Elections and voting

NT takes the democracy out of the democracy sausage

sausage-sizzle

Amongst all of the analysis that will undoubtedly follow the weekend’s Northern Territory election, one important issue has almost slipped past without mention. In the days leading up to the election the Northern Territory Electoral Commission launched a quiet attack on a great Australian tradition.

Earlier this year the NT Government amended the Electoral Act to prohibit canvassing for votes (and similar conduct) within 100 metres of a polling place. These amendments extended the previous exclusion zone from 10 metres to 100 metres. The amendments were intended to make the area surrounding a polling place apolitical. In the lead-up to the election, however, it became clear that the new laws would have an unintended consequence for that great Australian Election Day tradition – the democracy sausage.

The Northern Territory Electoral Commission sent out a newsletter to schools before the election warning them that sausage sizzles on Election Day were caught by the new laws. While sausage sizzles could occur within the 100 metre boundary, they had to be conducted apolitically. This meant that staff working at the BBQs “ must refrain from discussing political matters” and that the BBQs could not be manned by a party or candidate worker or even by a former politician.

The implied right to freedom of political communication that was discovered in the Constitution by the High Court of Australia over twenty years ago requires that any law burdening political communication must be reasonably appropriate and adapted to advancing a legitimate object. A law that bans anybody behind a polling booth BBQ from exchanging politically flavoured niceties with punters who are waiting for their sausage to cook, and that bans certain people from reaching for their BBQ tongs entirely is overkill, and constitutionally suspect.

Taking the democracy out of the democracy sausage in the Northern Territory is most likely unconstitutional but, more importantly, it is most definitely un-Australian.

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Enrol now or else!

maxgreenwich

Alex Greenwich MP


Almost every parent will at some stage applied the “if you don’t do a) you won’t get b)” formula with their children. Most parents also realise that, at some point, they need to stop the “if you don’t tidy your room you can’t watch TV” or “if you don’t eat your vegetables you won’t get dessert” routines and trust that, as their children reach adulthood, they can work out for themselves whether they want tidy rooms or vegetables.

However, at the same stage in young people’s lives that parents are moving away from using the formula, the independent member for Sydney in the NSW parliament, Alex Greenwich, wants the government to spring into action and adopt it.

At a recent meeting organised by the pop culture website Junkee, Greenwich suggested applying the formula to enrolling to vote. Under Greenwich’s plan, young adults would not be allowed to get a driver’s licence, or proof of age card, unless they have done the political equivalent of tidying their rooms and eating their vegies, by proving that they are on the electoral role.

Paradoxically, Greenwich is a supporter of lowering the voting age to 16, believing that young people have the maturity to vote, but then he wants to infantilise them, by saying that they need to be forced onto the roll.

Greenwich has suggested that one reason why young people were reluctant to enrol was fear of getting fined if they failed to vote. Of course, the obvious solution to this problem would be to make voting voluntary. However, politicians like Greenwich never err on the side of people making their own decisions when the opportunity to dream up a more coercive solution is available.

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The voting reform we need: make it voluntary

009133.an.image.ballot.boxAustralia’s voting system needs a shake-up. That’s the message that has been emanating from the political class, since a disparate group of micro-parties were elected in 2013.

Such calls have now spread to the state level, with The Age reporting on the pressure for reform within both of Victoria’s major parties.

The major parties are concerned by the election of minor and micro-party MPs, whose presence makes it harder for them to govern. This has led to a range of proposed reforms designed to reduce the presence of minor parties.

But there is one reform that’s not being discussed, the re-introduction of voluntary voting.

Voluntary voting existed in Australian until 1924 (on the federal level). Since then, voting in Australia has been compulsory, with non-compliance leading to a $20 fine (and ultimately much tougher court imposed sanctions).

Unlike proposals to toughen registration requirements, impose thresholds, or move to optional preferential voting (which does have its merits), voluntary voting would solve the problem at the heart of Australian politics: that major parties are failing to represent their constituents.

Forcing people to vote means that major parties are able to ignore their political base—who can be relied on to preference them above major competitors. As a result, elections are decided by an increasingly small number of swing voters in marginal seats.

Ideological differences disappear as parties run to the centre; choosing policies based on polling results from outer-suburb electorates in western Sydney and Queensland.

The interests of the rest of the country are largely ignored.

If voting was voluntary, parties would have to balance appealing to swing voters in the centre and appealing to their own political base. Campaigns that neglect either would be unlikely to succeed, and more electorates would be in play.

This would make Australian politicians far more representative of the voters who elect them.

Those opposed to compulsory voting frequently warn of the dangers of U.S. style hyper-polarization. But this is a misleading argument that ignores the fact that voluntary voting exists in the vast majority of western democracies, few of which have the level of polarization that exists in America.

This includes the U.K., Canada, and New Zealand—the most culturally and political similar countries to Australia. If these countries can gain the benefits of voluntary voting without hyper-polarization, then surely Australia can too.

If people are responsible enough to elect our politicians, then surely they should be given the choice of whether to vote. It would only be a good thing for Australia.

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Banning how-to-vote cards weakens democracy

The Queensland government is considering a ban on how to vote cards outside polling booths. This is madness – a clear and obvious threat to free expression in an electoral democracy. Australian elections are already incredibly highly regulated.

There are rules governing the timing of election advertisements and their format, rules governing spending, rules governing donations, and rules governing electoral material.

In my book I outlined the tenuous arguments made by electoral authorities in favour of these constraints. The Queensland government’s proposals are even less compelling. Democracy ought to be rowdy and enthusiastic. This is a sign of vibrancy not bad behaviour. Of course if it is demonstrated that some campaigners have been obstructing voters on their way to polling booths this is a matter for police rather than electoral control.

Still, this is at least practical compared to the Victorian Parliament’s investigation into whether it can regulate comment on elections on social media. As the Liberal MP Bernie Finn said “On social media it’s the wild, wild west. It’s anything goes.” Even if regulating free democratic speech online was desirable – and why would it be? – it would be utterly, utterly futile to try.

It is hard not to see the proposed changes in Queensland and Victoria as an undue threat to free expression in a healthy democracy. And not trivial ones either. Constraints on advertising and constraints on campaigning inevitably favour the incumbents.

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South Australian politicians change the electoral rules in their favour

Sometime later this week the South Australian parliament will rig its electoral system in favour of established parties.

The idea is to “prevent virtual unknown” candidates from taking a seat by stopping candidates from benefiting from preference distribution unless they have 2.5 per cent of the primary vote. InDaily has the details here. Of course the changes are being Continue Reading →

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