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Our political culture is rotting at its core

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Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons

Australia's outmoded electoral system must change if we are to see the end of dirty tactics like branch stacking, writes Dr Klaas Woldring.

THE JOINT Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) of the House of Representatives recently issued a set of recommendations:

  1. 'To maximise voter choice compulsory preferential voting should be replaced by optional preferential voting.'
  2. 'To increase fairness and to reduce the luck of the ballot draw while minimising the so-called donkey vote, the Robson Rotation of candidates on the ballot paper should be introduced for the House of Representatives in tandem.'
  3. 'Voter ID should be introduced for all voters with savings measures similar to provisional votes. Likewise, all electoral enrolments, whether new or changes should require proof of ID.'
  4. 'The pre-poll voting period should be reduced from three weeks to a maximum of two weeks. Voters who choose to vote early should be required to explain why they are unable to attend on the day rather than it being a matter of convenience.' 
  5. 'The Electoral Act ['The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918'should be completely rewritten to make it fit for purpose. A new offence of political violence, both physical and verbal should be introduced.'

At best this is another exercise in ineffectual piecemeal tinkering.

The Greens wrote a dissenting report, stating

'Instead, the majority report presents a vitriolic attack on democracy and on those voices that the government perceives as threatening their business model. It ignores the numerous submissions calling for campaign finance reform and misses the opportunity to promote more rigour in claims made in political advertising. The Chair’s anti-democratic, ideological frolic is entirely unsupported by the evidence presented at hearings to the inquiry.'

The Australian Labour Party (ALPcommented as follows: 

'Labor is a strong defender of Australia’s compulsory voting system and we oppose the removal of compulsory preferential voting. Compulsory voting is the cornerstone of Australian democracy and is known to improve satisfaction with democracy. The Chair’s recommendation for optional preferential voting is a clear attack on compulsory voting at a time when we need it the most.' 

Furthermore, the ALP was very disappointed that there were no recommendations for greater transparency of political donations. 

The JSCEM's claim that Australia is a successful democracy is highly questionable. Australia is a struggling democracy in need of "real" electoral and other reforms.  

The surprising first recommendation is clearly even a step backwards as applied to the House of Representatives. The JSCEM does not include representation at all of the around 30% of voters who now prefer to vote for a minor party or independents even though success is unlikely. This is the direct result of the single-member district electoral system that is used in Australia — an archaic relic of the Westminster heritage, grossly favouring the two major parties.

This system was rejected by most newly independent countries in the 1960s and 1970s and, again, after the abandonment of the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Australians know very little about the party-list system of proportional representation (PL). It is quite unlike the Hare-Clark system of proportional representation (not widely used in the world).

Proportional representation (PR) has been used in 89 countries including New Zealand since 1996. It is based on multi-member electorates. Parties gain seats in real proportion to their vote.

Surely, this is a very fair system — fairness being a key value in Australia society. One would hope that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) would point this out to the population and commence an extensive education campaign. The Commission has the power to make far-reaching recommendations of its own and could recommend real, meaningful reforms.  

Within the single-member district system, "pork barrelling" has become the norm — a serious consequence of that system. It clearly involves massive misuse of public funds. The dominant electoral system of Australia altogether generates the potential for corruption by donations to the major parties.

Federally, the sports rorts saga revealed politically unethical behaviour by then Minister for Sport Bridget McKenzie in allocating grants in a way favourable to aid the party in Government.

In NSW the media later reported that Liberal Party Premier Gladys Berejiklian allocated 95% of the Stronger Communities Fund to councils and community organisations sympathetic to the NSW Coalition Government, prior to the 2019 state election. Greens' Member of the Legislative Council David Shoebridge reported the matter to the Independent Commission Against Corruption in May 2020.

What about branch stacking? It is absent in proportional election systems. When it comes to replacing Members of Parliament (MP) there are no (costly) by-elections. Candidates who just missed out at the previous election replace the departing MP.  Gerrymandering is of course hardly doable in multi-member electorates. It is absent in PR/PL systems.

However, the ALP still does not support proportional representation/party-list as an alternative and superior system. Does it want to win the next election or not, I wonder? This is where the political future of Australia lies. The ALP did introduce Hare-Clark PR to the Senate in 1949.

Australians should proceed with a major electoral system change. Sure, the Greens would benefit from this in particular and they deserve that electoral success. They now have one MP in the House of Representatives only, whereas in a proportional system they would have around 15 MPs on the basis of 10% of the total vote. That would only be fair.

The ALP would undoubtedly also benefit on account of its policy initiative and an ALP/Green coalition government would be a likely and beneficial outcome for Australia. Currently, several ALP seats were won on strong Green preferences.

For the ALP, it's high time to wake up! Workers in the phased-out coal mines can be compensated and/or re-trained. Governing in “your own right” has well and truly become old hat! That mentality is holding the ALP back for no good reason.

When it comes to debating alternative governance systems, the Australian media needs to take a lead in alerting people to major renewal possibilities — this includes the ABC which, after all, has “education" in its charter

Thus far, very little in the way of major governance system change is discussed by the media. The lack of trust in politicians, pork-barrelling and branch stacking is widely reported and criticised but renewal initiatives, in the main, are not published and discussed. This is not just the reactionary Murdoch press but also others.

The general model of improvement and reform revolves around the piecemeal tinkering mode. That mindset has to change significantly. Major system change is needed not just with the electoral system, but also the Federation, the Constitution, industrial relations and, finally, of course, the Republic.

To think that we can just continue to argue whether or not an Australian president should be directly or indirectly elected is to miss the point about Australia’s democracy crisis completely. Sure, COVID-19 is still the main issue discussed by the media, but well before the next election, Australians need to insist on fixing their democracy and, also, insist on competence in government. That can only come primarily via the ALP and the Greens, in unison and in coalition with other progressive parties and independents.

Australia needs a new political culture. This won’t come from piecemeal tinkering.

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor at Southern Cross University. He is a committee member of ABC Friends, Central Coast.

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