Election 2004: How democratic are Australia's elections?

Marian Sawer, Australian National University

In Australia we ask every new citizen to pledge that they share our democratic beliefs. How important are our democratic beliefs to the way we run federal elections? Principles generally accepted as basic to democracy are those of political equality and popular control of government. Flowing from the principle of political equality is the principle that political parties or Independents supported by citizens should be able to compete on a level playing field. This means that political parties’ access to finance and broadcasting time should relate to electoral support rather than business backing or the benefits of being in office.


Australia has long enjoyed an international reputation for the quality of its electoral administration, in particular its non-partisan character. For the last twenty years this tradition of professionalism and non-partisanship has been underpinned by the statutory independence of the body responsible for electoral administration, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). It has also been advanced by the cross-party work of the federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Despite the best efforts of electoral administrators, however, there have recently been some worrying political developments that threaten political equality in voting.

Fear of electoral rorts has served as a useful pretext for moves to ‘tighten up’ enrolment procedures.

Historically, Australian electoral administrators have aimed to maintain an electoral roll that is as comprehensive as possible. Only if the roll is comprehensive can voting reflect the preferences of all sections of the community. The standard was set by the epic feat of enrolling 96 per cent of the adult population on the first Commonwealth roll of 1903. The objective of ensuring comprehensiveness has to be balanced by another objective, that of preserving the integrity of the roll. In recent years much publicity has been given to ‘rorts’ of the electoral roll in Queensland, whereby voters enrolled at a wrong address in order to vote in a Labor party pre-selection. In no case could the handful of votes involved have affected the outcome of a parliamentary contest, and they were not intended to. The exhaustive inquiries and audits of the electoral roll instigated by the Howard government have confirmed this general picture, the Australian National Audit Office (2002) finding over 96 per cent accuracy and over 99 per cent when matching the roll against Medicare data. No evidence has been found to confirm the fears fanned by small groups of widespread electoral fraud.

Nonetheless, fear of rorts has served as a useful pretext for moves to ‘tighten up’ enrolment procedures in a way likely to diminish the comprehensiveness of the roll in the name of preserving its integrity. For example, the Howard government has made repeated attempts to introduce evidentiary requirements for new enrollees that would have disparate impact on certain sections of the population and erode political equality.

Such change has been strongly resisted by State Labor governments, who have joint electoral roll arrangements with the Commonwealth. They argue that the cost and inconvenience of having to produce original documents such as a birth certificate or, alternatively, referee reports from a prescribed class of witness, will discourage eligible voters. Such requirements are likely to exacerbate existing problems of under-enrolment amongst youth and other groups such as Indigenous Australians and the homeless. They had this effect when introduced by a conservative government in Western Australia in 1979. It is reasonable to view these groups as less likely to vote for conservative parties—which might help explain why the federal government has tried to disenfranchise them.

On evidentiary requirements a compromise has finally been reached with the Electoral and Referendum (Enrolment Integrity and Other Measures) Act 2004. After 1 July 2005 regulations will require new enrollees to provide the number of their driver’s license, or, if they do not possess a driver’s license, to have their application countersigned by two people on the electoral roll who can confirm the applicant’s identity and address. The act also includes provision for review of the effect of these requirements on enrolment.

The Howard government has also sought to stop new enrolments immediately the writs are issued for an election and to reduce to three working days the time allowed to change enrolment details. This would particularly affect young voters who put off enrolling until an election is announced. Currently the rolls stay open for seven days after the issuing of the writs and 83 000 first-time voters enrolled in this period in 2001 while 290 000 voters updated their address or name details. The government’s proposed changes were rejected in the Senate in June 2004.

The Howard government sought to remove the right to vote from all prisoners.

At the same time the Howard government also sought to remove the right to vote from all prisoners. Currently only prisoners serving sentences of five years or more are disqualified from the federal vote while they are in prison. (The picture varies in the States from no disqualification in South Australia to all prisoners being disqualified from voting in State elections in Tasmania.) In June 2004 Labor made what turned out to be an unworkable amendment to the prisoner disenfranchisement proposal, which in turn had to be fixed in August 2004 by a new Bill removing prisoner voting rights from those serving sentences of three years or more—the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Prisoner Voting and Other Measures) Act 2004.

These proposals and decisions have taken Australia out of step with international developments. Internationally, prisoner voting rights are increasingly seen as part of rehabilitation into the duties of citizenship as well as being entailed by Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 2002 the Supreme Court of Canada found in the case Sauvé v. Canada that disenfranchisement of prisoners contravened the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and was therefore invalid. In March 2004 the European Court of Human Rights found that the United Kingdom’s denial of voting rights to all prisoners was arbitrary and harsh, and hence in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Despite these international trends, the impact of heightened law and order discourse in Australia has meant that Labor has been reluctant to take a strong stand on this ‘wedge’ issue. By contrast, the Australian Democrats and the Greens have not been so reluctant to speak out. The minor parties have highlighted the disparate impact of prisoner disenfranchisement on Indigenous Australians (who are fifteen times as likely to be in prison as non-Indigenous Australians) as well as other dangers of the archaic concept of ‘civil death’.


The ‘integrity of the roll’ red herring has effectively sidetracked efforts to deal with the burgeoning democratic issue of political finance. It served to put on hold the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into electoral funding and disclosure in 2000 and distracted attention from the revival of the inquiry in 2004. The new inquiry was due to report on 30 September but has lapsed with the dissolution of the House of Representatives for the election. During these years Australia has fallen well behind comparable democracies such as Canada and the United Kingdom, and has one of the least regulated systems of party finance among Western democracies.

At the federal level Australia has a mixed system of public and private funding of political parties, but unlike other democracies it has no restrictions at all on the level or source of private political donations. All that is required is that donations over $1,500 be disclosed to the AEC—and the Howard government has even been trying to raise this threshold. Nor does Australia have any restriction on campaign expenditure by parties. This laissez-faire attitude allows corporations to purchase political influence in clear contravention of principles of political equality and popular control of government. Yet it is regarded as completely normal, and part of the way things are done (Hindess 2004). The United Kingdom introduced national campaign expenditure limits in 2000 (with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000) to prevent the risk of corruption posed by increasing reliance on large corporate donations. The same Act also requires prior shareholder approval for corporate donations to political parties as well as disclosure in the directors’ annual report. Under this new regime the campaign expenditure of the largest three parties dropped sharply in the 2001 election (Tham & Grove 2004). No such shareholder approval is required in Australia.

Australia has no restrictions at all on the level or source of private political donations.

There is also a more general effect on the operation of a competitive party system if the playing field is biased in favour of those parties more likely to receive corporate largesse. There has been no attempt in Australia to make abstention from corporate money a condition of receipt of public funding, or even a matter of voluntary agreement between all parliamentary parties, as has occurred in Sweden. Consequently the Labor and Coalition parties receive far more funding per vote than the Australian Democrats and Greens because the major parties’ funding is topped up by large corporate donations. Public funding maintains the political equality rule, with every vote earning the same payment—currently $1.94 per vote. But no such rule constrains corporate funding. And it makes a difference: the AEC Funding and Disclosure figures show that in 2000–03 public funding made up less than 20 per cent of the total receipts of Labor, Liberals and Nationals, but around a third of the receipts of the Australian Democrats and Greens.

The skewed funding the major parties receive pays for another source of political inequality—television advertising. Australia places no restrictions on the amount of electronic advertising that political parties may purchase. By contrast, the United Kingdom does not allow paid electronic broadcasting on the grounds that to do so would give an advantage to the best financed parties or candidates. Instead party election broadcasts are allocated to parties on the basis of their electoral support. Similarly in New Zealand parties may not purchase advertising beyond the allocation of funds for this purpose from the Electoral Commission, which allocates these funds on the basis of electoral support as measured by votes, opinion polls, and other factors.

Minor parties such as the Australian Democrats and the Greens have a natural interest in the levelling of the playing field and have led the way in seeking increased regulation of donations, and limits on their size and source. The Commonwealth Electoral Act currently only requires the AEC to post disclosure returns annually and this may occur long after an election, when public interest has evaporated. Labor has announced it will not accept donations from tobacco companies and has handed back a donation from the ethanol producer Manildra, but, like the Coalition, it has accepted donations from a number of dubious sources. Even the Australian Democrats accepted money from James Hardie in 2001.

Other democracies have had a more robust approach to this problem (Orr 2004). Some place ceilings on party expenditure. Some ban certain sources of funds such as foreign donors and government contractors. The Greens’ attempt to ban developer donations in NSW, the Developer Donations (Anti-Corruption) Bill 2003, would fall into this category. Some 23 countries, now including Canada, ban corporate donations outright. Australia is very much at the laissez-faire end of this regulatory spectrum, having no bans or limitations on private money except for that given anonymously. Disclosure provisions mean that donations over $1,500 must be declared both by the donor and in party returns in most Australian jurisdictions.

Despite there being relatively few rules, Australian political parties still find ways to get around disclosure requirements. For example, parties use fund-raising organisations that are not classified as associated entities of the political parties and hence not subject to disclosure provisions. Corporations in receipt of government contracts have channelled large sums to political parties in this way. Moreover, as a recent Parliamentary Library Research Note has pointed out, the current disclosure law may allow concealment of the very kind of donation-linked influence it is intended to expose (Miskin 2004, p. 3). If a businesswoman pays $10 000 to attend a fund-raiser, and believes her business has benefited from her contact with a political figure, she does not have to lodge a return as she has received something in return for her money—that is, it was a purchase rather than a donation. The party would have to include the $10 000 in its disclosure report, but under the general heading of ‘receipts’ rather than gifts.


Governments exploit the benefits of incumbency by using public funds for partisan purposes.

The problems for political equality are created both by the ability of corporate donors to purchase access to ministers and shadow ministers and by the skewing of electoral competition in favour of parties closest to business interests. An additional problem for democracy arises when governments exploit the benefits of incumbency by using public funds for partisan purposes. Both Labor and Coalition governments have done so in recent years. Several strategies are available. When in government, both parties have set up units to monitor the media statements of the opposition. There is also a great deal of publicly funded travel to marginal seats by both ministers and shadow ministers and their staff in the run up to elections.

Another such practice is use of the parliamentary printing allowance to fund an enormous amount of what is effectively direct canvassing by mail to constituents. In 2001, the Howard government set the printing allowance for members of the House of Representatives at a maximum of $125,000 per annum. In August 2003 it tried to increase it to $150,000 per year. The regulation increasing the allowance was disallowed in the Senate on a motion from Senator Bob Brown supported by the Democrats and Labor. Direct mail is targeted with the help of the electronic version of the electoral roll made available to sitting members and registered political parties and through the use of party databases. Training in these databases (Electrac and Feedback) is publicly funded under the Parliamentary Entitlements Act and related provisions for staff training (van Onselen & Errington 2004).

One incumbency benefit that has loomed larger and larger and is only available to incumbent governments is the use of government advertising for partisan purposes. Political scientist Sally Young (2003) argues this has become one of the greatest benefits of incumbency. Since 2000 the federal government has been the top spending advertiser in the country, spending more than the big commercial advertisers such as Coles-Myer, Woolworths, and McDonalds. There are spikes in government advertising in the periods immediately prior to elections. In 1996 the Keating government spent $9 million on advertising in the three months before the federal election, in 1998 the Howard government spent $29.5 million in the three months before the election, and in 2001 the government spent roughly $78 million in the four months before the election (Grant 2004, p. 6).

In the run-up to the 2004 election there has been a deluge of such advertising, typically promoting another incumbency benefit: the ability to produce a generous pre-election Budget. Whole-page newspaper ads after the May Budget informed voters about the ‘Disciplined, focused hard work and experienced economic management’ that would mean extra funding for the States and Territories in the coming year. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) version published in the Canberra Sunday Times on 16 May 2004 included an unfortunate picture of a train (‘More Funds for Public Transport’), just after Canberra’s train service had been cut from three to two a day. It also included a picture of a NSW school zone sign (‘More Funds for Schools’) and ended ‘That amounts to a fair go for all Territorians’. This election advertisement carries the requisite caption ‘Authorised by the Australian Government, Capital Hill, Canberra’.

Other election advertisements authorised by the Australian government include the current $15.7 million ‘Strengthening Medicare’ advertising campaign with its expensive brochure adorned by full-page colour photographs and text ‘Written by Senator the Hon. Eric Abetz, Special Minister of State’. Unlike Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom Australia has introduced no controls over the partisan use of government advertising.


There are significant problems with the ballot design for above-the-line voting for the Senate.

Disenfranchisement, lax party finance rules, and incumbency benefits are not the only threats to the democratic values of political equality and popular control of government within Australia’s federal electoral system. Apart from the Constitutionally imposed inequality whereby Tasmanian Senate votes are worth thirteen times as much as votes in New South Wales, there is also the more recent legislatively imposed inequality whereby Northern Territory House of Representatives votes are worth twice as much as ACT votes. Labor supported the Government’s move to overturn the 2003 federal redistribution and guarantee a minimum of two seats to the Northern Territory for the forthcoming federal election. Under the House of Representatives (Northern Territory Representation) Bill 2004 both Territories will have two seats, although the ACT has twice as many voters. A victory, perhaps, for those who believe Canberra residents are not ‘real people’ and hence not entitled to a vote of equal value.

There are also significant problems with the ballot design for above-the-line voting for the Senate. There is no provision for voters to express their own preferences between parties when voting above the line, and the registered party tickets may not reflect such preferences—for example, in 1984 NSW Labor decided to preference the Coalition above the Nuclear Disarmament Party. Ironically that decision cost Peter Garrett his Senate seat; twenty years later he will enter the House of Representatives as the Labor member for Kingsford Smith. Independent candidates are severely disadvantaged, as are those who might wish to vote for them, by a lack of provision for ungrouped candidates in the less complicated above-the-line option preferred by most voters.


The rules of the election game are stacked against the principles of political equality and popular sovereignty in the coming federal election. Australia still has a system of electoral administration that is the envy of the world but we have fallen well behind other democracies when it comes to regulating political finance and restricting the role of private money or government advertising in electoral politics.


Australian National Audit Office 2002, ‘Integrity of the Electoral Roll’, Report No. 42, Australian National Audit Office, Canberra [Online], Available: http://www.anao.gov.au/ [2004, August 27].

Grant, R. 2004, ‘Federal government advertising’, Parliamentary Library Research Note 62, 21 June [Online], Available: http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rn/2003-04/04rn62.pdf [2004, August 27].

Hindess, B. 2004, ‘Corruption and Democracy in Australia’, Democratic Audit of Australia [Online], Available: http://democratic.audit.anu.edu.au/ [2004, August 27].

Miskin, S. 2004, ‘Political Finance disclosure: party and donor annual returns 2002–03’, Parliamentary Library Research Note 49, 29 March [Online], Available: http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rn/2003-04/04rn49.pdf [2004, August 27].

Orr, G. 2004, ‘Australian Electoral Systems—How Well Do They Serve Political Equality?’ Democratic Audit of Australia [Online], Available: http://democratic.audit.anu.edu.au/orrdiscuss.pdf [2004, August 27].

Tham, J-C & Grove, D. 2004, ‘Public Funding and Expenditure Regulation of Australian Political Parties: Some reflections’, forthcoming in Federal Law Review, vol. 32, no. 3.

van Onselen, P. & Errington, W. 2004, ‘Electoral Databases: Big Brother or Democracy Unbound’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 39 no. 2, pp. 349–366.

Young, S. 2003, ‘Democracy, communication and money, Democratic Audit of Australia’ [Online], Available: http://democratic.audit.anu.edu.au/Youngpaper.pdf [2004, August 27].

Marian Sawer is professor of political science in the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University and is currently leading the Democratic Audit of Australia. Her most recent book (edited with Barry Hindess) is Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia.

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