Top secret

The arrangements that govern public disclosure of how-to-vote cards for New South Wales elections have to be read about in depth to be believed. Antony Green explained it thus on this site yesterday:

If you are on the electoral roll for a NSW district, you will be allowed to visit your local Returning Officer on Saturday and examine registered material. But you cannot do it beforehand and you cannot look at it unless registered for that district. Parties are currently distributing pre-poll how-to-vote cards, but this does not mean the same preferences will be recommended on how-to-votes on Saturday. As for lower house preferences, you are only allowed to examine how-to-votes for your own district. The law prevents you from looking at how-to-votes in the other 92 districts. And access is only allowed on Saturday during the hours of polling.

Some further elaboration from Antony in today’s edition of Crikey:

Remember last November when the Liberal Party directed preferences against inner-Melbourne Green candidates in pre-poll voting, but on polling day recommended preferences to the Greens. Many candidates may play the same trick in NSW. As in Victoria, all how-to-vote material must be registered and approved. Unlike Victoria, there is no public access to the material before election day …

Now let me plead self-interest here. On Saturday, I’d like to know as much as I can about how preferences might flow. In other states that register how-to-vote material, the answer is to visit the Electoral Commission and examine the material. In NSW, that is not allowed. Instead, on Saturday I will visit the Returning Officer for my own electoral district of Marrickville, where I will be allowed to examine material registered for Marrickville, and registered material for the upper house. The law prevents me from examining material for any other electoral district, even if I visit those offices.

The stupidity of the laws may yet create a farce on Saturday. The problem is, how will party workers know that material being distributed by other parties and candidates is correctly registered? The answer is, they can’t. The only legal access to the material is in the office of each Returning Officer. The material cannot be examined in polling places. So if a candidate is handing out dodgy how-to-vote material in Deniliquin this Saturday, the only way anyone can check this material is registered is by checking with the Returning Officer in Broken Hill, several hundred kilometres away.

Also on this site, Antony politely described as "silly" the contrast between how-to-vote card secrecy and the availability of each candidate’s four-page child-related conduct declaration form on the Electoral Commission website. Owing to a populist afterthought by some underworked legislator, the Commission has been required to waste hundreds of megabytes and God knows how many hours of labour in publishing 793 of these identical forms, which are of no conceivable interest to anybody.

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.

7 comments on “Top secret”

  1. True. You either register it and make it public or don’t register it. But to register it and then keep it secret? If you get the chance, read the clause, Section 151G 12A, at

    It does rather remind me of the line in the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, where Prosser states that all planning developments are put on public display, to which Arthur Dent proclaims he did find them on display, in a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory at the bottom of a set of broken stairs with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the leopard’. “Have you people ever thought of going into public relations?” he snidely asked.

    This clause that states the material “must be available for inspection” but then sets an amazing limit on when it is available was described in the second reading speech as making the material available for the first time.

    Both the VIC and QLD acts register material but then make it available for inspection “as soon as available”, and in Queensland it can even be inspected in polling places.

  2. To be honest, I have always thought the Australian “How to Vote” card to be ridiculous, and always felt daft about handing out. Surely voters are capable of completing the ballot paper without guidance on preferences from parties. If they cannot well perhaps informal is how they should be counted.

    That said, the provision re review is mind boggling. Too many civil servants dreaming up regulations that no-one needs in order to prevent something that has never been an issue before. I think Debnam’s 20,000 might be insufficient.

  3. If it were up to me, I’d bar all how to vote material – whether handed out at the door, or published in the newspaper, or however. Preferential voting would (in my opinion) work most democratically if people had to put down their own preferences, not that of a political party. The grubby nature of behind the scenes dealing for preferences would evaporate if the parties weren’t actually permitted to tell anyone about their agreements.

    Of course the concept at most Australian elections of putting a “1” above the line and nothing else would have to go – I like what I hear of the NSW upper house system.

  4. Robson Rotation makes how to vote material hard and (in multi-member electorates) gives voters a choice of electable cadidates from each non-micro party.

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