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May 14, 2021

When politicians attack democracy

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Andrew P Street

Attempting to step into the mighty flippers of the great Mungo MacCallum is a challenge for anyone who dares swim in the murky, pungent waters of Australian politics.

And like you, I miss the man and his mighty brain terribly and know that it’s my duty to honour him by making a big splash with an immediately crowd-pleasing column topic. 

So naturally, I’m diving in by… um, talking about the government attempting to legislate changes to Australia’s federal voting system NO REALLY COME BACK IT’S IMPORTANT I PROMISE.

See, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters have just published a 227 page report containing a whopping 27 recommendations.

It’s not, it’s fair to say, a fast-paced thrill-ride of a read.

Said committee is chaired by Liberal senator James McGrath and largely (though not entirely) contains his fellow Coalition members.

Governments in democracies…

And his long and comprehensive and cartoon-free report begins by noting that “Governments in democracies should always be wary of the voter” in its preface, and then spends the following 225 pages explaining how to take that voter down a peg or six.

There’s also a line in it about how our robust voting system means that Australians can sleep in their beds “protected from the claws of the banality of evil”, which is a shoo-in for Most Bafflingly Incoherent Australian Sentence Of 2020, unless Bob Katter chooses to hold a surprise end of year press conference.

Now, it’s worth expressing that Australia has an enviable voting system including such excellent features as: independent non-partisan bodies overseeing the operation of our elections, compulsory voting (well, compulsory attendance at a polling place, at least), and – at a federal level – a preferencing system that means the seat goes to the candidate found most tolerable by the largest number of voters.

All are great ideas that… um, trim the claws of the evil whose banality so offends McGrath, I guess?

That being said you can probably name a dozen things that you’d like to see change.

And it’s very likely that your list would have little in common with the 27 points compiled by Jimmy ’n’ Palz.

Reduction of early voting periods

For example, the report calls for the reduction of those early voting periods which the public has enthusiastically embraced, especially in these pandemic days when queuing in close proximity to one’s entire neighbourhood isn’t perhaps epidemiologically wise.

The Standing Committee would also like to get rid of by-elections so parties can just slot in a new MP instead of asking the electorate’s permission.

They call for the removal of compulsory preferential voting and longer terms for those in the House of Representatives, because a mere three years of sweet, unthreatened-by-sudden-by-election-power is barely enough.

And they want tighter restrictions on party names because the Liberals will never, ever get over David Leyonhjelm winning a senate seat for the Liberal Democrats in 2013.

Voter suppression tactics

And in what amounts to an admission that they can’t think of their own voter suppression tactics and have to import them from the US, there’s also a call for voter ID laws, in order to halt the estimated 0.03 per cent of votes that are cast more than once and that are picked up by the counting process.

Sorry, that should read “stop the terrible scourge of voter fraud”.

Now, here’s the thing. As a voter – or, as I’m sure Senator James McGrath would prefer it termed, an Australian democracy customer – are these the issues that keep you up of a night? Have you been fuming about the nightmarish convenience of being able to vote early, or crying salt tears at the poor political parties cruelly forced to make their case to voters at by-elections?

A hard no

I know we’ve only just met, dear reader, but I’m going to guess that it’s a hard ‘no’.

And it’s very illuminating to consider the things that the Standing Committee on Electoral Matters figured weren’t worth addressing. Legislating truth in electoral advertising, for example.

So if Clive Palmer wanted to spend another five million on billboards decrying Labor’s non-existent death tax, for example, that’s apparently the system working as intended.

What’s also not on the table is outlawing deliberately misleading advertising material, like the 2019 election signs in Australian Electoral Commission livery placed in Melbourne seats with a high proportion of Mandarin speakers instructing them to put the Liberals at number 1 in order to submit a valid ballot.

Again: the system works!

The Don’t Give A Toss basket

Also landing in the Don’t Give A Toss basket are such issues as: addressing the murky world of campaign financing, mandating real-time reporting on who is donating what to who, the use of shonky political thinktanks to launder money from prohibited donors, or anything else that normal voting humans might consider a stain on our democracy and in urgent need of reform.

In other words, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters would very much like a bunch of changes that would benefit the major parties and especially the Coalition, at the expense of voters and representative democracy in general. 

It’s almost like James isn’t worried about the banality of evil’s claws after all.


Andrew P Street. Photo Daniel Boud.

The Echo presents Andrew P Street as one of the new columnists who will replace the irreplaceable Mungo.

Mr Street is a Sydney-based, Adelaide-built journalist, columnist, author, editor and broadcaster.

His bio reads, ‘Disappointingly, he looks much like the picture to the left.

He is also the author of the acclaimed The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott (Allen & Unwin, 2015).

That was followed in 2016 by The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat’.

For more info, visit www.patreon.com/andrewpstreet.


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7 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t give a damn who suggests it, but ANY change that takes Australia toward a US-syle election system must be rejected at all costs! We’ve seen the massive cøøkups that the US system allows for (even built into it), and while our system might be far from perfect, it’s a bloody sight better than that in the US.

    To hell with McGrath’s standing committee!

  2. Thank you very much Andrew.

    You need, of course, to suppress voters when you can’t come up with policies which would get them to vote for you. Particularly evil is the undermining of compulsory preferences. The Echo did a wonderful job in the last NSW State election by persuading voters to fully use preferences although preferences were not compulsory. Labor’s Saffin was elected in Lismore and Tamara held on in Ballina largely due to the Echo’s efforts

    Sadly though its good luck trying to persuade the dozy electorate that these electoral “reforms”(sic) should be opposed. Wake up Australia; your freedoms are going the way of say the trade unions ie down the gurgler.

  3. Mr Street misses the point of demanding voter ID. It is intended to make it hard for certain groups of people to vote especially young people and new citizens. Guess which two parties they tend to vote for. Making it harder for people to vote ahead of time has a similar purpose.

    The parties that gave us the gerrymander for so many years (which kept the ALP out of office several times when the people voted for it) are looking for fresh, American inspired, ways of frustrating the will of the people, of undermining democracy.

    Let me, however, pay my tribute to Mungo McCallum. I read his columns in Nation Review, when I had just arrived in Australia, subsequently in the Australian until that paper turned bad, The National Times, and latterly in the Echo. He was a wonderful writer, insightful, witty and pugnacious. He taught me about Australian politics, helped keep me active and gave me hope. He is greatly missed.

  4. Good article. Keep up the good work. Even if it is not possible to replicate the way Mungo’s mind worked and the way he used words, it is still possible to target issues and garner more attention for something the LNP would like to keep under the radar for as long as possible – that’s what you have done here. This only highlights just how much similarity there is between President Shmomo Boof and other global power-crazed despots – Trump, Johnson, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro – all birds of a feather and all use more or less the same techniques to enhance their power or at least cling to it.

  5. A good start Andrew in alerting readers to the dumb proposals.
    We must keep preferential voting
    We must avoid elector ID cards
    We must make election advertising honest and truthful
    We must do something about election donations ( although Palmer could not buy three elections)
    There is a case for making the pre-poll .period much shorter
    Must be a stricter ban on sitting members using the perks of office (staff, printing etc) to boost their chances.

  6. Senator McGrath’s strange reference to the banality of evil comes from Hannah Arendt’s essay on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi organiser of the deportations to the death camps (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil). It is a perverse and ironic reference because McGrath’s proposals would undermine democracy in Australia.

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