Crikey has been keeping an eye on the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into the 2004 election.

If you visit the Committee’s homepage and look at the submissions, you’ll discover the Australian Electoral Commission’s contribution – in contrast with the many submissions it has filed with previous inquiries.

The one current AEC submission is interesting because it consists mainly of a confidential legal opinion discussing the consequences of outsourcing postal voting at the last election – blame shifting under commercial-in-confidence, in other words.

There are no other AEC submissions that put an independent position on current policy or operational concerns – issues under debate such as substituting optional preferential voting for full preferential, government advertising at elections and the early close of rolls.

Some observers fear that the AEC under commissioner Andy Becker effectively decided to lie down and play dead – to vacate the field on electoral policy as an independent voice and hand over everything to government control and direction.

There are rumours seeping from the Commission that while the focus of debate has been on the abolition of compulsory voting, amending the legislation to close the rolls at the announcement of an election – instead of allowing the current grace period of seven days – tops the government’s wish list.

There are fears that this would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of young first time voters, people wishing to correct their enrolment at the last minute, and those who might have trouble enrolling at the best of times, such as Indigenous Australians, migrants and the unemployed – all assumed to be less likely to vote for the government.

Ever since Malcolm Fraser closed the rolls early in 1983, the AEC has consistently argued in its submissions to the JSCEM against the policy, warning that the universal franchise will be compromised.

There’s talk, however, that a draft submission exists in the AEC putting the case for an early close – in line with government arguments – that was only held back when a senior old guard official took particular exception.

Is this the direction government policy will move in? There’s speculation that Liberal money men don’t want voluntary voting – that getting dollars to persuade people to turn up at a polling booth to begin with before pushing them to vote Liberal will be an impossible task. A school of thought also says that the turn-out for voluntary ballot for Constitutional Convention places held in 1997 suggests that voluntary voting may not favour the Coalition in the way that many of its advocates had hoped.

Peter Fray

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