Friday, 8 April 2011
My words are gracing the pages
of the state newspaper this morning. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen. I was responding to a piece by Professor Dean Jaensch. He has a regular column on political matters in the same paper. He has commented on politics for many years and has done much to try and educate Australians about the way they are governed and how our voting system works. What he has to say is almost always thoughtful and instructive. Yesterday's column was no different. He raised a matter of which I was quite unaware and, I am sure, many other South Australians are quite unaware. As many of you now know Australians are compelled to attend the ballot box. They naturally also see this as being compelled to vote - indeed do not even know that there is a difference. There are arguments for and against this. I am opposed to compulsory attendance at the ballot box but I do believe that people should vote. It is the act of a responsible citizen. That however is not the problem here. When we do vote we are compelled to mark the candidates in order of preference....one, two, three or more. Unless we mark every square with consecutive numbers our vote does note count. At least, I thought that was what the situation was. The good professor has now pointed out that changes to the electoral act mean that it does not quite work that way any more. There have apparently been too many "informal" votes, far too many. Informal can mean a blank paper, a paper with comments scribbled on it, non-consecutive numbers or perhaps just one number. Informal votes are not supposed to be counted. But, it seems some informal votes are counted. There is nothing that can be done with a blank paper but every other paper is carefully scrutinised to try and discover the voter's intentions. It sounds perfectly reasonable but the Electoral Commission in South Australia has been given the power to fill in the blanks in some cases. If a voter fills in just one square on the ballot paper the Electoral Commission has the power to assume that the voter intended to add preferences in a certain way. In other words they have the power to fill in the rest of the ballot paper without asking the voter what their intentions were. This effectively takes the vote from the voter and places it in the hands of the Electoral Commission. It could potentially change the outcome of the election. The good Professor Jaensch did not say how often this might happen but he was clearly deeply concerned by it. The Federal Government is now seeking to introduce the same legislation for Federal elections. There are already far too many ways of manipulating the results of elections in Australia, many of them hinging on compulsory preferential voting. Adding the possibility that ballot papers could be completed by electoral officials would add a new and deeply disturbing dimension to our already flawed electoral system. Once it is in place it is unlikely to be removed without, at very least, a High Court challenge. Australians should be deeply disturbed by this but I suspect the majority will continue to believe that we have a free, fair and transparent system.