For 150 years Australia has been an innovator, indeed a world leader, in progressive reform and democratic processes. In 1856 Victoria introduced the secret ballot. Women won the vote in South Australia in 1894, and in 1902 federally, long before they did so in other democracies. Australia introduced preferential voting in 1918 and compulsory voting in 1924. Proportional representation in the Senate, introduced in 1949, gave minor parties a voice in Parliament. Aboriginal Australians gained the vote in the 1960s. The vote was extended to 18-year-olds in 1973, giving more young people a voice. In electoral reform, Australia has always been a leader.
Governments of all parties share the credit for these reforms, which have usually enjoyed bipartisan support. As a result Australia has one of the most open electoral systems in the world, with an excellent reputation for integrity and transparency. Many other countries look to us when they are designing or reforming their electoral processes. This is something any Australian government ought to be proud of, and it is a heritage that all political parties ought to be defending.
Now, however, the Howard Government is going to use its parliamentary majorities in both houses of Parliament to wind back some of the most progressive features of our electoral system, for no good reason other than its own short-term partisan advantage.
The Inquiry and the reports
Throughout 2005 the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters held an inquiry into the 2004 election, taking submissions, holding hearings and listening to witnesses all over Australia.
In late 2005 the Coalition majority on the Committee brought down their Majority Report. They recommended a series of radical changes to the Electoral Act including:
- to close the electoral rolls on the day the election writs are issued, rather than after five working days as has been the law since 1984.
- to require all applicants for enrolment, re-enrolment or who wish to change their enrolment details to verify their identity with photographic or documentary identification and to require those wishing to cast a provisional vote to produce photographic identification.
- to reduce the level of transparency of donations to political parties by raising the disclosure threshold to $10,000, and to raise the tax deductibility threshold.
My Labor colleagues and I then wrote a Minority Report. We opposed all these recommendations. We argued that the recommendations would make it more difficult for Australians to enrol to vote and cast their ballots, and easier for individuals and corporations to make secret donations to political parties. All of these changes, we argued, would be bad for Australian democracy.
The new legislation
The government ignored our objections, and in December last year introduced legislation to implement three of the central recommendations of the Majority Report. These are:
- tougher identity requirements for enrolment and to cast a provisional vote;
- the early closure of the rolls; and
- increasing the amount above which donations to a political party must be declared.
At the 2004 election 284,000 people enrolled or changed their enrolment in the five working days between the issuing of the writs and the closure of the roll. This total included nearly 80,000 young Australians hoping to vote for the first time. In the course of a three-year election cycle, over two million people enrol, re-enrol or change their enrolment. All these people will be disadvantaged by the changes the government is proposing, and some of them will be disenfranchised.
The government is doing these things on the pretext of preventing electoral fraud. But the government knows quite well that the Committee’s inquiry last year, like every other inquiry the Committee has conducted, found no evidence whatever that electoral fraud is a problem in Australia.
The committee had previously conducted an investigation into the integrity of the electoral roll in 2001. The AEC testified that it had compiled a list of all cases of enrolment fraud for the decade 1990-2001 — 71 cases in total, or about one per 200,000 enrolments. Between 1990 and 2001 there were five federal elections and a referendum, at each of which about 12 million people voted: a total of about 72 million votes. The 71 known cases of false enrolment thus amounted to less than one vote per million. This is a level of electoral integrity which few other countries can match.
During 2005 the committee heard witnesses of all political views as well as a range of expert opinions including from party officials and the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). Government members of the Committee had every opportunity to put evidence of serious electoral fraud or malpractice before the Committee. No witness or submission to the inquiry produced evidence of fraudulent enrolment.
Why is the government doing this?
During the inquiry, even government members of the Committee had to concede that they had no evidence of a serious problem with electoral fraud in Australia. So what is the government’s real motive? It is one of simple partisan self-interest. The government calculates that these changes will benefit the Coalition parties in two ways.
First, the government calculates that the majority of those who will be in effect disenfranchised by the enrolment provisions of the act will be potential Labor voters. Second, the government knows that the donation disclosure provisions will benefit the Liberal Party, because it is the party which attracts the majority of donations from corporations and wealthy individuals.
All of Australia’s leading election experts oppose these changes: Professor Brian Costar of Swinburne University wrote in the Canberra Times last December: If there is a fault in the current Australian electoral procedures it is not rampant enrolment fraud but the very real perception of secretive influence-peddling produced by the excessively free flow of political money.
Emeritus Professor Colin Hughes, a highly respected former Australian Electoral Commissioner, wrote in the Independent Weekly last November:
The thorough review of the electoral roll conducted in 2002 by the Australian National Audit Office, 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.
4 year terms — why won’t the government support them?
The government has once again dodged an election reform on which there is wide community agreement — the need for fixed four-year terms for the House of Representatives, which has been Labor policy for many years. The government’s weakness on the issue of four-year terms is hard to fathom. This issue has been debated in Australia for more than 20 years. Every state and territory except Queensland has made the change to four-year terms. In all of them the change has been accepted by voters. Four-year terms give government more time to implement policies and are better for business and investment. Fixed terms give everybody more certainty, and prevent governments exploiting short-term issues to call snap elections when it suits them.
Most people accept these arguments, including most Liberals, but for some reason the Howard Government has not been willing to agree to a referendum to change the Constitution to bring in four-year terms. Labor stands ready to support such a referendum, which would therefore be likely to pass. It is true that there are some complexities with the Senate — whether to have four or eight-year terms, and whether to link them to House terms or not. But if the Government was serious about this issue, these questions could be negotiated and an agreed position put to a referendum.
All this suggests that self-interest is uppermost in the minds of Howard Government ministers. The proposed changes need to be seen in the context of the Howard Government’s overall political strategy, particularly the changes to industrial relations law which will make it harder for trade unions to collect dues from their members and harder for unions to make donations to the Labor Party — at the same time that wealthy donors will be able to make larger undisclosed donations to the Liberal Party. This is all part of a plan by the conservatives to inexorably change the Australian political landscape, to their own benefit.