A government-dominated parliamentary committee has recommended the voting system for federal elections should become optional preferential and pre-polling should be reduced from three to two weeks.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report on the 2019 election also urges ID, such as a driver’s licence or Medicare card, be required for voters, with special arrangements for certain disadvantaged people.
In a set of radical proposals the report says a referendum should be considered to break the constitutional nexus between the numbers in the Senate and House of Representatives.
The government should consider asking the committee to inquire into the size of the lower house, given the growing size and demands of electorates, the report says.
It should also consider having the committee examine extending the parliamentary term to a non-fixed four years, with eight years for senators.
The report suggests looking at the viability of replacing by-elections with alternative methods of selecting the new MP, and declaring a seat “vacant when the sitting MP resigns from or leaves the party under which they were elected”.
In his forward to the report, Queensland Liberal National Party senator James McGrath says replacing compulsory preferential voting with optional preferential would maximise voter choice.
Prepolling time should be reduced to a maximum of two weeks and those “who choose to vote early should be required to explain why they are unable to attend on the day rather than it being a matter of convenience,” he writes.
Labor put in a dissenting report opposing a number of recommendations.
The shadow special minister of state, Don Farrell, accused the government of launching “an outrageous authoritarian-style assault on Australian democracy”.
Through its control of the committee, “the government is proposing drastic measures designed to silence its critics, suppress the vote and stop workers and grass-roots campaigners from participating in our democracy,” Farrell said in a statement.
He said moving to optional preferential voting would undermine the compulsory voting system, while voter ID laws would disenfranchise vulnerable citizens, including homeless people and many indigenous Australians.
Abolishing by-elections and allowing the retiring member’s party to choose their replacement would erode democratic rights, Farrell said.
The key to understanding media coverage of election campaigns is that the political parties are far more professional than the news organisations.
The reason is simple: for political parties, elections are make or break, determining their fate for the next three years; for the media, an election is just another story, admittedly a long-running and important story, but not an organisation-transforming event.
Because the parties have a clear aim and measure of success, each campaign is a learning experience. Although there are electoral ups and downs, their overall trajectory is towards constant improvement. The resultant professionalism is, of course, not often conducive to a healthier democracy, but it is dynamic.
In contrast, there seems to be little learning among the news media about how they might cover elections better.
I’ve identified five weaknesses in the approach of most mainstream media. I am highlighting here tendencies in the approach to news coverage, rather than, for example, the blatant and unrelenting partisan bias of News Corp publications. And obviously, both news organisations and individuals vary in the quality of their reporting.
1. Follow the leader
Media coverage of elections – especially television coverage – has always been leader-focused. This is logistically convenient and feeds into the narrative of a gladiatorial contest. But if this is the main news effort, it will always result in fairly circumscribed coverage.
At times, media outlets devote time to covering certain high-profile electorates, such as Warringah in this year’s election. Occasionally, some back-bencher or candidate will make the news, normally in an embarrassing way, as a result of digging by the other side’s “dirt unit” rather than any media initiative. But even then, the focus is on the leader’s response.
We live in a parliamentary rather than presidential democracy, in which the good functioning of the cabinet is central to a government’s effectiveness. Instead of focusing so obsessively on the leaders, the media should give more attention to the whole front bench.
While there was much outcry about whether there would be a third leaders’ debate in this campaign, a much higher media priority should have been to demand ten minister-vs-shadow-minister debates about issues in each portfolio. These would not only have more substance than the leaders’ debates, they’d provide a much stronger guide to each party’s policy directions, and the competence of each team to govern.
In this campaign – but not always – this would have arguably favoured Labor, with Scott Morrison receiving support from so few Coalition ministers (Josh Frydenberg, Simon Birmingham and almost no others). It is amazing, for instance, that the environment could be such a central issue, but the environment minister, Melissa Price, was simply unavailable for any interviews.
2. Conniving in meaningless figures
The political parties use statistics to impress, to alarm, and nearly always to bamboozle. With the honourable exception of the fact-checking teams, most media tend to either pass numbers on uncritically or have an indiscriminate suspicion of them – lies, damned lies and statistics.
The numbers cited in campaigns are usually so great and so remote from most peoples’ experience that they have little meaning. People generally do not know the size of the country’s labour force, the amount of government spending in any particular area, or the size of the economy.
A first step in making statistics meaningful for the public would be to contextualise them as proportions, and to perhaps offer some comparisons.
The situation has reached peak stupidity in recent campaigns. To go beyond the limits of annual sums, the idea of the forward estimates – the budget projections for revenue and expenses over a four-year period – was introduced. Conveniently for the parties, this was a year beyond the next election.
Then, former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard escalated the tendency to project, for example, promising big increases in education spending, but with the largest amounts kicking in just beyond the forward estimates. The Morrison government has escalated the trend even further with ten-year estimates of its tax cut plan – a forecast that must involve so many assumptions, it is fanciful.
The proper use of statistics is an indispensable tool in evaluating policy performance. As such, the media need to develop protocols for keeping the parties accountable in their use of figures.
The media should report primarily what the promise will mean for the next budget year and the next period of government, and should either ignore or downplay estimates beyond this, or at least give warnings about the unreliability of more distant projections.
Raw sums should also be supplemented by percentage amounts. And when funding pledges are made, the media should always ask how much of this money is new and whether it comes at the expense of an existing program.
3. The polls were so unanimous, so consistent and so wrong
The 2019 election was disastrous for the pollsters. Not only were the polls tightly clustered, not a single poll in the past two years had found the Coalition scoring 50% or better of the two-party preferred vote.
Some commentators found the degree of clustering so unusual, they suspected there was some herding by pollsters, aligning their published results with the apparent consensus.
The spectacular failure of the pollsters is not the fault of the media who commission them. But as the pollsters’ major clients, they must demand a thorough review of methods. Are the sampling frames still adequate? Are they relying too much on weighting the results?
The media themselves can also aid in one important way. Having paid for the poll, they want a strong story to result. As a result, they are tempted to impose a misleading certainty on the flux of public opinion.
There needs to be both in the presentation and interpretation of polls more attention to lack of opinion, to those respondents who say they haven’t decided. The softness of opinion and how it is resolved may be crucial in affecting an election result.
4. History starts today
A common, but somewhat misplaced criticism, of the media is that they cover elections like horse races. But in addition to this, the media need to develop strategies for making election campaigns meaningful policy debates.
Political leaders everywhere have become increasingly adept at evading questions, at mastering and surviving the televised moment, with any problems in their claims only catching up to them later and to a much smaller audience.
The most convenient way for the media to cover policy pronouncements by the parties is as duels over alternative futures. If the parties are allowed to frame the debate, the benefits of their policies are often overstated and the costs and difficulties understated.
This is abetted by the media’s tendency to cover such promises in a vacuum. When politicians talk about future policy, the media rarely take the initiative to explore the extent and effectiveness of existing policy. Too often these debates are conducted as if no history has preceded them.
Good governance is about deciding priorities, weighing costs and benefits. But the media often want to play “gotcha” in their election coverage, as if policies are cost-free and have no losers. As long as this continues, there will be a disconnect between politicking and governing – and politicians will be rewarded for avoiding realistic debate.
5. Superiority signalling
Virtue signalling, a recently coined phrase much in favour among right-wing commentators, means the conspicuous expression of moral values, intended more to show someone’s righteousness than to have any substantial effect.
We need a similar phrase – superiority signalling – to describe how the media position themselves as above the fray in their election coverage, substituting posturing for performing their role. Many times, they are overly concerned with signalling their impartiality, but in ways that do not further inform the public.
One way journalists do this is by opting for balance rather than truth. Reporting stories in a “he said, she said” fashion appears to be impartial, but leaves the audience little wiser. Another manifestation is “bothsides-ism.” Here, journalists highlight their neutrality by criticising both sides as if they are equivalent (which they sometimes are). But if they stop here and fail to probe further, the public learns little.
Another common way journalists signal their superiority is through their disdain for a boring campaign, as if this is the fault of the politicians, and not their own failure to make a campaign interesting. Politicians, after all, are not meant to be reviewed like vaudeville entertainers.
After this election, the major parties will review their strategies. The process will certainly be less than objective – especially in the blame game among the losers – but they will be thinking about what they can do differently next time. It would be nice to think the media will undertake a similar exercise, with a focus on how they can improve in ways that enhance democratic choice and accountability.
From afar, the US midterm elections might seem to be all about Donald Trump, and there is some truth to this. The man, as has been the case for some years now, is unavoidable.
More than 700 days after the host of The Apprentice was elected to lead the world’s largest military and economic power, this will be the first chance for Americans to express buyer’s remorse at the ballot box by potentially giving the Democrats control of the House (and less likely the Senate) in order to rein in the president.
Trump himself is not up for re-election, though. Voters will be making decisions about local and state representatives, so it would be a mistake to presume the outcome will be entirely dependent on questions of federal leadership.
However, Democrat Tip O’Neill’s famous claim that “all politics is local” is not entirely true here; this election has local, national and international implications.
This is why, once again, non-Americans are taking such an interest in an American election. Many believe that Trump and his Republican Party represent much of what endangers the world.
Who is up for election?
Members of the US House of Representatives serve two-year terms, and senators six-year terms. This means that all 435 members of the House and 35 out of 100 senators (33 plus two empty seats due to resignations) are up for re-election on November 6.
Due to the Democrats’ success in the 2012 election, just nine of those 35 Senate seats are Republican-controlled. So the Democrats’ chance of taking the Senate is slim – around 1-in-7, according to FiveThirtyEight.com – despite the fact Republicans currently hold only a narrow 51-49 majority.
For those outside the US, this may seem remarkable, given the profoundly unethical decisions enacted by the Trump administration, and the parade of misogyny that surrounded Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s recent Senate confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court.
And yet, there are a number of plausible scenarios in which the minority party could actually lose ground.
To forge a path to victory in the Senate, Democrats will need to retain seats in states that Trump won easily in 2016 – North Dakota, Montana and Missouri – as well as in Florida, where incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson faces a tough race against multimillionaire Republican Governor Rick Scott.
They’ll also need to pick up a seat or two in the traditionally Republican states of Arizona, Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi (listed in order of likelihood). The fact that Mississippi and Tennessee are even in play for the Democrats is noteworthy because Trump won both in 2016 by over 15 percentage points.
But given the circumstances, the Democrats remain unlikely to win a Senate majority.
A Democratic victory in the House is far more probable, with FiveThirtyEight.com giving the minority party a 6-in-7 chance to take back control.
Because all House seats are up for grabs, this is the contest that many will view as a national referendum on the Trump administration. And the results will be shaped by voter turnout.
Typically, turnout for midterm elections is older and whiter than it is for presidential elections, and this is a demographic that favours Republicans. The Republicans have maintained or taken control of the House in every midterm election since 1994, with the exception of 2006, when President George W. Bush’s popularity had plummeted to the mid-30s due to his mishandling of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.
According to recent polling averages, Trump’s approval rating has been hovering at just over 40%.
Why is gerrymandering significant?
This election is consequential for far more than the future of the Trump administration. Republican victories in state legislatures and governors’ races, which occur alongside the national election, will provide another opportunity for the party to consolidate its power through gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the underhanded process whereby elected politicians redraw federal and state electorate boundaries to group voters by demographics and improve their chances of success at the ballot box.
These lines are redrawn every 10 years, following a nationwide census. The next census is in 2020, so the lines will next be redrawn in 2021. This year’s midterm election is therefore crucial in determining which party will control each state during the upcoming redistricting process.
Gerrymandering tends to be a tactic of Republicans, who currently hold the majority of seats in 32 of America’s 50 state houses. Furthermore, the task of gerrymandering is more straightforward for Republicans, as Democratic voters are typically packed together in urban centres, while Republicans are usually spread out across states.
In a number of states, Republicans have engineered things so Democrats are sure to win just a few seats with massive majorities, while Republicans are favoured to capture far more by closer margins, for instance a 55% to 45% majority.
However, there is a catch. In a wave election, as this one may well be, those Republicans who would normally expect to get elected with 55% of the vote could be vulnerable. This may occur in this year’s House races in North Carolina.
What is the effect of voter suppression?
Further impeding the Democrats’ chances is the systematic and widespread strategy of voter suppression, which is typically utilised by Republicans to prevent likely Democrat voters, such as African Americans, from voting.
One particularly alarming example has been happening in Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams is attempting to become the country’s first female African American governor.
Her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, also happens to be Georgia’s secretary of state. His office had been strictly enforcing a new law known as “exact match”, under which voter-registration applications are dismissed for absurdly minor discrepancies, such as missing hyphens or slightly mismatched signatures.
A judge recently halted this practice, but over 53,000 registration applications have already been suspended. African Americans comprise 32% of the state’s population and nearly 70% of the rejected applications.
This kind of behaviour is not confined to a few rogue states. Other methods of voter suppression, such as felon disenfranchisement, voter ID laws and reductions in the number of polling booths in African American communities, are routinely used across the country to disproportionately target minority voters.
Even the fact that voting takes place on a Tuesday, rather than a weekend, marginalises people who cannot get off work. These people are likely to be poorer and less likely to be white.
Will Trump be impeached?
As was proven on the evening of November 8, 2016, while polls can show likelihoods, nothing is guaranteed. However, the polls currently suggest that the most likely outcome of these midterms is a Democratic-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate.
What this would mean for Trump is more frustration. The Democrats would be able to investigate the president’s questionable financial deals, potential fraud related to Trump University and possible links to Russian interference in the 2016 election. They could also push for the release of Trump’s much sought-after tax returns.
It seems likely the House will find grounds to impeach Trump. But, hold your breath – that would be only step one of a lengthy process.
Dismissal of a president requires 67 of 100 Senate votes, a threshold that makes such an event unlikely. Given the president’s propensity for mendacity, it will be intriguing to see whether he is able to avoid any perjury charges that might arise from Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian election interference. But again, such charges are unlikely to lead to his removal from office.
Yet who can say? Whatever the outcome on November 6, there is much about the future of US politics – and the global ramifications – that remains entirely unpredictable.
It’s an indication of how politically difficult the terrain is for the Coalition that Scott Morrison has faced a hard time defending the decision to drop a planned tax hike.
Morrison explains abandoning the rise in the Medicare levy – which he insisted only a year ago was vital to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme – by saying revenue is much better.
It’s relevant, of course, that the levy wasn’t going to get through the Senate in its full form.
Apart from criticism of the speed and suddenness of the backflip, stakeholders fear it means the NDIS’s funding base mightn’t be so secure in the longer term.
Still, most people aren’t going to complain about not having to pay the higher levy.
From the government’s point of view, it is especially important that it has removed a serious contradiction it had faced – on the one hand making income tax cuts a centrepiece of the May 8 budget while on the other proposing to increase the levy on July 1 next year, weeks after the expected time of the election.
The government is pinning its hopes on making this election all about tax – casting itself as champion of lower tax and Labor as signed up to what Morrison dubs the “high tax club”.
It’s shades of John Howard’s 2007 election, when he offered big income tax cuts as the Coalition tried to stave off defeat. Labor matched almost all the cuts. Howard lost the election.
Morrison says the budget will deliver “tax relief to put more money back in the pockets of middle to lower income Australians to deal with their own household and family budget pressures.”
“It is important that when we consider any plan for tax relief, middle to lower income families will come first as part of any broader plan”, he said, in a major pre-budget speech on Thursday, while notably also focusing on how much of the tax burden is borne by higher income earners. “A massive 17% of the A$186 billion collected in personal income tax for 2015-16 was paid by the top 1% of taxpayers,” he said.
Whatever the detail of the government’s income tax package – the Australian Financial Review has reported cuts would be phased in over a decade – Labor has, thanks to revenue choices it has made, the financial capacity to match it.
For the longer term, the ALP also has available money from the company tax cuts for big business. These are not through the Senate at this point but they are in the budget numbers; Bill Shorten says Labor would repeal them (saving multi-billions over time) if they are legislated.
One Labor source says: “We’re not going to let them beat us on income tax cuts. We’re not going to let income tax cuts be a contest”.
Following the government’s move, Labor has dropped its compromise proposal to increase the Medicare levy for those earning more than $87,000. Under its present policy a Labor government would, however, bring back the deficit levy for high income earners. But the “contest” there would be on ground where the ALP doesn’t have so many voters.
In painting Labor as big taxers, the government will home in on multiple fronts including the opposition’s proposed crackdown on negative gearing and the capital gains discount, its planned action on trusts, and its ending (except for pensioners) of cash refunds for franked dividends. Voters are used to the negative gearing policy from the 2016 election. By tweaking its clampdown on refunds, Labor has tried to limit the blowback.
A significant question is how much potency “tax” has in an election these days, especially if the two sides have broadly matching policies on income tax cuts (except at the higher end).
It is relevant to the cost of living issue, but only if one side offers cuts for lower and middle income earners and the other doesn’t.
This week’s Newspoll in The Australian asked voters to name from a list their top priority for the budget. Only 15% nominated cutting income tax rates, well behind reducing debt and deficit (26%) and increasing spending on health (27%).
We should probably apply a discount in interpreting these results – some people might say what they think they should say rather than their actual view.
Nevertheless, it does seem likely that tax cuts are not necessarily the vote-magnet they once might have been. In attracting voters, they can perhaps be described as necessary but not sufficient. People expect them. If they are modest and phased in, they don’t carry great punch. Also, many voters today are often more concerned about services.
While the budget’s focus will be the income tax cuts, the government is still trying to get a favourable Senate vote soon after on its business tax cuts.
How Finance Minister Mathias Cormann must be cursing that he wasn’t able to drag those last couple of crossbenchers across the line before the appalling stories started flowing in the banking royal commission! Cormann is a negotiator par excellence but his task is now tougher.
It may or may not have been encouraging for him that South Australian independent Tim Storer this week said he was looking at the company tax issue separately from what was going on at the royal commission. Storer has raised a wide range of doubts about the legislation.
The evidence at the commission must surely make Derryn Hinch, the other crossbencher who was central to the earlier negotiations, harder to win over. Even before the damning revelations, Hinch called for the banks to be excluded from receiving the cuts. After the government quickly rejected this, Hinch has talked about confining them to companies up to a $500 million annual turnover – another way to skin the bank cat. It’s difficult to see how Hinch can now move.
Cormann has turned his attention to the two Centre Alliance senators (formerly the Nick Xenophon Team). So far they have firmly opposed the cuts for big business. They are waiting to see the budget before coming back to the issue. Meanwhile the indefatigable Cormann deluges them with material. “I’ve never seen text messages as long as he sends!” says Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff.
In 2018 there will be elections in the Australian states of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, as well as in Italy, the US and Mexico.
Essential has released polling for the five mainland Australian states, conducted from October to December. Figures are given by month for the three eastern seaboard states.
In South Australia, Labor led 51-49 in October to December, a one-point gain for the Liberals since July to September. Primary votes were 34% Labor (down three), 31% Liberals (up one), 22% for Nick Xenophon’s SA-BEST (up four) and 8% Greens (up two). The South Australian election will be held on March 17.
Newspoll had SA-BEST at 32% from polling conducted in the same period as Essential. Essential is assuming SA-BEST preferences flow to the Liberals at a 60-40 rate, but at the 2016 federal election, these preferences flowed to Labor at a 60-40 rate. Essential’s justification is that the Liberals have lost far more primary votes than Labor since the 2014 state election.
In Victoria, the Coalition led 51-49 in December, a two-point gain for the Coalition since November. Primary votes were 46% Coalition (up three), 37% Labor (steady) and 9% Greens (down one). For the October to December period, Labor was just ahead, 51-49. The Victorian election will be held November 24.
The Age commissioned ReachTEL polls of the Labor-held Victorian seats of Tarneit and Cranbourne on January 5. On the primary votes, there is a substantial anti-Labor swing in Tarneit, but little swing in Cranbourne.
There were many questions in the ReachTEL polls on youth crime. About two-thirds in both seats said the main youth crime issue was African gangs, and more than 55% said they were less likely to go out at night. A positive for Labor was that Premier Daniel Andrews had a large lead over Opposition Leader Matthew Guy on dealing with crime.
In the New South Wales Essential poll, Labor led 52-48 in December, a three-point gain for Labor since November. Primary votes were 40% Coalition (down three), 40% Labor (up three) and 9% Greens (steady). For October to December, Labor led 51-49.
I believe this is the first time Labor has led in a NSW state poll since shortly after the 2007 state election. The next NSW election will be held in March 2019.
In Queensland, Labor led 55-45 in December, a four-point gain for Labor since the November election. In Western Australia, Labor led 57-43 in October to December, a three-point gain for Labor since July to September.
The Tasmanian election is likely to be held in March, and it appears Labor is ahead under its popular leader Rebecca White.
The Italian election will be held on March 4. 37% of seats in both chambers of the parliament will be elected using first-past-the-post voting, while the rest use proportional representation.
Polling gives the right-wing coalition about 37%, the left-wing coalition about 27%, and the left-wing populist Five Star Movement about 28%. As the left is more split than the right, the right will have an advantage in the first-past-the-post seats, though it will probably be short of an overall majority.
The Mexican election will be held on July 1. The president is elected by first-past-the-post, and the left-wing candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is currently ahead. By antagonising Mexicans, US President Donald Trump could cause the election of a left-winger who would strongly oppose the proposed border wall.
The FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate currently gives Democrats a 11-point lead over Republicans in the race for the US Congress. Midterm elections will be held in early November, in which all 435 House of Representatives members and one-third of the 100 Senators are up for election. The Senate seats up this year went to Democrats by 25-8 in 2012, and a few Democrats will be defending states Trump won easily in 2016.
Even though Republicans only have a 51-49 Senate majority, the House of Representatives is more likely to switch party control than the Senate.
Left-wing parties performed better than expected in 2017 elections
In 2016, Trump was elected US president, and the UK voted to leave the European Union. Trump and Brexit were triumphs for the populist right, and it was expected that the left would also struggle in 2017. However, in both Australian and overseas elections held in 2017, the left generally performed better than expected.
At the March 2017 Western Australian election, Labor won a landslide, with 41 of the 59 lower house seats.
At the November Queensland election, Labor won a majority, and One Nation won just one seat. There had been much speculation that One Nation would win many seats and hold the balance of power.
A year after Trump’s victory, US Democrats easily won the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections. In the Alabama Senate byelection, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore by a 50.0-48.3 margin, overturning Trump’s 62-34 Alabama margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Jones was sworn in as a US senator on January 3, replacing Luther Strange, who had been appointed by the Alabama governor after Jeff Sessions resigned to become attorney-general. Republicans now have a 51-49 majority in the US Senate, down from 52-48.
In an April article published after Theresa May called the June 8 UK general election, I said a Conservative landslide was likely – a widely held view. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s vote instead increased almost ten points from 2015, and the Conservatives failed to win a majority – though they clung to power with support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
In the May French presidential election run-off, Emmanuel Macron crushed Marine Le Pen 66-34. While Macron is a centrist and not a left-winger, he is clearly preferable to a conservative or Le Pen from a left perspective.
In October, Labour won the New Zealand election (which was held in September) after securing a coalition agreement with NZ First. Labour had been polling in the mid-20s before Jacinda Ardern became its leader in August.
While 2017 was generally a good year for the left, there were two poor results. At the October Austrian election, a conservative/far-right government was formed after more than a decade of coalition governments between the major left and right-wing parties.
At the German election in September, the far-right achieved its highest vote share since the second world war (12.6%). The major parties had formed a grand coalition, and both slumped, with the Social Democrats falling to their lowest vote (20.5%) since 1932. Despite this terrible result, it appears likely there will be another grand coalition government led by Angela Merkel.
Where there has been a clear difference between the major left and right-wing parties (the UK, the US and New Zealand), the left-wing party has performed strongly. The dismal results for the left in Germany and Austria have occurred in left/right coalitions, where there was perceived to be little difference between the left and right.
Furthermore, embracing a left-wing agenda neutralises some of the far-right’s appeal. The UK Independence Party won just 1.8% of the vote at the 2017 election, down almost 11 points from 2015, though some of this fall was caused by the Conservatives’ support for Brexit. Macron vigorously attacked Le Pen’s policies, and thrashed her by a bigger than expected margin.
The far-right tends to perform best when voters perceive little difference between the major left- and right-wing parties.
Imagine, for a minute, an undemocratic political system. Imagine a voting system in which someone has more votes than you because they own property. Or a voting system in which corporations have a vote – and maybe even more votes than regular people. A voting system in which, as a result, the power of your vote could be diluted by votes cast on behalf of corporations.
This voting system isn’t something from Britain during the Industrial Revolution, or America’s Deep South in the 1950s. Instead, as my recent paper outlines, this way of voting is a reality at local council elections in five of Australia’s six states.
It’s time for this to change.
Not just a Sydney problem
In recent years journalists have often discussed voting rights in the City of Sydney, which gets attention because of the high profile of its council and because of its unusual voting laws. Not only do property-owning corporations get two votes in the City of Sydney, but voting is compulsory for them.
But this type of undemocratic voting isn’t confined to the City of Sydney. It’s not even confined to New South Wales. In every state except Queensland voting rights at local council elections include voting rights based on owning or leasing property, votes for corporations, and various forms of plural voting (ways in which one person can have more than one vote).
In other contexts, Australia’s most senior judges have described plural voting or property-based voting rights as “conspicuously undemocratic” and “anachronistic”, and said that such systems would be unconstitutional if done at federal elections. Such a system enshrines inequality by giving some people more of a say than others.
These days our local councils perform a wide range of government functions. If we don’t accept undemocratic voting rights at state or federal elections, we shouldn’t accept them for local council elections.
Time to catch up with Queensland
We must recognise that local government is a form of government which affects every citizen within the particular local authority area; and I believe that all governing bodies should be elected on the broad franchise of one adult one vote. Probably Australia has led the world in connection with the adoption of that principle.
Surely what Queensland recognised in 1920 can be recognised in the other states in 2017.
Essentially, this means you only get to vote for the local council that runs the area you live in, you only get to vote once, and there are no special voting rights for corporations or property owners. It’s the same at council elections in the Northern Territory.
Queensland hasn’t always been the torchbearer for Australian democracy. But at least voting rights at Queensland local government elections are designed to reflect basic democratic principles.
A kaleidoscope of different laws
The other five Australian states have different ways of deciding who gets voting rights at local council elections. British and Australian history has shaped these voting systems, and the relevant laws have often evolved slowly over time.
In some states, for example, non-citizens can vote if they are resident in the area; in other states residents must be citizens to vote. In some states, voting is compulsory at local council elections; in others it is voluntary or compulsory only for some voters. The detail of the laws is complex.
Nevertheless, there are some rules common to many of the problematic laws in these five states. Being enrolled on the state or federal electoral roll in a local government area will generally entitle you to vote at council elections in that area.
Owning or occupying property in a council area will generally entitle the owner or occupier to vote in that area, especially if the owner or occupier is not also a resident. This also means that, where the owner or occupier is a corporation, the legislation will provide a process by which someone can vote on behalf of the corporation. Where someone owns or occupies multiple properties in a particular council area, or where they live in an area and also own or occupy another property in the area, the law will provide some sort of limit on the number of votes available to that person.
The complex provisions underpinning these voting rights stand in stark contrast to the simple terms of the Queensland law. But while they are complex, their result is clear. In different ways, as the paper shows, these laws allow for voting rights based on property ownership or occupation, voting rights for corporations, and allow individual people to cast multiple votes.
All of this dilutes the voting power of individuals, and runs the risk that local governments may become distracted from what is in the interests of their local community.
Local councils can’t fix this themselves
These laws are quirks of history that have no place in Australia’s 21st-century democracy. So what should be done?
Fixing the laws that govern local council elections is the responsibility of the states. From time to time, state governments and state parliaments consider the possibility of making local council voting rights more democratic.
The good news is that there’s an easy way to make the change: NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania can simply follow Queensland’s lead. It’s time for state parliaments to act.
This week’s Newspoll, conducted Thursday to Sunday from a sample of 1655, is completely unchanged on voting intentions since last fortnight’s post-budget Newspoll. Labor leads 53-47, from primary votes of 36% Coalition, 36% Labor, 10% Greens and 9% One Nation.
35% were satisfied with Turnbull’s performance (up 2) and 54% were dissatisfied (up 1), for a net approval of -19. Turnbull’s ratings have risen from a net -29 in early April. According to Kevin Bonham, this is Turnbull’s best net approval since last September, breaking a run of 12 Newspolls with his net approval at or below -20. Shorten’s net approval was -20, up two points.
In my opinion, Turnbull’s gains on approval are because he is moving towards the centre on some policies, such as school funding and the bank levy. However, the electorate trusts Labor more on schools and health. Producing a “Labor-lite” budget has not helped the Coalition, as it surrenders on principles of fiscal rectitude, which are seen as strengths for the Coalition.
56% supported Labor’s position of only raising the Medicare levy for those earning at least $87,000 per year, while 33% supported the Coalition’s position of raising the Medicare levy for taxpayers who already pay the levy. 19% were very worried about a cost blowout for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, 46% were somewhat worried, and 24% not worried.
This Newspoll asked about leader traits, with May 2016 used for comparison. Both leaders fell on every trait, except the negative trait of “arrogant”. Turnbull led by seven points on “decisive and strong” and six points on “likeable”. Shorten led by nine points on “cares for people”, and trailed by 14 on the negative trait of “arrogant”.
Essential at 53-47 to Labor
Since last fortnight, the Coalition has gained a point in Essential. Primary votes are 38% Coalition (up 1), 36% Labor (down 2), 11% Greens (up 1), 5% One Nation (down 1) and 3% Nick Xenophon Team (steady). One Nation has dropped in Essential in the last two months, while holding up in Newspoll. Voting intentions were based on a two-week sample of 1780, with additional questions using just this week’s sample.
By 67-12, voters agreed that asylum seekers should be deported to their country of origin if their claims are unsuccessful. By 53-25, voters thought the government was not too tough on asylum seekers. By 40-32, they thought that asylum seekers who cannot be safely relocated to another country when Manus Island closes should not be brought to Australia.
Most major government decisions were well supported, with the exceptions of privatising Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra.
48% thought the bank levy should apply to foreign banks and the big Australian banks, 16% thought it should also apply to small banks, 12% to the big Australian banks only and just 10% thought it should not apply to any bank.
38% thought Catholic schools would not be worse off under the new funding model, and 20% thought they would be worse off. By 52-23, voters would prefer an income tax cut to stronger workplace laws.
French lower house elections: 11 and 18 June
The French lower house is elected for a five-year term (the same as the President) using 577 single-member electorates. Unless one candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round on 11 June, the top two candidates in each seat proceed to the 18 June second round.
Candidates other than the top two can also advance to the second round if they win at least 12.5% of registered voters. That means those who did not vote or spoiled their ballots are counted in the determination. For example, if 50% abstain or spoil their ballots, a 25% threshold of valid votes must be met for candidates other than the top two to proceed to the second round.
The second round uses First Past the Post. As a result, third and sometimes second candidates will often withdraw prior to the second round, to give their broad faction a greater chance of winning, and/or to stop an extremist party like Marine Le Pen’s National Front.
The key question about the lower house elections is whether President Emmanuel Macron’s new party, La République en Marche! (Forward the Republic!) can win a majority. Polling has the REM on about 31%, followed by the conservative Les Républicains on 20%, the far right National Front on 19%, the hard left Unsubmissive France on 14%, and the Greens and Socialists have 10% combined.
If the election results are similar to these polls, the REM will be first or second in the vast majority of seats on 11 June. Whether their main opponent comes from the hard left, centre right or far right, the REM is likely to do well from the votes of excluded candidates, and easily win a majority of the French lower house on 18 June.
UK general election: 8 June
With nine days left until the UK election, polls have diverged. The most Labour-friendly polls (Survation, ORG, YouGov and SurveyMonkey) give the Conservatives 6-8 point leads over Labour. However, the ComRes and ICM polls have the Conservatives 12-14 points ahead. The 10-point Conservative lead in Opinium may be a result of Opinium polling in the two days immediately following the Manchester attack.
Turnout assumptions are the largest cause of the poll divergence. According to UK election analyst Matt Singh, the better polls for Labour use self-reported likelihood to vote among respondents, while ComRes and ICM use historical election turnout patterns to model this election’s turnout. Older people have historically been far more likely to vote than young people.
Turnout assumptions are making a large difference at this election as there is a massive divide between the generations. According to the latest YouGov poll, those aged 18-24 favour Labour by 69-12, while those aged over 65 favour the Conservatives by 66-16.
For Labour to pull off what would be one of the biggest upsets in election history, they need a massive turnout from young people. A five point Conservative lead would probably lead to a hung Parliament, so the more Labour-friendly polls are close to that.
Update Wednesday morning: A new ICM poll has the Conservatives leading by 12 points. However, as noted by UK Polling Report, the lead is only three points before adjustments for historical turnout likelihood among the various demographics.
Some on US right applaud Republican candidate’s assault of journalist
On Friday I wrote that, the day before a by-election, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte assaulted The Guardian’s reporter Ben Jacobs. Gianforte nevertheless won the by-election 50-44, and has been applauded by some on the US right; this attitude is shown by the Tweet and cartoon below.
The donkey represents the Democrats in the US; an elephant represents Republicans.