Fortifying Australian democracy

Submission to the inquiry into the 2022 election
by Bill Browne and Tony Shields

Australia is a thriving, inventive democracy – but in the face of global democratic decline we should strengthen and protect our political institutions with measured reforms.

Australia Institute research touches on most of the terms of reference for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) inquiry into the 2022 federal election, and we hope to make a contribution in this submission and to future discussion of these important issues.

Reforms to donation laws

Both real-time disclosures and a lower cap on disclosable political contributions would improve the transparency and function of our political system and give the public important information about influences on government’s exercise of power.

While donation and expenditure caps can limit the influence of ‘big money’ in politics, unless implemented carefully they can lead to perverse outcomes, like benefiting incumbents at the expense of challengers and disproportionately harming some political actors.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. ‘Real-time’ disclosure for political contributions (donations and other receipts), accompanied by administrative funding for parties and candidates.
  2. More details provided as to the nature of each contribution.
  3. Lowering the disclosure threshold to a fixed amount, somewhere between $1,000 and $2,500.
  4. Closing the loophole that allows for multiple contributions each below the disclosure threshold.

Truth in political advertising laws

With misleading advertising a serious and growing problem at recent elections, and momentum growing for reform modelled on the South Australian laws, it is time for Parliament to legislate for truth in political advertising.

This submission addresses concerns with truth in political advertising reforms and suggests ways to resolve complaints quickly, since slow and delayed resolution of complaints has emerged as a concern with the South Australian laws.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. The Parliament adopt truth in political advertising laws, based on the South Australian model.
  2. Election advertisements be required to be submitted to a publicly accessible archive.
  3. The Committee consider whether to hold an inquiry into the impact of social media on democracy, expanding upon the Victorian Electoral Matters Committee’s inquiry.

Indigenous participation

Participation rates in electorates with significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations tend to be lower than those seen nationally.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. The Committee consider ways of increasing Indigenous enrolment and turnout, including:
    • a body like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Election Education and Information Service to provide electoral education
    • remote enrolment programs
    • improving government services, including more mobile teams for remote voting.

Digital electoral rolls

While not discussed in this submission, in regards to term of reference (e) the Australia Institute has previously discussed how digital electoral rolls can address the minor issue of multiple voting.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. More widespread use of digital electoral rolls.

Extending the franchise to permanent residents

Electoral participation among the resident voting age population has fallen from highs in the second half of the 20th century in part because a larger portion of Australia’s voting age population is not eligible to vote. Several other countries extend voting rights to permanent residents, seemingly without issue – New Zealand is one of them.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. JSCEM consider whether voting rights could be extended to permanent residents generally, or otherwise:
  2. Voting rights should be extended on a reciprocal basis to permanent residents who are citizens of countries that allow Australians to vote in their national elections.

More parliamentarians

Australia has too few parliamentarians. Few Australians have interacted with their local members, who are thinly stretched (both in terms of the number of people they represent and, in regional and rural electorates, the geographical extent of the electorate). Increasing the number of parliamentarians would deepen the talent pool for ministerial appointments and committee work and reflect the dramatic increase in the volume of legislation and inquiries in recent years, as well as the increased size of the resident population.

Relative to smaller states, the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory are underrepresented in terms of the number of senators that they elect. Increasing the number of senators to four per territory would go some way to correcting this imbalance. It would also guarantee that both major parties are represented among each territory’s cohort.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. An increase in the number of parliamentarians by 50%, which would secure for the first time one vote, one value in the House of Representatives.
  2. The Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory should each receive four senators, elected at each federal election. This would reduce the disproportionality between the territories and the smallest state, Tasmania.

Proportional representation in the House of Representatives

In the 2022 election, almost one-third of Australians cast a first preference vote for an independent or minor party candidate – but this is not reflected in the distribution of members elected to the House of Representatives. Major parties would also benefit from proportional representation, by avoiding electoral ‘wipeouts’, being able to preselect quality candidates wherever they live and having party rooms that better reflected the geographical distribution of the party’s voters.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. JSCEM consider the issue of proportional representation in voting for the House of Representatives, particularly the possibility for multi-member divisions like those used to elect the Tasmanian House of Assembly.

Increasing the fine for not voting

Because it has not changed since the 1980s, the federal fine for not voting is losing its deterrent effect. The maxim that ‘If you don’t vote, you don’t count’ suggests that the disadvantaged and disengaged suffer most when turnout is low.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. JSCEM revisit penalties for not voting, and consider increasing them.

Democracy Agenda reforms

In the last days of the 46th Parliament, the Australia Institute launched the Democracy Agenda for the 47th Parliament. Some of the Democracy Agenda recommendations are relevant to this inquiry, including the proposal to use Robson Rotation, the fairer ‘recount’ method for assigning Senate seats after a double dissolution, fixed three-year terms and the abolition or reform of section 44 of the Constitution.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. JSCEM consider electoral reforms in the Australia Institute’s Democracy Agenda for the 47th Parliament.

Party Registration Integrity Act

The Party Registration Integrity Act is unnecessarily onerous in two respects. Requiring each registered party to have 1,500 members is unreasonable for parties limited to smaller states and territories. Stopping new parties from using words found in existing party names (without permission) can prevent parties from accurately describing themselves.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. JSCEM reconsider the Party Registration Integrity Act.

Pride in Australia’s electoral system

Australians can be justifiably proud of the electoral innovations that Australians have invented or fine-tuned, including the secret ballot, preferential voting, independent electoral administrations, expanding the franchise and electoral education.

Australians should be better educated in how and why our electoral system works, which would increase political engagement.

The Australia Institute recommends:

  1. JSCEM consider how pride in and knowledge of Australia’s long history of electoral innovation can be encouraged.
  2. JSCEM consider how civics education could be improved and expanded, and whether a model of ‘lifelong learning’ would help address low levels of understanding about the Senate in particular.

Full submission