N.B. I’m hoping to keep the thread on this post reserved for matters that at least tangentially relate to electoral reform. The previous thread remains open for more general discussion.

Assuming, as is the fashion, that the current federal government doesn’t live to see a third term, it does not appear well placed at this stage to bequeath much to history in the way of electoral reform. In this respect it stands in stark contrast to its Labor forebears: the Chifley government brought forth an enlarged parliament and proportional representation for the Senate; Whitlam, thwarted though he was by an obstructive Senate, managed to lower the voting age to 18, create Senate seats for the territories and legislate for regular redistributions; and a newly elected Hawke government promptly ushered in above-the-line voting for the Senate, randomly ordered ballot papers with candidates identified by party, and public funding for political parties.

The Rudd government came to office talking a good game on campaign finance reform, with then Special Minister of State John Faulkner turning in a commendably high-minded green paper in December 2008 and recommending that caps be imposed on political donations and election spending. However, such ideas were knocked on the head a year later at the behest of Labor potentates who complained of their impact on electorally helpful initiatives such as the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work campaign, and reportedly feared a “Blairised” party in which union influence would be diminished. Reforms of this kind have nonetheless seen the light of day at state level, as among the final acts of the Keneally and Bligh governments.

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Even the excesses of the Howard government’s Senate majority years remain to be entirely undone, and two of the ones that have been – the early closure of the rolls after an election is announced and the extension of prisoner disenfranchisement – were seen off by the High Court rather than the parliament. The removal of tax deductibility on political donations of up to $1500 from businesses was, in the view of electoral law expert Graeme Orr, a not entirely welcome exception. Other measures were held up by Senate obstruction before 2010, and parliamentary inertia thereafter. Still on the to-do list is lowering the threshold at which political donations must be publicly disclosed, which the Howard government audaciously hiked from $1500 to $10,000 (which can effectively be many times that given that state and territory branches are separate entities for such purposes).

However, there have been two very significant measures of particular importance to those of us whose concern is with the counting of votes – especially given that they concern votes which are known to be left-leaning, a fact that does much to explain the politics behind the issue. One such measure was the reversal of the Howard government’s restrictions on admitting provisional votes to the count, which serve as a safety net for those who believe themselves to have been wrongly excluded from the roll or marked off as having already voted.

Prior to the 2007 election, such votes were admitted if the voter was found to have been purged from the roll after changing address, but had moved elsewhere within the same electorate. The Howard government disallowed this, and further required that those casting such votes provide identification, either at the polling booth or within a week after election day. These changes have resulted in the rate of admission of provisional votes shrinking from around 50% to 17%, and the setting aside of around 60,000 votes that would previously have been counted. With the old rules back in force, the earlier pattern should immediately reassert itself.

The second and, over the long term at least, far more significant of the reforms is what most are calling “automatic” enrolment, although the Australian Electoral Commission would prefer that you used the term “direct”. This will empower the Commission on its own initiative to either place a person on the roll or change their recorded address, based on information it derives from data-matching involving agencies such as Centrelink and the state road and traffic authorities that issue drivers licences. Such energies have previously been directed only at removing wrongly enrolled electors, which has created a widening gap between the number of eligible voters and the number actually enrolled. By the reckoning of the AEC, this had reached 1.4 million by the time of the 2010 election.

Some fairly bold claims were made for the likely electoral impact of direct enrolment when the legislation was passed in late June. A report by Heather Ewart on 7:30 noted that the envisioned transfusion of missing electors “could have changed (the) result” of the last election, and could at the very least “save (Labor) some seats” at the next. This topic evidently animated dinner table conversation at chez Ewart-Cassidy, as the next day Barrie Cassidy got to work with a pen and an envelope and calculated “an extra 1,800 votes to the ALP” in the average lower house election contest.

This would seem to take an exaggerated view of the likely efficiency of the process which the AEC is currently working to implement, at least so far as the time between now and the next election is concerned. The hundreds of thousands of names shown up by data matching will not simply be freighted on to the roll – among other things, each person will have to be contacted and given 28 days in which to object. The AEC will face much the same operational hurdles in implementing such processes as the New South Wales Electoral Commission when it established its similar SmartRoll program after automatic enrolment was introduced in that state in 2010.

After commencing with small “pilot” batches, SmartRoll was able to process 40,000 new enrolments and changes of enrolment in the four months before the March 2011 state election. Its accelerating efforts since have been sufficient to open a discernible gap between enrolment at state and federal level, with the former accounting for around 84.6% of eligible voters and the latter for 82.2% – a difference of about 140,000. However, the NSWEC spoke last year of a “full four-year cycle” to wear down the existing 400,000 to 450,000 non-enrolments, while also dealing with about 300,000 further changes of address each year.

The AEC is sounding a similarly cautious note. The commissioner, Ed Killesteyn, recently spoke of reforms that would “arrest and reverse the declining rates of enrolment we have seen over the past decade”, but take “two or three electoral cycles” to do so. The AEC program, which it calls Federal Direct Enrolment and Direct Update, will be unrolled in smaller states later this year, and is not anticipated to operate in all states and territories until the middle of next year.

One could therefore generously speculate that as many as a quarter of a million extra enrolments will be processed by the time of an election held a year from now, compared with the 1.5 million assumed in Barrie Cassidy’s calculation. There is also the question of the proportion of such people who will actually turn out to vote, which can be presumed to be well below the average. Contrary to the 90% assumed by Cassidy, the NSWEC reported that 76.2% of those directly enrolled turned out for the NSW state election, which would include a number who would have taken the effort to amend their enrolment if SmartRoll hadn’t done it for them. The 60-40 Labor-Coalition split used by Cassidy also seems a shade bullish for Labor, given the provisional vote split in 2010 was more like 57-43.

So far as the next election is concerned, a more realistic estimate would be for 1500 rather than 9000 extra votes per electorate, even if an expanded pool of provisional votes were thrown into the mix, and an advantage for Labor about a tenth of that calculated by Cassidy. That would still be enough to make the difference in the occasional knife-edge contest, but the chance of it affecting multiple numbers of seats would be slim.

It may however prove a different story at future elections, once the process is given longer to do its work – always provided that such work is not brought to a stop by another Coalition government with another Senate majority, and the wherewithal to again redraw the electoral laws according to its interests.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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