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Democratic Audit Update - 18 February 2008

by Democratic Audit Australia

The latest update from the Democratic Audit program at ANU on how our democracy is working.

 

Priorities for Electoral Reform
The election of a new government means an opportunity to fix some of the things that have been going wrong with Australia’s electoral system.  Australia has been making it harder to enrol and vote, and easier for private money to influence electoral outcomes.  Read the Audit’s priorities for electoral reform here
 
Discussion paper – Time to introduce automatic enrolment in Australia
With the Rudd government looking at making changes to the Electoral Act, the Audit’s Peter Brent places automatic enrolment as a high priority.  In this paper, he highlights the mass of database information which the Australian Electoral Commission has access to, but cannot efficiently use for updating the electoral roll.  Peter calls for the AEC to be given the power to update the roll automatically – doing away with the need for citizens to fill out lengthy enrolment forms.  Read his paper here.
 
NSW elections database
Antony Green has produced an excellent database of NSW Legislative Assembly election results dating back to 1856 (the first general election under responsible government).  Produced for the NSW parliament, the information includes seat by seat results for every election and by-election, an alphabetical listing of every candidate that has ever stood in NSW (listing all contests each candidate has stood in).  Very easy to navigate around, this is not only a valuable research tool for election nerds, but a useful reference point for anyone with an interest in the history of NSW politics.  Access the database here
 
NSW 2007 election inquiry
The NSW parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is currently conducting an inquiry into the conduct of the 2007 general election.  The deadline for submissions is 29 February.  For information on making a submission, visit the Committee’s web site here
 
Political finance – Call for restrictions on donations
In a recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, David Humphries argues that Australia should follow the Canadian example by putting limits on the size of political donations, and prohibiting foreign donations.  It should be pointed out that there is a small error in the piece – Canada now prohibits all donations from corporations and trade unions.  Only donations of less than $1 000 from individuals are now allowed.  Read David Humphries’ article here.  
 
Pace-setting FOI Discussion Paper from Queensland
One of the first actions of the new Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, was to commission Dr David Solomon to head a review of Queensland's Freedom of Information Act. Its Discussion Paper has now been released (30 January 2008) and suggests fundamental changes. These are relevant beyond Queensland and, for example, would help repair the notoriously weak Commonwealth FOI Act.
 
The Queensland discussion paper refers approvingly to the principle underlying the New Zealand approach to FOI, where the default position is to release even Cabinet documents unless it can be shown this would damage the public interest. It suggests all FOI exemptions in the Queensland Act be subject to an over-riding public interest test. At the federal level the Rudd Government is so far only committed to removal of conclusive certificates and the setting up of a FOI Commissioner, not to reducing currently exempt areas or introducing an over-riding public interest test.
 
For the Discussion Paper (Enhancing Open and Accountable Government) click here.  Submissions to the review close on Friday 7 March.
 
For Jack Waterford's analysis in The Public Sector Informant (February 2008) click here.
 
Civil unions – Self-government for the ACT?
The ACT Attorney-General, Simon Corbell, has called for the removal of the provision in the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 that gives the Governor General (i.e., the Commonwealth government) the power to disallow laws passed by the Territory Assembly. This is what happened to the Civil Unions Act 2006. The Howard Government objected to the Civil Unions Act on the grounds that it equated civil unions with marriage and would have authorised marriage celebrants to conduct civil union ceremonies.

Following the Governor-General's disallowance of the 2006 ACT legislation, Labor, Green and Democrat Senators (Ludwig, Nettle and Stott Despoja) moved a motion in the Senate to disallow the Governor-General's action and were joined by ACT Liberal Senator Gary Humphries. The motion was defeated, however, when the Family First Senator sided with the Government.
 
After the change of federal government a new Civil Partnership Bill was presented to the ACT Legislative Assembly in December 2007. The Bill creates 'civil partnership notaries' to witness the declarations of those entering into formal domestic partnerships and provides the opportunity for this to be a public ceremony. This change of language, from the celebrants referred to in the 2006 Act, was intended to underline that a civil partnership was different from marriage.  The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said that his government would not over-ride the legislation as it was a matter for States and Territories.
 
In 2008, however, the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Robert McLelland, has repeatedly claimed the public ceremony aspects of the ACT Bill are 'unacceptable'.  His preference is for relationships registers that do not involve a ceremony before an official. Hence the ACT Attorney-General's statement that existing provisions allowing the Commonwealth to over-ride Territory legislation are undemocratic and should be abolished.

Unfortunately the ACT seems to have little pull in the federal parliament, having no representation in the Cabinet or Ministry and ACT votes being worth less than votes in any other jurisdiction in House of Representatives elections.
 
For a comprehensive assessment on the proposal for civil unions in the ACT, including the various political forces at play, read this article from Carol Johnson (University of Adelaide) at On Line Opinion.
 
Audit moves to Swinburne
This is the final email update from the Audit team at ANU.  Future updates, and management of the Audit, will be handled by Brian Costar and Peter Browne at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University.  However, we will remain involved in the Audit’s aims and work, particularly with finalising The State of Democracy report, and the Marketing Government focused Audit report, due out in the coming months.

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Enrolment

An interesting experience in our house prior to the election was that one of our 17 yr-old twins received an unsolicited enrolment form from the AEC and one did not.

It was a moot point because they don't turn 18 until April and so could not vote (much to their disgust), but we wondered how this came about. We can only speculate that it may have been because one had registered a tax file number at that point and the other had not, and that the AEC uses ATO data to check the roll.

Another TFN has now been registered for some time and the second twin has not received a corresponding invitation to enrol, but I suppose the AEC may have been a tad busy recently. 

Automatic Enrolling

Why this wasn't introduced years ago is beyond me.   In a society where voting is compulsory, what's the point of continuing making us sign up?

thanks

Thanks for publishing this paper.  It presents opportunities for those who  want to contribute to the shaping of ideas that impact upon the community.

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