Click Here For Quicker Results
Among other reforms, let’s introduce electronic voting to speed up the process, writes ROSS FITZGERALD
ELECTION night and its subsequent celebrations or commiserations for victors and losers hold a special place for Australian political aficionados.
David Williamson’s 1971 classic ‘Don’s Party’ is still a regular on the repertory scene – its story of dashed political expectations of a Labor victory as the results come in on a long-past election night is an experience many Australians can still appreciate.
Whether it is Laurie Oakes or David Speers or Antony Green churning through seat after seat, awaiting the equivalent of the white smoke from the political chimney, the counting of votes is a celebrated process.
But a month after the election it seems faintly absurd that the nation still does not know the final make-up of a new parliament, especially the Senate.
In a country with nine million smartphones and four million tablet computers, the opportunity to use them in the voting process surely deserves serious consideration.
Governments in NSW and the ACT have introduced a limited capacity for online pre-poll voting but the Australian Electoral Commission has not yet made the switch.
The closest to a technical advance at September’s federal election was an AEC trial of marking off voters’ names electronically instead of with a pencil and ruler. Electoral Commissioner Ed Killesteyn wanted to test “whether electronic certified lists make it easier for polling officials to find and mark off voters on the roll”.
Improving the speed of the process on election day is a laudable aim, but speeding up the announcement of results is of equal importance.
It seems unreasonable that it should take so long to confirm the final make-up of the Senate or that there should be an interminable wait for postal votes to determine a house seat. And that is before the whole process, as sometimes happens, is subjected to a recount.
When parliament’s joint standing committee on electoral matters investigated the issue in 2009, after a trial of electronic voting for the visually impaired and military personnel, cost was a major factor: it was estimated at $2000 more per voter than the traditional ballot paper.
But the exponential advances in technology must surely have made it cheaper. Even India has been using a form of electronic voting for more than 10 years. In a country of 1.3 billion people, a result is known in four hours.
Of course, any voting method must stand up to trust and integrity. That most of us accept the security of cardboard ballot boxes and papers marked in pencil suggests Australians could be convinced to accept change. We have come a long way quickly, and the voting system should keep up with technology.
One area where Australians are already convinced change is required is voting for the Senate. The micro-party preference deals that have led to the election of candidates with small first-preference vote counts suggest a system in need of reform.
Most voters would understand if preference flows went to a party or individual with similar ideals. But many of the deals that were done seemingly had no logic when it came to political, ethical or moral positions.
Voting above the line was introduced in 1984 because of the size of some ballot papers. It solved a problem, but gave major parties greater control over directing preferences and cementing the outcome for their candidates by encouraging supporters to simply vote one for their preferred party.
Respected psephologist Green warned a number of years back of the dangers of what has recently occurred. His solution? Optional preferential voting on the Senate paper: “You still have above and below-the-line voting, but if you want to vote above the line, if you just vote one, your vote only counts for one party, there are no further preferences. You can go one, two, three for different parties above the line and the preferences flow that way.”
While democracy must be served by making sure minor parties can exist and indeed flourish, the Coalition, the Labor Party and the Greens agree that the appropriate parliamentary committees will need to investigate whether the system needs to be changed.
It may also bring calls for changing the entire voting system. Our preferential system, introduced in 1918, has been subject to regular criticism.
An Institute of Public Affairs survey two years ago suggested six out of 10 Australians supported the British system of first past the post.
The Britons seem to like what they have, but this system all but prevents minor parties from securing a significant foothold. Yet the Brits have resisted all calls for change, with a referendum in 2011 rejected by 69 per cent of the population.
Were it to be introduced here, it could be a case of be careful for what you wish for. Had this past federal election been first past the post, the Coalition’s majority could well have been 62 seats rather than 35. The ALP’s Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan and former Speaker Anna Burke, along with north Queensland maverick Bob Katter and billionaire Clive Palmer, would not have been elected.
With the Labor Party receiving 33 per cent of first-preference votes, a historic low, it’s likely there will be no rush to reform that part of the system. It would mean a long stint on the opposition benches.
And then there’s the question of whether we should persist with compulsory voting.
Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book and a talking book read by the author.
The Australian, Saturday October 5, 2013, COMMENTARY, p 20