Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 30 November 1983
Page: 2995

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK(12.07) —The Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 1983 is the first attempt at a major and comprehensive review of the Commonwealth Electoral Act for quite some years. It is therefore, in that respect, overdue. It is also a Bill which draws heavily, but not totally, upon the report and recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, a committee of which I was privileged to be a member. I say at the outset that electoral laws in Australia have served the people well at the Commonwealth level over the 82 years since Federation.

Senator Georges —You have benefited from them. If you look at the representation , you will find an imbalance. The Liberal Party of Australia has been in power much more often than the Australian Labor Party.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —That interjection simply shows the good sense at the ballot box of the voters, in that, for about 60 of the 82 years, they have chosen non-Labor governments. My intention is to deal with the Bill as objectively as possible, but if the Australian Labor Party is interested in an exchange, let us have it. What I was saying was that in my judgment and in the judgment of the majority of people, the laws that have prevailed in the conduct of elections federally over the generations have been honest laws which have worked well and which have produced majority rule. In the overwhelming number of cases, the parties that got the majority of votes were those that formed the Government. That has been the basis of democratic rule. I acknowledge that, not to say that nothing better can be achieved but to pay tribute, incidentally, to the officials and the many people who have taken part over the years. The redistribution systems have been essentially honest and essentially a true reflection of majority rule. That is not to say that they cannot be improved. I want to acknowledge that we do not start from any sense of grave imperfection, of corruption or of gerrymander. We start by looking at a review, seeking to improve upon what has been solid and sensible over the years.

I know of no situation in the whole of my time in public life where outside influence, involving money, has influenced governments, of whatever colour, to make judgments. I know that governments are influenced by all sorts of democratic pressures, from their parties, their ideologies, trade unions, interested groups, and all sorts. I know of no clear indications of corruption, although it was alleged by a Labor Party member in the Select Committee that the Iraqi breakfast may well have been such as indication. I would have believed that the Labor Party would have triumphed over that.

I start on that basis and by saying that the first amendments to which the Bill directs itself are largely machinery amendments that the Australian Electoral Office has brought to the Committee's attention by saying that their adoption would be beneficial to the democratic and electoral process. I commend those many amendments that are in the Bill. The Committee made 132 relatively significant recommendations, most of which have been adopted and it made many other minor ones, many of which have been incorporated. The first thing to do in regarding the Bill is to recognise that a series of overdue machinery amendments , largely coming from the Electoral Office, are incorporated in the Bill. I commend them. There has been an attempt to improve the methods by which people can become enrolled and can receive a vote. In general terms, as with the Aborigines and others, they are to be commended.

A large part of this legislation concerns improvements of machinery. It deals with significant matters. For example, it deals with the methods of redistributing boundaries. Depending upon its implementation, it could be an improvement. It sets up statutory bodies for redistributions and stautory timetables, giving the membership of those bodies to people by reason of their position-to a person because he is a surveyor-general, to a person because he is an auditor-general, to a person because he is a judge Those ideas and ideals are excellent in themselves, but, without any reflection, they will be strong only if all governments ensure that the people who reach those positions get there by their natural abilities and the evolution of time, and not by any government decision that they would, in a partisan sense, make good people for committees. So one must keep in mind the fact that the principles are fine but that the practice itself can have its imperfections. I commend the general principles in the Bill concerning redistribution provided that, as I say, principles are not bent by governments of the future to achieve what they hope will be their own self-interests.

The Bill contains a number of other matters, the benefits or otherwise of which will be proven only by time. Over the past 30 or 40 years there have been repeated suggestions of the registration of political parties, the provision of party names on ballot papers and the facilitation within the electoral process of identification of the candidate by the elector. It was not for any insidious reason that these suggestions were not incorporated over the years. Time and again the Electoral Office advised about the complexities that arise from an attempt at registration, an attempt to protect the name of a political party and an attempt to stop people exploiting the names of political parties. Time and again, therefore, these were examined and put aside even though obviously the ideas had merit. The Electoral Office has gone to a very great deal of trouble, as have the law officers, to try to devise a system which will be workable. I can say only that I hope the system will work but that I think it will take years to evolve a series of safeguards which will stop deceptive practices and which will allow for flexibility, bearing in mind that political parties are not immutable and should not be. They are not there forever. For instance, even if the name Australian Labor Party has been common over many years there have been very many different Labor parties in Australia. It is very difficult indeed in terms of a legal judgment to decide what is the Labor Party. There has been the Beazley Labor Party and the Lang Labor Party, just to call two to mind. There has been a whole range of different parties all of which in their day contended for their place in the sun and contended that they were the rightful successors and therefore the rightful users of that title. Make no mistake that as time evolves there will be splits in particular political parties. This has happened in the Australian Labor Party a number of times over many years. So the question of whether registration is the right thing and the question of who is entitled to a name will be extremely difficult ones.

Attempts have been made in this legislation to improve upon the handling of postal voting and in many ways it is beneficial to improve upon the facilities for people to get postal votes, to speed up the process and to provide a register of postal voting. All of this, on the face of it, is good, and all of this is aimed at trying to stop exploitation and trying to stop any kind of corruption within the system. When we come to the Committee stage my colleagues and I will be making comments on some of what we regard as the imperfections, some of the overrigidities that have been built into this system.

I want to dwell for a moment or two upon the difficulties that I particularly have faced-and I am sure others have too-in confronting this whole matter of electoral reform. There seems to me to be a necessity to get to the philosophy of what we are seeking before we invent a mechanism. There is a tendency to start off by saying 'Let us invent a mechanism which will be the most simple mechanism we can possibly devise' instead of saying 'This is my goal. This is the goal I want to reach, and the mechanism or the vehicle for getting there will be described by me now'. The fact is that when one comes to the question of preferential and proportional representation and of informal and formal votes one needs to ask oneself: 'What comes first-the protection of the philosophy of the voting system or the methodology of collecting a formal vote?' One can of course so simplify a preferential vote or a proportional representation vote to enable total formality that the vote is no longer preferential or no longer proportional in itself. So in fact in my series of dissenting reports I posed a series of problems. I said:

Preferential and proportional representation systems depend for their success upon an educated and motivated electorate which will seek to ascertain the backgrounds and affiliations of candidates and groups and will make a conscious effort to allot them a considered order of preferences. Some may be willing to follow a particular how-to-vote card. Others will want to be free to move freely over the ballot paper.

Then I said this:

The question to be asked is: What is more important, the character and integrity of the voting system or the maximum reduction of informal voting? The two are not readily compatible.

What are we seeking to do-to protect the voting system or simply to reduce informal votes? I think this has been a dilemma in the journey of time, because rightly or wrongly-I, as a minority, believe wrongly-the Australian community has over many years accepted compulsory voting as part of its religion in terms of election processes. It is as though it were absolutely fundamental. We seem to have a belief that this is common to democratic systems. The fact of the matter is that compulsory voting is the exception rather than the rule. It does not exist in countries such as America or the United Kingdom. Once we start on the principle of compulsory voting we force a whole series of sanctions into the system. The enforcement of enrolments, the enforcement of getting people to the polls and the enforcement of virtually compelling them to vote. What a strange thing it is. We have a system which forces people, whether they are willing or not, to go to the polls. It cannot pick up the pencils and mark the ballot papers. It cannot force them to do a variety of things, yet it does-it compels. In my dissenting report I gave judgment-and it is purely mine; my political party believes in compulsion but I do not because I think it alters the whole system to the great disadvantage of democracy. I said:

The compulsion of an apathetic, reluctant or even hostile person to vote may well produce an ill-considered and irresponsible vote.

Indeed, those of us who know the extent of the donkey vote, that is the vote as I have described it, know that it is in the order of 2 per cent or more. It is worth pausing to remember that most elections are decided on a margin of less than 2 per cent-that is, the marginal seats are decided by that much. Have we come to a situation in which we are willing to allow the results in an election to be determined by the compulsion of the apathetic, the reluctant or even the hostile? The more one looks at what happens in voting, the more one comes to the conclusion that a considerable number of people go to the polls but do not want to vote.

In the summary in the report we see that 32.4 per cent of the informal ballot papers for the House of Representatives were blank, 14.99 per cent of them had writing, lines or scribbling only and 21.24 per cent had symbols only. So something like 65 per cent of the people were determined that they were not going to cast a formal vote in the ordinary way. Thirty-two per cent of voters who voted informally put in blank ballot papers.

Senator Sibraa —What was the total informal vote?

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —The percentage of informal votes for the House of Representatives was 2.52 per cent. For the Senate 8.67 per cent of the ballot papers were blank, 4.82 per cent had only writing, lines or scribble, and 7.01 per cent had only symbols. A very significant number of people had no intention of trying to cast a formal vote, as distinct from those who made an honest attempt.

Senator Sibraa —Some of them must have been terrified by the size of the ballot paper.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —I accept what Senator Sibraa says. In fact, the Labor Party and the Labor Government are now to invent a Senate ballot paper under the list system which will terrify everybody. The logic of what I am now saying precludes acceptance of a list system. I will describe the list system because it follows on from informal voting. Everybody is aware that a Senate ballot paper in one or two States only, mainly New South Wales and perhaps Victoria, is a very large and formidable ballot paper. All sorts of devices have been suggested to simplify that ballot paper. One such device was that it should be circular; another was that we would have a lottery to decide who should be in the left-hand corner so that the donkey vote could be accidental. It is an interesting proposition because the list system makes the donkey vote non- accidental in the end. Now we have come up with an extraordinary recommendation, one that I believe defies anybody's rational outlook. I ask the Senate to reject it. It is proposed that each of the parties and groups register their names on the Senate ballot paper. With the registration they can register the order of preferences on their how to vote card. Any group, however small or ineffectual, can register its name and its how to vote card and then, in the lottery of fate, it can be in any position, including the left-hand position, on the how to vote card. By that lottery or Lotto method it can then distribute its vote across the paper, not by random but by its predetermination. Thus in the future quite clearly many will struggle to get the left-hand position. The major political parties will have a vested interest in lobbying strenuously all groups on the ballot paper to register how to vote cards giving them the preferences ahead of their opponents. There will be a tendency for self-interested political parties to have more phoney groups on the ballot paper, because the luck goes to whatever group wins the left-hand position and can transfer the preferences. This is put forward by those who interject about the formidable size of the Senate how to vote card. Now they will make it much more formidable. It is also put forward by those who say that we need to make sure that preferences can be properly allocated. I say to the Senate that the list system as proposed in this legislation would be an outrage to our system of democracy. In due course I will make a number of other comments on some of the fundamentals, but I deal with two or three other matters.

I have said that in general terms the redistribution process seems to be sensible and independent, one that can give a sensible judgment. But the Government has decided that the decision on the boundaries shall be made outside Parliament and without any kind of debate within the Parliament. I reject that decision. Parliament is the sovereign body. In the end, those statutory bodies which do its work ought to have a responsibility to table their work here. A debate should be held in the Parliament. I am not advocating a debate which rejects, delays or has any part in altering the final boundaries, but I stress the need for the right to scrutinise what is put forward. There should be the right to make suggestions within a rigid time-table so that there will not be any delay. Parliament should be able to question the electoral commissioners as to whether they had thought of various points. The commissioners could then make their final judgment. I reject the proposition of those who continually say that an honest situation can only come about by putting it into the hands of someone outside Parliament and that to put it in the hands of the Parliament would lead to a dishonest situation. I totally reject that proposition.

The institution of parliament was built and evolved as the finest expression of democracy and human values in the temporal scene. If we downgrade ourselves we deserve all we get. But I have never believed that honesty can be created or enshrined. Honesty is in the hearts of men. In my dissenting report I said, and I say now, with respect to statutory bodies, that independence in itself conveys no particular magic or virtue. Virtue emerges if independence is used for its sole purpose, that is to enable full objectivity and integrity of action. Since we are all human and capable of fallibility of judgment, whether members of independent tribunals or not, there is no substitute for full public scrutiny of those to whom we have given particular powers. Every statutory body has a responsibility to table its reports in the Parliament and to be subject to examination as we are day by day. Those who have a view that members of parliament have some lesser amount of honesty than those outside do a grave disservice to this Parliament. I reject the proposition totally.

This Bill enshrines the principles of public funding and disclosure. There is some tendency to think that because the Liberal Party does not believe in public funding or disclosure it is hiding something and is the party of big money and big business. It is felt that it is a huge public machine compared with the poor helpless Labor Party. There can be no greater nonsense than that. The huge industrial infrastructure of the Labor Party through the trade union movement, shop stewards and trade union officials selling their philosophy in the boss's time day by day, cannot compare with the more amateur effort on the other side. Money in itself has been demonstrably a much larger part of the organisation of the Labor Party, including its infrastructure of finance from the trade union movement. To try to compare the amount of money spent by parties in the last two or three weeks of an election campaign, and to say that because the Labor Party in recent years has spent less that it is necessary to have some kind of equaliser and that it should be given more money is nonsense. Let us therefore equalise over the whole journey. Let us look at the whole of the infrastructure.

The fundamental of a political party is that it is a voluntary organisation. It gets its energies from the grass roots base by striving and by drawing upon the physical and financial energies of people. Thus it should remain. I reject any suggestion that one can by public funding legislate for honesty. In my time I have never heard anything more cynical than that kind of proposition. As I said in my dissenting report:

It is not possible to legislate for honesty. To erect a facade which cannot work and to represent it to the community as a reform to strengthen the integrity of the democratic system is to do the community a grave disservice.

If a candidate, member or political party has an inherent tendency to dishonesty or a weakness to yield to temptations or pressures for a reward, no public subsidies towards Federal election campaigns will strengthen the integrity of the individual or the organisation, nor will disclosure of election funds be any deterrent.

What nonsense it is for anyone to believe that with this kind of system suddenly we will create honest people where, by implication, there was a tendency to weakness or dishonesty. That is the first thing I want to reject. I have a higher opinion of my fellow parliamentarians and my fellow men than that proposition implies. I do not believe that history shows that parliamentarians have been corrupted by money and that decisions have been made in Parliament as a result of corruption by money. They have often been made by corruption of ideas and by corruption by other pressures; they have been made honestly; and they have been made by bungling. But in any case I have to say that it is a quaint proposition indeed. As I have said, it is a cynical view of mankind, and one which I do not share, to somehow suggest that integrity can be bought by a public payment which may alleviate the financial pressures of election expenses. That is absolute nonsense. Those who say 'Look, overseas they have public funding; they do this, that and the other' have not told us the consequences. They have not disclosed to us whether suddenly overseas the system has become more honest, whether the politicians have suddenly developed halos. It is a nonsense situation. What they should tell us is that the result of public funding has been that every kind of trick has been devised to get funding privately, by back door measures. Every kind of device has been invented and used to dodge disclosure.

What we are doing here is a sad thing indeed. In a Bill which contains many useful things, this provision, the list system, the hours of polling and one or two other things are, in my judgment, major defects. It would be wrong for us to go to the public and say that we are self-cleansing, that we will make something honest, when, in the first place, there has been no disclosure in the past of major dishonesty and, secondly, when we are really saying that we will keep potentially dishonest people honest by giving them money. I think that is the very reverse of the truth. I reject it. I believe that a political party should be a voluntary organisation. In the past we have basically had a system which has worked. I believe that we get a vibrant organisation when volunteers give their physical and financal efforts to a political party, and I am sorry indeed that the Bill should have been constructed to include such, I think, grave imperfections.