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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters - 11/06/2014 - Conduct of the 2013 federal election and matters related thereto

KEEN, Mr Nathan Andrew, National Policy Officer, Family Voice Australia

PHILLIPS, Dr David Michael, National President, Family Voice Australia

CHAIR: I now call our next witnesses. You would be aware the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, although the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as the proceedings in respective houses. Thank you for appearing before us again, as it turns out. You were with us some months ago on Senate voting and we offered you the opportunity to appear again. We have your submission before us. Would you like to make an opening statement on the issues you consider to be of most importance before we move to questions?

Dr Phillips : Certainly. First of all, a guiding principle in our submission is the importance of civil society and a democracy. That is all the voluntary associations that are formed and they include scouting, churches and political parties and all sorts of things. They are important for the proper functioning of democracy, and it is really part and parcel of the concept of representative democracy where the parliamentary representatives are there to represent the members of their constituencies. That is something that influences our approach to many of the questions before us. The question of political donations is an important one. We believe that we should encourage people to make donations to parties as part of the involvement of civil society. We think that tax deductibility of membership and donations to political parties is an encouragement for people to engage with political parties, and we would like to see the taxpayer funding of elections and parties abolished. We think that is counterproductive. With that comes the need for donations not to exercise undue influence. So, there is a need for accountability and public disclosure, which we can expand on if need be.

In relation to the voting systems, we favour the current system, where the House of Representatives is elected from single-member constituencies, which results generally in a significant majority for the major party, so you can get stable government, which we argue is a good thing. The Senate on the other hand, acts as a house of review, and the current system where there is six members elected from each state provides an opportunity for minor parties to be represented, which we also think is a good thing, which means that the usual situation is that neither the government of the day nor the opposition controls the Senate, and there needs to be some discussion with the minor parties or the independents in the Senate to reach, maybe, a compromise on some questions that are particularly controversial. We think that enables the Senate, or helps the Senate, to function in a truly reflective manner.

We favour compulsory voting to engage as many people as possible in the community. We favour preferential voting, which enables the people who are elected to be the ones most preferred for the elections. We oppose optional preferential voting because it can degrade into a single, first-past-the-post system, which means that people elected may not represent the best expression of public opinion.

Senate voting: we are pleased that the committee and the government has adopted the policy of abolishing the ticket voting, which we thought was a very bad proposal. Preferential voting above the line or below the line, we think, is a good solution, but we would ask for reconsideration of full preferential voting above the line, not just optional, because I think the optional will tend towards first past the post and with senators being elected without the full support of the community.

Campaign: there are questions about truth in the advertising. It is very hard to control. One particular thing is that at the moment there are constraints on community organisations encouraging people to vote in particular ways. We believe that is an exercise in freedom of speech and exercise of civil society, which we commend. With the electoral roll and the voting system, we believe that a prudential approach should be taken where we seek to have a robust system that minimises the opportunity for fraud or manipulation. Mr Chairman, I think that concludes my opening comments.

CHAIR: Thank you very much and, as I said, we have your comprehensive submission before us. I know we have members and senators who have got a number of questions, and I know Senator Fawcett is just on his way back. So we might start with Mr Goodenough.

Mr GOODENOUGH: Dr Phillips, in relation to part three of your submission, and that is the membership and registration of political parties, the committee's interim report looked at increasing the government's requirements of political parties, such as having a constitution, rules and processes, as well as a minimum number of members at 1,500. Are you generally supportive of raising the bar for political parties to be registered to ensure that they are bona fide organisations?

Dr Phillips : Yes, we are. We are in support of properly formulated parties. We think that a good test is the number of people who are members of those parties, so a threshold of 1,500 is reasonable. I think it is better to have a test which is based on popular support or membership rather than increasing financial registration fees and so on which favours the wealthy. I think it is more important for political parties to be truly representative of a segment of the community. Having a constitutional formal process and membership is all desirable. We are supportive of the committee's recommendation on those matters. The other important thing is that a person can only contribute to the registration of one party at a time.

Mr GOODENOUGH: Thank you Dr Phillips.

Senator KROGER: In your earlier submission in relation to the Senate voting system I recall that you were supportive of OPVs, optional preference voting. Thank you very much for this submission. It is a very substantial submission. Is your view the same for the lower house? Is there any difference in your view in which you think the two houses should be treated?

Dr Phillips : No. We do not support OPV, optional preferential voting, we support full preferential voting for both houses. We said that OPV for the Senate would be better than what we have at the moment, because we view the ticket voting system that we have as an evil. It is open to manipulation, and anything to get rid of the tickets, we would support. If it has to be OPV, we would tolerate that, but we do not advocate that. Full preferential voting for both the House of Representatives and above the line in the Senate. There are two reasons: OPV can degenerate into first past the post. As you would realise, in first past the post you can get someone elected to a seat who has a minority support in the electorate. You may have a majority view in the electorate that most people want someone of a particular general political disposition but the vote is split among multiple candidates and you may get someone who gets 40 per cent of the vote and who is not representative of the general view of the electorate.

First past the post is not a good system. If you have optional preferential voting it will end up degenerating into the equivalent of first past the post. That would happen in the House of Representatives, if it were allowed to be optional in the House of Representatives, as it has in the Queensland state parliament. If you allow optional preferential voting in the Senate then, particularly with the recent history where you only had to vote '1' in a box, I suspect that most people would just vote for one party above the line. You would end up in the quota system with some of the people being elected who did not achieve a quota.

The other thing is that getting rid of the tickets gets rid of one kind of manipulation of the voting system, which we have all seen—it has been in all the papers. First past the post raises the potential for a different kind of manipulation of the system. To make it simpler: just consider the lower house. If you had first-past-the-post voting in the lower house then a party can run a stooge candidate, who looks like the opposition, with the deliberate intention of splitting the vote of the opposition. If they can split the vote of the opposition then they can get themselves elected with a minority support.

If you have OPV in the Senate you will open the door to that kind of manipulation in the Senate, where a major political party will form a minor political party that looks like the opposition party in order to split the vote of their political opponents.

Senator KROGER: Some would suggest that has happened already!

Dr Phillips : It may well have done!

Mr GRIFFIN: It is called the National Party!

Dr Phillips : Well, that is right! We would strongly urge the committee to revisit this, and suggest that you adopt full preferential voting for the Senate election, either above the line or below the line. People are perfectly familiar with that in the House of Representatives elections; they have been voting that way for years. I think it would be very easy to explain to the electorate: 'You just vote for every candidate in the reps and every party in the Senate.' It is a very simple educational process.

Senator KROGER: Thank you very much.

Senator RUSTON: In your opinion, do you believe that the existing Senate voting system is delivering an outcome that reflects what the people of Australia believe they are voting for?

Dr Phillips : You can answer that in two ways: one is that 25 per cent of the electorate voted for candidates other than major parties. So you could argue that the public—25 per cent, which is more than a quota—wanted candidates who were not from the major or minor parties. But the question is: were they voting for anyone? Did they just say, 'A pox on the lot of them! We don't want anyone from the major or minor parties. We just want someone completely neutral, or completely outside the system.'

I think the answer to that is 'no' because of an analysis of the New South Wales 1999 election, done by Tony Green, where he looked at where the preferences actually went. Typically, people voted for a micro or a minor party first and then their second preferences generally went to a major party. So I think that most people expected that if their first preference did not get up—they may have voted for someone who had a nice-sounding name—that their second or subsequent preferences would, and they were likely to have been for people in major parties. So I think that the outcome did not truly represent the genuine will of the Australian people.

Senator RUSTON: On the back of that, one would suggest that there is an issue with the existing system. The existing system is full preferential voting—

Dr Phillips : The problem is the tickets.

Senator RUSTON: You believe that you could solve the problem just by abolishing the tickets?

Dr Phillips : Yes, because you solve two problems. First of all, you remove the motivation for microparties to manipulate the system. They would not bother, because without the tickets they cannot direct preferences to all sorts of other people in a manipulative way. All of a sudden, the ballot paper would shrink in size, because you would remove the incentive for multiple microparties, as has been done. The second thing is that if you allow voters to determine their own preferences, you allow people to express their own political opinion which then represents what the public wants.

Senator RUSTON: You are saying it represents what the public wants. I consider myself a reasonably informed voter and I have a reasonable idea of what all of the parties in the Senate stand for—although I must say, at the last election there were a couple that left me wondering a little. If I went in and had to—even if it was above the line—put one to 38 or whatever it happened to be, there would be a number of parties in that lot that either a) I would not have a clue what they stand for, and I do not necessarily have the time or inclination to find out; or b) there are a number of parties that I would not want to represent me no matter what and I would never want my vote to be recorded against the name of that particular party. On the back of that, I believe that, as a citizen, I should have the right to determine at what point I no longer want my vote to be counted under any circumstances. As a civil liberty, I believe that is my right even though at the moment I am denied that right. I am interested in your comments that the people are only going to get what they want by full preferential voting. My counter argument to that is that I am not getting what I want by full preferential voting.

Dr Phillips : First of all, you made a comment that there may be 38 parties above the line. I do not believe that will be the case. If you remove the incentive for these microparties, they will not be not be on the ballot paper. I think the number of parties you will be up for above the line will be similar to the number of parties in the House of Representatives. In a typical House of Representatives election, you would have between half a dozen and a dozen candidates. I think you would have half a dozen to a dozen parties in a Senate election above the line; so the numbers are not going to be 38; they are going to be modest and no more than in the House of Representatives.

My second comment is that, in the way I approach voting, I know what some of the major parties and some of the minor parties stand for. There are some ratbag parties, and I know that in my opinion I would never want to vote for those, so I vote high numbers for the ones that I favour and I reserve the ones I really dislike for my last few votes, and then I do the ones in the middle.

CHAIR: We will not ask you who they are.

Senator RUSTON: He probably would not tell you.

Dr Phillips : That means, if there are six positions to be filled, the seventh position is always non-elected, so my very last preferences—if it got to that—would be for the seventh position, who would not be elected. So the preferences that I put at the end of the list would never achieve someone being elected.

Senator RUSTON: Assuming there are only five, six or seven.

CHAIR: Let us move on.

Senator RUSTON: In 9.2—proof of identity—you make the comment that:

The changes made in 2006 to ensure better proof of identity seem to be working well and should be retained.

What changes are those? I did not realise we had proof of identity.

Dr Phillips : That was my understanding.

Senator RUSTON: When you go into a polling booth, you do not have to show identification.

Mr Keen : Section 9.2 is referring to their identity when they enrol, rather than at the voting booth.

Senator RUSTON: Okay. Thank you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Gentlemen, thank you for your submission. It is certainly very detailed and it covers a wide range of areas. I refer you to 9.2 of your submission, in which you say that the proof of identity seems to be working well and is being retained. Are you quite happy with the current system? To me, at times, it seems to be open to abuse.

Dr Phillips : Are you talking about getting names on the electoral roll?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes. I am talking about 9.2 of your submission, which I think was saying that 'changes made in 2006 to ensure better proof of identity seem to be working well'.

Dr Phillips : This is a section on the electoral roll, not on voting at the booth.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes it is, you are quite right. Section 9.

Dr Phillips : Are you talking about the electoral roll?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes.

Dr Phillips : One of the things in the previous section 9.1—automatic enrolment—we are not happy with.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I was going to come to that—that is my next question—but you see the identity situation with getting on the electoral roll as fine?

Dr Phillips : Unless I am misinformed, we think it is important for identity to be proven to get on the electoral roll. Our understanding is that that is necessary at the present time, but if we are wrong on that then we would want to argue that identity do be established. The fact that there is automatic enrolment—or changes of enrolment—tends to undermine that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is a separate question, but that was my next questions anyhow. I was going to say that I particularly agree with your dot point that says :

The proposals are patronising. They treat some Australians a s incapable of exercising their privilege and duty to enrol to vote and to keep their enr olment details current.

Mr GRIFFIN: We clearly have not been doing enough in terms of the operation of the system in the last few years. You may see it as patronising, but the fact is that they are not enrolling.

Dr Phillips : We said earlier that the encouragement of civil society is an important principle that has guided our whole submission, and that is to engage people at a community level. If you just automatically enrol people, there is no engagement. We think that people should be engaged, that they should take responsibility for when their names are put on the electoral roll and that they should be involved in the process so that they own it, rather than this nanny attitude where the government will sort your life out for you.

Mr GRIFFIN: I disagree.

Dr Phillips : We do not think that the nanny attitude of doing everything for everybody is the right approach. We think that people should be engaged and should take responsibility for their actions.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You make the point about privacy aspects of being enrolled from other sources, which I think is valid. Can I just go to the patronising thing and take you delicately to Indigenous people, who many would argue need to be automatically enrolled otherwise they would never enrol. Do you accept that?

Dr Phillips : I think the same argument applies. We would want Aboriginal people to be engaged in the process, rather than us be paternalistic and say, 'We know what you need to do, so we will do it all for you.' I think it would be much better to run an education program on Aboriginal lands and so on to engage them, and if they do not understand the process then that is all helpful for them to be brought into the democratic process.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I was just saying this to Gary Gray before he left. I think it is the ultimate insult to the Aboriginal people to say to them: 'You are so stupid. You can't do this yourself. We will have to do it for you.' I think it is the most outrageous slur that you could ever make, and that is obviously what you are getting at there as well. Are you aware of any particular instances where automatic enrolment has brought different or unexpected outcomes?

Dr Phillips : Our argument is a prudential one. It should be, in principle, involving the elector.

Senator FAWCETT: You said you would like full preferential voting above the line on the Senate ticket, but you said you do not like lists. If you had party groups with lists, then voting above the line would indicate that you wanted that list to be voted for and enacted. I am intrigued that you are comfortable with essentially forcing people to use lists as opposed to abolishing above-the-line, and just having below-the-line optional preferential where people can exhaust their preferences in the party groups that they wish.

Dr Phillips : The answer is very simple. We offer people the option of voting above the line or below the line. We are not saying remove the below-the-line voting. We are saying if people are comfortable with the lists, they can vote above the line. If they are not comfortable with the lists and they want not just to order their preferences by parties but want to actually pick and choose within the parties, they can do that by voting below the line. We think that by giving voters the choice of voting full preferential above the line or voting full preferential below the line, we have covered all bases. We put the decision in the hands of the voters, which is what we are arguing for.

Senator FAWCETT: You have probably read the other submissions and heard some of the previous evidence about Robson rotation in Tasmania. Do you have a view on the desirability of employing that across Australia, specifically for the lower house but potentially even for the Senate groups?

Dr Phillips : It does seem to work well in Tasmania. It is a complicated system. It does put a lot of focus on the individual parliamentarians. Without favouring, it takes away the ability of the parties to order them or rank them within a list. Robson rotation has some merit, but it is a question of whether it is worth the complexity. I would think just a change to what we are advocating at this stage is sufficient.

Senator FAWCETT: Recommendation 8 in your submission refers to the ability of an organisation to recommend or advocate that voters vote for a particular candidate. Can you tell us more about what you see the impact of the current law is, and why you think it would be desirable to change the current law.

Dr Phillips : Again, it comes from our enthusiasm about civil society. Many community groups may have no political engagement whatsoever but some voluntary associations do have opinions on public policy issues and may favour one candidate or one party over another. We would argue in favour of encouraging civil society and voluntary associations to express their views and to have freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of involvement and engagement in the political process. We think they should have as much freedom to engage in political debate as political parties and candidates.

Senator FAWCETT: Clearly, that law has been around for some time. Are there any opposing points of view that you have come across?

Dr Phillips : I am sure there are views advocated that we would oppose. We argue that there should be that freedom.

Senator FAWCETT: My last question is again on section 8, recommendation 9. You say the current provisions for the media blackout should remain. With the advent of social media in particular, do you maintain that the current law on electronic, as in broadcast, advertising is sufficient or would you argue that there should be attempts made to influence or somehow curtail even social media advertising, given that that probably reaches more young people, particularly, than some of the broadcast media?

Dr Phillips : I am not sure how that would be addressed. That may just be a matter that is too hard to legislate for.

Senator FAWCETT: If we cannot control the internet based media and social media, does it make sense—given all the comments you have made about free speech—to maintain those constraints?

Dr Phillips : We recognise that argument but on balance, at the present time anyway, we favour retaining the current arrangements.

Mr GRIFFIN: Are you happy with the accuracy of the electoral roll at the moment and the level of enrolment?

Dr Phillips : We have no particular knowledge or objections.

Mr GRIFFIN: According to the Electoral Commission and according to most experts in the area, the level of enrolment is at a historically low level—the lowest level it has been in living memory. Do you think that is an issue?

Dr Phillips : I was not aware of that.

Mr GRIFFIN: You say that the proposals are patronising, so if you accept my point—I am told by the AEC it is the case—if we are dealing with a situation where people are not enrolling to vote so clearly they are not exercising their duty in a democratic society to enrol to vote, how should we address that? Or should we address that?

Dr Phillips : We should address it. Full engagement of Australian citizens in the electoral process is a desirable objective because it means we have full ownership of the outcome of elections. There should be encouragement in that direction.

Mr GRIFFIN: How would you suggest we do that?

Dr Phillips : Education of one kind or another. People should accept responsibility. One thing we are aware of is that the Australian education system, at least until very recently, lacked adequate civics education. Most Australian children grow up without understanding how our system of parliamentary democracy works, unlike America where children are fully taught that. That would be one step forward.

Mr GRIFFIN: I have had some experience of the American situation and I can certainly tell you that the levels of engagement in terms of enrolling to vote and then actually exercising the vote is massively below what we are dealing with here. The quality of civics education in the United States and the flow-on effect as it relates to democratic involvement is more than questionable.

Dr Phillips : I take your point, but civics education in the schooling system would be a good idea. The Electoral Commission runs adverts in the media of all descriptions encouraging people to enrol. I know the Electoral Commission is very proactive in visiting schools in senior years and is in all sorts of ways encouraging people to take an interest.

Mr GRIFFIN: My point is that the Electoral Commission is basically saying it is not working, so therefore what do you do? In terms of the operation of the automatic enrolment system, which aspects of that do you object to?

Dr Phillips : If you see a problem, one approach is to say, 'Oh well, we will fix the problem by doing it for people,' which I think is counterproductive.

Mr GRIFFIN: You will be aware, though, that people are contacted with respect to whether their enrolment details are correct if it is identified through the automatic enrolment process. Do you know how the automatic enrolment process works?

Dr Phillips : I think it is a default system—if they do not reply then the details are assumed to be correct.

Mr GRIFFIN: That is true, but there is also a situation where contact is made in order to ensure that details are correct. If you like, people are given the opportunity to respond to demonstrate that the details that have been provided are correct.

Dr Phillips : We would argue that it would be better for the person to actually respond and to require a response, not just a default. I think there is a counterproductive thing at work. If government takes over the role of people and says, 'We'll sort out all the things for you—we'll do it all for you,' I think that actually undermines engagement in the long term. It may seem like a short-cut solution to say, 'People aren't enrolling; we'll do it for them,' but that actually undermines their sense of involvement—

Mr GRIFFIN: The counterargument is that, in a situation where, clearly, it is not working, the circumstances are that there is now a more proactive approach in ensuring people are made aware of the need to update their enrolment and of the need to ensure that their details are accurate and given the opportunity to correct that.

Dr Phillips : It would be good to say, 'We require a response before your details will be updated.'

CHAIR: I thank you for appearing today and for your submission. We make the offer we make to all submitters, that, if you want to put in any additional information in the coming weeks or months, feel free to do so and contact the secretariat. Thank you for your time today.

Dr Phillips : Thank you very much.

CHAIR: We need to conduct a private meeting, so I ask everyone who is not a member of the committee to leave the room for a moment.