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Party support needs to be viewed through a different prism

1 June 2015 243 views One Comment

Over the past couple of months we’ve seen two of Australia’s most established minor political parties deregistered by the Australian Electoral Commission. First there was the Australian Democrats and then the Democratic Labor Party.

Like many people I was quite surprised to hear that neither of these parties had a minimum of 500 members , this being the magical number that the Electoral Act defines as indicative of enough public support to register a party. But when it was announced that one of the rising stars in the political firmament, the Australian Sex Party, had been deregistered for not having 500 members, I began to have serious doubts about the transparency and efficacy of this process.

As a result, I jumped onto social media to see if others were feeling the same , and there it was. Seemingly scores of irate Sex Party members were flashing their membership cards alongside their faces on Facebook and Twitter challenging the AEC with quips like, “You didn’t call me!” or “Hey, I exist”. Some of them were holding up cards with their membership numbers. One plucky young woman even proudly displayed her card number of 6969.

So what’s happening here? Clearly the Australian Sex Party has strong support in the community. They have Fiona Patten as an elected MP in Victoria and they claim more than 6000 members. So how come the AEC cannot gauge that? It’s a question that goes to the nub of the democratic process in Australia.

Only parties that do not have elected federal representatives are asked to go through this registration process. This presupposes that in some way having one or more elected representatives equates to having 500 party members or more.

On the face of it, this sounds fair enough. However, recent parliamentary events have cast considerable doubt on the validity of this assumption.

The resignation of senator John Madigan from the DLP last September left that party without a sitting member in the Federal Parliament. The DLP then had to submit to a membership audit from the AEC, which it failed. Assuming the audit to be correct in this case, Madigan had been representing a party that did not have the broad support in the community that the Electoral Act supposed it did.

With Jacquie Lambie, Glenn Lazarus and Madigan all forming new parties around their incumbency, none of them will be audited because they are sitting members and the Electoral Act assumes, rightly or wrongly, that they have a required level of popular support. The reality is that however few their actual members are they will still be allowed to function as registered political parties.

However, any other small party that tries to start up from scratch without a sitting member will have to bend over backwards to prove 500 members. It’s anti-competitive and unfair.

The methods that the Federal Parliament has asked the AEC to use in determining minor party numbers are at best illogical and, at worst, extremely unfair. A political party is asked to send a list of 550 members with their names and contacts into the AEC who then cross-check this list against the electoral roll to see how many are eligible to vote.

In the case of the Australian Sex Party, the AEC found that 520 people of the 550 they submitted were on the roll. The AEC then telephoned 26 of these 520 people and asked them if they were members of the party. If they got more than two people saying they were not members, the party would be deregistered. Remarkably, this is exactly what happened.

The AEC claims that it calls only 26 people on the list because the Bureau of Statistics says that figure is statistically significant alongside 520 people confirmed on the electoral roll. For a larger party with a membership base in excess of 6000 members, this test is neither going to be accurate nor fair.

Rather, it limits such a party to 550 members, applies a formula to acquire the lowest number of contacts required , in the Australian Sex Party’s case 26 , and calls those people to ensure they are indeed members.

In this case the outcome from the formula was 26 people telephoned by the AEC and 21 confirmed as members of the party. If the same formula were applied to the 6000-plus membership base, the outcome would be a confirmed party membership of more than 4846! The reason for limiting the submitted list to 550 appears to be twofold. The first is to decrease the AEC’s workload and save on costs.

The second is to make a gesture of “equality” within the AEC’s system. Hence a party that claims 6000 members is treated the same as one that claims 600.

For the purpose of political party registration, this kind of equality just doesn’t make sense. A party with 6000-plus members should surely be supported by the system more than a party that has only 600 members.

Increased political party support should overwhelmingly be an indicator of merit when it comes to judging a party’s worthiness to be registered in Australia and should not be disregarded.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An alcoholic’s Journey’ is available as an e-book.


One Comment »

  • Fred Pilcher said:

    Attack on democracy

    Can you imagine the Australian Electoral Commission calling a random 26 members of the major political parties and deregistering them if two said they were no longer members? It would never happen. But that’s exactly what happened to three small parties recently. Ross Fitzgerald’s article “Weighing party support on a different scale” (Times2, June 1, p5) supports what we 6000-plus members of the Australian Sex Party suspected: it was a politically inspired hatchet job.

    Regardless of who you support, confidence in the independence and professionalism of the commission is fundamental to trust in the electoral process and trust in our democracy. The common desire of the major parties to politicise our public institutions may be understandable, but the consequential chickens are coming home to roost in the continuing flight of voters to minor parties and independents.

    Fred Pilcher, Kaleen

    The Canberra Times, Letter to the Editor, June 4, 2015

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