A golfing friend told me this week that he had been door-knocked during the campaign – ‘by Peter Dutton himself’. He wondered why the sitting MP would visit him, but quickly worked it out. He had filled in a form for a postal vote – a form sent out by, and then returned to, the Liberal National Party.
The Australian Electoral Commission does not mass-mail postal vote application forms. This is done only by the major parties. This opens one of the insidious ways in which our political parties are able to infiltrate the supposedly neutral electoral system. They update their data on electors who return their forms before forwarding them to the AEC.
The political parties and their MPs have electronic copies of the official electoral rolls. They are able to refresh and expand the information the rolls contain with every contact a voter has with their MP or party, for example when they make representations to government concerning social security or health or immigration matters or apply for a postal vote. They have special exemptions under the Privacy Act that provide them with access and limit their accountability – voters are unable to find out just how much of their personal information is held, or to check whether it is correct. More than 10 years ago the Australian Law Reform Commission called foul on these arrangements. Not surprisingly, governments of both persuasions ignored the ALRC’s recommendations.
This is one of many related areas of our governance that impacts on the electoral system that is in desperate need of reform.
Government advertising, for example. For months before the Parliament was finally dissolved this year, the Federal Government spent millions on ‘feel-good’ advertising telling us how much better off we were because of changes to the tax system and to employment changes. This was political advertising, meant to help the image of the then government. It should not have been allowed. Such advertising should have ceased three to six months before the election was called – assuming that it ever had some purpose other than a partisan party political one. I would be surprised, actually, if anyone thought there was any other such purpose.
Or take the expenditure by MPs and Senators of printing allowances on campaign materials. Or the use of government paid travel and other allowances for electioneering.
After every election the government of the day refers to the parliamentary joint standing committee on electoral matters (as it is currently called) a review of the conduct of the previous election. The committee and its review have their uses, but they are limited. This is because the members of the committee, and the government that considers its recommendations, wear blinkers. They want to have the best possible system that works in their own political interests. The views of the electors, the interests of the electors, are not of much, if any, concern.
In 1952, 1955 and 1959 then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies decided that it was no longer appropriate that parliamentarians should decide what their own salaries should be. He appointed external committees (mainly of businessmen) to make recommendations to the government about salaries and allowances for MPs and Senators. The system was institutionalised after a further inquiry headed by Sir John Kerr in 1971 and we now have a Remuneration Tribunal that fixes all manner of salaries at the Commonwealth level, including those of our federal (and many State) politicians.
Its time for a similar non-parliamentary review of the way elections work. Politicians can’t be trusted to put the public interest ahead of their own convenience. They have a conflict of interests, and the interests of the voters are ignored.
We don’t need a Royal Commission; we don’t even need a permanent body like the Remuneration Tribunal. Just a one-off inquiry by informed people who aren’t beholden to the government, or indeed to politicians (or political parties) generally.
My pick would be a retired Electoral Commissioner as chair, together with a constitutional expert with experience in government and either the Privacy Commissioner or someone with non-political community ties. Their task would be to revise and propose changes to the rules surrounding our election processes, such as the matters mentioned here.
It won’t happen, but it should.
In passing, an update on the bookmakers’ odds for Queensland electorates in the coming election : There have been some changes. There are now just five LNP electorates (Bonner, Dickson, Forde, Flynn and Petrie) where punters are putting their money on the ALP to win, and one Labor seat (Herbert) to go the other way.
Dr David Solomon AM is a former journalist and author.