find without inconveniencing the generality of voters in an area.

If there are changed circumstances whereby community halls or similar buildings in these areas become more accessible for people with disabilities, they should be considered for use in place of local schools. That has become the case in my area in Kilkenny in recent elections. Where suitable alternative venues which are more accessible have become available, polling centres have moved from schools in certain areas. The Department's guidance document for returning officers advises that they may hire a hall or other premises if they consider that it would be a more suitable arrangement even where a school is available for use locally. Given the need to provide polling stations to conduct elections and referendums, returning officers sometimes select polling stations which are not normally accessible. Even in these cases, however, the Department's guidance document advises returning officers to consider how, reasonably and practically, they can make those polling centres more accessible. For example, suitable ramps may be provided to improve access. To assist returning officers in this regard, the guidance document appends an accessible voting checklist which has been developed using the National Disability Authority's publication, Building for Everyone; a Universal Design Approach, the Irish Wheelchair Association's best practice guidance guidelines of 2014, Designing Accessible Environments, and the guidance and practice on accessible voting available from other jurisdictions.

On balance, what is necessary in this matter is to remain vigilant about the possibility of replacing inaccessible buildings with newer accessible ones wherever and whenever they come on-stream and until such time as the problem is fully rectified. The Department will shortly follow up on an invitation it received from the Irish Wheelchair Association to discuss the accessibility of polling stations. The identification of problem areas and possible solutions will be the focus of these discussions. I look forward to hearing Senators' views on this matter.

Before I call the next speaker, I welcome Mr. Robbie Sinnott, who is a disability activist, to the Visitors Gallery. I call Senator Ned O'Sullivan.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, back to the House. He and I soldiered together for a term and I commend him on the work he is doing in his Department.

We must give credit every now and again. The Minister of State is doing a good job in the area of local government. He is respected for his commitment by the general public and elected members at local authority level on all sides.

This is an issue on which we are all united. We had a hard battle to win the vote for people. Obstacles were placed in people's way over the centuries. For a long time in this country, one could not vote if one were a Catholic. For a long time, one could not vote unless one had wealth. For a long time, one could not vote if one were a woman. Thankfully, all these obstacles have been lifted. The single remaining barrier to using one’s franchise, however, is disability. Thankfully, we are in the civilised age when we realise every help must be given to people of disability who wish to cast their vote. It is an act of great patriotism, especially for people with a disability, to exercise one's franchise. People with disabilities have enough obstacles in their way. Many people just do not vote. I love to see people with a disability coming to the polling booth. It shows their commitment to their country and is an act of real patriotism.

The Minister of State has outlined the situation, which we accept. It is important voters have alternative polling stations if the polling station they would normally attend is not adapted properly for them. A returning officer has the right to make special arrangements for them. Should they request it in advance, they can be allowed to vote at a different polling station where they would be accommodated in a better way. There is also the postal vote. Following a High Court ruling in 2017, ballot paper templates have been introduced to facilitate people with visual impairments to vote by secret ballot in referendums and presidential elections. Wherever possible, polling stations are to be situated in buildings which are accessible. They must always be set at ground floor level. Temporary ramps can be installed to facilitate access.

I have been around polling booths for some time. I did some duty as an election agent when I was 12 years of age for a certain political party. I have seen much coming and going. One of the most embarrassing and degrading things I have seen is the abuse of disabled voters down through the years in the polls, in nursing homes and in hospitals. No party is guiltless. It is important that the dignity of a person must be first and foremost and every accommodation must be given that the voter can have the confidence that he or she is voting in private. Just because one is impaired should not invalidate one's right to a secret ballot. The secret ballot is the foundation of democracy. I have seen people being asked to vote in situations where one would be sorry for them. There was no secrecy about it. At one stage, many politicians felt if they got up early enough in the morning and collected enough disabled people, then they had votes in the bag as they could control the vote. Thankfully those days are gone.

The largest single change I saw was the right for people in hospitals and nursing homes to cast their votes in situ rather than having ill people being physically dragged into polling stations. It was not right. Now they can vote in the privacy of the hospital accompanied by an appropriate person or garda to ensure no outside involvement.

The introduction of the ballot paper template was a good development. The regulations made in October provide for a similar template for presidential elections. The option is available if a voter does not want to be assisted by a companion or a presiding officer in marking the ballot paper. Ballot paper templates will be available in each polling station. If voters tell the presiding officer that they wish to use a template, they will be handed a ballot paper with the template attached and given whatever personal assistance needed to vote in secret.

Raised print and Braille are used to identify the openings in the template that match the squares on the ballot paper. The voters mark their choices on the ballot paper beneath the template. When marked the ballot paper is detached from the template and placed in the ballot box in the usual way.

In 2015, my party, Fianna Fáil, brought forward a Bill aimed at improving the voting system for visually impaired, incapacitated and illiterate voters. The purpose of that Bill was to reduce obstacles and give those voters back their independence. The legislation provides for electronically-assisted voting whereby a computer programme and printer would be used by visually-impaired people to cast their vote on a touch screen or keypad. The vote is then printed and cast in the ballot box.

We are all at one regarding this Bill. We are all committed to ensuring that as many people as possible can cast their ballot, be it at a general election, a local election, a presidential election or a European election. We support the Minister of State in his endeavours in this regard.

I wish to share time with my colleague, Senator Colm Burke. I will take six minutes and my colleague will have two minutes.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to the House. From many discussions I have had with him over the years I know of his steadfast commitment to equality. He has demonstrated that in a practical and progressive way in the job he is doing and in the support he has given me over the years. I acknowledge the presence in the Gallery of Robbie Sinnott whose court case led the way in ensuring that we are where we are, which is at the beginning of a process.

This is a timely discussion, particularly following the presidential election ten days ago. The tactile voting facility, which was introduced following on from Robbie's successful court case, is in its infancy. It is a sincere and genuine start in terms of equality and facilitating people who are blind and visually impaired to vote. As somebody who is visually impaired, I wholeheartedly welcome it as a starting point but like everything that is in its infancy, there are teething difficulties, and there were teething difficulties during voting in the presidential election. It seemed to facilitate people casting their first preference vote in a reasonable way but when it came to determining a transfer, and if one was giving a candidate their number two or number three vote, there were much more challenges associated with it but they can be overcome.

The Minister of State's Department should establish a formal process of engagement with the National Council for the Blind. Its head of advocacy is Kevin Kelly, a great guy who worked the former Senator Mary Ann O'Brien for five years so he is well used to being around these Houses. It would be a worthwhile exercise if the Minister of State set up a working group that would include Kevin to deal with the teething difficulties. Every problem can be overcome. With the advent of information and communications technology I am sure there are other ways that the tactile voting facility can be improved.

It might be no harm for the Minister of State to arrange for an audit to be carried out with the returning officers to get feedback on issues that arose at polling stations. It would be a simple exercise. The remit of the working group I suggested the Minister of State might establish to deal with the tactile voting facility could be extended to examine the matter of accessible polling stations, where difficulties and challenges arose, and the way the book of guidelines that is issued to presiding officers could be improved upon.

I know from my experience that the issue of lighting in polling stations can be a factor. When one goes into the polling booth it can be very dark. Perhaps polling booths can be located under a light. Many small aspects could be examined that could improve the overall experience for people in exercising their democratic right. Many older people have told me that it is impossible to read the ballot paper because it is very dark in the polling booth. It is a logical issue to address but it is only logical when it is pointed out to us. We can improve on many areas. Following a few more elections we could be in a position where we would have the most accessible voting facility in Europe but we have a long way to go. I am totally convinced that the Minister of State, his officials and the Department are committed to this and want to make it happen. I am only too happy to give any assistance possible in that regard.

I thank the Minister of State and the Department for the work that has been done and I also thank all the people in charge of organising polling stations around the country for elections. I have come across some difficulties, for instance, where artificial ramps have to be put in place but which did not work out on polling day. With increasingly more public buildings having been made more user friendly for people with disabilities, considerable progress has been made but there are still places where not all the required facilities are available and some work needs to be done to address that.

I wish to raise the issue of the change in the boundaries in my area of Cork. I understand that change will come into effect on the day of the election. There is a question mark over who will be in charge on the day of the election, as the city sheriff has jurisdiction over the current boundary of the city and the county sheriff has jurisdiction over the county. People in some areas in the county will now be voting in the city election for the first time. I understand this change will come into place on midnight before the day of the election. That issue needs to be dealt with, given that while the county sheriff will not be dealing with new areas the city sheriff will, and they may not be familiar with the new areas over which they will be in charge. In some cases parishes will be divided following the change in the city boundary and new polling stations will have to be identified. That issue needs to be examined to make sure there is access to every polling station, regardless of whether it is in the city or county or in a rural or urban area, for any person with a disability. When such a changeover is happening it is important that is taken into account. Much progress has been made and we have come a long way during the last 20 years. We have a bit more to do but a great deal of work has been done by the Department, the local authorities and by the people who were in charge of the various referendums and elections.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit arís. It is good to see him back in the House. I also welcome the use of templates in polling stations in the recent referendums on the eighth amendment and on blasphemy, and the presidential election. It is a welcome move that allows those who are visually impaired to vote without assistance for the first time. It is allows the independence that we should endeavour to provide to all. While it took a High Court case commenced at the beginning of 2017 and the brave efforts of Mr. Robbie Sinnott, who is present in the Gallery, to bring it to this point, it still must be commended. It is a start, albeit under an order from the High Court.

In advance of these statements, I contacted the National Council for the Blind Ireland, NCBI, which has been strategically involved in the roll-out of templates. Having spoken to the NCBI it is clear, and most welcome, that this has been an inclusive process. I commend Department official and the manufacturing company, Pakflatt, who worked constructively with service users to provide templates as seamlessly as possible. However, further and continued consultation is essential as we move from templates in national votes with general use cards to LEA-specific templates.

I am not visually impaired but I want to take the Minister of State through what it is like to go to a polling booth with the new template so that we can understand it a little more. There were numerous difficulties and these are what we learn from. Most of those with visual impairment found the template not for purpose, although it was an improvement. First one takes the template here - the "Tá" or the "Níl" - which is more simplified than anything else. It has a serrated edge so that one knows how to match it up with the ballot paper. The ballot paper does not have that serrated edge. That needs to be rectified. The raised print where one reads the "Tá" or the "Níl" needs to be enlarged. It is 1.5 mm and the recommendation is that it go up to 2 mm so that it would be much easier to read. One third of blind people have sensory deprivation in the fingers due to neuropathy, which is quite common for people with blindness.

The Department was informed of the changes that were required following the referendum in May but, unfortunately, nothing was done. We then went on to a bigger vote for the first time, the presidential vote. I have here a template for the presidential vote. It is obviously a lot more complicated than the "Tá" and "Níl" template but it is not as complicated as what will be used in the general election and especially the local elections where one could have 25 to 30 candidates. Again, the template does not have a serrated edge to match with the paper. That is really important. The paper does not have a serrated edge to allow the two to be matched together. That needs to change. One template was submitted on 6 September and was rejected. This template was submitted for the presidential election at the beginning of October. There really was no lead-in time to test it again.

It is totally unsuitable for proportional representation voting. We have six candidates here, one to six. One lines up the template with the paper if one can get the edges together. It is not that easy to do. However, one needs to have a massive, fabulous memory to actually remember where one is to make the mark. Who is number one? One does not know. Who is number two, or three, or four, or five, or six? One does not know. That information was provided on mobile phones but it took two and a half minutes to listen to and one still had to remember it all.

It then gets really complicated when one casts a vote, perhaps for the sixth candidate. That text also needs to increase to 2 mm. If one gets to number six - and obviously Liadh Ní Riada would have been my preferred candidate - and puts a "1" in there, one has no capacity to know that one has already voted in that box. One might vote for the sixth candidate as one's first preference then go to the third candidate, Senator Freeman, as one's second preference. Then one has a number one for the sixth candidate and a number two for the third candidate and one has to go on and on. There are no little window shutters to say that one has filled out a box. One cannot feel that one has done it and there are no windows to say that one has completed it. People are using 10 cent pieces in polling stations. These are slippery and there is a whip-round in polling stations to find 10 cent pieces.

It is still unacceptable and it still disenfranchises people. It does not make us equal in our ability to cast the most important vote that we have, a franchise to which we are entitled. I hope the Minister of State will listen to the people and to the difficulties that were encountered because I dread to think of the next certain election - there may be a general election but the next one that is certain is the local elections - because it will be an absolute nightmare due to the length of the paper and the number of candidates. It is not too costly to change it.

Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ensures equal access to persons for political rights, to be enjoyed on an equal basis. We have signed up to an international protocol which commits us to equal access. The refusal to ratify the optional protocol to the convention denies persons who feel their rights are not being realised the opportunity to pursue cases further. This needs to change. The optional protocol should be ratified without any undue delay. One tool to enable equal access is online voter registration. I have spoken before about how outdated and archaic the process is. If the State has confidence that a passport can be renewed securely online, surely there is no reason it cannot have the same confidence in respect of voter registration. An online facility with auditory and visual aids would help people with disabilities to register, but there is nothing online currently. As Senator Dolan recently referenced in the Seanad, 11 constituencies have issues regarding access. The Minister of State talked about ramps, the height of the voting booth and access to the school hall or whatever building is used as the local polling station in his area of Carlow-Kilkenny. The Minister of State has given us an update on that and I hope it is improving.

The postal vote is available to many people with disabilities. I suggest that the Department consider expanding this to the carers who might find it difficult to leave the house on polling day. Accessibility should not just be seen in terms of physical infrastructure inhibitors. Parents of children who have very debilitating illnesses may not be able to leave their homes. In the last debate the Minister of State said that we have a generally high turnout in comparison with Britain. While that is true, if participation policy generally favours one cohort over another, whether that be people without a disability over people with disabilities, older people over younger, upper class over lower class, the settled community over Travellers, or non-convicted people over prisoners, we will see a direct effect from that in terms of public policy and representation. Our turnout might be high but it is skewed in favour of certain demographics.

If we are truly to see all voters as equal, we have a big task of work ahead of us. We cannot continue to deny the right to vote to the most vulnerable in our society. As other Senators have said, we have come a bit of a way. Unfortunately it took a High Court challenge to get this ball rolling. We have a lot more to do and we need to listen to those with real experience on the ground, get them together and go over the simple steps I have outlined in respect of these templates, which are a start but certainly not the finish.

I welcome the Minister of State. I raised this issue on the Order of Business on 17 October, as has already been referenced by Senator Devine. I thank the Leader and I thank the Minister of State for coming back and presenting this statement. On that day I asked that the Minister of State would set out a plan. I find this a sandwich or two short of a plan at this stage, but it is a good start. We need to get down and dirty with each polling station that is inaccessible and say what needs to be done and see how quickly it can be done. We saw people get off their bums very quickly when we had issues about schools. It is, in its own way, equally important that people can use their franchise.

I particularly welcome Robbie Sinnott to the Seanad, as others have rightfully done. Mr. Sinnott is in the Gallery and might not be happy to hear this but 30 years ago a woman named Nora Draper took the State to court, so we are not coming new to this. Perhaps people who are dealing with it now were still going to school or were not involved at that time. This is dragging on and on. I named a number of constituencies where there were issues. The Minister of State's constituency would probably come up first alphabetically. I will list some problem polling stations for the heck of it: Castlecomer Castle primary school, Castlewarren Hall, St. Canice's Boys Club, Templeorum national school and Slieverue national school. There are five and I could go through others. We will not do that but it is useful to do in respect of the Minister of State's own home place. He probably knows people in those places, does he not? That is how real this is.

Senator Devine referred to Article 29. I find it incredible that a Minister of State can come in here and state, "Electoral law contains specific provisions designed to make voting as accessible and as inclusive as possible" and not mention that we have ratified an international treaty in April this year. That needs to drive the second part of the Minister of State's statement to the House. I am asking him to come back and give an appendix to his statement which will show what actions are being taken. Those actions will never be quick enough for people who are blind, visually impaired or whatever, but what actions are being taken to deal with each and every one of these issues?

Article 29 relates to participation in political and public life and states:

States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others, and shall undertake:

a) To ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected, inter alia, by:

i. Ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use ...

Senators Conway, Devine and Ned O'Sullivan referred to the fact that things are being improved somewhat but that there is a need for them to be closed out and made easier and more accurate for people.

Protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote in elections and public referendums - in secret and confidentially - without intimidation, etc., is the nub of the matter. There are real issues, particularly for people who are blind or visually impaired. I am glad that reference was made to Kevin Kelly, who is now working with the National Council for the Blind in Ireland, NCBI. The point has been well made by Senator Conway. I am delighted that there is engagement with the Irish Wheelchair Association, the NCBI and, hopefully, anybody else involved.

There are still real issues with those templates that pose problems. It is not enough for the Minister of State to conclude, "On balance, I think it is a case of remaining vigilant to the possibility of replacing inaccessible buildings with newer accessible buildings wherever they come on stream." That is dragging one's heels. The venues where people vote must be accessible. It is good that we can find other accommodations for people to vote by post or whatever, but voting in a democracy, in its essence, involves people going into a public place - into the public realm - and casting their vote. This is important for disabled people. It is a mark that they count, not just in the context of votes, but as people in the public space and public realm. That symbolism is very important. People might ask what difference it makes, but we know enough about symbolism in this country. It is important for disabled people.

I accept that am giving the Minister of State a bit of a hard time, but I ask him to come back in a couple of months and show us the templates and plans and outline where he has actively engaged with the different entities. I am not getting the feeling that this is going to be progressed. He is right that, in nine months, there will be at least two elections. There will be another one either before or after those. After 11 years of deliberation, in April the State said it would get this right. Part of the article I read into the record is as good as Irish law. That is what we have signed up to. Let us hold our heads up internationally and, more importantly, let us hold our heads up in Carlow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and every other place where it needs to happen.

I will go through the matters different Senators raised. Senator Ned O'Sullivan was first and spoke about the progression in franchise law which this year rightly marks the 100th anniversary of the first parliamentary vote for women. We have also overcome all sorts of other hurdles and obstacles. I am not sure I ever witnessed abuse of disabled voters but I certainly witnessed the clearing of polling stations on a number of occasions and times when presiding officers had to effectively mark people's ballots, which removes a certain aspect of the privacy of the ballot which is so crucially important. I have heard of worse examples than that anecdotally but politics has changed and the situation that used to exist whereby, on polling day, representatives from political parties stood outside polling stations and tried to canvass at the last minute or brought people to polling stations, has certainly changed over the years. That is not to say that it does not need to be changed further.

The Senator referred to illiteracy in general and a Fianna Fáil Private Members' Bill from a number of years ago. We need to ensure that when people are casting their ballots, there can be no suspicion that their vote is identifiable as being different and that a vote processed through a machine or computer has the potential at least to be identified back to the person who cast it. In small rural polling stations in Kerry and Kilkenny, that might apply to very small numbers of people. In certain circumstances, it might only apply to one or two individuals. That is not to say there is not merit in examining how it happens.

Senator Conway referred to an audit of returning officers. That is carried out after every election and referendum and that work has been done. It has not been collated yet but the purpose of that is to try and improve things as we go on.

The Senator also spoke about a working group, and Senator Dolan raised something similar. The Department has liaised closely with the NCBI about the template and the provision of a template that would work. I have no problem whatsoever with that becoming a formal working group, that it would be more than just the NCBI and encapsulate accessibility in its generality. That is something which, having spoken to the national returning officer behind me, we can start working towards. That group should be reflective of the different types of problems that people can have in terms of accessibility when it comes to voting.

Senator Colm Burke's contribution was mostly about Cork. I was going to say that Cork people are predictable, but that is the wrong phrase to use.

He is on a second quota.

We will be dealing with the specific issues regarding city and county sheriffs, and city and county registrars, and the boundary question in the Local Government Bill, which will be before this House before the turn of the year. We will have more information about those matters when the legislation is debated.

I am not trying to downplay the numbers. The fact that 27 polling stations were inaccessible in 2016 is not good enough. In the most recent election, held last month, the figure was down to 23. A number of problem stations in Kerry were either not used in the most recent election or alternative venues were found.

Many of the issues Senator Devine spoke about in the context of the template are now part of the consideration that will take place between the NCBI and the Department and that will form part of what I hope will be a wider group to deal with accessibility in general.

Many of the issues raised by Senator Devine will be part of the considerations of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and the Department, which will form part of what I hope will be a wider group to deal with accessibility in general. The issue of the shutter did come up but there was not enough time available to deal with it before the most recent presidential election. We have seven months until the next local elections and, in that time, the shutters, the serrated edge and changing the size and spacing in the font on the template can form part of the deliberations of the group. Hopefully, we can improve it but it would be too definite to say we can get it right. There needs to be a continuous process of improvement. I fail to see why it cannot be in place in time for the elections due at the end of May next year.

Senator Dolan opened with a vitally important comment, one which is often not mentioned in discussions relating to voting and franchise. I get a lot of demands, requests and suggestions - some of them useful and others not - as to how to improve the quality of the register and voter participation. First, we have to provide people with the opportunity to cast their vote and, second, avoid doing anything that would undermine the system. People have confidence in the electoral process, excluding the aberration which was the electronic voting plan, and all of us who have taken part in elections have witnessed the physical supervision of bundles of ballot papers which enables us to know what is happening. Irish people will never deviate much from that but that is not to say things should not be improved where possible. The fundamental aspect of this is ensuring the list of 23 inaccessible stations is dealt with. It will probably involve the working group getting down into the nitty-gritty with returning officers in the constituencies involved. This goes to the heart of being Minister with responsibility for local government. There is significant local autonomy for returning officers in making provisions for the designation of polling stations and we can only set the rules. There are places without permanent structures which are accessible for people who want to cast a vote but temporary measures such as the provision of ramps in old primary school buildings can be taken. The polling station where I grew up, in a small village with ten houses, has all the necessary ramps for this purpose and this should be the case everywhere. We cannot ensure for certain that there will be permanent buildings that are 100% accessible but we can make temporary buildings accessible for polling day and we are all at one on this issue.

I will endeavour to respond directly to the Leader on the development of the informal group into a broader working group on accessibility in time for the next local and European elections in May 2019. I have no problem reverting to the House on that in due course.

I believe I have covered most of what Senators have said. I also welcome Robbie Sinnott - I did not know he was in the Gallery when I was speaking. He had to fight for rights for himself and others and has had a significant impact on our franchise arrangements. The way we cast our votes is such a fundamental part of our democracy that we often take it for granted and I would welcome Mr. Sinnott being part of the broader engagement on accessibility in advance of the elections which are due in seven months.

Sitting suspended at 5.35 p.m. and resumed at 6.15 p.m.