House debates

Wednesday, 24 February 2016


Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; Second Reading

4:13 pm

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

The Australian public, business and industry want to see a functional Senate operating in the national interest and an end to dysfunction in the political process. I support the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, which seeks to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.

The bill before the House proposes a number of reforms to the Senate voting system, which are designed to, essentially, provide voters with the ability to direct their preference votes according to their carefully considered intent. The reforms include the introduction of optional preferential voting above the line, concessions to maintain the formality of votes below the line, the abolition of group voting tickets, a restriction preventing the same individuals from acting as office bearers for multiple political parties and the provision to print political party logos on ballot papers.

The issue of Senate voting reform has been topical for a very long time. It has been about 30 years since the last major changes were made. The 2013 federal election saw the election of a number of high-profile microparty candidates from a large field with low levels of voter support—often less than one per cent of the primary vote. Over the years there has been a gradual increase in the number of Senate candidates, with ballot papers increasing in size as more independent and minor parties began to use preference harvesting to gain election. For example, the Senate ballot paper in Victoria at the last federal election had 96 candidates from 39 different groups and measured just over a metre long. The print was so small that the Australian Electoral Commission resorted to providing magnifying overlay sheets to voters with vision impairment.

The Senate is an integral part of our democratic system as a house of review and to protect the interests of the states in our Australian federation, particularly those states which are less populous and have less representation in the House of Representatives. The Senate ought to provide for the proper scrutiny and objective review of legislation in an orderly and businesslike manner. The role of the Senate should not be obstructionist in nature or beholden to special interest groups who would use the balance of power to wield undue influence.

In recent history, crossbenchers, microparties and Independents have made for an obstructionist Senate, at times blocking key elements of the legislative agenda of the government of the day for which it could be argued that the government has a degree of mandate from the people. This has resulted in dysfunctional bargaining and negotiations for sectional interests. Consideration should always be given to advancing the national interest, providing good governance above all else.

We are at a point in our national history where there are some very important issues facing Australia and there is a need for many important reforms, and the government has essential legislation blocked in the Senate. Our nation does not exist in isolation in an increasingly globalised world. To stay competitive with our global trading partners, our system of government must be agile and responsive enough to respond effectively to issues such as fiscal policy, border protection, national security and microeconomic and industrial relations reform. These reforms might not be popular but they are necessary and the government of the day must be able to gain support in the national interest to provide for the security and economic development of innovation. For instance, with the current Senate, we have seen key budget savings measures and industrial relations reforms blocked, providing many triggers for a double dissolution election.

As a serving member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters since 2013, I have actively participated in the inquiry process into the 2013 federal election. The committee has received public submissions and conducted public hearings at locations in capital cities and regional towns across Australia. The proposed reforms of Senate voting arrangements contained in this bill are essentially contained in the interim and final reports of the inquiry, which were tabled in this parliament on 9 May 2014 and 15 April 2015 respectively and which received unanimous cross-party support from members of the committee. It is fair to say from observations that the current Senate voting system lacks transparency, is overly complex and needs simplification. It is little known that under the current system, individual candidates and political parties can register up to three group voting tickets which determine preference allocation. Although voting tickets are required to be displayed at polling places and on the Australian Electoral Commission website, anecdotal evidence received at public hearings of the JSCEM would strongly indicate that most voters are unlikely to understand where their preferences ultimately flowed. This gives rise to very legitimate concerns about micro parties being elected with a low proportion of primary votes, equating to a fraction of a quota. It could be viewed as a distortion of democracy, as preferences may be allocated to political parties or causes that the voter opposes or has no intention of supporting.

The voting system must reflect the principles of equity, fairness and simplicity and must give effect to the genuine considered intent of the voter. In practice, the typical voter may not fully be aware of where preferences are allocated once the number of candidates exceeds 10. These reforms are designed to allow the voter to determine their own preference flows, support greater transparency and simplify the Senate voting system.

There has been much public debate about how easily manipulated Australia's electoral system has become. In evidence before the committee, an individual witness described how he would select populist issues—such as cheaper cigarettes, sports and outdoor pursuits—and set up stands at community fairs and rural shows for the purpose of collecting sufficient names and addresses with which to register political parties. The individual acted as the common office bearer and agent for a number of different political parties and lodged a series of group voting tickets preferencing each other. It is estimated that 47 parties are currently registered in time to be eligible to contest the next federal election. Given that 97 per cent of voters normally cast above-the-line votes, with group voting tickets and preference deals candidates with little primary support can be elected. At the 2013 federal election, preference deals saw candidates elected with as little as 0.5 per cent of the primary vote.

The bill seeks to introduce optional preferential voting above the line. Under the provisions, advice will be printed on the ballot paper instructing voters to vote above the line by numbering at least six of the boxes in the order of the voter's choice. To minimise the potential for informal votes, a savings provision will be in place to ensure that ballot papers are still formal where voters have numbered one or fewer than six boxes above the line. On the other hand, in relation to voting below the line, the bill contains provisions which seek to reduce the number of informal votes by increasing the number of allowable mistakes from three to five, provided that 90 per cent of the ballot paper below the line is completed correctly.

A key measure in this bill is the abolition of group-voting tickets. Voters will be required to deliberately specify where their preferences are to be allocated, with preferences becoming exhausted at the point at which the voter stops numbering squares on the ballot paper. It will be a conscious decision to be made by the voter. The proposed reforms empower people across Australia to clearly express their preferences both above and below the line not only their first preference above the line but also their subsequent preferences, without relying on the political parties' predetermined group-voting ticket.

During the JSCEM inquiry, evidence was received that the same individual acted as office-bearer and registered agent for multiple different political parties at the same time. This adds weight to the argument that the electoral system has been gamed purely to harvest preferences. In response to this, the bill introduces a restriction to prevent individuals from holding official positions in multiple parties. Under the provisions proposed, there will be a need for unique registered officers and deputy registered officers of separate political parties to remove the ambiguity around political parties and their affiliations and alliances with each other. It should be pointed out that the provisions do not prevent a person from being a registered officer of a federal political party and the registered officer of a state branch or division of that same party.

In an effort to reduce voter confusion between political parties with similar names, this bill proposes for political parties to have their logos printed alongside the name of the party on the ballot paper. In evidence received before the JSCEM inquiry, political parties with similar names—for example, the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democratic Party—caused confusion amongst voters. In New South Wales during the 2013 federal election, a Liberal Democrat senator was elected, arguably as the result of drawing a favourable position on the ballot paper ahead of the Liberal Party.

To implement these proposed changes in an orderly way, additional resources will be provided to the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct pre-election voter education campaigns and make the necessary changes to its current operating procedures and systems. For instance, in the past where the majority of electors voted above the line on Senate ballot papers, first preference counts were normally undertaken on election night at local polling booths. As the proposed Senate amendments will lead to multiple voter preferences being numbered above the line, preference counts at individual polling booths will no longer be possible. The bill proposes technical amendments for the scrutiny and count procedures to enable the AEC to improve and centralise the count of the Senate ballot papers.

Given the lead time of approximately three months required to implement these electoral changes, now is an appropriate time to consider this legislation with a view to having the bill passed by 17 March 2016, ahead of the parliamentary recess.

In summary, this bill contains a range of measures designed to prevent the gaming of the Australian electoral system. It is intended to combat the practices of registering political parties for the purpose of harvesting preferences and complex deal-making by the self-described 'preference whisperers'. It achieves this through the abolition of group and individual voting tickets, which resulted in unintended preference flows beyond the genuine intent and comprehension of the voter. These reforms are intended to counter the election of candidates who receive an extremely small proportion of the primary vote, in many cases less than one per cent, but who, under the current system, can gain election through preference accumulation as other candidates are eliminated.

As I outlined in my opening statements, the Senate is a house of review. It is the states' house in the Australian Federation. It is an integral part of our democracy. The Senate needs to function freely without undue influence by minorities holding the balance of power. The Senate should be neither a rubber stamp nor an insurmountable obstacle. The government of the day has a certain mandate to carry out this legislative program without facing unreasonable deadlocks and stalemates.

These proposed reforms give voters more control over the preference flows from their votes. The voter will determine where their preferences flow and at what point their preferences will cease to flow to candidates or political parties which they do not wish to support. The government is committed to electoral reform, which provides integrity, is simple and clear, and provides voters with the ability to express their intent. I commend the bill to the House.


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