Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on proposed changes to electoral law and the power of Independents

25 August, 2021


The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021 and related bills will make considerable changes to our electoral laws. These changes come as a result of the recommendations of the government-majority Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its 2019 report on the federal election. It's really concerning that the government has decided to push these bills through at a time when the lower house is sitting with absolutely minimal numbers—a time when there will be minimal scrutiny of these major changes to our electoral laws.

As I sit here listening to speakers from both sides of the House, and in particular Labor speakers, I feel just how opportunistic it is that we hear them, one after the other, speak about the importance of democracy and about upholding democracy and scrutiny. The only time we ever hear that strong bipartisan support is when the major parties are, ultimately, desperately trying to hold on to our two-major-party system of politics. That is definitely when they come together to really ensure that they maintain their monopoly and their status. We know that from election to election the primary vote for major parties continues to decrease. The cynic in me would say that this is an attempt to address this by cutting off competition.

These bills go to the very foundations of our democracy—our right to vote and to politically organise—and they should not be pushed through under the cover of COVID-19, particularly the party registration integrity bill. This bill amends the registration eligibility requirements for a federal non-parliamentary party—that is, someone who has not already had someone elected. The amendment bill will increase the minimum membership requirements for registration from 500 to 1,500 unique members. If the bill passes, parties will have just three months to demonstrate that they have 1,500 members. Of course, it's easy for the major parties to be happy with this proposal. They don't have to worry. It's not going to challenge them. What it will do is get rid of competition, get rid of challenge. No matter what the ideological basis is, that is ultimately what this will do.

The bills also amend prohibitions regarding registering names, abbreviations and logos. For example, if a party replicates the name, abbreviation or logo of an already registered name without consent, that will be a contravention of this legislation, and the Electoral Commission will refuse registration. Unique membership is the one that I really think has garnered more attention. By moving from minimum membership of 500 to 1,500, you're impeding individuals' right to politically organise; that's what you're really doing. This will decrease participation in our parliamentary democracy by increasing barriers to entry. I'm particularly concerned that this change will make it difficult for parties in smaller states and territories to organise and form a party.

Take the example of Kim Rubenstein in the ACT. She's an acclaimed constitutional lawyer and advocate for women's rights. She is the exact type of person that we need in parliament, and I'm pleased to see her announcement last week that she's running for the Senate seat in the ACT. She wants to challenge the duopoly of the major parties, who both assume that each of them will take one seat. What a comfortable arrangement that is. In her efforts to be on an equal footing with the parties, she's looking to form a party to ensure she can be above the line, but potential signatories are limited because it's a smaller jurisdiction. That job of gaining equality with the major parties will now be made that much harder by the introduction of this party registrations bill.

I don't hear the members of the opposition, of Labor, talking about those aspects. It's always very convenient to talk about the importance of upholding democracy and improving our democratic system, but only when it also is convenient to them. In the House of Representatives, for individuals focused on a particular electorate only, rather than a broader support base across a state or even the nation, if they want to form a party and benefit from the advantages that would bring, this amendment makes it that much harder. Essentially, if we're saying that a party can only be a party if it's aiming at national representation, you take away that opportunity for more regionally based party systems. It's alarming that the parliament and the government is choosing to crack down in this way. I can only describe it as a naked attempt to consolidate power for the major parties, and Labor is only talking up the virtues of it being 'such a bipartisan approach' because it will also benefit them. In effect, these bills reduce political competition. Anyone who believes in a strong crossbench in either chamber should be [inaudible] about these changes. I have no doubt this is an attempt to muzzle the influence of minor parties and the crossbench. It's an unduly restrictive change and it should be opposed.

In relation to the names, it's again an attempt to reduce political competition and neutralise new threats. I don't believe in the ideologies of parties like the New Liberals or the Liberal Democrats, but I do believe in competition. In response to this perceived threat to government members from these parties, there is now an idea that you can monopolise the word 'liberal'. They don't own the liberal concept. The government and the Liberal Party do not own the liberal concept, just like the concept of 'democrat'. It is equivalent to giving political entities intellectual property rights over words. That is a minefield for potential legal challenges. There will be extensive disagreement of what each word means and if they are linked to another registered entity. The word 'liberal' means something very different in different countries around the world and in different contexts. This amendment is, I would argue, an entirely antiliberal push, and by 'liberal' I mean small-l liberal, liberalism being a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law. These changers are antiliberal, anticompetitive and antidemocratic.

Regarding the political campaigners bill, this bill will lower the expenditure threshold for political campaigners from $500,000 to $100,000. This is, again, an attempt to control smaller actors by forcing them to jump through bureaucratic hoops. It will increase the barriers to participate in the federal election for many individuals and organisations. It will particularly affect charities and smaller NGOs, exactly the kinds of actors who are central to a functioning and healthy democracy and to challenging the views and the spin that is churned out at election time by the major parties.

The government is pursuing these antidemocratic laws whilst ignoring the reforms that actually could have a positive effect on our political discourse. What we really need to be doing is tightening up truth in political advertising rules. Major parties shamelessly weaponise mistruths and lies to win elections. We saw it with the death tax campaign in 2019, and we saw it with the 'Mediscare' campaign in 2016. The community is fed up with it. According to polling by the Australia Institute, 87 per cent of people support truth in political advertising laws. Where is that legislation? Where is that legislation introduced? Nowhere. That's why I will be introducing a private members' bill to introduce truth in political advertising. Just one in four Australians have confidence in their political representatives. By 2025, if the trend continues, only 10 per cent of the public will trust politicians. We must reverse this trend. It's not a big ask. Managing truth in advertising is not unusual. There is corporations law that prevents misleading and deceptive advertising by businesses, and there are enforcement bodies in place to keep an eye on it.

There's no law or body to stop politicians or third parties from lying about a candidate or their opponent during an election campaign. That is outrageous. This year we have seen a number of examples of misleading and deceptive advertising, including from members of parliament and from political parties without current representation in the Australian parliament. We can look to other jurisdictions for successful examples. Truth-in-advertising laws have been in place in South Australia for over 20 years. They were adopted in the ACT last year. We can and should progress this reform, and I look forward to having a debate on the bill to be introduced by me as a private members' bill later in the year.

Overall I'm concerned these changes ultimately undermine our democracy. Minor parties, charities and NGOs are essential at maintaining a healthy democracy, and they bring different elements of discourse, different priorities and scrutiny. Who else will hold the major parties to account, if not them? These bills are a shameless attempt to consolidate power and should be rejected. If the government is serious about electoral reform, it must consider meaningful reforms like tidying up political advertising and donation laws. Only then will our public regain, again, some hope of trust in politics and politicians.