With no consultation and no warning, Queensland’s Labor government last night pushed through the abolition of optional preferential voting in state elections, forcing voters in future to number ever square on their ballot papers.
Allow me to adopt Antony Green’s indignation:
In my view making such a major change to the state’s electoral system unannounced and at short notice is exactly the sort of slip shod legislative behaviour that the single chamber Queensland Parliament has been criticised for so often in the past.
It also makes Labor’s recent confected outrage about Senate reform look pretty shallow. This bill has been amended and passed in less time than the committee hearing into the Senate reform bill that the Labor Party so heavily criticised, and without the production of a major committee inquiry two years before the legislation.
Now in a matter of two hours the Queensland Parliament has abandoned a method of voting that was recommended by a post-Fitzgerald inquiry body, the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC), way back in November 1990.
No call for submissions. No inquiry. No committee. No warning. Just the moving of an amendment in committee to an opposition bill. It backs every argument that no campaigners made last month against granting fixed four year terms to a parliament with no upper house.
No party comes to this sort of issue with clean hands. The Coalition parties have a long history of resistance to democracy: from John Howard’s attempt to close the rolls early and disenfranchise prisoners, to the Western Australian division’s long fight against one-vote-one-value, to promoting “voter-ID” laws and their associated conspiracy theories, to support for numerous rurally-biased malapportionments.
Indeed, it seems likely that LNP resistance to the Palaszczuk government’s move is somewhat muted by an institutional memory of having doggedly fought for many years to retain compulsory preferences, in Queensland as well as other states.
Nonetheless, there’s something particularly disappointing when Labor does something like this. Labor is supposed to be the party of the masses; democracy is supposed to be its friend, not its enemy. When it votes to restrict or distort the people’s choice, it is betraying its soul in a way that the non-Labor parties are not.
And Labor has done so many times. It was Labor that opposed preferential voting in the first place, and still advocated first-past-the-post as late as the 1970s; it was Labor that abolished the Queensland upper house and had a long-standing policy to abolish the Senate; it was Labor that introduced group voting tickets in the Senate and, after changing its mind a couple of times, defended them unsuccessfully against last month’s reform; it was Labor that pioneered such moves as early closing of the polls and taxpayer funding of established political parties.
Not to mention it was this very Labor government, albeit with the support of the opposition, that won a referendum just a month ago to extend the future term of state parliament from three years to four.
We will get the usual (bad) arguments trotted out in support of this change as are used to support compulsory voting in the first place: that citizens have an obligation to be well informed and can legitimately be forced to participate in the democratic process – in effect, that no-one has the right to be indifferent to the choices that parties offer them.
But at least with compulsory voting, voters have (practically, if not legally) the option of voting informally. Not so with compulsory preferences, where the only way to decline to make one choice is to forfeit your right to make any of them.
The one thing that can be said in favor of the change is that by aligning the rules with federal practice it should, in time, reduce the rate of informal voting in federal elections in Queensland, which grew noticeably on the back of Peter Beattie’s “Just vote 1” strategy. But of course the long-overdue solution to that problem is to introduce optional preferences at federal level as well.
The tone of commentary on the change is typified by the Courier-Mail’s Steven Wardill: “Tactically brilliant. Morally bankrupt.” No quarrel with the second part, but I’d keep inverted commas well and truly around that word “brilliant”. It’s very much the sort of thing that looks great to political apparatchiks but might not play out the way they intend in practice.
The big problem, and one of the reasons why Labor brought in optional preferences in the first place, is that making voters fill in every square will lead to a big increase in informal voting. Some of it will be deliberate, but those who accidentally vote informal – either by not understanding the new requirement or by making mistakes in their numbering – are disproportionately likely to be Labor voters.
So the projection from last year’s result that Labor could have won an extra eight seats with full preferences (Green lists them in his post) needs to be taken with a large grain of salt: some of those preferences could easily be outweighed by an increase in the informals eating into Labor’s primary vote. And, of course, some voters might just generally be put off by moral bankruptcy.
But we really need to get out of the habit of discussing changes to electoral systems purely in terms of who they will benefit. Instead, let’s focus on making it easier for people to express their will and then implementing it fairly.
On that test, the Queensland government last night scored a major fail.