Paying Attention To The Rules Of The Election Game: John Warhurst

This is an article on electoral laws, electoral reform and electoral donations by John Warhurst, an academic at the Australian National University.

The article was published in the Canberra Times on June 29, 2001. Copyright is held by the newspaper and the author.

Text of article in the Canberra Times by John Warhurst.

Paying Attention To The Rules Of The Election Game

Democracy relies on effective and fair elections, and the rules governing elections are enshrined in electoral law.

The hardest thing to excite most students of politics about is electoral law.

That’s because it is widely and mistakenly believed to be about dry and technical issues rather than the more exciting big picture. Yet its importance to election outcomes can be absolutely crucial.

The best strategists pay great attention to the rules of the game. They know that they can make all the difference between winning and losing close contests.

Often the “hard men” of the political parties are the ones that take an interest in electoral law. The subject matter may be technical but it is definitely political.

The very existence of independent electoral commissions, at both the Commonwealth and state levels, to administer elections demonstrates just how careful the political system is about enforcing its basic rules.

The common description of electoral systems is that they translate votes into seats. This generally means the choice of voting systems, either multi-member proportional representation systems or single-member preferential systems.

Yet equally important are other aspects of electoral law. These include the determination of eligible voters, the format of the ballot paper, the eligibility of candidates to stand for election and to be eligible for public funding of their campaigns, and the regulation of donations to political parties. There is something in electoral law for just about everyone.

Recently, as elections approach in both the ACT and the Commonwealth, there’s been action in each jurisdiction. Changes have just been introduced in the ACT and a parliamentary committee has recommended changes at the Commonwealth level.

There are different types of politics involved. In particular, different coalitions emerge between allies and enemies.

The first involves the common interests of the major parties against everyone else: the minor parties, Independents and the community. This was exemplified in the recent decisions in the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The major political parties united to alter the scrutiny of disclosure of donations. These changes will lead to lesser public scrutiny of the process by raising the threshold limit, beyond which donors of individual amounts must be named, from $500 to $1500.

The major parties also agreed to raise the election-funding threshold from 2 per cent to 4 per cent of the vote and to tighten the party registration scheme to require political parties to demonstrate that they have 100 members on the ACT electoral roll. The latter is unnecessarily high in a small community like the ACT.

The second type of politics is competition between the major parties. There was some of this in the ACT. Labor objected to the introduction of a scheme to register group names as distinct from party names. This change was beneficial to, and supported by, those Independent MLAs currently supporting the Government.

But major party competition has been best exemplified by the dispute in the Commonwealth Parliament within the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

This committee, chaired by South Australian Liberal MP Christopher Pyne, has investigated the implications for the Commonwealth of the electoral rorts within the Queensland Labor Party.

Its work is potentially so politically important that Dennis Shanahan, political correspondent of the Australian, reckons that it might be the making of Pyne’s career.

According to Shanahan, “We are seeing a political star in the ascendant.” Pyne, an inexperienced back-bencher, has chaired a committee that includes those “hard and experienced” men, Senator John Faulkner and Senator Andrew Murray.

The majority committee report into the integrity of the electoral roll has proposed reforms that have annoyed Labor. The most controversial proposal is to close the electoral rolls on the day an election is called rather than a few days later.

This would certainly help to tighten up the roll because it would give the Australian Electoral Commission more time to verify the eligibility of voters.

But it would also effectively disenfranchise many thousands of newly eligible young voters who at the moment often only get around to enrolling once the election is called. As Labor does better than the Coalition among younger voters, this reform could damage it.

The report also calls for one vote, one value in elections within political parties. This threatens those state branches of the Labor Party where unions are over-represented, but, according to Labor, it also threatens affirmative-action policies within parties.

If the Coalition alliance with the Democrats holds up, then the report’s ideas might quickly find their way into law before the elections.

What should be the general principles for electoral-law reform?

Considerable informed public discussion should be the first. Democracy can only benefit from close attention to the rules governing the game. That’s hard to get, given the subject matter. And the political parties are usually happy to do without it anyway.

An electoral system that is rort-proof should be the second.

Few doubt that this is largely already the case, though the small H. S. Chapman Society is one organisation that does.

It will soon be relaunching its publication The Frauding of Votes, by Dr Amy McGrath, a book that claims that vote fraud is so widespread in Australia that the results of whole elections should be considered doubtful.

The Joint Committee report does not support this view, and most informed analysts believe that the Chapman Society is badly mistaken.

Third, the system should protect the wider public and potential candidates against self-interested behaviour by the major parties and the other established parliamentary representatives.

The system should not reinforce the advantages possessed by those lucky enough to already be in Parliament.

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