An interesting snippet in a recent sealed section to subscribers has
sparked a lively response from ABC election analyst Antony Green on the
issue of political party registration.


Democracy and the Family First Party

From the second July 20 sealed section

Haven’t
heard of the Family First Party? They’re a “values based party” with a
representative in the South Australian Legislative Council since 2002 –
even though (or maybe because) their values kept them coy about their
links to fundamentalists churches like the Assemblies of God in the
lead up to that poll.

Now, it looks as if they might be something else, too. Have a look at the Candidate Application Form they currently have up here.

Note
the references to “Family First Party Australia Ltd”? Limited? When did
we last see a political party set up this way? Was it in Queensland
with One Nation? There’s no party constitution or details of any office
holders other than their MLC, Andrew Evans, up on their website. This
isn’t going to be another one of those “please explain” jobs, is it?
Can any canny reader fill us in?

Why has the Commonwealth failed to act?

This wound up ABC election analyst Antony Green who responded as follows:

I
have no comment on the Family First Party, but should point out that
the Commonwealth Electoral Act does not actually specify any minimum
requirements for a party constitution.

The Commonwealth
Electoral Act’s Party registration provisions are essentially the same
as those under which the whole One Nation fiasco came about under the
Queensland Electoral Act. The Queensland act has been completely
re-written, but the Commonwealth Act remains the same.

Indeed,
the appeal judgment that quashed Hanson’s conviction opened a new can
of worms. It provided a new definition of political party membership.
The problem is, you have to go and look up some obscure High Court
decision from the 1970s, and even then you’d need a degree in law to
understand it.

The Australian Electoral Commission has for
more than five years been pointing out that while a party must have at
least 500 members, no definition of what defines a party member is
provided in the electoral act. Indeed, some of the constitutions of
registered parties do not define what a member is, but the AEC has no
power to reject a constitution that fails to define membership. So it
somehow guesses what a member is on the basis of whether when it writes
to people from the membership list, they think they are members or not.

Let
me quote from a submission the AEC made to the Joint Standing Committee
on Electoral Matters inquiry into the conduct of the 2001 election,
where it repeated points from its 1998 submission.

3.4.4
The AEC also sees problems with processing applications for
registration from parties with constitutions which do not meet certain
minimum standards and takes this opportunity to reiterate its
recommendation 16 of the 1998 election FAD report. In order for a party
to obtain registration as a political party for federal elections, it
should have a constitution which clearly indicates that it
is a
political party, that it intends to participate in the federal
electoral process and certain minimum requirements in relation to its
operations.

Recommendation 22: that the Electoral Act be
amended to clearly set out minimum requirements for a party’s
constitution, such as it must:

  • be written;
  • include the aims of the party (one of which must be the endorsement of candidates to contest federal elections);
  • set out the requirements to become a member, maintain membership and cease membership;
  • set out the process for selection of officer-holders, including
    registered officer and party agent, the Executive and any committees;
  • detail the party structure;
  • detail the procedure for amending the constitution;
  • detail the procedures for winding up the party.

More details at: http://www.aec.gov.au/_content/Why/committee/subs/sub15/sub15_3.htm

As
yet, the Joint Standing Committee, the Parliament and the Government
have seen fit to ignore this whole question of properly defining what a
political party is. Despite the legal mess that surrounded the whole
Hanson matter, no one has seen fit to hold a proper inquiry into party
registration.

The provisions governing political parties
are manifestly inadequate and have been for years. Yet millions in
election funding is handed
over after each election, no questions
asked. The AEC knows this is a problem, but they can’t get Parliament
to give the issue priority.

The AEC are the monkeys in this
mess. The inadequacy of party registration rules are the responsibility
of the organ grinders , on all sides of politics.


Meanwhile Senator Andrew Murray writes:

Dear Antony,

I couldn’t agree more with your 20 July piece in Crikey ‘Why has the Commonwealth failed to act?’

Then I saw this:’The inadequacy of party registration rules are the
responsibility of the organ grinders , on all sides of politics’

All sides of politics? For 8 years I and the Democrats have
campaigned on such issues, with the majors resisting every inch of the
way. For validation, check the Hansard for speeches, amendments
etc. As recently as the JSCEM Report into the 2001 federal
election (as you know, a must-read for all election analysts) in our
Supplementary Remarks (full Minority attached below) ‘Political
Governance’ section we said the following:

“We believe that the following reforms are necessary to make political parties open and accountable:

  • The Commonwealth Electoral act should be amended to require
    standard items to be set out in a political party’s constitution, in a
    similar manner to the Corporations Law requirements for the
    constitution of companies;
  • Party constitutions should be required to specify:
  • The conditions and rules of membership of the party
  • How office-bearers are preselected and elected
  • How preselection of political candidates is to be conducted
  • The processes that exist for resolution of disputes and conflicts of interest
  • The processes that exist for changing the constitution
  • The processes for administration and management

The Party would be free to determine the content under each
heading, subject in some cases to certain minimum standards being met.

  • Political parties exercise public power, and the terms on which
    they do so must be open too public scrutiny. Party constitutions
    should be publicly available documents updated at least once every
    electoral cycle. (The JSCEM were once told by the AEC that a particular
    party constitution had not been updated in their records for 16
    years!) The fact that most party constitutions are secret
    prevents proper public scrutiny of political parties;
  • The AEC should be empowered to oversee all important ballots
    within political parties to ensure that proper electoral practices are
    adhered to. At the very least the law should permit them to do so
    at the request of a registered political party. The law should be
    proactive and should also cater for the future possibility of an
    American Primary type system;
  • The AEC should be empowered to investigate any allegations of a
    serious breach of a party constitution, and apply an administrative
    penalty;

Simply put, all political parties must be obliged to meet minimum
standards of accountability and internal democracy. Given the
public funding, the immense power of political parties (at least of
some parties), and their vital role in our government and our
democracy, it is proper to insist that such standards be met.

The increased regulation of political parties is not inconsistent with
protecting the essential freedom of expression and the essential
freedom from unjustified state interference, influence or control.

Greater regulation would offer political parties better protection from
internal malpractice and corruption, and the public better protection
from its consequences, and it would reduce the opportunity for public
funds being used for improper purposes.

Recommendation 3.1

The following initiatives would bring political parties under the
type of accountability regime that should go with their place in our
system of government:

  1. The Commonwealth Electoral Act be amended to require standard
    items to be set out in a political party’s constitution, in a similar
    manner to the Corporations Law requirements for the constitutions of
    Companies;
  2. Party constitutions should be publicly available documents updated at least once every electoral cycle;
  3. The key constitutional principles of political parties should at least include:
  • the conditions and rules of membership of a Party;
  • how office­bearers are preselected and elected;
  • how preselection of political candidates is to be conducted;
  • the processes that exist for the resolution of disputes and conflicts of interest;
  • the processes that exist for changing the constitution;
  • the processes for administration, management and financial management.
  1. The relationship between the party machine and the party
    membership requires better and more standard regulatory, constitutional
    and selection systems and procedures, which would enhance the
    relationship between the party hierarchy, office­bearers, employees,
    political representatives and the members. Specific regulatory
    oversight should include:
  • Scrutiny of the procedures for the preselection and
    election of candidates for public office and party officials in the
    constitutions of parties, to ensure they are democratic;
  • The AEC should be empowered to investigate any allegations of a
    serious breach of a party constitution, and apply an administrative
    penalty;
  • All important ballot procedures within political parties should
    be overseen by the AEC to ensure proper electoral practices are adhered
    to, if a registered political party so requests. The law should
    be proactive and should also cater for the future possibility of an
    American Primary type system

<<JSCEM FE 01 Supp.doc>>

Senator Andrew Murray

Peter Fray

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