The best option for reforming our voting system

It is almost universally agreed that Australia’s voting system, particularly that of the Senate, should be reformed.  The most favoured solution seems to be the optional-preferential system, as used  in Queensland and NSW Legislative Council elections. Other proposals involve disqualifying the smaller parties because they are said by some to be undemocratic and not at all necessary.

Two other broader reforms are essential to correct a system so compromised it would not be tolerated in any comparable democracy. Too many candidates are chosen not on merit, but for their allegiance to one or other factional powerbroker. This has affected not only the quality of government. As we have seen in New South Wales, it has gone to the very integrity of public life. The other crucial reform is to remove as far as possible the potential for fraud in elections.

The likely election of several senators from small parties has especially outraged those factional powerbrokers who thought they had a monopoly — or rather duopoly — in working the system. It was encouraging then to see new Attorney General George Brandis QC spring to the defence of those smaller parties.

Certainly the smaller parties have worked the system, but it was a system designed by the powerbrokers to commandeer voters’ preferences. Proposals to make it more difficult to register as a party, or requiring some minimum number of first preferences in order to be elected are unfair and the antithesis of democratic ideals. The large parties have enough advantages, legal and financial, without actually excluding the small parties. The system can be corrected in other ways,

The first genuine reform we should undertake is to return control of preferences to voters. Not only do the powerbrokers decide where the people’s  Senate preferences will go, they do not even make a real effort to announce the deals they have cut. That is a remarkable omission, given the vast amount of material they send out. It will be said that these details of alliances and preference flows are available for inspection on the Australian Electoral Commission website. That is true, but the information is really only available to those with the inclination, time and web-surfing skills to track them down.

The difficulty with our system of preferential voting is that it requires voters think well in advance about all sorts of hypothetical situations. In theory it would be better if we adopted the European system, which insists on a second round of elections for those seats where no party gets 50% at the first ballot. Under such a system we would have time to reflect that, since the candidate we voted for is not going to get in, we will have to choose someone else.

Almost alone among democracies, Australians are punished if they don’t go to the polls. Forcing voters to do this twice would rub many the wrong way. Worse — and the politicians know this — large numbers of people might well revolt and refuse to vote at all.

One solution would be to do what is done in the United States and United Kingdom: decide elections on a first-past-the-post basis. But the major parties would object to this, fearing they would lose the benefit of those preference flows from primary votes cast for smaller parties. Under an optional system the flow of preferences would belong to electors.

As to the broader reforms to the system, the first should be what the Americans embraced over a century ago, when their very own faceless men found the former right to appoint candidates on the basis of loyalty rather than merit  seriously crimped by the introduction of primaries. Moreover, unlike Australia, where there is an obsession for uniformity, American primaries take widely different forms. In some states everyone can vote in a primary, regardless of affiliation, in others it is limited to the parties’ faithful.

The major political parties will say that this is a private matter and not one for regulation. What they will not admit is that they have granted themselves considerable financial and legal advantages, including the right to put the names of their parties on the ballot papers and an exemption from the privacy law in relation to their databases. Corporations dealing with the Commonwealth government are required to comply with minimum standards, why shouldn’t political parties also be required to honour basic democratic principles – the need, in other words, to be open, transparent and responsive to the citizenry.

While the changes the Labor Party is now implementing in regard to selecting its next leader appear to be steps in the right direction, this is both cumbersome and dismantles the Westminster system’s tradition. Rather, the reforms should have fixed their focus on freeing preselections from the control of uinseen forces,  including those for the Senate. That Senate candidates’ selection remains the total preserve of powerbrokers is a travesty. Ideally, statewide primaries should choose candidates.

The second and broader reform should be to minimise the considerable  potential for fraud which exists under the present system — a direct consequence of a policy adopted in 1983 of “making it easier to vote”. No one, of course, had been complaining that it was difficult to vote, and there was no evidence to suggest otherwise. As a British electoral judge, Richard Mawrey QC, has observed, “easy voting is fraudulent voting”. He  would know. In two well-publicised cases he found that the both Labour and Tory politicians had engaged in significant fraud in two separate local council elections. The degree of malfeasance, he said,  “would have disgraced a banana republic.”

We are constantly assured and reassured that while the system has a built-in potential for fraud, there has been none of any significance. Would we be satisfied if banks were to reveal our credit cards and bank accounts as being similarly open to misuse by others – abuse which they proceeded to dismiss as trivial, not really worth doing anything to stop?

The potential for fraud exists at two crucial times, on casting a vote, and on enrolment.

It is surely not unreasonable to require some form of identification when we vote. Even the Post Office demands ID when handing over packages. It has been suggested that the AEC should send each voter a barcoded letter to be scanned at the polling station. If all polling stations were linked electronically, so that a vote cast at one location saw the elector’s name simultaneously scratched from the rolls at all others, voting early and often would be impossible.

The other problem relates to identity on enrolment. As Mawrey warns, the longer the period between an election being called and the closing of the rolls, the greater likelihood of undetectable fraud. Yet in 2010, in one of its most controversial decisions, the High Court rushed through a case on behalf of two people, chosen by the union-backed activists of Getup!, who succeeded in their bid to keep enrolments open. The court effectively rewrote the Constitution in deciding that Parliament could not close the rolls at 8pm on the day when the election is called. The result has been that the AEC is now deluged by a tsunami of late enrolments which can easily be concocted. The solution could lie in making  the act of enrollment reasonably formal – after all we don’t let people have passports too easily.

Reforms then to senate voting are an occasion to secure more fundamental reforms to our compromised system.

David Flint is co-author with Jai Martinkovits of Give Us Back Our Country published by Connor court, Ballarat

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