How people elect parliaments
Queensland’s Parliament has abruptly legislated to render invalid the vote of anyone who refuses to fully preference all candidates in state elections.
The change – introduced as a surprise amendment in a debate over a bill to create four more parliamentary seats – was eventually adopted by the entire state parliament.
Current cross-bench MLAs – who hold the balance of power – voted with the LNP opposition to agree to legislation to expand the number of seats at the next election, due in 2018.
But the cross-bench then sided with the ALP government on amendments to introduce compulsory preferencing.
At the end of a bitter night of debate, the legislation was eventually passed by the whole Assembly.
Australia’s national and state parliaments typically deal with electoral law changes through an open process of committee hearings and public debate. Labor’s surprise amendments are a serious breach of that tradition. Media reports indicate that Labor conceived of the move ahead of the debate, but deliberately concealed their amendments until after the main vote to approve the legislation – which they at first voted against – had been passed.
Queensland had a form of preferential voting in the 1890s, and preferential voting was considered for federal parliament’s elections in 1902. Progressively during the first few decades of last century all the Australian jurisdictions moved to electing lower house – and some upper house – representatives using preferential voting.
These voting systems were adopted using the (then) innovation of requiring compulsory preferencing of all the candidates presented to voters in each division. This was done largely due to the tactical need of the conservative parties to ensure that supporters of the Country party (now the Nationals) would not fail to preference the Nationalists (later the Liberal party).
The legal mechanism used was to artificially declare no-compliant ballots to be invalid, or ‘informal’, even though there was nothing unclear about the intent of a voter who did not wish to preference every candidate.
New South Wales shifted back to optional preferencing at the end of the 1970s, and Queensland did so in 1992 following a recommendation from a major royal commission into corruption in the state.
The progressive abandonment of compulsory preferencing has continued. Tasmania’s system never adopted compulsion, the ACT Legislative Assembly adopted an optional system from 1995, and the Northern Territory has moved to optional preferencing just this year.
Last month, reforms to the system for electing Australian senators also shifted to optional preferencing.
Queensland has abruptly gone in the other direction, largely due to the Labor party’s partisan needs.
Until a decade ago, division between the two conservative parties served Labor well, and in 2001 Labor began urging all voters to ‘just vote 1’.
But with the unification of the conservative parties into the LNP, and the shift of voter support from Labor to the Greens, Labor now sees the compulsory system as better suiting its partisan needs.
To bring this change about about, Labor (and those who supported the amendment) have been prepared to decree that hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders who vote for the Greens will have their votes cancelled if they refuse to fully preference. Many other voters who support independents and micro parties could also lose their vote.
The only way these voters can save their ballot is to mark preferences which they plainly do not wish to make.
In the current legal climate, a litigant is almost certain to appear to argue that this system doesn’t result in freely chosen members of parliament.
But the High Court supported a number of challenges relating to compulsory preferencing in the 1990s, basically concluding that the state and federal parliaments have control over the way ballots had to be filled.
The new legislation applies to elections for the Queensland Legislative Assembly, but not to federal parliament.
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