Directions in Australian Electoral Reform

Directions in Australian Electoral Reform: Professionalism and Partisanship in Electoral Management

Norm Kelly
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Directions in Australian Electoral Reform
    Book Description:

    Australia has a proud history of being an international leader in electoral administration, and Australian electoral commissions continue to have a professional, non-partisan approach to the management of elections. Yet their independence is constrained by the electoral laws they need to administer, and parliamentary committees charged with the oversight of the conduct of elections do so with a clear partisan bias. Elections are all about winners, but who decides who the winners will be? Voters definitely have a big say, but it is the electoral system that determines how votes translate into seats in parliament. Any changes to the electoral system require the support of those in power, and it is important to question who benefits from electoral reforms. It is not surprising that partisanship plays a role and that governing parties usually benefit, although that is not always the case. This book assesses Australian electoral reforms of the past 30 years using personal interview data and parliamentary debates, to provide a picture of the reform process as well as the outcomes. These issues, such as who gets to vote, the use of postal voting, party registration and vote weighting, have a profound impact on who wins elections. The book also examines Australia's electoral administration, testing for professionalism, independence and integrity.  

    eISBN: 978-1-921862-88-5
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Abbreviations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    A democracy’s electoral system is fundamental to its legitimacy.¹ From the electoral system flow the form and style of representation, the relative strength of political parties, the formation of government and the development of policy positions. In a representative democracy, the structure of a state’s electoral system plays a critical role in determining the nature and form of political discourse and parliamentary representation. The electoral system establishes who may vote, how many representatives are to be chosen from which areas, who is in charge of the conduct of elections and how votes are counted. Because adjustment or manipulation of these...

  5. 2. Australia’s Electoral Administration
    (pp. 9-26)

    The institutional structure of an electoral system provides the environment in which electoral laws are administered and amended. An understanding of this environment is necessary to evaluate the fairness of a system, in terms of both democratic behaviour and electoral outcomes. Australia’s electoral management bodies have an international reputation for their professional, non-partisan and independent performance. Yet how strongly entrenched are that integrity and independence? Is the reputation deserved? Australian electoral administrations are relatively similar in terms of structure and responsibility; however, their powers vary depending on their enacting legislation. In most cases the legislation also limits the ability of...

  6. 3. The Independence of Australian Electoral Commissions
    (pp. 27-50)

    In the literature on electoral system management it is widely accepted that, to ensure free and fair elections, electoral management bodies should be independent both of the government of the day and of any political partisan connections.¹ The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) argues that legitimacy is enhanced if electoral authorities are perceived to be impartial and not subject to political interference or control, the argument being that election results are more likely to be accepted by the electorate if there is a strong perception of independence, irrespective of any basic measures of independence.² Orr et...

  7. 4. The Franchise
    (pp. 51-60)

    By international standards, Australians enjoy a relatively broad voting franchise. All adult citizens, eighteen years old and over, are entitled to vote, with a few exceptions, such as categories relating to mental capacity, treason convictions and long-term prisoners. And of course, eligible Australians are not only entitled to vote, they are compelled to vote. The definition of mental capacity does at times raise questions over the interpretation of Section 93 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, which states ‘by reason of being of unsound mind, is incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting’. While there are...

  8. 5. Enrolment, Turnout and Informal Voting
    (pp. 61-82)

    As the previous chapter discussed, adult Australian citizens enjoy a broad entitlement to vote at elections. That entitlement is not only a right, it is also a responsibility, due to Australia being one of only a small number of countries that enforces a compulsory voting regime. Three factors can, however, work against citizens being able to exercise this civic duty: first, getting onto the electoral roll; then getting a ballot paper (either at a polling booth or through the mail); and finally, making a formal vote.

    Ease of enrolment is an important element of access and equity for voters in...

  9. 6. Registration of Political Parties
    (pp. 83-98)

    Political parties play a critical role in healthy democracies. One of their main functions is to provide an organised way of developing policy that represents societal cleavages. In addition, parties cultivate a democracy’s future leaders, they give a sense of order and stability to parliamentary organisation and debate, they bring together disparate groups and individuals into processes of democracy, they recruit political activists, and they provide defined choices in election campaigns.¹ In modern democracies, it would be hard to imagine an organised and stable political environment without some form of political party structure.

    While there might be a tendency for...

  10. 7. Political Finance
    (pp. 99-108)

    It is not surprising that money is one of the most critical factors in election campaigns. Access to money has become even more important in Australia in recent decades with the increasing role of electronic advertising, which consumes a significant share of the major parties’ campaign expenditure. Therefore, the ways in which parties may receive and spend money have been the subject of significant public debate. The Coalition and Labor are keenly divided on some aspects of regulation—for example, donation disclosures; however, they act as a cartel in areas where there is joint benefit, such as public funding.


  11. 8. One Vote, One Value
    (pp. 109-130)

    It is important to consider the values placed on electors’ votes. These can range from voting equality to massive malapportionment or vote weighting. When discussions on malapportioned systems occur, the term ‘gerrymander’ (or ‘Bjelkemander’, after a former Queensland premier) is often mistakenly used. A gerrymander occurs when a dominant political party is able to dictate the drawing of electoral boundaries in a way that maximises the benefits for that party, even when all electorates have an equal number of enrolments. Typically, this would result in the non-governing party having large majorities in a minority of seats, while the dominant party...

  12. 9. Postal Voting
    (pp. 131-144)

    Australia’s major political parties regularly use their numbers in parliament to change electoral laws. Often such amendments are made in line with modern electoral administrative practice, with no obvious partisan benefits. There are, however, several occasions when either Labor or the Coalition ignore electoral ‘best practice’ and fairness and use their powers over the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to bring about a political advantage—either for a direct partisan advantage over opposition parties or when opposition numbers are needed for passage of the reforms, for mutual benefit and acting as a party cartel. Usually these reforms have at least the...

  13. 10. The Size of Parliament
    (pp. 145-152)

    One of the concepts of the fairness of electoral systems is equality of representation—sometimes defined as ‘one vote, one value’. Another aspect of fairness is that citizens have reasonable access to their elected representatives. In 1983, the incoming Hawke Labor Government established the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform (JSCER) to progress Labor’s substantial electoral reform agenda. Following its first inquiry, the JSCER put forward equality of representation and accessibility as reasons why the size of parliament should be increased. On the first issue of representativeness, the committee argued that due to the constitutional guarantee of a minimum of...

  14. 11. Conclusion
    (pp. 153-158)

    It should be clear, and unsurprising, that political parties will endeavour to adjust the electoral rules to their own advantage. Political parties are not altruistic entities; they compete in a highly contested arena, and it is natural that they will seek whatever advantage they can get. Parties in control of a legislature, either in their own right or by acting as a cartel, have benefited from having control over Australia’s electoral systems, as these chapters have shown.

    The institutional structure for electoral administration in Australia—primarily the relationships between parliaments, political parties and commissions—allows governing parties to control the...

  15. Appendix A
    (pp. 159-160)
  16. Appendix B
    (pp. 161-162)
  17. Appendix C
    (pp. 163-166)
  18. Appendix D
    (pp. 167-172)
  19. Appendix E
    (pp. 173-178)
  20. Appendix F
    (pp. 179-182)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-192)