As the clock struck 11 last night, the NSW Labor, Liberal and National Parties lined up in the Legislative Council to ensure that at March’s state election, and future polls, nobody will have access before polling day to how-to-vote material officially lodged and registered with the NSW Electoral Commission.

In a triumph of Newspeak that Orwell would be proud of, the government had trumpeted throughout the progress of the electoral amendments that for the first time a provision had been included that allowed access to the material.

However, the public access provision sounded like it came from a Douglas Adams script. Perhaps not as colourful as being on display in a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying beware of the leopard. But saying all how-to-votes will be available, but then qualifying access to say available only on polling day, only in the office of the Returning Officer, and then only to voters on the roll in the district and scrutineers is hardly a provision designed to aid public access.

Compare this with my experience at the recent Queensland election, where a file of the how-to-vote cards was readily available several days before the election for inspection. Some of the Independents’ how-to-vote cards from far flung districts hadn’t made it to Brisbane on time, but that was not an attempt to prevent disclosure. The same process will be available in Victoria, where all the how-to-vote cards will be available before polling day.

But not in NSW next March. All how-to-vote material will have to be registered eight days before the election and certified as in compliance with the law by the Electoral Commissioner. But at that point, the material is sealed away in the bureaucracy and no-one is allowed to look it.

The absolute silliness of this provision is that it makes it harder to administer what is distributed outside polling places on polling day. Parties have to go to the returning officer first thing in the morning and verify what is registered, and then somehow get this information to booth captains at all polling places to make sure that only legal material is distributed.

What will almost certainly happen is that polling officials will unofficially show scrutineers at polling booths the package of registered material. This is in breach of the new provision inserted into the act but will probably be politely ignored.

Those who will not get a look in are any member of the public, and especially the pesky media wanting to know what the parties have registered.

Disclaimer: The author made several submissions on this matter, all politely ignored, and persuaded the Greens to move an amendment last night. And of course, the author is one of the few people who would ever actually make use of public access provisions on this material.

Peter Fray

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