Fiddling the rules again

Regular readers might recall that I made some comments last December on the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), which made a number of far-reaching recommendations for change to Australia’s federal electoral system. They included such controversial items as introduction of optional preferential voting, ID requirements for both voting and enrolment, and the abolition of no-excuse pre-poll voting.

Earlier this month the government introduced to parliament four bills that embody its response to that report. Either ministers have got cold feet or (more likely) the JSCEM report was intended as a trial balloon rather than a definite plan, since none of those three items appear in the legislation.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of interest. Antony Green has a comprehensive summary of the provisions, including links to the four bills themselves. Most of the interest is in the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill, which tightens the requirements for party registration in two important respects and conspicuously fails to do so in another.*

The two proposed changes are to increase the number of members required for party registration from 500 to 1,500, and to ban names that use the same substantive words as those used by an existing party: the latter directed at such competitors as the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Labour Party. The change that should appear but doesn’t is reform to the existing rule by which a single MP (even one who was elected from a different party) can register a new party without having to have any members at all.

I said last year that the JSCEM recommendations were of two sorts, “those that it thinks would serve the Coalition’s political interests, and those that it thinks would serve the interests of politicians in general.” These party registration changes are in the second group; they are designed to advantage major parties at the expense of minor ones, thus assisting the Coalition but also the Labor opposition – which may help the government in getting them through the Senate.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad idea. I have no problem in principle with the increase in the membership requirement; I do think there’s some unfairness involved in introducing it so soon before a federal election, but fundamentally a group that can’t find itself 1,500 members probably isn’t going far anyway.

Whether the measure is necessary is another question. Green discusses this at length in another post, but the basic point is one we’ve talked about here before. Numbers of candidates for the Senate got out of control in the years leading up to 2013, as awareness spread of the fact that automatic preferencing via group voting tickets (GVTs) effectively meant that the government was conducting a lottery for Senate seats. In 2013, there were 110 Senate candidates in New South Wales, far too many for any normal-sized ballot paper.

The Turnbull government abolished GVTs in 2016 and since then the number of candidates has dropped off, but it remains high. The question is whether the decline will continue as the message sinks in, or whether, absent other measures, the proliferation of microparties is to be a permanent feature of political life. If it were up to me, I would give it one more election to see what the trend does before changing the membership requirement.

The change to allowable party names is much harder to justify in its own terms (Kevin Bonham has a very good discussion, as does Graeme Orr), but it’s also related to the proliferation of candidates. I agree that the election of an LDP senator in 2013, by voters who mistook it for the Liberal Party, was an outrage, but it was only possible because there were so many parties on the ballot to start with. Given a choice of eight or ten parties, voters can work out who is what; with 44 to choose from that becomes unrealistic.

So here again, quite independently of the other problems with the measure, it seems to me it would be better to wait and see if the problem solves itself: not because the LDP and the DLP themselves are likely to drop out, but because if enough bogus parties do then that will solve the problem of voter confusion. The government, however, cares about genuine competitors just as much as accidental ones, so it is unlikely to be swayed by this logic.

Another way to help cut back on the number of candidates would be to make the change that is missing from this bill. Currently a party that has even a single MP, which usually means a defector from an existing party, is exempt from the rules about a minimum number of members. It can continue nominating under its banner not just the existing MP (which might be reasonable) but as many candidates as it likes, in either house and in any state, even if in reality it consists of an admin assistant and a post office box.

While our electoral system has its problems, relatively speaking it is in pretty good shape: compared to the battles being fought in the United States, these proposals are small beer; We should be grateful that, despite its loyalty to the Trumpist agenda in other respects, the Morrison government shows no enthusiasm for a frontal attack on democracy.

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* The two most interesting provisions in the other three bills are a reduction in the pre-poll period from three weeks to two, which strikes me as very sensible, and an attempt to hamstring non-party organisations that engage in election campaigns by assimilating them more to political parties in terms of disclosure requirements.

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