Election 2013 Essays: The state of Australian democracy

All Australians should have a right to fulfill their democratic duty this Saturday, regardless of wealth or status. AAP/Dean Lewins

Election 2013 Essays: As the federal election campaign draws to a close, The Conversation asked eminent thinkers to reflect on the state of the nation and the challenges Australia – and whichever party wins government – faces in the future. Today, Marian Sawer writes on what this election campaign reveals about the state of two of Australia’s key democratic processes: the electoral roll and campaign finance.


Given that Australian voters will do their democratic duty by heading to the polls this Saturday, now seems a perfect time to pause and ask: what does the 2013 federal election tell us about the health of Australian democracy?

With politicians increasingly prone to meddle with laws surrounding the electoral roll and the power of money in our political campaigns, the pulse of Australia’s democracy may not be as strong as we had once thought.

Electoral roll

At the beginning of the 20th century there was no doubt about Australia’s democratic leadership. In 1903, through a massive nation-wide effort, Australia enrolled more of its population to vote in the forthcoming election than any country had done before. Commonwealth electoral officials estimated that 96% of the adult population, including both women and men, were now on the roll.

The cause was further advanced in 1911 when enrolment was made compulsory, largely at the urging of the Chief Electoral Officer. Australia pioneered the creation of professional electoral administrators with a professional interest in the achievement of an electoral roll that was comprehensive as well as accurate.

How does Australia compare in 2013? Since the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) ceased door-knocking to register voters (in 1999) we have experienced a “shrinking roll”. At its worst, up to 1.5 million eligible voters were missing from the roll. Reliance on data matching meant the AEC had become very good at removing voters who were no longer at their registered address, but not nearly as good at getting them back onto the roll. There were anachronistic requirements for voters to sign and return paper enrolment forms.

Unlike other democracies, the AEC could not use the data at its disposal simply to enrol eligible voters at the right address. This situation was exacerbated by the amendment of the Electoral Act in 2006 to close the rolls on the day the writs were issued. Many Australians were only prompted to enrol or re-enrol by the announcement of an election and were now disenfranchised. We had fallen well behind other democracies who allowed enrolment up to the day of the election (Canada) or the day before (New Zealand).

Pressure mounted to repair this democratic deficit. One of the top demands of Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit in 2008 - and of the Youth Summit that preceded it - was for direct enrolment. But it is difficult to gain bipartisan agreement for any action concerning the roll. Conservative parties tend to argue that making it easier to get onto the roll opens up the possibility of electoral fraud. However, making it more difficult has a disproportionate effect on young people and disadvantaged sections of the community.

Online activist group GetUp! took matters into its own hands with two successful High Court actions in 2010. One overturned the early close of the roll, with a majority finding this was an unreasonable restriction of the universal franchise. The other decision upheld the validity of electronic signatures and hence allowed online enrolment.

Of even greater long-term significance, the Commonwealth Electoral Act was finally amended in 2012 to allow the Electoral Commissioner to update details or directly enrol new voters after informing them of his intent.

The combination of direct enrolment, restoration of the week to enrol after the issuing of writs and the possibility of enrolling online contributed to record enrolment for the 2013 election. In the week after election was called, over 162,000 people were added to the roll and nearly 490,000 updated their enrolment. Over 85% of these enrolments and updates were done online. The shrinking roll was finally being reversed, although the percentage of eligible voters enrolled had still not returned to the 1903 level.

Campaign finance

Unfortunately, all these voters restored to the roll were then exposed to an election campaign unlikely to boost their faith in the democratic process.

One of the reasons for this is the huge increase in the role of money in Australian election campaigns since the removal of limits on political expenditure in the early 1980s. There has also been a growing arms race involving television advertising and other new campaign weapons.

A majority of European countries, including the UK, do not allow paid political advertising. They uphold the principle of a level playing field and allocate broadcast time in accordance with a fairness criterion rather than the power of the purse. The problems with allowing such advertising include not only the damage to the equality principle, but also the increased dependence of political parties on wealthy donors.

Public funding was intended to lessen this dependence, but in Australia the major parties simply added corporate funding on top. In the election year 2010-11 the Liberal Party alone received income of A$105 million, 80% of which was from corporations or wealthy individuals. Dependence on large donors not only brings suspicion of undue influence but pays for the negative advertising that serves to bring the whole of democratic politics into disrepute.

Bankrolled by his millions, the arrival of the likes of Clive Palmer into Australian politics is only a recent phenomenon in this country. AAP/Dave Hunt

In 2013, the major parties reached an agreement behind closed doors that would at least improve the disclosure of political donations. There was a public outcry when it was revealed that substantial “administrative” funding for parties was part of the package to compensate them for the alleged costs of disclosure. The bill was dropped but not before adding to the distrust of political parties.

As this example shows, the loss of trust in parties and politicians is not only about access purchased by corporate donors or unions. It is also about the misuse of public money for party purposes. The spike in government advertising in election years, such as this year’s full page asylum seeker advertisements, is one blatant example.

There is also the use of parliamentary allowances for electioneering purposes, which has become the norm. Even training in the use of party databases has been paid for under the Parliamentary Entitlements Act. It gives an unfair advantage to incumbents, as well as diverting public resources for party benefit.

Political parties now also launch their campaigns in the last couple of weeks of a campaign because of the convention that they can charge electioneering to the public purse until the actual launch. This means people are voting at pre-poll voting centres before political parties have revealed their official campaign policies.

In 1903, money had a much smaller role and there was no scope for billionaires like Clive Palmer. The Labor Party’s Manifesto proudly promoted the new Electoral Act:

Elaborate precautions exist to prevent wealthy men practically purchasing seats: the expenditure of a senatorial candidate is limited to £250 and of a candidate for the other House to £100.

Full reports of the campaign speeches of party leaders appeared in the newspapers, covering the major issues of free trade and protection, the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, White Australia and even nationalisation of monopolies. Three parties were treated as serious contenders, unlike the leadership debates of 2013, which have involved only two leaders.

In many ways Australia has lost its vanguard status as a democracy. Our electoral administration continues to be the envy of the world, with its completely professional and non-partisan approach. Unfortunately, our electoral legislation is in the hands of political leaders who again and again place short-term party interests over the longer-term interests of electoral democracy.

It is a sad day when decisions to ensure voting rights have to come from the High Court.


This is the second article in our Election 2013 Essays series. Stay tuned for the other instalments in the lead-up to Saturday’s election.

Part one: Australia and the world

Part three: It’s the economy, stupid

Part four: What is government for?

Part five: The philosophy of voting

Part six: Australia for the long term