Senate reform reformed

A three-day parliamentary inquiry process yields an important result on Senate reform, with below-the-line voters no longer required to number every box.

The obscenely hasty Senate reform process yielded an important result today, when the government promptly adopted a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters proposal to allow optional preferential voting below the line. The bill as drafted would have directed above-the-line voters to number at least six boxes, but those going below the line would still have had to number every box. Now the ballot paper will direct below-the-line voters to number at least 12 boxes, although votes with as few as six will still be admitted into the count. Among those who had advocated a 12-box minimum were Kevin Bonham and Antony Green, with the latter noting that a lower number might reintroduce the difficulty the six-numbers-above-the-line proposal sought to avoid, with voters limiting their choice to a single party and then allowing their votes to exhaust. Particularly stern criticism of the original proposal came from Malcolm Mackerras, who found it offered the exact opposite of what he proposed – a continuation of group voting tickets and single numbering above the line, but with optional preferential voting below the line. Michael Maley, a former Australian Electoral Commission official and occasional contributor to psephological discussion boards, also submitted the original proposal was “incoherent”, since votes that could be cast formally above the line would be informal if rendered identically below the line. Constitutional law expert George Williams was also critical, echoing Antony Green’s complaint that effectively deterring voters from going below the line would enshrine the power of party machines to determine the order of election of their own candidates.

Also around the traps, the Greens are being given a lot to think about in their apparent enthusiasm to sign on to the government’s immediate electoral strategy for the sake of its coveted electoral reform:

Mark Kenny of Fairfax reports that a union-commissioned poll by Essential Research found 54% of Greens-voting respondents opposed a deal with the government on Senate reform, with only 27.2% in support. This sits uncomfortably with Essential Research’s regular published poll this week, which explained the proposal to respondents in some detail and left the matter of a Coalition-Greens deal out of the equation. From an admittedly small sample of around 100 Greens voters, 46% approved of the proposal, versus 29% disapproval.

• Richard di Natale has stood firm against a move by Family First Senator Bob Day to legislate a starting date of August 22 for the reforms, so they would not apply at an early double dissolution. Di Natale told the Financial Review this would “create a situation where the Australian Electoral Commission would be preparing for a normal election under new rules, with the continued possibility of a double dissolution with the current rules”, and render it “impossible to begin a public education campaign”.

• The micro-parties are doing whatever they can to pile on the pressure, by threatening a co-ordinated campaign of directing preferences to Labor.

Rightly or wrongly, suggestions that the reforms don’t even meet the test of self-interest for the Greens have also gained traction:

• The analysis of Phillip Coorey of the Financial Review is that the Nick Xenophon challenge leaves the party most vulnerable in South Australia, but that it is also “at risk in Western Australia and Victoria, and to a lesser extend in Tasmania”.

• “Parliamentary Library modelling obtained by The Advertiser” suggests the Greens would not win a seat in South Australia at a half-Senate election, presumably since it would return a result of two each for the Coalition, Labor and the Nick Xenophon Team, and that only one of its current two seats would be retained at a double dissolution. However, “the modelling shows in other states the Greens either get another candidate up or stay the same”, suggesting two seats in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania and one each in New South Wales and Queensland.

• Unless the Senate reform controversy starts to do them electoral damage, the current state breakdowns in BludgerTrack suggest the Greens would easily win a second seat in Victoria; would lose their second spot only in the event of tight micro-party preferencing in Western Australia; and might even be a chance of a third seat in Tasmania.

• Simulations conducted by Kevin Bonham suggest a Labor-Greens Senate majority would currently be in place if the 2010 and 2013 elections had been held under the proposed system, and that the 2013 election would still have been a “crossbencher picnic” under the new rules if it had been a double dissolution, with most states electing two non-Greens cross-bench Senators.

Double trouble

As parliament prepares to resume, it appears action is finally brewing on Senate reform – auguring a double dissolution election in July, if some media reports are to be believed.

UPDATE: The legislation has been introduced, and you can read all about it here. Contrary to the impression given below, the savings provision has not turned out to be retaining group voting tickets, but simply allowing one-box only votes to exhaust, along the lines recommended by Antony Green, even though the ballot paper will direct voters to number at least six boxes.

With all the talk lately of Senate reform and a possible double dissolution, I thought this site could use a thread specifically for the discussion of such matters. The Senate reform train finally began gathering momentum the week before last, when it was reported that a deal with the Greens and Nick Xenophon had produced a set of reforms which the government hoped would be through parliament by the end of the autumn session on March 17. The proposal was to abolish group voting tickets and require that voters number at least six boxes either above or below the line, with votes dropping out of the count when there were no numbered parties or candidates for them to pass on to. Antony Green, for one, is alarmed about this proposal, as it would render informal the votes of those who failed to notice the change as simply numbered one box above the line. Perhaps for this reason, Special Minister of State Matthias Cormann has kept open the option of retaining group voting tickets essentially as a savings provision for those who don’t vote in the favoured manner. Antony Green’s preference is for the ballot paper to direct voters to number at least six boxes, but nonetheless to allow voters to number fewer boxes and have their vote drop out at any earlier point of the count than envisioned.

Further raising the stakes, the government has been putting it about that the passage of the legislation will create the opportunity for a double dissolution election on July 2 — late enough to avoid the mid-year cut-off point, before which the Senate term would have been backdated to the middle of the last year, causing the next half-Senate election to fall due in two years’ time. As a double dissolution cannot be called in the six months before the final day of the parliamentary term, the last day such an election can be called is May 11. This raises two problems for the government: the seven-and-a-half week campaign that would ensue to stretch the election timing elastic all the way to July, and the fact that the budget is to be brought down on May 10. The former is a cause for wariness on the part of the government if only because of the precedent of the 1984 election, at which a Prime Minister who had a lot in common with Malcolm Turnbull was run unexpectedly close by an Opposition Leader who was in a similar position to Bill Shorten. The latter would require the spectacle of the government guillotining the budget through both houses of parliament, perhaps in a matter of hours.

It’s possible there are procedural hurdles that have been overlooked in this scenario, either in terms of getting the budget through in such haste, or initiating the election through the Governor-General and state Governors in whatever time might be left available. While there is no indication the government would proceed on any basis other than getting the budget through first, there has been a fair bit of discussion about the potential for the budget to be postponed until after the election, and an interim supply bill passed to cover the gap. The Hawke government was obliged to rush just such a bill through parliament when it called a July double dissolution in 1987, albeit that this was in the age of August rather than May budgets (although the government had brought down a mini-budget in May that had yet to make it through the Senate). It’s also possible that the government would not need to pass a supply bill in any case. The departmental budgets that are funded by the regular supply bills account for only about 20% of total expenditure, which is considerably less than in Gough Whitlam’s time. Departments might well be able to struggle by on their reserves until such a bill was passed — although it’s been noted here in comments that this may not extend to the funding the Australian Electoral Commission would need to conduct the election.

More of my take on such matters, including the obstacles that the Australian Electoral Commission would face in implementing the reported reform proposals, in a paywalled article in Crikey.

Must try harder

A parliamentary inquiry report card on the last federal election considers voter identification, automatic enrolment, the broadcast media blackout and pens rather than pencils in polling booths.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has published the full report of its inquiry into the 2013 election, following on from interim reports that recommended an optional preferential above-the-line voting system for the Senate, and warned against going too far with electronic voting. The key points:

• With dissent from Labor and the Greens, the report advocates a voter identification model along the lines of Queensland, in which those who cannot provide one of wide range of prescribed forms of identification must cast a declaration vote, to be admitted to the count only when it is established that the personal details claimed for match up with an entry on the electoral roll, and that no other votes were cast in that name.

• Also with dissent from Labor and the Greens, the report recommends that confirmation be required from a person prior to their enrolment being added or updated by the automatic enrolment process introduced by the previous government.

• The government should “examine the future viability” of the broadcast media blackout, by which advertising may not be carried on television or radio on the Thursday or Friday before polling day.

• There is a recommendation that scrutineers should not be able to make repeated challenges to the same ballot paper at each stage of the count, which I presume relates to the Palmer United Party’s obstructive grandstanding during the count for Fairfax.

• A range of measures are concerned with the Australian Electoral Commission tightening up its act, in response to the Western Australian Senate election debacle.

• Pens, rather than pencils, should be provided in polling booths.

Fitzgerald inquiry

An inquiry into a column on upper house electoral reform in The Australian today, and matters related thereto.

As the Abbott government stalls on introducing the Senate electoral reform advocated by last year’s bipartisan finding of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, The Australian today offers an opinion piece concerning the matter from Ross Fitzgerald. After extolling the vitues of Fiona Patten, the Sex Party figurehead who won election to Victoria’s Legislative Council in November, Fitzgerald takes aim at those who advocate reforms that might have prevented it:

So how did she get elected by a margin of some 20,000 votes? If you believe the nonsense spouted recently by psephologist Antony Green and Labor powerbroker Gary Gray, she “gamed” the proportional representation voting system under which the election was held. That is, Patten won a seat with a primary vote of about 3 per cent by cajoling and carousing with other minor parties to undermine a system that ideally should return “serious” parties like Labor, Nationals, Liberals and the Greens. These arguments need to be exposed before parliaments throughout Australia start acting on them in the mistaken belief that democracy is somehow better served by fewer rather than more political parties. Green maintains that minor parties, who tightly swap preferences among themselves and exclude the major parties, are somehow rorting the system. He and Gray appear to believe that the proportional representation system of voting only works properly when it returns a relatively small crossbench and preferably one that does not hold the balance of power.

Gary Gray I can’t speak for, but since Antony Green’s opinion on these matters is much the same as my own, I consider myself well placed to point out what is wrong with this.

Fitzgerald’s column is liberally sprinked with words like “apparently”, “appears to” and “as far as I know”, followed by assertions which in many cases prove to be untrue. Perhaps it does “appear” that Antony Green believes proportional representation “only works properly when it returns a relatively small crossbench” – but only if one is operating from a position of ignorance to which Fitzgerald, under the circumstances, is not entitled.

In fact, what Antony Green advocates is the model used for the New South Wales Legislative Council, a chamber of 42 members that includes nine cross-benchers who were elected as such. Among these are two members from Shooters & Fishers and two from the Christian Democratic Party, along with five Greens. This makes the situation hardly different from the Victorian Legislative Council, a chamber of 40 which includes five Greens along with another five from various minor concerns. Indeed, Fiona Patten would probably have been elected as lead candidate of the Sex Party under the New South Wales model, given her party’s 2.6% share of the Victorian statewide vote.

Fitzgerald continues:

As far as I know, neither of them levelled similar criticisms at the independent Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine, who held federal governments to ransom for nearly 20 years off a primary vote of 7 per cent or when Family First’s Steve Fielding was elected to the Senate off a primary vote of 1.8 per cent.

If Fitzgerald feels he can use the phrase “as far as I know”, and follow it with the assertion that Antony Green was relaxed about Steve Fielding’s election since it was achieved from major party preferences, it can only be said that he doesn’t know very far. Nobody who was familiar with Green’s position would consider this likely to be the case. And sure enough, if you Google “‘Antony Green’ ‘Steve Fielding'”, the very first thing that appears is a link that gives lie to the assertion.

The election of Steve Fielding did indeed rouse controversy in the group voting ticket system, because it was achieved through a Labor preference arrangement that would have come as a surprise to most of the party’s supporters. Despite Fitzgerald’s conviction to the contrary, dissatisfaction with the system does not begin and end with micro-party preference harvesting, but arises from the fact that voters are very often oblivious to the true effect of their decisions.

As for Brian Harradine, Fitzgerald is, as they say, entitled to his own opinions but not his own facts. Saying Harradine “held federal governments to ransom” falls safely in the former category, but the purported fact that he did so from a 7% primary vote is no less Fitzgerald’s own. In fact, Harradine was first elected with 12.8% of the vote at the 1975 double dissolution, then re-elected with 21.3% in 1980, 13.2% in 1987, 10.4% in 1993 and 7.9% in 1998. In other words, preferences had no bearing on Harradine’s election on the first three occasions, as he achieved a quota in his own right.

When Liberal preferences did help Harradine to a quota at his last two elections, this was only what Liberal voters could reasonably have expected, given the alternative was them going to the Greens. It is for this reason, and not because his preferences came from a major party, that Harradine’s election was not a source of controversy. There is simply no parallel with the results that have lately exercised critics of group voting tickets, such as Ricky Muir’s election in Victoria from 0.5%.

The overarching problem with Fitzgerald’s argument is that he neglects the very important distinction between a system such as that of the New South Wales Legislative Council, in which micro-party members are fairly elected due to what political scientists call the “high magnitude” of its proportional representation, and a group voting ticket system that is everything its critics say it is: “gamed” and “rorted”.

The key distinction here is that New South Wales is not divided into smaller multi-member regions, as the Senate is with its state-based model, and Victoria’s upper house is with its eight five-member regions (which likewise applies to Western Australia’s six-by-six model). At each state election, candidates compete for half the chamber’s 42 seats on a statewide basis. This produces an extremely low quota for election of 4.5%, which becomes a good deal lower in practice because of the very reform advocated by Antony Green – namely, votes do not pass on as preferences beyond the point where the voter expresses a wish for them to do so. Consequently, a quite large share of the vote disappears from the count by the time the final seats are allocated, and these seats are accordingly won from very modest shares of the vote.

So it is that even without group ticket voting, seats for Shooters & Fishers and the Christian Democratic Party, who poll around 3%, are reliable fixtures of New South Wales upper house elections. That these parties in particular should succeed in winning the micro-party seats comes down to a factor to which Fitzgerald appears to (to coin a phrase) be blithely indifferent, namely the number of voters who actually wanted them to win. The system in Victoria proved to be unfair not to the big cartel, but to Palmer United and Shooters & Fishers, who respectively polled 2.7% and 2.3% in Western Victoria, but lost out to Vote 1 Local Jobs with 1.3%.

Having said all that, Fitzgerald does touch upon some genuine issues. Certainly it is true that simply abolishing above-the-line group ticket will raise the “barriers to entry” for new parties, to use a phrase that political science cops from economics in discussing such matters, unless the quota for election is also lowered. To the extent that Antony Green might have advocated one and not the other – and this I’m not sure about – his calls for abolition of group ticket voting can indeed be criticised on such grounds.

In the case of Victoria, the obvious way to resolve the issue would be to abolish the regions and go to a statewide model, such as is used in both New South Wales and South Australia. The same could be said with even greater force for Western Australia, where it would have the further advantage of removing the blight of rural malapportionment. But in the Senate, we run into the brick wall of the Constitution and its imposition of a state-based, low-magnitude model.

Given the scale of the problem uncovered by the 2013 election result, I’m not of a mind to consider this factor decisive. Existing barriers to entry did not stop Brian Harradine and Nick Xenophon winning election to the Senate. The example of Xenophon suggests that aspiring independent Senators could first establish themselves in the state parliament, at least in those states where the barriers to entry were sufficiently modest.

If under-representation of small parties and independents is a problem, having such members elected in the almost entirely arbitrary fashion characteristic of the current system hardly seems the right way of dealing with it. It would make a lot more sense, and be more in line with community expectations, to lower the quota by abolishing staggered terms, so that every Senate election was for 12 members per state, with a relatively modest quota for election of 7.7%.

This would of course require some fairly substantial constitutional surgery, including a return to the question of simultaneous House and Senate elections that was defeated at referenda on three separate occasions in 1974, 1977 and 1984. Things could very well be different if the proposal had bipartisan support, a hurdle it failed to clear on early attempts because an obstructionist Coalition opposed it when the Whitlam government put it forward in 1974, only to advance it themselves when in government three years later. With the Coalition and Labor lining up behind it federally on that occasion, the national yes vote was 62.2%, but the referendum was defeated because it failed to pass by narrow margins in Queensland and Western Australia (no doubt thanks to opposition from Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Charles Court), and a much larger one in Tasmania.

Tangentially, another interesting constitutional question which emerges relates to the double dissolution process, since the outward distinction between a double dissolution and a regular election would cease to exist. If Senate obstruction is to be deemed a problem, perhaps the answer to it is to routinely have the joint sitting mechanism available to re-elected governments in passing the legislation that was blocked in the preceding term.

JSCEM interim report on Senate reform

An interim report by the parliamentary committee looking into last year’s election suggests the parliament will proceed sensibly with the once-in-a-generation task of tackling Senate electoral reform.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has today released an interim report on its inquiry into last year’s election, which very pleasingly establishes that the Coalition, Labor and the Greens have agreed to pursue sensible reform to the Senate electoral system. The recommendation is to follow the New South Wales example in having optional preferential voting above-the-line, meaning voters can number as many boxes as they choose and their preferences will exhaust at the point where the numbering of party boxes ends. Those who vote below-the-line will be required to number as many boxes as there are vacancies, meaning six at normal half-Senate elections, twelve at double dissolutions and two at Senate elections for the territories. Crucially, this means an end to group ticket votes, whereby above-the-line voters have a full suite of preferences allocated for them by the party of their choice. As well as closing the door on preference harvesting such as has enabled the election of candidates from as little as 0.5% of the vote, this will discourage the proliferation of micro-parties and the consequent swelling of ballot papers, greatly reducing the very considerable number of voters whose vote does not express their true intention. A further recommendation to make life harder for micro-parties is a requirement that they have 1500 members to register as a party rather than the existing 500, which if anything was less onerous than the equivalent rules at state level and allowed those who cleared the hurdle to field candidates in every state, regardless of how little presence they had there.

The electoral implications of this with respect to the last election have been mapped out by Antony Green, who calculates that “the Coalition would hold 35 seats not 33, Labor 27 not 25, the Greens 9 not 10, and others 5 not 8”. However, this assumes no change in the first preference voting results, when the new system with its less cluttered ballot papers would assuredly have limited such phenomena as the Liberal Democratic Party vote in New South Wales approaching 10% on the back of confusion among Liberal supporters, and voters opting for a micro-party after giving up on locating their true party of choice out of as many as 44 options listed. While it is clear that the new system will make life harder for very small parties, the exhaustion of a large share of the vote due to the optional preferential aspect of the system will mean that the winner of the last seat will usually be elected on well under a full quota, leaving a door open for smaller concerns with a genuinely substantial basis of support. By Antony’s reckoning, “a minor party would probably need about 5% of the vote to have any chance of winning a seat”.

Setting the bar

The major parties are reportedly considering an interesting new approach to Senate electoral reform: denying you your right to have your preferences distributed if you haven’t chosen the right party.

UPDATE: The submissions are now available here, and it turns out the proposal excoriated below is only that of the Liberal Party, and not a major party unity ticket. The Labor Party proposes New South Wales-style optional preferential voting above the line. It is also only the Liberal submission that advocates photo identification when voting.

Dennis Shanahan of The Australian reports that the Liberal Party and the ALP will today make submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Reform including, among other things, their recommendations for Senate electoral reform. Interestingly, it appears that both will advocate excluding parties from having their preferences distributed unless they clear a threshold of 1.4% of the primary vote. A common feature of proportional representation systems is that parties must exceed a certain vote threshold in order to win seats, but approaching the issue at the preferences end of the equation is something Sir Humphrey Appleby might have described as “novel”, having never been proposed by any disinterested authority that I am aware of.

While entirely impossible to justify, the appeal of such a proposal to the major parties is simple to discern. It is clear that the election result has led to unstoppable momentum for reform among those with a particular interest in such matters, even if that’s less obviously true of the public at large (an Essential Research poll conducted immediately after the election found 38% thought micro-parties in the Senate good for democracy, with only 25% opting for bad). However, if public submissions to the inquiry are anything to go by, by far the most favoured options involve the abolition of group voting tickets, which in the current manner of their operation are self-evidently an offence against democracy. With the objective of putting electoral outcomes back in the hands of the conscious decisions of voters, the obvious routes to reform are to follow the New South Wales example and distribute preferences only as far as voters purposefully allocate them, or require that voters number every box above the line.

By contrast, a preference threshold alternative could address the controversy directly at hand, namely the election of Senators from as little as 0.5% of the vote in the case of Ricky Muir, while maintaining the major parties’ power to corral preferences to the disadvantage of parties that might in fact clear a conventional election threshold, which are popularly set at around 5% (as is the case in Germany and New Zealand). The instructive case study here is the 1998 election, when the major parties all but froze out One Nation despite their success in polling over a million votes nationally (9.0% of the total). That left them with only one seat out of a parliament of 224, having narrowly achieved a Senate quota in their own right in Queensland. In economic contexts, such behaviour might be described as oligopolistic collusion, whereby established operators act in concert to deny new competitors access to the market.

In fairness, it might yet prove that the parties’ determination to seek an alternative to an election threshold has been inspired by Section 7 of the Constitution and its requirement that the Senate “shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State”. In rejecting a challenge to above-the-line Senate voting when it was introduced in 1984, the then Chief Justice of the High Court, Harry Gibbs, allowed that the section required that voters “must vote for the individual candidates whom they wish to choose as senators”, but did not accept that above-the-line voting amounted to anything other than a simplified means for doing so. The principle that the Senate electoral system must be based on choosing candidates rather than parties was nonetheless confirmed, and more than one authority has suggested that this would be violated by a provision that denied election to individual candidates on the basis of their party’s aggregate vote (note that, absent other reforms, candidate-based thresholds would exclude all major party candidates except those at the top of the ticket).

However, it’s very far from clear to me that a preference threshold would get around this, or that there might not be an alternative basis for challenging a system that denied some voters the right to have their preferences considered, while maintaining the privilege for those with the good taste to vote for the parties who are proposing the idea. It’s one thing to penalise a poorly performing party for failing to clear a threshold whose purpose is to ensure that members of parliament do in fact represent a reasonably significant constituency, but a preference threshold seems to place the penalty on those who vote for them. For the sake of clarity of expression, I wrote in the opening paragraph of this post of parties having “their” preferences distributed, which certainly encapsulates the depressing reality of how the system works at present. However, the foundation of any democratic system is that the vote belongs to the voter, and not to the particular party to whom they happen to give their first preference.

Happily, it does appear from Dennis Shanahan’s report that the submissions will grant some credence to the more honest alternative of optional preferential voting above the line. Other proposals said to be “pursued” or “examined” are a national electoral roll for both federal and state elections (difficult to argue with), photo identification when voting (more in the Liberals’ interest than Labor’s, so the precise wording here will be interesting to see), a tightening of the late-campaign advertising blackout, and the no-brainer of prohibiting people from serving as registered officers for more than one party.

BludgerTrack: 50.8-49.2 to Coalition

Powered mostly by Nielsen, but with other stronger polling for Labor also in the mix, the weekly BludgerTrack poll aggregate records its first significant shift since the election.

Supplemented with a bumper crop of new results, from Newspoll, Nielsen, ReachTEL and Essential Research, plus a brace of new state-level data, this week’s BludgerTrack poll aggregate records its first big move since the election. As shown on the sidebar, Labor is up nearly 2% on two-party preferred in just one week, driven by a significant increase in the their primary vote. The Nielsen poll of course has been a major contributor, but the 50.8-49.2 two-party split lands right on the ReachTEL result and isn’t far different from Newspoll once accounting for its preference distribution method that was probably slightly unflattering to Labor. On the seat projection, Labor gains five seats in Queensland on last week together with three in New South Wales, one in Victoria, two in Western Australia and one in the territories, which can only mean Solomon. The odd man out is South Australia, where Labor’s state-level data for this week was notably soft, although only small sample sizes were involved. Here Labor has actually gone from a projected gain of a seat to a projected loss.

Elsewhere around the site, there’s updates on Queensland’s two looming by-elections, at federal level in Griffith and state level in Redcliffe, and posts on new state polling in Victoria and Queensland. Further to which, two electoral reform news nuggets:

• A package of electoral reforms before the Queensland parliament may offer a litmus test for the federal government’s future plans, particularly after its position in the Senate strengthens in the middle of next year. Most pointedly, the bill contains a provision to require voter identification at the polling booth, having been foreshadowed by Liberal federal director Brian Loughnane’s post-election complaint that “you can’t go and hire a video without a card that requires a photo ID, but you can turn up to present to vote and just assert who you are”. This is perhaps the first entry into Australian politics of what has emerged as a flashpoint issue in the United States, where Republicans have invoked the ease with which malefactors can impersonate others in the absence of identity requirements, and Democrats have responded with complaints of “voter suppression laws” designed to create obstacles for the poor and minority groups in the name of a problem which appears barely to exist in practice.

Despite the Queensland government’s penchant for radicalism, the measures proposed in its bill come with a very substantial safety net, in that voters who find themselves unable to provide identification can lodge a signed declaration vote. The vote is later admitted to the count if election officials deem the vote to be bona fide, which they can presumably do by checking the signature against the voter’s enrolment form. The measure nonetheless promises to make life a lot more complicated on polling day, and to impose a further burden on the Electoral Commission as it conducts an already torturously cumbersome vote counting process. More on this from Peter Brent of Mumble, and a report on community radio current affairs program The Wire which features the redoubtable Graeme Orr.

Other measures in the Queensland bill include the abolition of caps on donations and campaign spending which the previous government introduced before the last election, setting the Newman government on a different course from the O’Farrell government which further tightened donation rules and spending caps in 2011. The bill likewise abolishes the increase in public funding which was introduced to compensate political parties for donation caps, and reinstates the old dollars-per-vote public funding model while setting the minimum vote threshold at 10% rather than the more familiar 4%. The threshold for disclosure of political donations, which Coalition governments would prefer be at least ten times the level favoured by Labor, will revert to the CPI-indexed $12,400 established at federal level by the Howard government, after the Bligh government slashed it to $1000. The bill has been referred to the parliament’s legal affairs and community safety committee, which is scheduled to report by February 24.

• As to what the new federal government might have planned, that should become clearer with the looming establishment of the new Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and the commencement of its inquiry into the conduct of the recent election. The committee will consist of five government members including the chair, four opposition members including the deputy chair, and one from the Greens. Andrew Crook of Crikey reports the chair and deputy are likely to be Alex Hawke and Alan Griffin, while Lee Rhiannon will take the Greens’ position.

BludgerTrack: 56.0-44.0 to Coalition

Three slightly less bad polls for Labor have softened the post-leadership crisis slump in the BludgerTrack poll aggregate. Also featured: preselection news and some minor changes to electoral law.

The latest weekly BludgerTrack update accommodates results from Newspoll, Essential Research and Morgan’s multi-mode poll, with the latter looking like it will be a regularly weekly occurrence in contrast to the unpredictable schedule of the face-to-face series it has replaced. This is a somewhat better batch of polling for Labor than the previous week or two, gaining them 0.5% on two-party preferred and two extra on the seat projection. My latest bias adjustments for the Morgan multi-mode polling, based on comparison of its results with the overall poll trend, are +1.7% for Labor, +0.4% for the Coalition and -1.5% for the Greens, compared with +1.4%, +0.9% and -1.5% as I calculated them a week ago.

In other news, I have a raft of preselection action and a review of some minor electoral law changes:

• A bitterly contested preselection to replace Nicola Roxon in the rock solid Labor seat of Gellibrand in western Melbourne has been won by Telstra executive Tim Watts, running with the backing of Stephen Conroy, for whom he once worked as a staffer. His opponents were Katie Hall, a former adviser to Roxon who ran with her backing; Kimberley Kitching, former Melbourne councillor and current acting general manager of the Health Services Union No. 1 branch; Julia Mason and Daniel McKinnon. The 50% of the preselection vote determined by a local party ballot conducted on Monday saw 126 votes go to Watts, 105 to Kitching, 87 to Hall, 42 to McKinnon and four to Mason. Despite a preference deal between Kitching and Hall, that gave Watts a decisive lead going into Tuesday’s vote of the party’s Public Office Selection Committee, where the “stability pact” between the Shorten-Conroy Right forces and the Socialist Left reportedly assured him of about 70% of the vote. Andrew Crook of Crikey reports that Kitching, who had hoped to prevail with support from Turkish community leaders, was thwarted when the “Suleyman clan” (referring to an influential family in western suburbs politics) defected to Watts in exchange for support for Natalie Suleyman to take the number three position on the upper house ticket for Western Metropolitan at the next state election. A dirt sheet targeting Hall over her sexual history and involvement in the HSU was disseminated in the week before the vote, which has led to Kitching complaining to an ALP tribunal that Roxon had falsely accused her of being involved.

• Steve McMahon, chief executive of the NSW Trainers Association (as in thoroughbred horses) and former mayor of Hurstville, has won Labor preselection for the southern Sydney seat of Barton, to be vacated at the election by Robert McClelland. Much more on that in the next episode of Seat of the Week.

• Barnaby Joyce faces opposition at the April 13 Nationals preselection for New England in the shape of David Gregory, owner of an agricultural software business in Tamworth. Another mooted nominee, National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie, is instead seeking preselection for the by-election to replace Richard Torbay in his Armidale-based state seat of Northern Tablelands.

• Tony Crook, who won the southern regional WA seat of O’Connor for the Nationals from Liberal veteran Wilson Tuckey in 2010, has announced he will not seek another term. The seat was already looming as a spirited three-cornered contest to match the several which had unfolded at the state election (including in the corresponding local seats of Kalgoorlie and Eyre), with the Liberals running hard and early behind their candidate, Katanning farmer Rick Wilson.

Jason Tin of the Courier-Mail reports Chris Trevor will again be Labor’s candidate for the central Queensland seat of Flynn, having won the seat when it was created in 2007 before joining the Queensland Labor casualty list in 2010. Nicole Hodgson, a teacher, and Leanne Donaldson, a former public servant in child protection, were reportedly set to take on the thankless tasks of Hinkler and Fadden.

A package of electoral law changes made it through parliament last month in the shape of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Act 2013, despite opposition to some measures from the Coalition and Senate cross-benchers Nick Xenophon and John Madigan:

• If a ballot box is unlawfully opened before the authorised time, as occurred at two pre-poll booths in Boothby and Flynn at the 2010 election, the act now requires that the votes be admitted to the count if it is established that “official error” was responsible. The AEC requested the law be clarified after it acted on contestable legal advice in excluding the relevant votes in Boothby and Flynn from the count, which were too few to affect the result. In its original form the bill directed that the affected votes should be excluded, but Bronwyn Bishop successfully advocated for the savings provision when it was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

• The Australian Taxation Office has been added to the list of agencies which can provide the Australian Electoral Commission with data relevant to enrolment. As usual with matters that touch on automatic enrolment, this was opposed by the Coalition, Xenophon and Madigan, but supported by all lower house independents and the Greens.

• Pre-polling will in all circumstances begin four days after the close of nominations, giving the AEC two more days to print and disseminate material to the voting centres. The Coalition took the opportunity to move for the pre-poll period to be cut from 19 days before polling day to 12, again with the support of Xenophon and Madigan. The change also eliminates a discrepancy where the date came forward a day if there was no election for the Senate, in which case the election timetable did not have to provide an extra day for lodgement of Senate preference tickets.

• Those casting pre-poll votes will no longer have to sign declaration certificates. A change in the status of pre-poll votes from declaration to ordinary votes was implemented at the 2010 election, allowing them to be counted on election night, but voters still had to sign a certificate. The AEC advised this was unnecessary, but the measure was nonetheless opposed by the Coalition, Xenophon and Madigan.

• The cut-off for receiving postal vote applications has been moved back a day from Thursday to Wednesday, acknowledging the near certainty that voting material posted to those who apply on the Thursday will not be received in time.

• The timetable for conducting electoral redistributions has been amended to allow more time for considering objections raised in public submissions.