While the government has been dragging its heels on restoring common sense to the system by which our senators are chosen, electoral reform has by no means dropped off its radar entirely.

But rather than concern itself with the hard-edged matter of converting votes into seats, the current priority is what voters confront as they negotiate their way past bunting and sausage sizzles to the sanctity of the polling booth on election day.

Such is the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, instigated by Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson, which is currently sifting through “rules and practices in relation to campaign activities in the vicinity of polling places”.

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Given the fairly laissez-faire nature of the regime that exists at present, there can be little doubt that the general idea is that things might need tightening up.

Of particular concern to the Coalition parties is a recently adopted, and apparently highly successful, union tactic of having volunteers kitted out in emergency services paraphernalia promote the Labor cause.

The origin of this trend was a New South Wales state byelection for the seat of Miranda in Sydney’s outer south, held just six weeks after Labor suffered its drubbing at the federal election of September 2013.

After running hard against fire station closures by the O’Farrell government, Labor enjoyed the perverse good fortune of having the state’s worst spate of bushfires in years break out at the tail end of the campaign.

On polling day itself, the sky was dark with smoke wafting over from the Blue Mountains.

Voters at the polling booths were then met by volunteers from the Fire Brigade Employees Union who looked like they might have come straight from the front line, but for T-shirts reading “stop O’Farrell’s fire station closures” and “firefighters say put the Liberals last”.

When the votes were tallied up that evening, the Liberals found themselves turfed out of the seat on the back of a 27% swing — quite possibly the biggest ever recorded at any Australian byelection, state or federal.

Labor campaigns in other states took note and followed suit, inspiring a rash of complaints from Liberal activists to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry.

Most of these invoke the “intimidating” appearance and behaviour of the union volunteers, and question whether their emergency services credentials were genuinely as advertised.

Reading between the lines, the submissions point to a pattern of activity that falls just short of breaching the guidelines imposed on employees by the emergency services agencies.

Fire Brigade Employees Union president Darin Sullivan told Crikey that the union had sought legal advice and consulted with the New South Wales Electoral Commission before the Miranda byelection, and had established that nothing prevented campaigners from wearing obsolete uniforms free of organisational insignia.

A directive of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority last year extended a warning against campaigning in uniform to encompass “personal protective clothing”, but Sullivan says this clearly exceeds the organisation’s brief.

Accordingly, helmets and hi-vis vests purchased from hardware stores have become popular apparel of late among campaigners from the relevant unions.

A further innovation deployed in the Victorian state election involved out-of-commission ambulance vehicles being decorated with propaganda and parked outside polling places.

Given the extremely limited nature of any recourse the Coalition might have through the emergency services agencies themselves, the inquiry gives it an opportunity to explore options to restrict such activity through changes to the Electoral Act.

A particularly extreme precedent is available from Tasmania, which prohibits dissemination of how-to-vote cards or any other type of electoral matter on the day of its state elections, as well as imposing a ban on canvassing within 100 metres of a polling place.

If introduced federally, such measures would amount to a radical departure from Australia’s democratic traditions, and very likely cause great offence to party members who value the opportunity to participate on election day.

An alternative option might involve targeting campaigning by third parties, which would catch the likes of GetUp in its net, as well trade unions. However, both of these options could raise considerable difficulties in practice.

One relates to the implied constitutional right to freedom of political communication, which brought unstuck the Hawke-Keating government’s bid to ban paid campaign advertising on radio and television in 1992.

Another involves the capacity and suitability of AEC staff to perform an enforcement role on election day, given everything else they are currently required to contend with.

Responding to a question posed by a Liberal member of the committee last week, Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers wearily allowed that anything was possible if legislation ordained that it should be so, but warned of the effect that having to regulate the behaviour of campaigners outside the polling place would have on already “harried” AEC staff.

It remains to be seen if government members will consider that sufficient grounds to be dissuaded, given its depth over the tactics and their effectiveness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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