The fix is in

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 – 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 – with all due respect to him – 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 – in Tasmania’s case – 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 – 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.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

18 comments on “The fix is in”

  1. liberals for forest – who would prefer to be spelt all in lower-case letters, but can go to hell as far as I’m concerned),

    Why go to Hell? can you elaborate on your hate?

  2. LFF are outstanding citizens and a boon to democracy, regardless of what Larry Anthony says. I take no pleasure in the fact that a special circle of hell awaits those who would pervert the English language for the sake of novelty, and I urge them to repent. Same goes for Silverchair. Another possibility is that I’ve been reading this bloke too much.

  3. “Most new enrollers are young people who, on any reasonable assessment, overwhelmingly vote for parties of the left.”
    I recall an AC Neilson poll of last year that showed a clear move of younger voters to the conservative side of politics. Also dissecting Bryan Palmers politics test showed young wannbe voters were not as left biased as their voting counterparts. I am not sure we can any longer assume young = left.

    Notwithstanding the fact that these changes are quite clearly self serving to the government, they are only minor in nature and counter democratic principles. What ever happened to the more substantial recommendations of the JSCEM wrt abolition of GVTs etc.?

  4. Outstanding summary, omitting only the deeply buried assault on the aboriginal franchise by the Howard Govt.

    Note what has been happening over the past decade in this area, and join up the dots – including the abolition of the aboriginal information and education service in 1996 that ensured most remote aboriginals stayed enrolled; the changes to assisted voting to make it harder for aboriginals to express their preferences in their own language and without intimidation; the ID requirements for provisional voting and new enrolments – where does a remote aboriginal woman with a kid on her bare hip carry her driver’s licence?, the disenfranchisement of prisoners (disproportionately aboriginal); not to mention the early close of the rolls, which WILL disenfranchise thousands of aboriginal people.

    This has all been carefully crafted under the radar by the coalition government (if you pay close attention to the committee hearings over the years) – it has taken 10 years to reach their goal with a compliant senate. And still no reporting or commentary from the MSM, obsessed by pedophilia at present, but unable to see what a real assault against democracy is happening under their noses. Remove the vote and bring back paternalism, how gross.

    Senator Bartlett is the only one who seems to have got the full picture (see Senate Hansard, 19 June, p 12)

  5. This democratic parasite will go to unbelievable lengths to win an election wont he. Doesn’t care how he gets in, just so long as he does. The man has no pride, has spiraled out of control, for it’s a pretty sad day when one has to warp the rules in order to gain an unfair advantage over ones opponent.

    What an impudent little worm is Howard,and how very unaustralian of him~


    PS, did you all hear about Howard’s youngest son Richard being a Washington lobbyist in the US, and how when Howard was confronted by the media with this he had no comment? And how about his other dirty tactics last election when he tax-funded his eldest son Timothy to unlawfully spam private numbers with his fathers campaign?

    Between Lyall Howard’s (his father) shoddy miss-dealings in PNG, and his kids interesting careers, it’s a wonder he’s still in office really, isn’t it!!


  6. The point about banning short-term prisoners from voting is that it is another blatant attempt to disenfranchise aborigines, who are massively overrepresented in the prison system, and often for short terms as a result of being unable to pay fines that would have got non-Indigenous people out of the system. Given the closeness of the two seats in the Northern Territory this could be significant.

    There is also of course the principal of the matter. One person commented to me “Why don’t we also ban the families of prisoners from voting as well, just to make sure that dangerous conditions in jails are not addressed”.

  7. Has anyone done an analysis of how many votes this will benefit the government by?

    Here’s my very rough estimates:

    80,000 new voters excluded. Polls of 18-24year olds seem to range on a 2pp basis from 45 to 65% Labor, averaging about 55%. So that is a net 10% Labor loses, or 8,000 votes. Of course the late enrollees may not be typical of their peers, but it’s the best estimate I can come up with. Probably pretty evenly spread across seats. About 50 votes per seat net.

    345,000 updates – of these many will simply stay registered at their old address without being caught, so there might be 200,000 people who still vote, just in the wrong place, and about 150,000 who are prevented from voting. These 150,000 will definitely favour Labour, but not sure how strongly, so I’ll go with the 55/45 figure again. About 15,000 net votes Labor loses. However, these will be concentrated in seats with lots of renters, which are generally safer than average, so i’d say we’re looking at more like 80 net per marginal seat than 100.

    Identity requirements – probably only knock out a small number of people, but overwhelmingly Labor voters. Trivial in city based marginals, but a big deal in NT, Leichardt etc.

    Secret donations will benefit the Libs more than Labor – maybe an extra half a million dollars per election benefit. Maybe 50 votes per seat again.

    Higher tax deductability. Actually I think this will probably make little difference.

    Deregistration of minor parties – more likely to affect Senate outcomes than make a difference to House seats, whatever Larry Anthony may say.

    Higher deposits would have made a difference a few elections ago by impacting on the Greens ability to run, but these days it will probably knock out minor players whose influence would balance each other out. Again more significant for the Senate than who wins the election.

    Prisoners – trivial difference in most seats (I suspect that white prisoners are more coalition-voting than the government might realise) but could have a big impact in the territory.

    All up I’m guessing this will be worth about 200 votes to the Coalition in your typical marginal, but maybe 500 in seats like Solomon and Leichardt, and probably over 1000 in Lingari and Kalgoolie. Most elections are decided by a lot more than this, but it could certainly be worth a seat or two to them.

    Can anyone make a better estimate?

  8. I’ve said publicly that prisoner voting is a low order issue c.f. roll closing.

    And yes, William, several prison chiefs, when i researched this area in ’98, ran the line that ‘most prisoners have other things to worry about’.

    But on that reasoning, we could disenfranchise say 18-20 y.olds – a large %ge of those I teach wouldn’t jump up and down.

    The issue is, what do we think of a government that (not for the first time) plays symbolic, political football, with fundamental rights?

    ps as for parties without cap locks, well it didn’t hurt e.e. cummings; though politics is rarely poetic. I’d save my scorn for corporate language manglers. Like our ‘which bank’. Anyone wondered how much money – and why – they spent on creating a new letter in their name? (the conjoined ‘m’…)

  9. Also, I don’t doubt figures that show new and younger voters may be disproportionately affected by the early roll closing. In theory what is needed is a concerted campaign to enrol them – whether the AEC/traditional advertising will do that is dubious. And with student unions, for instance, nobbled, there may not be the civic structure to do this.

    But I’ll float again my thesis that traditional assumptions about what electoral laws favour the conservatives are not as strong as we think: voluntary voting; making enrolment harder… Such moves may advantage the side for whom politics has more salience: in Oz politics the Greens most fit this bill, but generally people vote ‘negatively’.

    Howard wins elections by winning the apathetics and this is replicated in opinion polls underestimating the conservative vote. However he alienates, strongly, a large proportion of the population, who are easier to motivate to take the trouble to vote than the band of ‘she’ll be righters’, who are far from politically engaged but plump for the status quo.

    So the conservatives put barriers in front of voters at their own peril.

  10. The “temporary” deregistration of minor parties now possible under the newly amended Commonwealth Electoral Act completes the campaign waged by the Howard Government against liberals for forests. This campaign received a set-back from the AAT a few years ago, after the then Electoral Commissioner Andy Becker (appointed by cabinet despite not being one of the short-listed applicants for the job) was apparently arm-wrestled by the govt into deregistering the WA liberals for forests under the provisions of the Electoral Act as it stood then. The EC’s decision was taken to the AAT and overturned as being a nonsensical interpretation of the legislation (the court did not think voters were so stupid as to confuse liberals for forests with the Liberal Party), sooo embarrassing for the EC, who ended up looking like a government stooge.

  11. Graeme, you might be right, you might be wrong, about making enrolment harder not necessarily advantaging the conservatives, but its my guess that when the ALP returns to the government benches they will reverse the early close of the rolls and return to the status quo ante, citing the widespread confusion and anger at the polling booths in 2007 (and they will not reverse the increased secrecy of donations to political parties).

  12. Why all the hatred of the nutters?

    I agree with Mumble, oz politics needs more of them to interest the masses, and confuse the political junkies, who are of course mostly nutters themselves…

    Also, I read a paper on ballot spoiling that found the absence of One Nation candidates in the 2001 Qld election may have led to a slight increase (0.5% if memory serves) in the informal votes in electorates that they did not run… ie if the people’s choice of nutters was not available, there were some who would not vote.

    I think all of these changes suck. Donations the most. I would cap donations for everyone and make all donations disclosed.

    But then I would also like 2007 to be the Year of the Nutter. I demand a coin.

  13. Grace, in theory it’s a case of ‘suck it and see’ but in truth there’s such a paucity of reliable research that it’s all speculation.

    Undoubtedly most of these ‘reforms’ will last only as long as the government, so we can only deal with them on the level of principled justification (generally lacking) rather than claims of electoral advantage.

    StephenL gave a v.rough rule of thumb on the changes, but why discount tax deductibility. It is an article of faith of Liberals dating to at least the ’83 changes (where they opposed public funding but championed deductibility). What the changes do is permit small business to donate up to $3000pa – nb the sort of sum that the Republican machine thrives on. How? Because now sole/family corporations can claim up to $1500pa (ie $500 public subsidy at corporate rate) plus the proprietor can donate $1500pa in his personal/family earnings (at just under $700 subsidy at new 45c/$ top rate). ie $3000 in donations favouring the conservatives, $1200 of which is taxpayer insured.

  14. I believe one important aspect of these electoral changes has been ignored.

    Previously, at least a week was given for changes to the role before the roles closed. Now, they close the day the election is called.

    This would reduce the minimum time period between when an election is called and polling day from 33 days to 26, shortening the campaign period and allowing the PM to take better advantage of short-term spikes in popular opinion.

    This gives a significant advantage to the incumbent’s campaign management.

  15. John, I don’t think that’s right: presently the timetable is that nominations close 10 to 27 days after the issue of the writs and polling day is between 23 and 31 days after that, all of which is independent of when the election roll closes. Nevertheless, I have referred this to a higher authority for adjudication.

  16. Damn these complex electoral laws. After a closer reading of my election timetable I see I was wrong. Guess it is easy to ignore something that doesn’t exist.

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