The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters today released its much anticipated interim report on its inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 federal election. The interim report deals with the Senate voting practices.
NSWCCL commends this hugely important report and supports its recommendations for urgently needed reform to the Senate electoral process.
The Senate electoral system is in disrepute. In the 2013 elections, fundamental democratic principles were breached. Consequently, NSWCCL has seen reform of the Senate voting processes as one of the most significant, current civil liberties issues and has made two submissions and appeared to give evidence to the Committee.
The Committee is appropriately scathing in its assessment of the 2013 procedures -as a few quotes from the Foreward well illustrate:
'The 2013 federal election will long be remembered as a time when our system of Senate voting let voters down.’
….‘Combined with pliable and porous party registration rules, the system of voting for a single party above the line and delegating the distribution of preferences to that party, delivered, in some cases, outcomes that distorted the will of the voter.’
'The ‘gaming’ of the voting system by many micro-parties created a lottery, where, provided the parties stuck together in preferencing each other (some of whom have polar opposite policies and philosophies) the likelihood of one succeeding was maximised.
Instead of a lottery ball popping out of a machine, in Victoria, a micro-party candidate popped out as the winner of a Senate seat.'
….‘These circumstances demand reform from this Parliament.'
'That is why for five months this Committee has worked in a bi-partisan way to suggest a course of action that will restore the will of the voter and ensure more transparency and confidence in Senate elections.’
Reform is clearly imperative and the Committee has responded with a strong and sensible set of recommendations.
Most importantly, it recommends a move to optional preferential above the line voting, partial optional preferential voting below the line and the abolition of group and individual voting tickets. Together these two reforms will remove the major distorting factors by making it easier for voters to cast a vote that reflects their preferences – leading to the election of a Senate that is more likely to truly reflect the preferences of the electorate – and reducing the opportunities for gaming of the Senate electoral system.
The Committee also recommends stronger requirements for party registration. These are reasonable provisions that will establish stronger criteria for ‘genuine’ parties and will apply to existing as well as new parties. Importantly, they are not so onerous as to materially inhibit the formation of new, small parties.
The NSWCCL position on electoral reform was developed from explicit principles which were consistent with civil liberties and democratic values. One important principle was that the registration and other requirements for parties must not erect material barriers to new candidates and parties contesting an election. With this in mind we recommended the minimum membership for party registration should be lifted from the current 500 to 750. The Committee recommends this be higher at 1500. This right balance on this issue is likely to be debated further.
The Committee leaves it to Government to find an appropriate mechanism to ensure candidates are residents of the state or territory they are seeking to represent.
The Committee has done its job well. We now look to the Government and Parliament to do their job and act on these recommendations quickly. The Australian people should not have to go to another election under the existing senate electoral system.
NSWCCL will do all it can to urge the Government and Parliament to implement these recommendations in this Parliamentary session.