Beware MPs rigging electoral systems

WE ARE blessed by five short words that appear twice in the Constitution: “directly chosen by the people”.

They appear twice – once for the House of Representatives and once for the Senate.

Without those words you can almost guarantee that the political parties in cahoots or one party with a majority in both Houses on its own would thoroughly rig the system to their own advantage.

But with those words they can only tamper with, rather than rig, the system to their own advantage – usually under the guise of making the system “more democratic” or “fairer” or “simpler”.

They are at it again. This week the Government issued a Green Paper on the electoral system with various proposals to tamper with the system.

And the tampering can be invidious.

The Hawke Government gave us above the line voting in the Senate under which the parties and their factions have almost as much say as the people and which delivered us Senator Steve Fielding with less than 2 per cent of the vote for his Family First Party.

Fielding may well argue that 18 of the other 39 senators got even fewer than he did, but at least their party got significant vote.

The theory was that the numerically challenged are more likely to be Labor voters so they should be helped to express their electoral will with a “simpler”, “more democratic” system.

The Hawke Government also tried to ban the broadcast of political advertisements in the interests of democracy, but the law was held invalid by the High Court.

The Howard Government tampered with the system to close the electoral rolls on the day the election is called – and thereby disenfranchised 100,000 young people in the name of making the system fairer and more democratic.

It also wiped out the “savings” provisions which allowed a vote to be counted as formal if it clearly expressed a preference (like 1 or a tick or X next to one candidate) even if it did not fully number preferences through the whole ticket. It disenfranchised about 90,000 people – again presuming that the innumerate are more likely to vote Labor.

The Howard Government also attempted to take away the voting rights of all prisoners, but the High Court held that the words “directly chosen by the people” meant you could not take their vote away unless they were serving a sentence longer than the parliamentary term.

In 1983 the major parties colluded to increase the size of the Senate so that six senators were elected from each state in most elections, rather than five. They thought that would provide three senators each with no room for the minor parties.

Fortunately, many of these tamperings backfired. Rather than no minor parties in the Senate we have more than ever.

The above-the-line voting resulted in a lot of voters also putting a single 1 on the Reps ballot paper, denying Labor a significant preference flow.

Of course, some changes have been worthwhile, such as proportional representation in the Senate in 1949 and lowering the voting age to 18 in 1973.

Before 1949, the X in the box usually resulted in one party winning ALL the seats in a state with just a few percent more vote than the other party. Before 1973, non-voting 20-year-olds could be drafted to fight in Vietnam. Those most directly affected by the most contentious issue in Australian politics at the time could not vote.

So what of this week’s Green Paper?

Giving the vote to 16-year-olds will favour the Greens and Labor, but is rejected by large majorities in opinion polls. Also, the suggestion that they be given an option to vote gives rise to the question: why shouldn’t everyone have that option. Not going to happen.

Undoing Howard’s restrictive enrollment and strict preference requirements seem reasonable. Removing the 157,000 non-citizen British subjects from the roll also seems fair enough. These people have been on the roll since 1984 and have not taken out citizenship, so why should they be allowed to vote?

The Green Paper poses an option to fine MPs who leave early for another job to pay for the by-election. But how much easier would it be to abolish by-elections and replace MPs with someone from the same party, as we do in the Senate. Federally, no by-election has ever removed a government, nor is ever likely to.

But the big one to fix is the appalling above-the-line voting in the Senate. Party hacks haggle over the tickets which are lodged with the Electoral Commission and which determine the preferences of 90 per cent plus of voters who just put a 1 next to the party of choice above the line.

True, Senate ballot papers are unwieldy with scores of candidates and difficult to number sequentially for every candidate. But surely it would not be too difficult to allow voters to express preferences for parties above the line: e.g. Liberal 1, Labor 2, Greens 3, Nationals 4, Family First 5 and so on, rather than only permit a “1” against one party and surrender the allocation of preferences to backroom wheelers and dealers?

Finally, the Green Paper talks about axing the tallyroom and removing how-to-vote cards from within, say, 100 metres of a polling booth. Both proposals would remove the great sense of occasion that an election should be.

How-to-vote cards have been removed from within 100 metres of polling booths in ACT elections. It makes voting like a visit to the dentist rather than the celebration of democracy.

Also the restriction favours the major parties because only they have the manpower to ring polling booths from 100 metres out.

People can always ignore the voting touts and pimps, but they do give a sense of politicians being directly chosen by the people.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 26 September 2009

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