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.
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.
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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 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 they concern votes that 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 about 50% to 17%, and the setting aside of about 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.