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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Citizen Initiated Referendum Bill 2013
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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Madigan, Sen John
Di Natale, Sen Richard
Ryan, Sen Scott
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Content WindowFinance and Public Administration Legislation Committee - 29/04/2013 - Citizen Initiated Referendum Bill 2013
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LESSLIE, Mr Stephen, Vice President, Electoral» Reform Australia
CHAIR: I now welcome «Electoral» Reform Australia. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has your submission. I invite you to make a short opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.
Mr Lesslie : Thank you for the opportunity to address the committee. «Electoral» Reform Australia believes that greater openness and accountability in public decision making is an ideal that we should all strive to achieve. Australia, however, is not a village of 150 people who can meet in the town square and discuss «matters» of national importance. Australia, as a federation of six states and two territories, is too big and too diverse for village style government. Citizen initiated referendums are an attempt to impose an outmoded and inappropriate form of government on the Australian people. Our system of government is a system of representative government. Through the election process, the people give their chosen representatives the authority to make decisions and to act on their behalf and in the best interests of the nation. These representatives are part of our community and are subject to feedback from their communities.
The committee has been given a number of points to consider. Point 1 I have discussed. We do not accept the claim in point 2 that laws derived from citizen initiated referendums are more clearly the popular expression of people's will than those derived from an elected representative government. Point 3, that government authority flows from the people and is based on their consent, is a statement of fact and is the basis of our current system of representative government.
Point 4 is that citizens in a democracy have the responsibility to participate in the political system. We strongly endorse this call. But it should not be by the heavy handed approach of yes/no referendums. Instead, we need to institute «electoral» reform that gives voters real power in electing their representatives. This can be best achieved by reforming the corrupted proportional representation system currently used to elect the Senate and instituting a genuine proportional representation system for the House of Representatives. A parliament elected by this method would have in its ranks all the major elements of a pluralist society, thus ensuring that all important items of public policy can be debated and, if thought beneficial, passed into law.
Point 5 is on the Inter-Parliamentary Union's call on member states to strengthen democracy. I looked at the website of the IPU to prepare for this hearing but was unable to find this call. I am sure it is there somewhere but it did not seem to be a high priority. I would be surprised if the IPU had Australia on a list of non-compliant countries with regard to our level of democracy.
Senator MADIGAN: Mr Lesslie, I see in the ERA's submission that you have said:
CIRs give a platform to racists, bigots, populists and shock jock radio announcers and the end result is disruption, confusion, angst and expense.
All of the above people currently do what you are claiming they do, and lots of other people in the community do not have a voice.
Mr Lesslie : I disagree with that. I think they all have a voice through their parliamentary representative.
Senator MADIGAN: Yes, but quite often I see petition after partition presented in the parliament with thousands of signatures, but these issues do not get debated in parliament.
Mr Lesslie : I do not see the problem with that. The parliament has the right to read these petitions and determine them. There are a lot of people in parliament and if it is not considered to be worth while debating then it is not considered worth while debating. I do not have a problem with the fact that parliament is elected by the people and represents the people—that is good. But if these referenda are put forward you will have predictable attacks on gays, women and religious and racial minorities, as well as genuine proposals from genuine people and organisations trying to develop a fair and just society. The problem is that all of the proposals will fail whether they are good or bad because it has been long recognised in Australia that referenda have little chance of being passed unless the matter has bipartisan support. If you come through the Citizens Initiated Referenda then, almost by definition, you do not have that bipartisan support.
Senator MADIGAN: You have given the Australian people the credit that they can make a choice and that their choices are quite wise nine times out of 10. They have a pretty good strike rate. But what we are talking about here is a referendum giving people the opportunity to have a vote on an issue that garners a considerable amount of support in the community. I do not see what the threat is of giving people an opportunity to vote. We campaign for people's votes, we take the votes, but between an election, when people feel strongly enough to get off their backsides and go through this process of a CIR, we do not trust them.
Mr Lesslie : I would think that if you endorse CIR then all the politicians in Canberra will spend the rest of their political careers fighting a rearguard actions against myriad proposals. The irony is that, although the proposals have little or no chance of success because they do not have that bipartisan support, the Senators and the members of House of Representatives will have to spend valuable political capital fighting them. You will have to do that because their supporters will not know that they have no chance: after all, someone has just collected 150,000 signatures. They will expect your support either for this proposal or against this proposal. By the end of it, you will have just run out of momentum and traction. You will not have time and traction left over to pursue those interests that took you into politics in the first place. You will just constantly be fighting issues that have no chance of success because they are up and running and you do not want your opponents to get momentum on these «matters» .
Senator DI NATALE: I have a question that relates to your opening statement. In your opening statement you mentioned that the pathway to getting better representation is reform of the voting system in the Senate. I am not sure what the exact word you used was—was it 'corrupted'?
Mr Lesslie : Yes, I used the word 'corrupted'. It can be best achieved by reforming the corrupted proportional representation system currently used in the Senate, yes.
Senator DI NATALE: Then you went on to say that we need to get proportional representation into the lower house. Can you explain both of those statements.
Mr Lesslie : It is corrupted because there is above-the-line voting and registered groups tickets. At the next Senate election, I believe that New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland will have 40-plus groups and 150-plus candidates. The last position—possibly the last two positions—in the Senate for those states will be decided by who wins the harvest preference game. It is not going to be decided by the people because the majority of the candidates—the joke candidate and the microparties—who are running are only doing it because they have absolute control of their preference distribution. I think that a way to reform that is to abolish both above-the-line voting and the registered group voting tickets.
Senator DI NATALE: So you are suggesting that every voter fills out the potentially more than 100 names on the ballot paper?
Mr Lesslie : No, not at all. That is another part of the corrupted system. There is absolutely no need to have anything apart from a No. 1 vote, provided you have it with a rostered rotation. If you choose not to have the rostered rotation then the minimum vote you need to do is for one party and six candidates—the number of people who will be elected. The number of votes that exhausts is fewer than the number of votes currently declared informal because of the strict preference requirements.
Senator DI NATALE: Just to summarise, you are suggesting that we go for an optional preferential system with each candidate name on the ballot paper?
Mr Lesslie : Yes—and, because of that, the microparties and joke candidates will not have the necessity to run because they will not be able to guarantee their preferences. They will be up for losing their deposits and there will be no gain for them. At the moment they do not mind losing their deposits because they can send their half a per cent or quarter of a per cent to their preferred other candidates. By the time all those candidates have run around the groups, someone—and they hope it will be them—will get elected into the sixth position. It is just a random choice. It is not a choice of the people because the choice is coming from the games of people playing preference harvesting.
Senator RYAN: Mr Lesslie, you refer a number of times in your evidence to proposals that have no chance of success or little chance of being passed. Why do you think that is a particular problem? On its own, I do not see why just because something might not be passed by the assessment of political leaders or activists like you and me it should not be put to the people. I suggest this in the context that things that previously were suggested would never be passed may well be passed today. Isn't there an educative role? Isn't there a role to drive change in community attitudes that can happen through a political process like referenda?
Mr Lesslie : I believe the parliament has that role. For example, I would be very keen on having a referendum on proportional representation in the parliament, but I would be concerned in putting it up in that it would harden people's opinions. When you get a yes-no decision on these «matters people's views get hardened. There is no flexibility in the vote.
Senator RYAN: That is the very nature of a yes-no vote, isn't it? It has to be a binary choice. You cannot have a referendum where the answer is maybe.
Mr Lesslie : That is why I do not like the concept of it. It does exactly that. There is no subtlety; there is no flexibility.
Senator RYAN: If you want PR voting in the House of Representatives it is a yes or no answer.
Mr Lesslie : Yes, of course, but I am hoping it would occur after reasoned debate in the parliament—after people see the problems of single-member constituencies and how they can twist the popular vote. One party may end up, like in Queensland, with 85 per cent or 90 per cent of the members of parliament but only 50 per cent of the vote.
Senator RYAN: It is just your view that it distorts the political process, I hasten to add. You want to get rid of above-the-line voting. You want Robson rotation. You want optional preferential voting with a single transferrable vote counting method. Do you also want to ban how-to-vote cards? Often—for example, in Tasmania—that seems to go hand in hand. People are banned from handing out how-to-vote cards at the polling booth door.
Mr Lesslie : I do not think so. I think the parties are entitled to give their opinion.
Senator RYAN: I want to put to you a criticism of a PR voting system, as opposed to Australia's preferential voting system for single-member constituencies. At the moment someone going to vote, who may wish to vote for a smaller party or an independent candidate gets to choose where their vote is transferred to if that person is unsuccessful. So someone may vote for the Greens—I am talking about the House of Representatives here; the house that forms government—or someone may vote for an independent. If that candidate does not receive the requisite number of votes their votes are distributed according to the second, third, or fourth preference of that particular voter.
Mr Lesslie : Yes.
Senator RYAN: The direction of that person's second and third preference for an elected official is controlled by them. The problem with PR voting, particularly in a house that forms government—I am not particularly critical of its being in a house of review like the Senate—is that that decision that the voter has in a preferential system is appropriated by political party leaders in a PR system. I give you the example of the formation of governments in most nations in Europe, where you have proportional voting systems in the house that forms government, the house of parliament, so that if someone wants to vote for a smaller party or independent in Australia we can end up with a hung parliament, like we have now, or we can end up with preferences being distributed which lead to an outcome which is not just reflective of the primary vote.
But the single transferrable vote method in electing members of the lower house would lead to the primary vote being much more important. The minor parties might, let's say, get 20 per cent of the vote while the two larger parties get 35 per cent and 45 per cent. The decision as to who forms government would be made by the leaders of the minor parties as opposed to the voter today, who would say, in their own electorate, 'Well, if I can't have my independent, DLP or Green candidate, my second preference goes accordingly.' Don't you see that as a bit of a democratic deficit?
Mr Lesslie : Not at all, because at the end of the time you have the overall vote and the political parties get their just desserts. If they get 50 per cent of the vote they get 50 per cent of the candidates.
Senator RYAN: What you are proposing means that by having governments formed by PR chambers the decision as to who forms government—absent one party getting a majority, which is most of the time—is made by smaller political parties or independents. The truth is that in our political system, for all but two parliaments in the last 80 years, those decisions have been made by individual voters ordering their own ballot papers with their preferences. So for many years, the coalition was the beneficiary of preferences being distributed but in the last 20 years the coalition has not been the beneficiary of preferences being distributed generally. People who might not vote for Labor on a primary vote might vote for the Greens primary No. 1 and then their vote gets moved to the Labor Party when those votes are distributed. This actually empowers the individual voter a great deal more because they are effectively making this decision.
Mr Lesslie : Not at all. The power of the individual voter is they get to have their preferred candidate as their member of parliament. At the moment you have got a parliament where over 50 per cent of the population does not have as their member of parliament the person to whom they gave their first preference.
You are wrong about the fact there have only been two hung parliaments. There have been many hung parliaments. There has been many a coalition between the Liberal Party and the Nationals or between the Liberal Party and the Country Party. To pretend that we are only the one party when we have a majority but we are two parties otherwise is wrong. If there is a coalition between the Labor and the Greens or a coalition between Labor and a third party, well, it is a coalition government. There have been many coalition governments.
Senator RYAN: Yes, but I think there is a fair difference between a situation where there will be a decision period after each election as opposed to a coalition that you may not agree with. I think it is a different structure when parties run with the same policies, have joint tickets—I know it is a system you do not like in the Senate—and do not run against each other. That is very different to a situation where parties do run against each other across a nation and then a deal is made after an election.
Mr Lesslie : The problem about the fact that they do not run against each other is in country seats if somebody wants to vote Liberal and there is a National member, they do not even get the chance to vote for them. In a proportional representation system they would get the choice between voting for the Liberal Party or for the Nationals in country electorates.
Senator RYAN: The cost is political party leaders in a parliament elected then have a much greater decision over who forms the government. Because the truth is our two-party preferred voting system does much more often than not lead to the side of politics getting a majority of the two-party preferred vote forming the government. That cannot be ignored.
Mr Lesslie : The rise of third parties and independents is climbing every election. The two parties are now only getting 80 per cent of the vote whereas many years ago they were getting 90 or 95 per cent of the vote. With that decline in the two-party vote, you are getting more and more people who are dissatisfied with the result that they get when they go to vote No. 1 and they find that the person they voted No. 1 is not elected.
Senator RYAN: It is always a challenge to peer into the mind of voters. I tend to not do it other than to listen to what they tell me when I try to look at their motivations. I take your point you do not accept that particular view. There is something to be considered for the fact that the system you do not like does give voters a choice that a first-past-the-post system and a PR system, where people are elected across the whole state, does not give them—that is, who would I like to basically form government?
Mr Lesslie : Well we have to agree to disagree, I suspect.
CHAIR: Mr Lesslie, thank you very much your submission and for giving evidence via teleconference this afternoon.