Two opinion pieces in today’s papers give the thumbs down to major recommendations of the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. In The Age, Colin Hughes and Brian Costar concede that the report "contains much useful information about the electoral system and makes sensible recommendations about how to improve it", but argue that moves to eliminate the seven-day period between the issue of the writs and the closure of the electoral roll threaten "Australia’s well-earned reputation as a world leader in democratic practice":
The committee advanced two major justifications for abolishing the statutory period of grace. One was that by not keeping their enrolment up to date 284,110 souls were guilty of offences under the Electoral Act and should not be allowed any leeway. This excessive legalism runs counter to the sensible, long-established practice whereby the Australian Electoral Commission does not pursue prosecution for non-enrolment if the neglect is remedied.
The committee also claims that the current arrangements "present an opportunity for those who seek to manipulate the roll to do so at a time where little opportunity exists for the AEC to undertake the thorough checking required ensuring (sic) roll integrity". This argument fails on at least two counts. First, the AEC, in its submission to the inquiry, stated categorically that it applies its established procedures during the seven-day period after the writs are issued “with the same degree of rigour as it does in a non-election period”. Second, the committee itself admits that there is minimal evidence of actual roll fraud, but insists that it must take measures to prevent it occurring in the future.
This second assertion ignores the thorough review of the electoral roll conducted in 2002 by the Australian National Audit Office, which concluded "that, overall, the Australian electoral roll is one of high integrity, and can be relied on for electoral purposes". There are adequate safeguards in the current electoral laws and procedures to deal with any future attempts at fraud without stripping the vote from hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Before we all start stocking up on firearms and tins of baked beans, Hughes and Costar note that a potential constitutional loophole promises salvation for our cherished democratic freedoms, should state governments choose to make use of it:
This arises from the fact that the governor-general, on the advice of the prime minister, issues the writs for the House of Representatives and the four territory senators, but the state governors, acting on the advice of their premiers, issue the writs for Senate elections. The constitutional power clearly exists for one or more of the state premiers to advise their governors not to issue Senate writs for, say, seven days after the prime minister announces the election date, thereby keeping the rolls open in those states.
Writing in the Australian Financial Review (not available online), Malcolm Mackerras differs from Hughes and Costar in that his "overall reaction is hostile", because the recommendations are "relentless in their pursuit of the electoral interests of the Liberal Party". Restrictions of space compel him to limit his criticisms to the familiar matter of full preferential above-the-line voting for the Senate:
Such a change would massively drive up the informal vote. Why do we have this Faustian pact between the Liberal Party, the Democrats and the Greens? The Liberal Party wants to drive up the informal vote because that advances its electoral interests. The Democrats and the Greens are in the business of punishing Family First because, in their view, Steve Fielding won a seat in Victoria that they believe he should not have won. These politicians will vehemently deny my assessment …
Lack of space prevents me from a full explanation of why I call chapter nine a disgrace. I content myself with three points. First, the chapter (page 230) grotesquely mis-describes the system of "first past the post" in an attempt to justify the prejudices of many of our politicians. Second, the chapter (pages 208, 210, 214 and 226) commits a real howler in using the term single transferable vote in a way that is not only internally inconsistent but flies in the face of the international literature on electoral systems. Third, the chapter gives some objections to the current (reasonably sensible) system of group voting tickets and then (page 216) says: "The decision of the Family First party in some states to favour a preference distribution to other minor parties that advocated policies radically at variance with Family First’s declared core values, may be an example of this type of strategic behaviour, and its consequences."
No evidence is given. However, the main value of this sentence (not intended, of course) is that the politicians have given themselves away as to their target.
Mackerras seems unusually relaxed about Family First’s success in winning a seat with neglible support thanks to huge volumes of preferences from oblivious voters. I would be interested to know if this is because space prohibited him from advocating what seems to me the obvious solution, namely optional preferential voting. For much, much more on this topic, see the comments thread for this earlier post.