The major parties are fired up about electoral reform in Queensland. But guess who benefits? The major parties, of course. Anthony Pink, data analyst and returning officer for the Queensland Greens, explains.
There are very few things that get politicians more riled up than changes to the electoral laws, which is why the almost civil debate on recommendations to reforms to the federal Senate seemed so surreal. Leave it to Queensland, however, to bring us back to the status quo of governments and oppositions squabbling over electoral rules, and once again it will be the voters who will be pushed to the margins of democracy.
Successive Queensland governments have quite a bit of form on changing electoral laws to improve their electoral fortunes, with varying levels of success. Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s infamous gerrymander is probably the most recognised; originally an ALP invention, it locked the number of seats that must appear in a wider geographical area, which artificially raised the number of rural seats (sadly, remnants of this system still exist in Queensland). Peter Beattie’s move to optional preferential voting exposed Nationals and Liberals in three-cornered contests with his successful “Just vote 1” campaigns. You could even go back as far as Ted Theodore’s ALP government passing changes to remove the Legislative Council, at the time considered a “tool of patronage” that prevented government from governing. Based on the current situation in state Parliament, you would have to wonder if the ALP were now ruing that decision despite the party’s silence on it.
The party will introduce the first voter ID laws anywhere in the country. The laws were brought in mostly to combat voter fraud, but it seems questionable if the voter ID requirement will address the very scant instances of voter fraud reported or will be worth the burden it will place on electoral staff. Some of the dubious things that will be considered “ID” wouldn’t be accepted on a library card application.
Then there are the changes to finance laws (described in submissions by Professor Graham Orr as “retrograde”), which aim to lower expenditure funding from minor parties and candidates and return expenditure funding to a per dollar figure; provide funding to existing parties for “policy research” (especially the party of government); remove the expenditure cap; and move the disclosure level to the federal disclosure level, currently $12,400 (up from $1000 currently). The changes also introduce electronic voting machines for the visually impaired, which somewhat unsurprisingly was universally supported.
Take the last-minute move by the government to move the public funding threshold from the proposed 10% to just 6%. There is a lot more to it than it first seems. The original figure is the highest percentage of the vote that would cause no LNP candidate to miss out on funding on the 2012 Queensland election primary vote figures, and the ALP only had one seat below that threshold. But the Greens’ funding would plummet, with the effect that the party would most likely have had to focus its efforts on a handful of seats with good margins.
This actually presents a problem for the LNP, as optional preferential voting tends to favour the party in contests with both the ALP and Greens as they compete for the same voter pool, making it easier for the LNP to win. With the polls not looking as healthy for the LNP right now and the rise of the Palmer United Party, edging the Greens out of politics (an ideological goal of the LNP) doesn’t really help with the main goal of beating Labor on primary vote in most contests. Lowering the cap becomes a no-brainer tactically, with the added advantage of being seen to make a concession.
But what is common among all these changes is parties’ focus on gaining a tactical advantage almost always comes at the expense of the voter. The changes that the LNP has made to public funding, for example, will make it even harder for minority groups to find voices until they reach an arbitrary number of people in a geographic region, further isolating small communities from the electoral system. Elections are our system to choose our representatives, and if the Queensland electoral reforms song and dance has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t trust our politicians to set the tempo.