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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON ELECTORAL MATTERS
21/08/2006
Civics and electoral education

CHAIR —Welcome. We do not require you to give evidence under oath, but we expect you to treat this as a meeting of the parliament itself, and I am sure that you will do that. We have received quite a detailed written submission from you. Do you want to present any additional information or make a short opening statement?

Mr Goode —I have a little transcript here of what I am going to say in an opening statement broadly. I would like to hand one to each member of the committee.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Mr Goode —Also, if the committee members would be interested, I can give them a copy of a DVD that we will be mentioning.

CHAIR —We will get that right now.

Mr Goode —And, if people could indicate whether they are interested, we have got this rather interesting little thing called a gerrymander wheel. It is just a little educational tool.

Senator MASON —Oh, I am interested in that!

Senator HOGG —I knew you would be!

Mrs MIRABELLA —As a Queenslander, Senator Mason is particularly interested.

Senator HOGG —Not all Queenslanders—

Mr Goode —This will be referred to later. I will give you five of these.

CHAIR —You have certainly got our attention! This is terrific.

Mr Goode —This is just to introduce us. The society is the Victoria-Tasmania branch of the national society. We appreciate being invited. We refer to our submission, No. 60, and mention that the national society made a later submission, No. 103, which is also on your website. We have introduced ourselves. Geoff Powell is a former society president. He is a former secondary school teacher. He happened to have Peter Costello as one of his pupils for two years. Geoff has given up teaching now. He is a principal of Knowledge Online (Aust) Ltd, which specialises in software and internet material for educational purposes. That is his business. He has here some examples.

Perhaps if it takes too long we might omit some of these. These are the possibilities. The first is a five-minute video called Take a Vote—Make it Fair. It explains to school students certain features of our electoral systems and why they have developed. The interesting thing about this is that it is one of some 4,000 online learning objects that we will mention later that the Commonwealth has funded, but it is the only one out of the 4,000 that we could find on electoral matters, for educational purposes.

Another possibility is to show you—to give you a taste of it—a one-minute excerpt from the 10-minute PR video that we have handed out to you on DVD. Then, just to change pace a little and to give you the flavour of these 4,000 learning objects, we can show you one on the gold rush. It is a historical one. There are ones on history, science, maths and all sorts of things but only one on electoral matters.

Then we have a software item called Redistricting Roulette—you will notice it is not ‘redistributing’—which is based on the society’s gerrymander wheel, which we have handed out and which I see some people actually looking at. That demonstrates a fundamental flaw with single-member electorates, and the Voting and Democracy Research Center in Washington DC has picked this up and made a software version of it, which is on their website (www.fairvote.org/?page=1567). We hope that Geoff will be able to show you that as an example of how some of these properties of our electoral system can be displayed more entertainingly and with more impact than just talking about them in text. This is not something that perhaps the committee would want to send out and educate people with, but it shows the sort of thing that can be done if a point has to be made. We believe it is soundly based.

Then, to support that, we can show a striking map of a current salamander-like Illinois congressional district that appears on the Psephos website, which is an electoral website in Australia. Finally, if we have time, we have a very suave and amusing US animation about the security aspects of internet voting. It is quite a good sell.

Dr Lee Naish, who is the vice-president of our society, is a senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Melbourne. He has authored papers on teaching about algorithms using animation, and created the first web based system for counting votes in quota preferential PR elections on a small scale. Lee can answer questions or comment on practical and theoretical aspects of web based education possibilities.

At the bottom of the submission I have sent around are the main dot points in our submission No. 60. I could go through those, just read them out, if you would like. I am certainly not going to talk about the whole submission, of course, because that is for you.

CHAIR —No, you do not need to read them out because we have read the submission.

Mr Goode —Good.

CHAIR —Committee, how much of this do you want to see? Do you want to start off and see how we go for time?

Senator HOGG —It is really up to the presenters. Given that our next witness is scheduled for 2.30, I think it depends on how long it is going to take.

Mr Goode —Geoff might be able to note how the committee is reacting and just move on to other things if the committee is not showing much interest.

Senator HOGG —I would not say the committee is not showing interest.

Mr Goode ——Sorry, not enough interest.

Senator HOGG —I would not say that either. There are time constraints and there are other witnesses, and I think that is important in the running of the committee.

Mr Goode —Certainly. Yes, I understand.

Mrs MIRABELLA —Why don’t we just start with the video presentation?

CHAIR —Okay, and let us see how far we can get through this. You have a five-minute video.

Mr Powell —It is actually an interactive learning object. This little symbol here stands for the Le@rning Federation. It is a jointly funded initiative of the federal and state governments, and New Zealand was involved as well. They spent a lot of that money on coming up with the metadata and packaging standards for these learning objects so that they would be able to be used on virtually all school networks. We will play this one. It is targeted at primary students.

A video was then shown—

Mr Powell —They go though this procedure, and they gradually build up nine sets of rules, which actually underpin our electoral system. So it is an example of an excellent interactive learning object that works through the exercise there. As you can see here, we have 129 votes, and yet there are only 100 voters. So we quiz Jasmina.

A video was then shown—

Mr DANBY —So what are the nine rules?

Mr Powell —Unfortunately, you have to go through and engage in all of the issues: there is one vote, one value; the returning officer is independent of the candidates; it is secret voting—it is an excellent piece of work.

Mrs MIRABELLA —How disappointing, though, Chair. The second rule is that each person is only allowed to vote once. Under our system we have such an antiquated system that on polling day one person can go around—and one person can purport to be that person and go around—to every single polling booth in that electorate and vote. How disillusioning for the poor young students when they find that out.

CHAIR —Of course, in Sweden you can vote twice.

Mr DANBY —And when they find out in reality what has actually happened—

CHAIR —Why don’t we now move on to the one-minute excerpt.

Mr Powell —Mr Cleese?

CHAIR —Yes.

Dr Naish —While that is firing up, there are just a couple of other things about that. That was one of 4,000 which have been developed so far—the only one related to civics and voting. Note that there was not even preferential voting, which is in every election that we have in Australia, and there a lot more, finer points that really need to get across to future voters in Australia about electoral systems.

Mrs MIRABELLA —Who developed that?

Mr Powell —We can look at the metadata and give you that information.

A video was then shown—

CHAIR —Thanks for that. It is not telling another side of the story, though. You are going to show us Goldrush now.

Mr PowellGoldrush is an example of another learning object from the Le@rning Federation. It gives you an example of the style of these objects. They are all designed to be very web friendly. They will work over a dial-up connection. They are fairly small and compact. I will not go into the details, but this is an exercise in which students get gold-digging equipment together and make decisions about what is appropriate. There are certain consequences of the decisions they make.

A website was then shown—

Mr Powell —The thing about these learning objects is that the educational outcomes can be quite significant. The learning objects are generally designed to be accompanied by support material for the teachers, so they are generally not just a game that the students play in isolation.

CHAIR —Okay. Now you are going to show us Redistricting Roulette.

A website was then shown—

Mr Powell —This is from the Fairvote website in Washington. The device that you have in your hands came about as a result of one of the redistribution submissions in the 1970s by a Mr Luker from Tasmania, who argued that if you drew the boundaries east-west you got one result and if you drew the boundaries north-south you got a different result. I was running a class on civics for year 12 students at Carey. I took the federal votes in the state of Victoria and transposed them onto state boundaries to see what the outcome would be when you changed the number of members being elected. One of the students saw the submission by JK Luker—I showed it to him—and I challenged him to come up with an idea for how we could do it in a wheel format.

This could represent Canberra, with Parliament House in the middle. We are trying to determine whether we run the boundaries down the main avenues or we run them down the spurs of the hills or we follow the creeks. What is the logical place to put the boundaries to divide up the electorate into, say, five districts? There are 65 circles and 60 squares in this particular election. If we go and put the boundaries here, the squares win two seats and the circles win three seats, which is a pretty fair result. If we look at the votes, we can see how the squares have won two of the seats 13 to two and the circles have won two of the seats 13 to 12 and one of them 15 to 10. However, if instead of going down the avenues we go down the spurs of the hills, the squares win nothing.

Mr Goode —No votes have changed, Mr Chairman.

Mr Powell —No voters have changed their minds; we have just swung the boundaries around. And the question is: which is the most rational or relevant place to put these boundaries? So the squares can win none, one, two, three or four seats.

Senator MASON —You would go for the squares, wouldn’t you, John?

Senator HOGG —No, not necessarily. I’ve been accused of being a lot of things in my life—including ‘not the full circle’!

Mr Powell —The point of this exercise is that gerrymandering is something that we believe does not happen, in a partisan sense, in Australia, because we have independent electoral commissions drawing the boundaries. But they are faced with a pretty difficult task: to come up with the optimum system. In fact, this result here—where the squares, the minority party, win four of the five seats—actually results in more voters having a member of their persuasion elected as their local member. So the circles have 17 of their supporters quite happy there, and the squares are obviously pretty happy—13 to 12 in each of the seats they won. It is giving you a minority government, if you like, but maximising the effectiveness of the votes.

Mrs MIRABELLA —You noted yourself, Mr Powell, that we do have an independent body that determines electoral boundaries, and I know from my experience in Victoria that they do have a difficult job, but they do, I believe, a very good job in trying to determine communities of interest. And we are actually one of the few countries in the world to have that level of independence in the drawing of boundaries. Don’t you think that is also quite important—the fact that we do have an independent body?

Mr Powell —Absolutely. I think that is almost a mandatory requirement in any democracy.

Mrs MIRABELLA —In your literature and the information you try to impart to people, do you provide any balancing information on the stability of the current electoral system, in terms of the stability of government it provides, and the relative lack of stability that a more proportional representative model would provide, as experienced in other countries?

Mr Powell —I will ask Geoffrey to comment on that, because he is more familiar with the history of electoral results.

Mr Goode —The demonstrations we would give would perhaps relate to the states in Australia. South Australia has always had a single member lower house, whereas the state of Tasmania has a multimember lower house. And I think the longest period of government by one party in Australia at state level has been in Tasmania, by the Labor Party, for a very long time, under the Hare-Clark system. So it has not been a problem in the Australian experience.

Mrs MIRABELLA —You speak of Tasmania, but we are talking about national governments. If you look at Europe, other nations that have a greater form of proportional representation have had less stable governments than we have had nationally in Australia.

Mr Goode —The answer to that, I suppose, is that we would be restricting our advocacy to the quota preferential—the direct election of candidates that is required in Australia—and hence we have these quota preferential systems. But they only exist elsewhere in Malta and the Republic of Ireland. Now both Malta and the Republic of Ireland do seem to have been fairly stable; we are not aware of great instability there.

Mr DANBY —I see. So you are arguing for proportional representation, but only of a certain model?

Mr Goode —Certainly. In fact, we are very concerned about, and very opposed to, party list MMP type proportional representation. That is one of the big bugbears as far as we are concerned. Direct election is an important consideration, and that is only obtainable under quota preferential systems, like the Senate’s.

Mrs MIRABELLA —In your submission, you express concern about what you label ‘vanishing and incomplete data’ on the Victorian Electoral Commission website. What experience has your organisation had or what evidence have you collected on that, and over what period of time? Because, if that is true, it is of particular concern to me as well.

Mr Goode —We are not saying there is anything sinister about this; it is mainly a question of it being inconvenient. I do not know how much web capacity they have, but we drew a comparison between the Victorian state website and the Tasmanian one. You can get full scrutiny sheets going back for some time on the Tasmanian website but on the Victorian one they seem to disappear fairly quickly, both at state and municipal level.

Mrs MIRABELLA —Why do you think providing that additional information would be helpful? Would you recommend to the committee that be one of the recommendations in our final report?

Mr Goode —Yes, we certainly would recommend that the archival aspect, for educational purposes, is important. It might not be important for attracting initial interest, but when you do get some interest and you get someone, or a group of people, getting serious and they want to take it further they cannot. They cannot go back, they cannot see more thoroughly the base data, as they can on the Tasmanian website. It is just not there or it is very inconveniently placed. For instance, on the AEC website, after an election you only get one by one each of the 150 seats. You do not get a spreadsheet which enables you to see it as a picture. It would be very simple—just one spreadsheet that integrated that information would make it far more comprehensible.

Mr DANBY —I assume you would be overjoyed at the introduction of the quota preferential system in the Victorian upper house and the abolition of single-member constituencies in the upper house and all the implications that has.

Mr Goode —Certainly.

Mr DANBY —What about Sophie Mirabella’s point about stability? Practically every practical politician in Victoria, state or federal, sees that with the result of the Victorian election you are going to have years and years of Liberal majority in the upper house and a brief period recently of Labor majority in the upper house being replaced by permanent instability. It will be almost impossible for Labor or Liberal to get majority status. There will be elements like the Greens or Independents with the swing vote.

Mrs MIRABELLA —Or another single-issue party.

Mr DANBY —I cannot see into the future, but you are probably right. How do you face up to that?

Mr Goode —One answer, of course, is that it only occurs where neither of the larger parties is able to persuade enough people to give it enough seats to wield the appropriate proportionate power. If neither of the major parties is in that position, it would seem that a majority of the voters is not favouring the major party. The majority of voters are favouring other people now. The people in the middle usually have only the choice of picking or choosing which side they will go to.

Mr DANBY —In this case it is not people in the middle; it is people I would describe as to the left of the Labor Party who are then going to be put in the position where they can determine the operations of governments. Even, perhaps as bad as in 1975, the money supply to a government can be determined by the whims of people who, not to put too fine a point on it, are not in the middle. They are not doing it on the basis of what, say, 95 per cent of voters would consider important. They might decide to do it on the basis of whether one orange-bellied parrot—perhaps that is a bad example—is going to be killed every 10,000 years. That would be an irrational basis for making a decision on whether the Victorian government should be able to continue, whether it is Liberal or Labor. But I can quite conceive of two or three Greens making that choice.

Mr Goode —Of course, in the instance you gave, the Victorian upper house does not have the power anymore to block supply. The government would continue on unaffected. So, basically, it relates to those questions of changes to the law that do not attract majority support. We would take the view: why should the law change if majority support is unavailable?

Mrs MIRABELLA —Are you generally supportive of the changes that have been made in the Victorian upper house?

Mr Goode —Yes, we are. We argued for more like the Tasmanian system, but yes.

Mrs MIRABELLA —Do you acknowledge, though, that it has meant a loss of representation for those living in northern Victoria? My electorate is in north-east Victoria. We have gone from having three regions to one, which takes in 48 per cent of Victoria and which comes right to the outskirts of Melbourne. There are fewer people who will now be representing country Victoria by virtue of the boundaries. I would say that those boundaries have deliberately been drawn to come to the outskirts of Melbourne. Is that not a concern? Before, the electorates were the same size. There was not any gerrymandering; every upper house electorate had roughly the same number of voters, but now country representation is effectively reduced by drawing the boundaries in a particular way. Is that a concern?

Mr Goode —It is not anything unsatisfactory, because the new regions are made up of an exact number of lower house seats, as the old provinces were—just a different number. There are 11 now.

Mrs MIRABELLA —To talk about that technicality of how many state seats are in it, is it not a concern that the boundaries have been drawn in a particular way—

Mr Goode —The boundaries are largely a function of the lower house boundaries. You have to make them up of a certain number of lower house boundaries. Those lower house boundaries still remain in force for electing the lower house, and the lower house is validly elected by a winner-takes-all thing where only half the votes count in each lower house seat. In the upper house far more votes actually count. It is the same number of districts that are amalgamated—11 of them just clumped together—and you have to have a boundary somewhere. In fact, the options for placing the boundaries are very limited because you have Bass Strait on the south, you have the Murray River and you have the South Australian border and you have to divide that into eight regions.

Mr DANBY —Perhaps you could just confirm something for me. Could you be a bit more specific about Mrs Mirabella’s question about each of those new province areas? This quota preferential system which you approve of has roughly the same number of people, not just the same number of seats, and those 11 country seats have been amalgamated into that upper house seat. How many upper house people would they have had in the provinces now? They will have five in the northern district in Victoria.

Mr Goode —You have to remember that the house has decreased from 44 to 40. That is a separate thing and obviously that changes it a little bit. Had the house been the same size, it would have been easier to make a comparison. In fact, we recommended a system of six seven-member regions.

Mrs MIRABELLA —Can I put it to you that your answer is very disappointing because, at a time when your organisation is trying to propose greater involvement through proportional representation and making that claim, your attitude towards and your support for the changes to the upper house is support for disenfranchising a significant part of rural Victoria. From my perspective, that is very disappointing.

Mr Goode —My answer is that it is the opposite. When you look at the lower house, only half of the votes count in all those 11 districts. Only half of the people voting actually elect anybody. In the upper house, five-sixths of the people in the country region—and a bit of Melbourne—will elect the people they want to represent them, the people they marked first, or with a subsequent preference if they are too small in number to elect anybody. That is much fairer.

Senator MASON —My question relates to civics education rather than advocacy and PR. Mr Powell, how broadly distributed is the first video that you showed before, Take a Vote—Make it Fair? I thought it was very good. I do not know what all the members of the committee thought. I know Senator Hogg liked it.

Mr Powell —The charter of the Le@rning Federation—or the TLF, as it is known—is to use the systemic bodies, so it is the responsibility of the state education departments, the associations of independent schools and the Catholic education offices to disseminate these learning objects to the member schools. Every government school in Victoria and Tasmania has them. They were sent out some DVDs.

Senator MASON —Do they use them in schools?

Mr Powell —The one issue we are finding is that the schools are required to have a learning management system in place, such as the software that I am selling, in order for them to effectively be used by the students. So one of the issues is that there is a lot of money being spent on developing these resources and getting them produced. The next step is to actually get them being used in schools. That is an issue.

Senator MASON —I think it is an excellent resource.

Mr Powell —They are outstanding and there is a need for more of them, and that is the whole plan. They have now developed a specification, if you like, for how these learning objects should be packaged, so now it is up to commercial developers and organisations to come up with the content.

Senator MASON —Good luck in your advocacy.

Mr DANBY —It is not mandated for school systems to take them, is it?

Mr Powell —No, it is just a resource that is available free of charge to schools, and most schools do have them. I think the problem is that a lot of them were mailed out to principals and they have not necessarily got to the right person in the school.

Mr DANBY —It is on the principal’s desk or somewhere.

Mr Powell —I think that is the case.

Mr Goode —Perhaps I could just touch on the last four dot points at the bottom of that sheet to emphasise them. The first of those is:

  • Conducting simple mock elections helps demystify an adult experience youth know they will soon face.

I have personal experience myself as a scout leader running these things for a group. The children find it very interesting. It is novel and it is something that they know is going to happen, and 10 years later I have had these young men come up to me and say, ‘I’ve always remembered that, when we had to line up, answer questions—”Have you voted before today?”—and all this sort of thing.’ It impacts.

CHAIR —We have already had a lot of evidence along the same track there.

Mr Goode —The second point I would like to emphasise is on preferential voting. There is more emphasis needed. It is a process that is not well understood in the Australian community, and that is very regrettable. You get a lot of people who really feel there is something wrong with it. The third point is:

  • All immigrants, except Irish and Maltese, have non-preferential voting backgrounds …

They really do need to have some of that explained better through some sort of system that you could perhaps recommend.

Senator MASON —Are you talking about advocacy here, or are you saying that the current system is not explained very well?

Mr Goode —The latter.

Senator MASON —I understand that. It is a fair point.

Mr Goode —It is more elaborate than what first occurred. Obviously what first occurred to democratic communities was first past the post. It is the thing you would naturally do, but it is flawed. It soon became evident, and we in Australia were leaders in exposing that and doing something about it. America is just starting to wake up.

Senator MASON —There are all sorts of complaints about first past the post, and indeed the preferential system, but that is not your point. Your point is that the current system is not explained well.

Mr Goode —That is right. We have a preferential system. We should be proud of it and explain it. The final dot point has specific actions that we would urge be considered. We say that a recommendation should be made to properly enforce section 216 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act—that is, displaying posters or pamphlets of group voting tickets at federal elections. We got an apology from Senator Abetz when we wrote to him pointing out that there was widespread failure to do this. You could not get them, and this brings the system into some disrepute. We also recommend improved web resources. I indicated earlier some examples of how that could be done.

Mr DANBY —You do not have any quantification of the failure of the AEC to have the group voting tickets displayed, do you? You could not tell us how many polling places—

Mr Goode —Various people in our society reported it. How many would you have said, Lee?

Dr Naish —I am not sure. We did a quick whip around. Quite a few people went to the polling booth and asked to see the group voting tickets or looked around for posters and so on and did not see them.

CHAIR —Gentlemen, that is not quite within the terms of reference of our inquiry, though.

Mr Goode —It is educational, though.

Mrs MIRABELLA —I think that point was made and was picked up in one of the previous recent inquiries this committee has had on last election.

Senator MASON —It certainly was.

Mrs MIRABELLA —That point was noted.

Mr Goode —Here is another suggestion that we think is an oversight. We have the practice of replacing elected senators before the next election, when a vacancy has been created. For example, a senator can resign after a week, as a couple have done in recent years, and their replacement can remain in the Senate for nearly six years, never having been to the people. It seems a very simple thing to have a law requiring an advertisement that says: ‘Here is your new senator. You didn’t elect him, but here he is. This is his photo, this is the party he is in, this is what he stands for, this is where he lives and this is a bit about him.’ Replacing senators without people knowing who they are is an alienating thing. The level of boredom and alienation is quite strong in this area. People do not want to talk about it or know about it. It is not a good or healthy situation.

Mrs MIRABELLA —In fact, the vast majority of members of the House of Representatives would be hard pressed to name all of our senators at the best of times, let alone asking the poor public to do the same.

Senator HOGG —The same applies the other way, let me assure you.

Mr Goode —I appreciate it is bad enough, but there is no need to make it worse. The complete silence is not good.

CHAIR —Thank you all for appearing today, and thank you for bringing along the aids to the presentation. The committee very much appreciated that.

[2.42 pm]