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How will electoral reform shape the September election?

Following the prime minister’s surprise announcement of a federal election for September 14, attention will inevitably fall on the role Labor’s key electoral reforms may play in the coming contest. Alongside…

Direct enrolment could mean a longer queue at the ballot box. AAP/Dave Hunt

Following the prime minister’s surprise announcement of a federal election for September 14, attention will inevitably fall on the role Labor’s key electoral reforms may play in the coming contest. Alongside a plethora of routine updates, the most significant change this government has made has been the long-overdue overhaul of Australia’s electoral enrolment procedures. Also contentious, but far less significant in impact, will be proposed reforms to political donations.

In Australia, electoral enrolment is compulsory. But over the past decade enrolment has declined alarmingly, to the degree that last year upwards of 1.5 million eligible Australians were estimated to be missing from the roll. There are two reasons for this figure – many Australians simply don’t enrol in the first place, and through the limits of legislation and funding the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) was proving more effective at getting voters off the roll than back onto it.

Last year the Parliament passed legislation establishing a system of direct, computer-assisted enrolment, re-enrolment and roll maintenance. Essentially, this new system allows the AEC to initiate enrolment, using the same trusted information from the likes of Centrelink and road and traffic authorities that was previously used to mail out and process enrolment forms and remove voters from the roll when they moved house.

This echoed similar state-level systems adopted by New South Wales and Victoria, and was to a degree necessitated by them due to, as psephologist Antony Green notes, an emerging divergence between the state and commonwealth electoral rolls. Such systems are not uncommon internationally, and direct enrolment is an important step in keeping Australia’s electoral system up to date.

Nonetheless, the move was met with predictable outrage from the opposition, with senior Coalition frontbencher Christopher Pyne labelling it a Labor rort that would “undermine democracy hideously”, perhaps spurred by analysis suggesting it could cost the Coalition a number of seats.

But is this worry justified? It is assumed that as the problem of enrolment is biggest among the young and the mobile, increasing enrolment will disproportionately benefit Labor and the Greens, due to their greater appeal among these voters.

Yet this is not an argument against reform in itself, nor is it a given. The ALP has not always been the party of the young, nor has the Coalition always been unable to connect with these demographics. Indeed, recent polling across marginal seats, where the election will be won, suggests the Coalition is more popular among voters aged 18-34 than aged 35-55. It is perhaps a safer bet that these reforms will lead, at least initially, to a further drop in turnout and increase in informality, as Direct Enrolment will surely cover many who have not enrolled because they have no interest in electoral participation, or fundamentally oppose compulsion.

Regardless, the hypothetical effects of full enrolment will not be seen at this election. The AEC has been open about its caution in implementing the new system. A progressive rollout only commenced late last year, beginning with a pilot program in Tasmania, and while the new system will be in operation in all states and territories by the time of the election, the AEC estimates that it will take two to three election cycles to enrol even one third of the missing voters.

A second reform, currently before the senate, will lower the threshold above which donations to political parties must be reported to somewhere near $1000. This is a return to the level in operation prior to 2005, when the Howard government increased it to $10,000, plus indexation. The return was first flagged in the Rudd government’s 2008 Electoral Reform Green Paper, and is an important first step towards greater transparency in a system that is currently as clear as mud.

Any impact on the coming election will, however, be minor. Lower thresholds did not discourage donations in the past, and without spending caps the advertising arms race will continue.

Nor can the system be considered transparent in any meaningful way. While more donations may need to be disclosed, we will not hear about them until well after the next parliament is underway. It is only this coming Friday that we will learn about the donations parties received in the 2011-2012 financial year, some of which were made more than 18 months ago.

In the modern era, when donation information can be made available within days, there is no excuse for a finance regime this opaque.

It seems crazy, but it could take until 2015 to find out how electoral reform shaped the poll on September 14 this year.

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. Anne Cooper


    The Michael Kroger/ Barbara Ramjan defamation case is looming and I suspect that will expose some nasty truths about the shenanigans and characters at Sydney Uni when Abbott lorded about the campus. I imagine the revelations will further erode his standing. So maybe the Libs will have to get a new leader. Meanwhile Gillard's strength and courage continues to impress and amaze... and did I mention her extraordinary record? As Anna Burke said on RN last Sunday, this parliament has seen more private members bills passed, and featured more negotiation, conciliation and compromise than any previous one. Rather than having a single bloc with the ability to ignore a large swath of representatives, isnt that what a parliament actually SHOULD do?
    People seem to apologise for admiring Gillard (see SMH letters this morning). Thats what needs to be worked on.

  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Don't you just love this place?

    We decide on the election date based in part on estimates of Collingwood getting into the finals. Grand Final day is just out regardless of the 'Pies' fortunes.

    We apparently have a "first bloke" ... I think it should be made official... part of the constitution.... a wonderfully Aussie way of dealing with modernity and complex families... or, as Thelma 2 puts it - that's what happens when you elect a hussy.

    Australia in January - fires, floods and fooling about.

  3. Whyn Carnie

    Retired Engineer

    Any electoral reforms proposed by Julia's mob will only be proposed if the advantage the ALP. The funding limit requirements are only there to ensure ALP-suporting unions can continue to prop up this dysfuinctional government while other parties have a vastly increased paperwork load imposed on them. Real electoral reform would see diminution of party powers and control and a return to the scene of many more truly Independent representatives.

    Even the announcement of an election yesterday date is a cynical attempt to gain political advantage not clear the air for Julia's planned 'debates on policies'. Even I know that until the writs are issued there is no inescapable date set. If the polls give her any hope and succor in the interim I'd bet she will make the drive to her mate the GG the next day. She told us there would be no CTax too, remember.

  4. wilma western

    logged in via email

    The Opposition and MSM have been campaigning ever since Rudd was replaced . Selecting a date within the constraints of avoiding a half Senate election , completing a full 3 year term , and as tradition always has it avoiding major sporting events is hardly astonishing though announcing it early is. Strangely enough business types have been quite appreciative of a bit of "certainty" about the date and surely local branches of political parties will appreciate this. Of course several states have fixed parliamentary terms so election dates are always known anyway.

    The PM's bold move ceratinly hasn't prevented an outbreak of Rudd challenge rubbish by the same outlets ( including our dear Aunty) that blew a gasket over Tim's faux pas but it will all die down soon.

    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to wilma western

      All good points - thanks Wilma - and, as a card-carrying prostate owner, I thought Tim's little gaffe, though clunky and not-quite-thought-through, was moderatly amusing and far from offensive and may, in the end, have given more and better publicity to the issue than a more measured speech. At least it was refreshingly unscripted and obviously well-intentioned.

  5. Luke Freeman
    Luke Freeman is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Good on Rob Hoffman for posting this. The more awareness of the shamble that is political campaign finance in Australia, the better!

    "What Money Can't Buy" by Michael J Sandel is a great book on the topic from a US perspective (which is quite similar).

  6. bill parker


    I wonder how important elections are. We are in for eight months of tedious diatribes, mud slinging and all of it waste of energy, money and more.

    Even the business of donations is hardly going to change things.

    So why do i ask how important elections are. Because of the corporatisation of virtually everything and the control the corporations have over us. They dictate terms to government, not us.

    1. Luke Freeman
      Luke Freeman is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to bill parker

      It is an electoral finance arms race. Studies show very clearly that those with more money win more elections. Studies and anecdote also show that those who refuse to compromise their stance for political donations don't get the donations.

      Finance reforms are probably the best way of separating corporate interests from government.

      These ones don't nearly go far enough though.

    2. Whyn Carnie

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Luke Freeman

      Luke, but why stop at corporate interests and finance? What about union influence and their huge financial resources?

    3. gary hudson

      retired engineer

      In reply to bill parker

      Bill, it is not before time that we Australians realise that politics should not be considered a source of sensational entertainment and that we must elect politicians to deliver good governance. It is not the popular, short term "WANTS" of individuals/groups and corporates, but the long term "NEEDS" of this and future generations that must be MANAGED by parliament. If our electoral process provided for "government by the people and for the people" there would be a space on the ballot paper to allow…

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    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Whyn Carnie

      Whyn, the legislation doesn't ignore any donors, whether corporate, eclesiatical, industrial or individual.

    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to gary hudson

      Gary, there's a lot of white paper on a ballot and you are given a pencil...I've done quite a bit of scrutineering over the years and the one thing that unites all the scrutineers, regardless of which party they represent, is the shared amusement at the best 'Why don't youse all get f@#%ed!' scrawl.

      And I agree that there is merit in independents, but it's pretty hard for an individual to compete with a big party machine - another good reason to try to move away from donations and consider a simple equal level of taxpayer funding for all candidates and no additional expenditure allowed - a tad Stalinist, I'll concede, but it might just be effective! But imagine if every candidate was given five minutes on the telly and 500 words in a government-printed and distributed flyer (with any other flyers being illegal)...time to stop dreaming...

  7. William Raper


    Wouldn't it be lovely to be able to read, see and hear details of political party donations BEFORE the voting day!

  8. Jon Simpson

    Rtd museum director

    I have long regarded the AEC as an inefficient and slow organization, however this is has to be one of the stupidest situations I have ever heard of.

    Why does it take the AEC twelve years (3 electoral cycles) to recruit 500,000 missing voters representing a third of all missing voters, particularly when NSW alone can apparently collect 125,000 missing voters in something under 2 years? How inefficient is it possible to be?

    Why are there seperate electoral roles for NSW and Victoria which…

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  9. bill parker


    Gary Hudson spot on! No acceptable candidate.