The major political parties stand to reap up over $20 million dollars from taxpayers over coming elections via draconian new “automatic enrolment” laws that would enable the Electoral Commission to automatically enrol people without their consent using information obtained from any source.

Special Minister of State Gary Gray yesterday introduced the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill, designed to address the growing disparity between electoral enrolment and population growth. It is estimated that up to 1.6 million Australians are not currently enrolled.

The bill would enable the Electoral Commission to add people to the electoral roll once it obtains information about their residential address, regardless of whether they have applied to enrol. The bill does not limit what information the commission can access and use, merely that the commission must be satisfied that the person is entitled to enrol and that they have lived at an address for one month. The commission will then write to the person and enrol them unless they can show they shouldn’t be.

The automatic enrolment process would open up individuals to the punitive compulsory voting system, whereby people who choose not to vote are threatened with fines. The bill would also enable the commission to store and use electronic data about people, such as email addresses.

The growing disparity between enrolments and population — primarily among younger people who have no interest in politics and no interest in voting — and the surge in informal voting by people disgusted with contemporary politics has deeply alarmed the major political parties, who receive public funding for each formal vote they receive at an indexed rate (currently $2.42 a vote). At the 2010 election, the surge in informal voting from just under 4% to over 5% of all votes cost all parties over $1 million in funding, while the disparity between enrolment and population cost them $6.8 million in funding.

Automatic enrolment has the potential to move a huge proportion of unenrolled people onto the rolls as the Electoral Commission taps public and government information, including information collated by state governments such as drivers’ licences, to locate where people live and their email addresses. Even with limited success, the process could see over $25 million in additional funding delivered to parties over the next three elections as rolls catch up with population growth and indexation drives up the level of public funding. Labor and the Coalition stand to get about 80% of that on current voting patterns.

This is a further step along the road of state surveillance, with the commission — which is merely implementing the law as established by the major political parties — given carte blanche to use information from any source for the purposes of dragging unwilling citizens into the compulsory voting framework (that’s the one we share with the likes of the Congo and Ecuador). But automatic enrolment, which began in NSW and then spread to Victoria, received little criticism — the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, notably, opposed it, but criticism has otherwise been muted.

You might have thought GetUp, that bandwagon-hopping proponent of progressive causes, might have opposed an extension of state surveillance power, but in fact the group strongly supports forcing people onto the electoral rolls whether they like it or not.

Possibly that’s for the same reason so many on the progressive side of politics support punitive voting systems, under the mistaken belief that compelling people to vote maximises the vote for non-conservative parties.

Compulsory voting and automatic enrolment infantilises Australians. Its supporters — academics and paternalistic progressives — talk of strengthening democracy by moving people into the compulsory voting framework. In fact, many of those people are already expressing their political views, by switching off in disgust and refusing to participate in a party system they believe courts their vote but doesn’t listen to them.

It’s interesting as well that the mainstream media have been quiet on the issue — even News Limited, which is normally profoundly paranoid about anything Labor does, and ready to scream about a left-wing conspiracy and a threat to liberty from virtually any distance, has been silent.

That might be because, well, what do political parties do with their money? They spend it on advertising. The parties might get an extra $25 million from these changes, but it will end up in the pockets of ad agencies, marketing firms and, above all, television, radio and newspaper outlets.

Peter Fray

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