Today we’re debating the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021, the first of three bills of a suite of electoral reforms. These bills, for the most part, implement some of the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters from its recent election inquiries.
I’m relieved when bills have origins in a committee report. At least I know they’ve benefited from some process of evidence collection, scrutiny, analysis and consideration. It’s not perfect and it’s regularly politicised, as I know all too well, but it’s better than legislation made on the fly simply to make a ministerial pronouncement legal or driven in response to a shadowy interest that can’t be properly investigated. Committee scrutiny is even more important when parliament is asked to change the fundamentals of the most important democratic event on the calendar.
I will always closely review changes that affect people outside the tent who do not have a seat in this House and who are trying to get in. I will support these bills today, but with some reservation, and I will watch closely any amendments to the bills which occur in the Senate. I’ll also have more to say when the next set of bills are debated.
I met the Assistant Minister for Electoral Matters yesterday and put him on notice that I do not think this suite of electoral reforms actually goes far enough. There are some simple changes, widely supported, that could go much further to increase the transparency and integrity of our elections. The question for me is: does the government actually have the backbone to live up to the standards that we rightly demand of it and not just to legislate to overall maintain the status quo?
To me, the most concerning change in the set of bills before us today is increasing the party membership from 500 to 1,500. This ostensibly comes from recommendation 4 of the joint standing committee’s 2016 report, yet this threshold is a full 500 members higher and double the increase recommended, and I ask: why is this really necessary?
There is a suggestion, because states and territories have membership thresholds from 500 to 750, that 1,500 is a sensible number in a nationwide aggregate for a party that wishes to run a candidate in a federal election. But that’s a very major-party-centric view from a party with national reach. Minor parties can, and do, represent one geographical area and give voice to regional issues that are lost in mainstream politics. They put a local voice front and centre in their decisions and give that voice nuance across national issues too. That’s the reason why they’re elected by their communities—communities who feel like they’ve been ignored by the major parties for decades and suffer neglect as a result. A party may have 1,000 members from one state, but that doesn’t make it an any less valid voice in the national parliament.
These bills don’t affect me, as an Independent politician, but that’s beside the point because I actually really care about democracy. The rationale for this reform is to ensure that registered political parties are built on a genuine foundation of community support. This is a curious position from a government which has seen the Liberal Party membership plummet over the last few decades to between 50,000 to 60,000 in 2020. This is dwarfed by my mighty Richmond Football Club, which has 135,358 members, mostly in one state. How times have changed! For the size of the major parties, one asks, ‘Can they still claim to have a genuine foundation of community support like the standard this bill will now apply to newcomers on the political scene?’
The beauty of minor parties is that they represent issues that may fall outside the mainstream, but which are no less valid. They give a strong voice to those who our political system silences and marginalises. One in four Australians cast a primary vote for a candidate other than a major party in the last election.
Our democracy is simply not a two-sided competition, and nor should it be. Minor parties and Independents broaden our discourse beyond the zero-sum game of an adversarial opposition and government. Independents and minor parties don’t see this place as purely a forum to trash the other side.
Minor parties and Independents form the crossbench in the Senate and the House. From here, we shape legislation and secure amendments to bills. We push for action on climate change when the government resists meaningful action. We lead the call for an integrity commission when the government’s unworkable and unamendable model has been roundly rubbished by everyone, from pillar to post, and will not be in place before the next election—that’s a broken promise that the Independents and crossbench minor-party people call out for what it is.
Minor parties and Independents are indeed the conscience of this place. Increasingly, we have the brains and the brawn too. By being here, we are creating better policy and better laws. We are working with people across the aisles. Any changes that would limit the ability to get diverse voices into this place should be solidly justified and closely scrutinised, as I know they will be when they reach the other place—which is effective due to, and because of, the influence of minor parties.
Electoral reforms must be supported too by an integrity commission which can investigate and act on noncompliance. This is why we need to legislate bills such as my Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill 2020 without delay and before the next election. That’s what integrity is about. My integrity commission would have the power to investigate corrupt conduct, which includes election bribery, election funding offences and election fraud—including breaches of lobbying codes of conduct or existing electoral funding laws. AFIC would also require the government to create a whole-of-government national integrity plan which would focus on preventing corruption in high-risk settings, including elections. The case is clear and the need is pressing. We need a robust integrity commission now; we need it for electoral reform, as much as anything.
I will support these bills, but I put this challenge to the government: go the next step and leave us with a real legacy of electoral reform to donations and election spending which will, ultimately and importantly—more importantly than anything we’re seeing today—truly strengthen our democracy.