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Ten steps to save the democracy

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Imagine being able to do this, free from canvassers at the door (Screenshot via YouTube)

There are certain logical steps we could take to fix Australia's flawed voting system, writes Adam Jacoby.

I WOULD NORMALLY be writing to you about a reimagined democracy, a new vision for what is possible. I would be decrying the erosions of the system and the need to brand our current system as a 200-year-old failed beta test. I would be ranting about the essence of genuine democracy and the inability for today’s politics and politicians to deliver it.

And, in all likelihood, I will come back to that again soon. For now though, I want to look at more practical interventions that we could undertake today that would dramatically enhance and protect the democracy. 

Below is a non-exhaustive list of fairly uncontroversial and (I would like to believe) sensible steps for which you would hope we could find bipartisan support from the two nicknamed leaders of Australia, ScoMo and Albo:

1. Fixed election dates. We need to move beyond a period where a sitting government can decide when we will go to an election (albeit within a predetermined window). We don’t need governments to be incentivised to manufacture news and activity or hide scandal or decisions in preparation for their election campaign. All candidates need certainty about when their campaigns will begin and when the community has a chance to have its collective voice heard. I am yet to hear an overwhelming reason not do have fixed election dates and I would love to know, for example, that every three years the election is held on the second Saturday in May.

2. Political advertising window. If we have a fixed election weekend that everyone can plan around, then we should further restrict the advertising window that the parties are allowed to advertise to us. I suggest that there should be no election campaign advertising on any media channel (print, digital, television, outdoor or radio) the week before the election and they should not be allowed to advertise earlier than three weeks out from the election. This would provide all political parties and candidates a maximum of two weeks of campaign propaganda and we, the voters, would have a full week without advertisements to make our minds up.

3. Debates. Now that we have fixed elections and a dark window of seven days prior to the election, this is the period when the Leaders’ debates should take place. I propose three debates in the final week. I also propose that the debate expand beyond just the Liberal and Labor parties if there are parties attracting 5% of the vote (Nationals, Greens, One Nation) then voters should be able to size them up under the scrutiny of tough policy questions and understand who these parties are rather than who their advertising says they are.

Further, all costed budgets would need to be disclosed a week before debate week to ensure proper scrutiny of the candidates in the final week of the campaign, while free from propaganda advertising. Finally, I propose that one of the three debates must always be on the national broadcaster, the ABC. The other two can be a competitive tender by networks and the winners will need to meet key criteria such as accessibility to the broadest audience, objective format and questions, non-partisan hosts and so forth.

4. Election day canvassing. The AEC has found 87 instances of breaches of election laws during the last election. Unsurprisingly, there will be little to no consequence for these breaches. There is a really simple solution to this problem. The first is that no canvassers, volunteers or party staff be allowed to solicit voters at election booths or outside voting locations. I propose that no signs, sandwich boards or banners be allowed outside polling booths at all and inside each voting location and that only AEC signage be visible.

Additionally, a single poster-sized how to vote card for every party/candidate is provided in the election hall for everyone to see and each voter receives a printed pamphlet with every party how to vote card when they sign in. Only AEC staff should be able to instruct voters how to vote based on those cards (and only if asked).

5. Truth in media laws. We are in desperate need of laws that ensure media organisations are restricted in spreading false and misleading information to voters. This can be overt lies about policy or allowing the falsehoods of others going unchecked and unchallenged. Further, we need a clear process for separating opinion from reporting. If media entities want to promote their opinions and those opinions are not supported by facts then they should have to disclose that.

Further, if any media entity breaches these rules, consequences should include bans from hosting debates, financial penalties and in the most severe cases, revocation of media licenses. Both New Zealand and Canada have instituted truth in media laws with great effect. There can be no democracy without an informed (as opposed to misinformed) constituency.

6. Truth in campaign laws. This intervention would make it illegal for candidates to deliberately misinform voters. We should strengthen AEC authority to ensure candidates are not deliberately misinforming voters. Like the media reforms suggested above, we must end the days of candidates and parties telling half-truths, cherry-picking facts and reports and delivering propaganda to sway voters. And candidates found to have misinformed voters would have to make a public correction — these corrections can assist voters on determining who is trustworthy and who trades in lies.

7. Overhaul media ownership laws. This action is absolutely critical if we are to protect our democracy. Australia has one of the most concentrated media ownership markets in the world and, incredibly, the largest media group in the country is owned by foreign interests with partisan desires. I propose that not more than 30% of a local market and not more than two platforms should be owned by the same media group. Further, no single group should be able to own more than 40% of the national market in any one channel category (such as television, radio and newspapers). Diversity of perspective is not luxury in a democracy, it is a necessity.

8. Live, real-time transparency on all donations. This is an obvious intervention and one that the MiVote movement has been calling for over many years. The Greens have adopted this model and the ALP are seriously considering it. The current system makes it impossible to know who is actively contributing to our political parties in real time.

I propose that the AEC be the custodian of a single digital donation platform (clearing house) for all political parties and candidates and that the platform provides real-time transparency on every donation. Further, the AEC should have significant audit rights for all parties and candidates to ensure that they are not receiving any donations outside of the monitored and transparent donation platform. 

9. No corporate or lobby group donations. Another MiVote commitment adopted by the Greens is to stop all corporations and lobby groups from making donations to political parties. If a vested interest is able to make significant donations to affect policy outcomes based purely on their financial resource (as opposed to the value and facts underpinning its policy position), then democracy cannot exist. Further, if a political party cannot attract donations from individual constituents, perhaps it doesn’t deserve its protected position in the system.

10. Make it easier and not harder for independents to get elected. The existing system is protecting the major parties and presenting undemocratic challenges for independents to win seats in Parliament. The risk of having fringe and populist independents in Parliament is ludicrous when you consider that the Government itself partnered with some of the most dangerous and repugnant parties on offer to voters. If the other suggestions on this list were instituted and independents had to provide facts, could not mislead voters and were fairly scrutinised by the media, the quality of independent candidates and community representation would increase putting pressure on parties to deliver to the electorate or face tough competition from a credible and familiar local choice.

This is not an exhaustive list of the changes we could and should make to our deeply flawed political environment, but it is a start. I do not hold much hope that the Government would adopt any of these suggestions, but perhaps the opposition, minor parties and the independents can unite to drive these changes. If not, they will become the underpinning policy commitments of my 2022 Senate campaign in Victoria.

You can follow Adam Jacoby on Twitter @adamajacoby.

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