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Federal

Feb 16, 2012

The new electoral law that will deliver tens of millions to parties

A new bill will see tens of millions of dollars channelled to political parties in the name of democracy.

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The major political parties stand to reap up over $20 million dollars from taxpayers over coming elections via draconian new “automatic enrolment” laws that would enable the Electoral Commission to automatically enrol people without their consent using information obtained from any source.

Special Minister of State Gary Gray yesterday introduced the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill, designed to address the growing disparity between electoral enrolment and population growth. It is estimated that up to 1.6 million Australians are not currently enrolled.

The bill would enable the Electoral Commission to add people to the electoral roll once it obtains information about their residential address, regardless of whether they have applied to enrol. The bill does not limit what information the commission can access and use, merely that the commission must be satisfied that the person is entitled to enrol and that they have lived at an address for one month. The commission will then write to the person and enrol them unless they can show they shouldn’t be.

The automatic enrolment process would open up individuals to the punitive compulsory voting system, whereby people who choose not to vote are threatened with fines. The bill would also enable the commission to store and use electronic data about people, such as email addresses.

The growing disparity between enrolments and population — primarily among younger people who have no interest in politics and no interest in voting — and the surge in informal voting by people disgusted with contemporary politics has deeply alarmed the major political parties, who receive public funding for each formal vote they receive at an indexed rate (currently $2.42 a vote). At the 2010 election, the surge in informal voting from just under 4% to over 5% of all votes cost all parties over $1 million in funding, while the disparity between enrolment and population cost them $6.8 million in funding.

Automatic enrolment has the potential to move a huge proportion of unenrolled people onto the rolls as the Electoral Commission taps public and government information, including information collated by state governments such as drivers’ licences, to locate where people live and their email addresses. Even with limited success, the process could see over $25 million in additional funding delivered to parties over the next three elections as rolls catch up with population growth and indexation drives up the level of public funding. Labor and the Coalition stand to get about 80% of that on current voting patterns.

This is a further step along the road of state surveillance, with the commission — which is merely implementing the law as established by the major political parties — given carte blanche to use information from any source for the purposes of dragging unwilling citizens into the compulsory voting framework (that’s the one we share with the likes of the Congo and Ecuador). But automatic enrolment, which began in NSW and then spread to Victoria, received little criticism — the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, notably, opposed it, but criticism has otherwise been muted.

You might have thought GetUp, that bandwagon-hopping proponent of progressive causes, might have opposed an extension of state surveillance power, but in fact the group strongly supports forcing people onto the electoral rolls whether they like it or not.

Possibly that’s for the same reason so many on the progressive side of politics support punitive voting systems, under the mistaken belief that compelling people to vote maximises the vote for non-conservative parties.

Compulsory voting and automatic enrolment infantilises Australians. Its supporters — academics and paternalistic progressives — talk of strengthening democracy by moving people into the compulsory voting framework. In fact, many of those people are already expressing their political views, by switching off in disgust and refusing to participate in a party system they believe courts their vote but doesn’t listen to them.

It’s interesting as well that the mainstream media have been quiet on the issue — even News Limited, which is normally profoundly paranoid about anything Labor does, and ready to scream about a left-wing conspiracy and a threat to liberty from virtually any distance, has been silent.

That might be because, well, what do political parties do with their money? They spend it on advertising. The parties might get an extra $25 million from these changes, but it will end up in the pockets of ad agencies, marketing firms and, above all, television, radio and newspaper outlets.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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46 comments

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46 thoughts on “The new electoral law that will deliver tens of millions to parties

  1. Kent Jason

    People need to understand what democracy is, so that it works well. People need to understand that they have the power and the freedom to influence the way we are governed.

    Unfortunately, the way our government teaches this lesson, is to steal our freedom away from us. That’s how they remind us we’re free, by reminding us we’re not free.

    It is better to teach people about democracy and freedom by educating and informing people, rather than using threats and fines, and ultimately threats of violence. Remember, you can’t enforce any law without the threat of violence and the willingness to use it. I say we should follow the rest of the world and use peaceful means to teach people the value of democracy. That means political leaders the rely on their ability to inspire and motivate the electorate, rather than keeping their heads down so the swinging voters don’t chop them off.

    Only 9 countries in the world enforce compulsory voting, and many countries with voluntary voting have higher voter turnouts than we do, including Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Malta. Our turnouts are not nearly as high as some people think. The government likes to make a good impression so they promote our turnouts as 95%. They’re actually 81%, and probably a lot lower after the invalid and donkey votes are taken into account.

    People should vote because they want to vote, not merely to avoid a fine. All our system does is hide the truth and force people to conform. It steals peoples power, rather than empowering people. It also centralised our politics because the major parties don’t need to motivate their base – only the swinging voters at the centre. God forbid the major parties ever do both reach the centre, because then we can say goodbye to freedom altogether.

  2. Bohemian

    @James K.
    I don’t like governments mandating anything. The idea that we need a contract with the State i.e. it pays us money, takes over our lives and we do what we are told under threat of gaol is a bad idea in my view. The only contract I am interested in having with the State is in return for us allowing their sorry asses to sponge off us indefinitely is they provide us with protection from criminals and invading armies.

    They are not very effective at providing protection against criminals and they appear compelled in the absence of invading armies, to send us overseas to invade other people to fulfil that side of the arrangement. I suspect that being charitable is normally distributed in the population and with a little tugging at the heart strings, many may even be persuaded to move one standard deviation to the right of the mean How about, instead of Hobson’s choice offered by the State, we reverted to being chartable like we were not that long ago? Just remember that almost all personal charity came to a halt after the State in its beneficence decided to tax the people and pay it to the Qld flood victims without asking us. When the State intervenes we stop taking personal responsibility for our own lives and stop thinking of the welfare of others.

    Some seem to think that the State’s involvement in every aspect of our lives is a good thing but to my thinking they should get the hell out of the way. We are more stressed, more governed and less free than we have ever been in this country so why are we letting it happen? Whenever the State gets involved with anything, the price doubles and some corporate donor gets a windfall whether it be Big Pharma, Big Weapons, Big Building, Big Mining or any other monolith that has grown up around us over the last thirty years.

    Whatever socialism was meant to be, it turned into the wholesale the extraction of wealth from the middle classes passed onto the Big Corporate donors via welfare recipients and other need based segments of the population. Now everybody thinks they are entitled. You should be mindful of the fact that families in the top two economic quintiles, when equivalised to disposable income fall out of those segments at a rate of 30-35% with the top quintile families dropping out at around 45% with singles and couples taking their places. Moreover the top 20% of income earners already pay two thirds of the personal taxes collected and the bottom 60% pay under 20% before equivalisation. The idea that the State does anything other than look after itself and its mates at the expense of families and everybody else for that matter is crap!

  3. robinw

    I find myself in a bind. As I see it, on the one hand we have one bunch who under extremely trying circumstances are getting some things done, whether for better or worse we will have to wait. However, this bunch couldn’t sell snow in the Sahara to a dehydrated and dying group of billionaires and are thus judged poorly. These are correctly judged collectivist.

    On the other side we have a bunch of Lilliputian forelock tuggers whose only interest is in the rich side of town. Howls of protestation about their love of the humble, the meek and the poor are to my mind total bollocks, their history really has proven that. This group, unlike the above, see themselves as heroically individualistic, I see them as collectivist as the would be snow sellers.

    And then out on the fringes we have some genuine independents, some of whom I agree with and others who I don’t but at least they are not herd animals like the aforementioned major two. And then we come to the Greens… My money is that they too will become herd like, bovine as the others, the signs are already pointing that way even though my sentiment is mainly in their camp.

    Therefore, if I don’t have an independent who I can loosely agree with and thus vote for, then who the hell can I? And because of proportional representation, my vote will then in all likelihood be hived off to one of the two majors who I despise. Therefore, is it a waste of a vote or an abnegation of my democratic responsibilities for not wanting to give any of them my stamp of approval? Sometimes not voting can be a political statement and an electoral direction as well.

  4. James K

    AR you raise an interesting point. If Wikipedia can be trusted…

    These are the 10 countries that enforce compulsory voting:

    Argentina – Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old, non-compulsory for those older than 70. However in primaries, citizens under 70 may refuse to vote, if they formally express their decision to the electoral authorities, at least 48 hours before the election. This is valid only for the subsequent primary, and needs to be repeated every time the voter wishes not to participate.)

    Australia – Compulsory enrolment and voting for state and national elections for all eligible adults (18 and above). In some states local council elections are compulsory too.[8]

    Brazil[9] – Non-compulsory for citizens between 16 and 18 years old, those older than 70 and illiterate people.

    Democratic Republic of the Congo

    Ecuador – Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 65 years old; non-compulsory for citizens aged 16–18, illiterate people, and those older than 65.

    Luxembourg – Only for the regionals and if signed up

    Nauru

    Peru – Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old, non-compulsory for those older than 70

    Singapore[10] – Compulsory for citizens above 21 years old on the 1st of January of the year of election

    Uruguay

    (Not sure which of them is are real democracys and which are not…. I am always suspicious of countries with titles that include the word “Democratic”… as if they need to convince themselves how fair and wonderful they are!)

    The article then has a list of countries where it is “supposedly compulsory but not enforced”, including Belgium.

  5. Jackol

    Bernard, you’re just wrong on this. You’re really railing at compulsory voting, and misdirecting your wrath about that terrible injustice onto this move for automatic enrolment. Without the evil of compulsory voting, I’m sure you’d be more than happy to celebrate mechanisms that ensure that the franchise is spread to as many people as possible.

    So, this whole article is simply wrong. Whether or not you agree with compulsory voting – and obviously you don’t agree with it – has nothing to do with whether automatic enrolment is a good idea or not; you haven’t made any case against automatic enrolment here.

    So called “compulsory voting” is anything but anyway – you won’t get thrown in jail for failing to vote. You might get a $50 fine if you can’t make up some weasel words explaining why you didn’t show up on the day, but that’s hardly a human rights violation as you seem to make out here.

    As many others have pointed out, there aren’t that many universal obligations placed on you as a citizen – obliging people to turn up at a polling place every couple of years is hardly onerous, and as always if you really don’t want to vote for one of the clowns on your ballot paper, no one is standing over your shoulder checking that you have voted correctly…

    Oh, and just to reinforce your non-argument, you chuck in “oh noes, that money is going to go into advertising!” and therefore it is not worthy. Once again, what does this have to do with automatic enrolment, which is the topic at hand? Your complaint is with the public electoral funding mechanism here – giving public money to candidates who might – shock horror – spend it on advertising.

    A very poorly constructed argument all around. A scattergun of complaints all missing the actual target – automatic enrolment.

    Do try to keep your radical libertarianism in check, Bernard, or you’ll become unreadable.

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