A simmering dispute over the rules for local council elections in Victoria is coming to a head, according to a report in this morning’s Age. In contrast to democratic practice in most of the world, Victoria’s councils have the option of conducting their elections entirely by postal ballot. Politicians love this, because it means they don’t have to organise people to hand out how-to-vote cards. Council bureaucrats love it as well; partly because it’s cheaper, but also because it makes councils feel more like cosy service organisations and less like representative democracies.

From the incumbent councillors’ point of view, it has just one drawback: it puts challengers on an equal footing, allowing them to distribute election material free of charge. Now the Bracks government has proposed new regulations that would fix that, by banning any criticism of sitting councillors or council decisions in the material circulated with the ballot papers. They would also ban candidates from including a recommendation on preferences (these are not as effective as how-to-vote cards at a real election, but because there is no cost they are actually a better option for “dummy” candidates).

The Municipal Association of Victoria, supported by the state opposition, has been protesting against these changes for several weeks, but has now upped the ante by threatening a legal challenge. There are procedural issues about consultation, but there is also a constitutional issue: in the 1992 case of Australian Capital Television v Commonwealth the high court ruled that the constitution protects freedom of speech in political matters, and struck down the federal government’s attempt to ban political advertising on TV.

The courts may of course decide that the government can do what it likes with the official mailout that councils are paying for. But for an election where voters have to make their decision at home, away from the normal democratic environment of the polling booth, would be a victory for form over substance. Respect for freedom of speech demands that the government abandon the changes or, better still, abolish postal ballots entirely.

Peter Fray

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