• John McDonnell

Parlia­­­­­­­­ment to consider electoral reform this week

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson campaigning in May's Upper Hunter federal by-election

With a ma­­­­­­­­­­ximum of 8 months to go before the federal election, the government is keen to get some electoral reform legislation through the parliament. The changes are largely technical and have been recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and so have bi-partisan support.

Nevertheless, this is the second time the bill has come before the House of Representatives. It came up before, in 2019, but parliament was prorogued before it could be passed.

The current bill amends the Electoral Act to:

  • insert a vote-saving provision for postal votes that are not received inside a sealed postal vote envelope;

  • enable postal voters outside Australia to complete certain procedural steps electronically if they are unable to comply with authorised witness requirements;

  • modernise the management of postal vote applications, recognising that the majority of applications are now submitted online;

  • remove the requirements for pre-poll declaration envelopes to carry a ‘distinguishing number’, which are no longer used;

  • provide a fixed pre-poll period commencing no earlier than 12 working days before polling day;

  • allow for the early opening and sorting of pre-poll ballot papers, and the early extraction of declaration votes;

  • align the handling of envelopes containing ‘spoilt’ or ‘discarded’ ballot papers with broader ballot paper handling requirements by allowing them to ‘bundled’;

  • increase the number of scrutineers permitted to observe the computerised scrutiny of Senate elections; and

  • remove the requirement for the authorisation of printed electoral material to include the details of the printer.

The effect of the bill is to modernise the pre-poll process, which is likely to be important if an election is held under Covid-19 conditions.

Voters will be able to apply for a pre-poll vote online. They will also be able to make the necessary declaration online without needing to find a witness.

The time for pre-polling will be cut to 2.5 weeks (12 working days) from the current six weeks. Pre-poll vote counting can start before 6 pm on polling day so the results will be in, in time to call the election on the day.

There is also provision for more scrutineers to monitor electronic voting, particularly for the senate.

There are likely to be complaints from the Greens and independents that the bill does nothing about electoral donation laws. The pressure for reform of these laws has become more acute since the last federal election.

At the 2019 election, Clive Palmer spent a fortune promoting his own party and attacking the major parties, particularly Bill Shorten. The Labor Party has claimed that Palmer was instrumental in them losing the election. The Greens and Labor argue that if the electoral laws are not amended, Palmer will use his wealth to distort the next election.

That being said the Liberals are likely to have the most to lose if Palmer throws his weight behind Campbell Newman. If Newman wins a senate seat, it will be at the expense of Liberal rising star, Senator Amanda Stoker.

The twin foci of the Labor Party, in parliament this week, will be the pandemic and Afghanistan. Labor will continue its mantra that Morrison has done ‘too little, too late’ on both issues. There will also be calls for the return of Jobkeeper in NSW and Victoria and a pushback against the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg’s proposal to cease Commonwealth support for the states when vaccine coverage reaches 80 per cent.