Recent scandals have placed a spotlight on Australia’s electoral system. However, the discussion about possible electoral reforms has largely failed to go beyond touch-ups to an increasingly obsolete set-up.
Moreover, some changes would ultimately help tighten the grip that the two major pro-corporate parties have on power — precisely at a time when more Australians are turning their backs on them.
Recent revelations have demonstrated what many of us already know: both the Liberals and Labor are backed by big business.
Liberal frontbencher Kevin Andrews came under fire in July over allegations he had concealed a $20,000 donation he received in 2013 from Clubs NSW, one of the country’s most powerful gambling lobbies. The donation — provided via a fundraising body set-up to support his election campaign — was made while Andrews was helping formulate the Liberals pro-pokies policy.
A month earlier, Labor faced similar charges of electoral funding impropriety after the disclosure of a $47,000 donation made by a mining company in 2007 to one of its affiliated trade unions that was never declared to the Australian Electoral Commission.
Tip of iceberg
These donations are just the tip of the iceberg. The Liberal and Labor parties received more than $160 million in donations during the 2013-2014 financial year. Given the high disclosure threshold and loopholes, the sources for more than 60% of these donations were not disclosed.
In response, the Greens introduced the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Donations Reform) Bill 2014 into parliament at the end of 2014.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon explained in her December 4 speech to parliament that this bill would, among other things, ban donations from property developers and companied involved in the tobacco, liquor, gambling, mineral resources or mining industry.
The Greens are also supporting recommendations made by the 2011 parliamentary inquiry into the funding of political parties and election campaigns.
These include the forced disclosure of all donations over $1000, a $5000 cap on donations to a party ($2000 for candidates), limits on election spending and the creation of a national ICAC.
At its recent national conference, the ALP resolved to also continue its support for caps on election spending and a lowering of the disclosure threshold to $1000.
Undoubtedly these represent positive steps forward, these reforms would only place mild limits on corporate funding in a context where the entire system is already tilted towards corporations and their parties.
The Socialist Alliance has put forward election funding proposals as part of an overhaul of the current system, which privileges and entrenches the incumbents and the traditional parties of government.
• Introducing publicly-funded election campaigns for all candidates, not just those that obtain over 4% of the vote;
• Ensuring all candidates have an equal amount of authorised and free information across the media; and
• All financial transactions and donations must be recorded by bodies governing the electoral system and in the mass media.
Campaign funding is not the only area of the electoral system under review.
A parliamentary inquiry was set up after the 2013 federal elections in which an unprecedented number of small parties elected into the Senate — some with less than 1% of the primary vote.
The Electoral Matters Committee, which was entrusted with the inquiry, handed down an interim report last May that recommended raising the number of members required to register a political party at the federal level from 500 to 1500 and the abolition of Group Voting Tickets (GVTs), whereby parties dictate how preferences flow when people vote above the line.
Another inquiry was set up in June to look at campaigning at polling places, particularly the distribution of how-to-vote cards and campaigning by organisations other than political parties.
The overall thrust of these proposals is, ultimately, to prop up a slowly disintegrating two-party set-up.
Any electoral system in which a candidate with 0.5% of the vote wins a seat over parties that gained many times more votes has problems. However, the two major parties that set up this system had little issue with it while it served to maintain their monopoly over parliament.
The problem the Liberals and Labor face is that more and more voters are turning their backs on them, increasing the likelihood of third parties winning seats in parliament.
In the 2013 federal election, only 68% of voters cast a vote for either of the two main parties, yet they obtained 76% of Senate seats. The situation is worse in the House of Representatives, where the two parties captured 79% of the vote but 96% of seats.
Yet no inquiry has looked into this aspect of the voting system.
Abolishing GVTs and introducing optional preferential voting may limit the scant chances small parties have of getting into parliament via backroom deals. But it will do little to break down the much more unrepresentative hold the existing duopoly has on parliamentary representation.
When added to this the attempts to further tighten restrictions on registering political parties and potential bans on groups such as trade unions from being able to campaign on election days, its seems evident that the major parties hope to stem their seepage of votes by simply restricting the choices voters have.
Instead, the Socialist Alliance argues for the abolition of restrictive electoral laws and the replacement of the preferential voting system with proportional representation at all government levels.