Back-bench revolt may be the flavour of the month in Liberal ranks, but that didn’t stop the government’s nefarious Electoral and Referendum (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill emerging from the Senate unscathed yesterday. Jack Lang never spoke a truer word than when he told his young pupil Paul Keating, “always put your money on self-interest, son, it’s the only horse that always tries”. The main features of Australia’s brave new electoral landscape are as follows:
Earlier closure of the electoral roll. Traditionally, voters have had a full week after the announcement of the election date to enrol or update their details. The Australian Electoral Commission uses this week to conduct extensive advertising campaigns informing the public of the looming deadline, which is also widely publicised in news reports. During the first week of the 2004 election campaign, the AEC received approximately 78,000 new enrolments and 345,000 updates. Now that the government has a Senate majority with which to do as it pleases, it has seen fit to require that new enrolments be made by 8pm on the day the election is called and enrolment updates be made within three days, assuming the Prime Minister doesn’t give advance notice before the issue of the writs. Their motives here could not be plainer. Most new enrollers are young people who, on any reasonable assessment, overwhelmingly vote for parties of the left (despite misguided talk of a generation of “South Park Republicans” backing John Howard at the last election). Furthermore, many of those who need to amend their enrolments are renters, most of whom vote Labor for economic reasons.
The government argues that this is necessary because of the burden the rush of enrolments places on the AEC, and the accompanying threat of electoral fraud. In regard to the AEC’s workload, it can only be said that it has had many opportunities over the years to register any concerns it might have and has never seen fit to do so. Instead, it has repeatedly argued against suggestions the rolls should be closed earlier â€“ in this submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters’ Inquiry into the 2001 Federal Election (“the AEC considers it would be a backward step to repeal the provision which guarantees electors this seven day period in which to correct their enrolment”), and this one to JSCEM’s Inquiry into the Integrity of the Electoral Roll in 2000 (“the expectation is that the rolls for the election will be less accurate, because less time will be available for existing electors to correct their enrolments and for new enrolments to be received”). As for electoral fraud, the only substantial public claim regarding election rigging that the Poll Bludger is aware of came from noted Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones, who was â€“ with all due respect to him â€“ talking out of his arse. While the Shepherdson inquiry unveiled all manner of enrolment irregularities among ALP members in Queensland, it was never sensibly suggested that this amounted to an attempt to rig an election involving millions of voters, as opposed to a preselection involving a few dozen.
The government has also attempted to justify the amendment with reference to early closure of rolls for most state elections. But as numerous speakers in the Senate pointed out, they neglected to mention that these states have fixed terms, and hence a predictable deadline for enrolling in time for an election, or â€“ in Tasmania’s case â€“ a required period of five to 10 days between the dissolution of parliament and the issue of the writs, which effectively amounts to a week’s grace no different to the existing system for federal elections. It was also argued that the government was merely overturning a self-serving amendment made by the Hawke Labor government in 1983. This was refuted by Emeritus Professor Colin Hughes, a former Australian Electoral Commissioner, who noted in a parliamentary inquiry submission that “the statutory period set in 1983 did no more than regularise what had previously been unchallenged practice … prior to 1983 there was always a period of some days, usually more than seven, between the announcement of polling day and the close of the rolls at 6pm on the day the writs were issued”. The 1983 amendment was prompted by Malcolm Fraser’s opportunistic failure to observe an existing convention (a habit of his) at that year’s double dissolution election, when he advised the Governor-General to issue the writs at the earliest opportunity so Labor would not have time to replace Bill Hayden with Bob Hawke which unbeknownst to him had already happened. According to Labor Senator John Faulkner (though I hesitate to take his word for it), this caused “complete pandemonium right across the length and breadth of Australia” on polling day.
Tighter proof of identity requirements. Enrolling voters must now prove their identity by providing a drivers’ licence or, failing that, a “prescribed identity document” or, failing that, a form signed by two witnesses who are not related to the enroller, who have known him or her for longer than a month, and who can confirm their own identity with a drivers’ licence number. Voters casting provisional votes will be required to provide a drivers’ licence or prescribed identity document by the Friday after polling day. Given the paucity of genuine concerns about vote fraud (more from the AEC, who should know: “It has been concluded by every parliamentary and judicial inquiry into the conduct of federal elections, since the AEC was established as an independent statutory authority in 1984, that there has been no widespread or organised attempt to defraud the electoral system”), it’s hard to see why these changes were necessary. It has been argued that the greatest impact will be on aboriginal and itinerant voters, and it will accordingly provide marginal benefit to the Coalition.
Higher threshold for declaring political donations. This has been brazenly lifted from $1500 to $10,000, which has been partly justified on the grounds that the existing figure has been locked in place since 1983. The $10,000 figure will henceforth be indexed to the inflation rate. As several speakers noted in the Senate, $1500 in 1983 only equals $3400 in today’s money. The disparity is justified with reference to the equivalent figures in New Zealand ($A8,500) and Britain ($A12,200). But as Labor Senator Anne McEwen argued, both countries impose campaign spending limits on parties and candidates, which do not apply in Australia. Even more importantly, the threshold only applies to any given state or territory party branch, so it is possible to make nine secret donations to the ALP totalling just under $90,000. This is even better for the Coalition as donations can be made to eight Liberal and six Nationals branches (the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party having recently merged with the Nationals so it could preserve benefits that stood to be lost following Senator Julian McGauran’s defection to the Liberal Party).
Increased tax deductibility of political donations. As if the above weren’t bad enough, much of the influence being purchased will be paid for out of your pocket. Previously, individuals making donations to political parties of up to $100 could claim it as a tax deduction, no different from if they were donating to charity. Not only has that figure been lifted to $1,500, the deduction will now also apply to companies as well as individuals. It is expected that this measure will cost the taxpayer $5 million at the next election.
Extension of the definition of an ‘associated entity’. An associated entity is “an entity controlled by, or operating wholly or to a significant extent for the benefit of, one or more registered political parties”, which are required to lodge financial disclosure returns to the AEC. The controversy surrounding the “Australians for Honest Politics” trust, through which Tony Abbott and others assisted legal actions against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, hinged on whether it constituted an associated entity and was thus obliged to disclose its backers. The AEC’s verdict was that it did not.
Temporary deregistration of minor political parties. Parties that have never been represented in federal parliament will be deregistered and required to register again under the “current requirements in the Electoral Act”, which now include measures preventing “misleading party names”. This is apparently aimed specifically at Liberals for Forests (who would prefer to be spelt all in lower-case letters, but can go to hell as far as I’m concerned), whom the Coalition blames for Larry Anthony’s defeat in Richmond.
Higher deposits for nomination. They were bound to get something right. Previously, candidates were required to place a deposit of $350 for the House of Representatives or $700 for the Senate, to be redeemed only if they scored more than 4 per cent of the vote. These sums have been raised to $500 and $1000 respectively. Anything that reduces the number of nutters running at elections is fine by me â€“ they should have upped the vote threshold as well.
Removal of prisoners’ right to vote. This previously applied only to those serving sentences of three years or more, but will now apply to anyone in full-time detention. Greens Senator Kerry Nettle reckons it “perhaps the most appalling and draconian proposal in this legislation”. I can’t get quite so excited personally, and I suspect most prisoners can’t either.
UPDATE (25/6/06): Mr Mumble joins in with the consensus view outlined above: “Both sides of Australian politics believe that if lots of members of certain groups – young, in jail, don’t always have a drivers’ licence handy, change residence a lot or live overseas – drop (or stay) off the electoral roll, the net beneficiary will be the Coalition. And they’re right.” But interestingly, Graeme Orr in comments is not so sure. If he’s right, it would not be the first time a party’s attempt to skew the electoral system in its favour backfired. Elsewhere, Alan Ramsey cuts and pastes highlights from Robert Ray’s Senate speech into a Sydney Morning Herald op-ed piece, and is paid for it.