Last year I wrote about how the NSW government was tightening up rules governing how-to-vote material in NSW. That tightening included a provision that so restricted access to registered material that it is impossible to know before election day what candidates and parties have registered.

As the debate over who is preferencing who on Saturday continues, it is finally dawning on a few people the secrecy that surrounds the registered material.

All parties and candidates are currently distributing how-to-vote material at pre-poll voting centres. However, that does not mean these preferences will be the same as those recommended on Saturday.

Remember last November when the Liberal Party directed preferences against inner-Melbourne Green candidates in pre-poll voting, but on polling day recommended preferences to the Greens.

Many candidates may play the same trick in NSW. As in Victoria, all how-to-vote material must be registered and approved. Unlike Victoria, there is no public access to the material before election day.

The only access to how-to-vote material this Saturday is in the offices of the 93 Returning Officers. It is only available to party scrutineers or people on the electoral roll in that division.

Now let me plead self-interest here. On Saturday, I’d like to know as much as I can about how preferences might flow. In other states that register how-to-vote material, the answer is to visit the Electoral Commission and examine the material. In NSW, that is not allowed.

Instead, on Saturday I will visit the Returning Officer for my own electoral district of Marrickville, where I will be allowed to examine material registered for Marrickville, and registered material for the upper house. The law prevents me from examining material for any other electoral district, even if I visit those offices.

The stupidity of the laws may yet create a farce on Saturday. The problem is, how will party workers know that material being distributed by other parties and candidates is correctly registered? The answer is, they can’t. The only legal access to the material is in the office of each Returning Officer. The material cannot be examined in polling places.

So if a candidate is handing out dodgy how-to-vote material in Deniliquin this Saturday, the only way anyone can check this material is registered is by checking with the Returning Officer in Broken Hill, several hundred kilometres away.

This reveals the stupidity of the new laws. This material has been official registered and approved as legal by the Electoral Commissioner, but the Act prevents this material being examined by anyone, including the public, the media, and most importantly, other parties.

If there was ever a case for self-regulation in politics, it is how-to-vote material. If the registered material was made public, other parties could ensure that only registered material was distributed. In its attempt to keep the material secret, the Iemma government has ended up creating a situation where it is nearly impossible to regulate what is being distributed.

All I can say is the Labor Party must have something really clever with its how-to-vote material to go to such efforts to keep it secret.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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