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

PRATT, Mr Graham, President, Electoral Reform Society of South Australia

CHAIR: Welcome. You would be aware the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, although the hearing is a legal proceeding of parliament and therefore carries the same standing as proceedings in the respective houses. You have made a submission, which we have got before us. I would ask you to make an opening statement and we will move to some questions.

Mr Pratt : Thank you very much for the opportunity of speaking to the committee today. Firstly, I would just like to apologise. Deane Crabb, who was originally going to be coming to the hearing today, is unable to attend. He is caught interstate and flights will not get him back in time.

The Electoral Reform Society of South Australia is the South Australian branch of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia. We approach electoral systems, as I guess everyone does, from the perspective of voters, and, as you will see from our submission, we support reform that leads to an increased proportion of voters having their votes be effective. To us, in an ideal system there is a high correlation between primary votes cast and candidates elected to parliament, hence our strong support for proportional representation.

I will not use this time to rehash what is already in the submission, but we did want to commend the committee for the interim report and the recommendation as far as optional preferential voting goes. I just want to use this opportunity to suggest a couple of further enhancements to that that we would certainly advocate for. The first one is to do with a move to optional preferential voting above and below the line. Given that, with below-the-line voting, the proposal is for a minimum of six preferences being cast, it does make below-the-line voting very, very simple and, as such, we would suggest that voting below the line becomes so easy that voting above the line is really redundant. So we would advocate quite strongly for the removal of above-the-line voting with optional preferential voting below the line.

The second point is on the number of preferences that need to be cast. As I understand it, the recommendations are for, effectively, the number of candidates that need to be elected, so in a half Senate election it would be six in the states and—

CHAIR: Twelve in a double dissolution.

Mr Pratt : In a double dissolution, yes, and two in the territories. The Electoral Reform Society would ask the committee to consider varying that number somewhat, not because we think that six is too few to give a meaningful outcome from the election but more from an elector education perspective. Where there is an instruction to include as many preferences as there are candidates to be elected, it could give voters the mistaken impression that they are voting for each of those six candidates to be elected, whereas what they are doing is giving their vote and assigning a preference should their first choice not be a successful candidate. So by having a number, say 10, for argument's sake, different to the number of candidates to be elected, it kind of breaks that link that electors might read from the instructions.

The third enhancement that you will probably have noticed from our submission is that we would strongly support a Robson rotation method for ordering of candidates on the Senate ballot papers, thus sharing the party vote amongst all of the candidates to be put up for election. And those candidates that excel themselves amongst the electorate would be the ones that would stand out because of a higher personal following, in addition to the party vote they receive.

Senator FAWCETT: With the Robson rotation, which obviously came from Tasmania, do you have any background or figures as to the additional cost of that, or any figures around errors, such as printing errors, that have occurred as a result of having to print multiple versions of the ballot paper? Also, do you have any longitudinal studies looking at things like the donkey vote and whether it has actually changed the voting patterns measurably?

Mr Pratt : I will have to take some of that on notice. Deane Crabb probably has a better history of those sorts of things. I should not think that with modern printing methods there would be much of an additional cost in having to print up multiple versions of ballot papers.

Senator FAWCETT: Do you have a view on electronic voting?

Mr Pratt : The society itself does not have a specific view on electronic voting. I guess we would share the same concerns that others may as far as ensuring the accountability of those systems and the transparency of those systems.

Senator FAWCETT: Here in South Australia you are obviously aware that at the state election the Electoral Commission of South Australia sends you a letter with a name and barcode to expedite the process. In some other countries that goes one step further—there will be a digital photo on the piece of paper that comes out. So when you go to the polling booth the official scans the barcode and they can immediately identify that it is you, as well as ticking it off on an electronic roll. Then you go ahead with paper voting. Do you have any comment as to whether your society would support that kind of a system?

Mr Pratt : Again, we do not have a formal position on it. I think we would question whether the added expense is necessarily worthwhile. You would need to demonstrate that there is a significant problem with voter fraud in that respect before going to that kind of expense.

Senator XENOPHON: In terms of a workable solution for getting rid of group voting tickets, because I think that is a mischief that needs to be dealt with, would it work if we recommended to voters—but had a saving provision—that they can vote above the line but they should mark on the Senate ballot paper at least three boxes? That is not my idea; it is something that has been put to me. Would that be unduly complex, in addition to an optional preferential system below the line of at least six boxes being numbered? The ballot paper would say 'Please mark at least three boxes above the line or at least six below the line', presumably with a saving provision so that if you only mark one above the line it would still be a valid vote, in order to reduce informality. I am trying to look at the realpolitik of this to try to get something through the parliament. I wonder whether that is something that you have considered or would like to consider, and could you give a response on notice after considering it.

Mr Pratt : I can certainly raise it with the society committee and see what they think. I guess from a voter educative aspect that would certainly help in getting people used to preferences on upper house ballot papers.

Senator XENOPHON: As I understand it, with New South Wales, where they have had the system of optional preferential voting above the line, I think about 20 per cent of voters who vote above the line mark more than one box. There is still an element of that, but 80 per cent do not and simply vote one above the line. Is that your understanding, in broad terms?

Mr Pratt : Generally speaking, yes.

Senator XENOPHON: I am happy for you to take this on notice: do you have a view about reforms to truth in advertising laws in terms of political advertising so that there is some greater clarity and accountability with respect to that compared to the current provisions? You are probably familiar with some of the High Court decisions which go to being misled as to the casting of a vote rather than forming an opinion as to how you will vote.

Mr Pratt : I will take that on notice as well.

Senator RUSTON: Your submission is fairly comprehensive so there are not a lot of questions that need to be asked. I do have a couple of points of clarification. Under the section where you refer to the thresholds, you draw examples of the people in South Australia who got very small numbers of first preference votes by virtue of the fact that, though obviously you are talking about the ticket votes, it is the votes they got below the line, and then you make the comment that if you bring these thresholds in then somebody like, for instance, Senator Birmingham would technically not have reached the threshold. Are you suggesting that the threshold would only apply below the line as opposed to the flow-on votes that you get from above the line for a party vote?

Mr Pratt : Yes, that is the way it is written.

Senator RUSTON: Your suggestion is to abolish above the line voting altogether and only vote below the line in the Senate?

Mr Pratt : That would be our preference, yes.

Senator RUSTON: With your recommendation on Robson rotation, have you done any research to determine what costs would be incurred in applying that into the system? Some of the states do it. Do we have an idea of what the additional costs would be?

Mr Pratt : Not to my knowledge, though I guess there would be some indicative evidence from Tasmania, where it is in place. As Senator Fawcett said, the cost would be in the printing of the ballot papers. There would be an additional cost in counting because it is obviously more complicated to count a half a dozen different ballot papers versus one. I should not think the printing would be terribly expensive.

Senator RUSTON: But easily dealt with in both the printing and the counting by electronic voting?

Mr Pratt : Yes.

Mr GRIFFIN: I have one quick question. Part of the thinking, I think, of the committee in terms of the recommendation about above-the-line voting was the issue of 30 years of practice and that, if you are making a significant change to the operation of the voting system, there is an argument that you should keep it as simple as you can. Would you have a comment on that? As we know, in 1984, when the first change was made—and I accept that it is a different change to this—the bottom line was that there were, certainly for some time, issues around voter education with respect to ensuring that there were not problems with informality in the lower house and that all having implications.

Mr Pratt : I guess, having made comments before about our preference to abolish above-the-line voting, we certainly do see the committee's recommendations in the interim report as a step forwards.

Mr GRIFFIN: This goes to your submission, and it relates, I suppose, to the question about Robson rotation. Your submission says:

In the Australian Electoral Commission publication Democracy Rules the donkey vote is estimated to be 2 - 3% of the vote.

Do you honestly think it is that much? The reason I ask is that—I was fiddling around during earlier times when evidence was being taken—for example, in South Australia at the last election, in Adelaide, the top candidate, who drew No. 1 on the ballot paper, was a Socialist Alliance candidate, and he only got 1.07 per cent of the vote. In Kingston it was the Rise Up Australia candidate, who only got 1.35 per cent of the vote. And, when you go to the other nine seats in South Australia and you compare the vote of the party which had No. 1 versus their state-wide vote—for example, in Barker the Greens were No. 1; they had a drop of 3.39 per cent from 2010, which was against the state-wide drop for the Greens of 3.7, so it was only about 0.33 per cent different—there does not seem to be anything like two to three per cent difference these days which we could look at and say, 'There's a donkey vote.'

Mr Pratt : No, I would certainly concede that. I shouldn't think that it would be as high as three per cent.

CHAIR: It is not a scientific measure; it is just a longstanding—

Mr Pratt : It is not, no.

CHAIR: I would be grateful if it was two or three per cent because I drew last at the last election!

Mr GRIFFIN: I would not want to get into a debate about what a donkey is in Casey!

CHAIR: Well, we know what it is in Bruce!

Mr GRIFFIN: And I am thankful for it!

Mr Pratt : I think it would be in the rare cases where it is as high as two per cent, but certainly in those seats that are very marginal—and, as you would know, some of the seats do have really quite tight margins—there would be an effect.

Mr GRIFFIN: I accept that it is there. I just question how big it is. I accept that almost any factor can make the difference in a very tight one. It is more a question of the fact that I think that publication which talks about two or three per cent is stretching it; that is all.

CHAIR: As there are no further questions, I thank you for taking the time, and I make the offer that we make to all witnesses: if there are any other issues you would like to raise in the coming weeks as we go about our deliberations, feel free to put in a supplementary submission. On behalf of the committee, I thank you for appearing today and for your comprehensive submission. Thank you very much, Mr Pratt.