Session 1 day 2(a)

Friday 24 February (day 2)

(scribe/author: Robyn Smith)

Session 1:  Electoral and Related Reform

Panel:  Antony Green (online), Graeme Orr, Gerry Wood, Jeff Collins, Ken Parish, Danial Kelly

Antony Green (online):

  • Single Member electorates v proportional representation multi-Member electorates (MMEs) such as the systems applying in the ACT and Tasmania (Hare-Clark).
  • Could MMEs apply in the Northern Territory? All outback and Alice Springs would be one electorate.
  • Optional preferential voting in the last NT election significantly lowered the informal vote. Under normal circumstances, it does make it harder for a party to get a majority.
  • There’s been a slow decline in voting for major parties, which is why optional preferential voting is better.
  • Expense limits and donation laws are useful but they only apply to elections. They should apply at all points in between and be in real time.

Graeme Orr:

  • Big change arises from a major crisis (eg Fitzgerald Inquiry).
  • Qld and the NT have similar political environments that lack checks and balances. For example, in the NT there are (1) fixed four-year terms, which are good for planning but bad for government recall in the event of a dysfunctional government; (2) unicameralism means there is no House of review; (3) majority rule is not all it seems, particularly when MLAs jump ship and governments are left in minority; (4) there is no Bill or Rights or equivalent; and (5) there is one metropolitan daily newspaper that sets the agenda.
  • There should be caps on election expenditure and public funding, especially in smaller jurisdictions.
  • An Upper House would raise issues over over-government and challenge an already small gene pool. New Zealand has addressed this matter well with mixed member proportional (MMP) voting.  Should there be an Aboriginal Advisory Council of the type suggested by Noel Pearson and others?
  • The Self-Government Act is controlled by the Federal government and any changes are subject to the whim of the government of the day.

Gerry Wood:

  • Canada has jurisdictions with a cap of $30,000 per candidate for electoral expenses. Maximum individual donations are capped at $2,500 and $1,500 respectively in the jurisdictions concerned.  It is simple, fair and provides a level playing field.  There is no public funding.
  • In the NT, Independents must file expenditure returns 14 weeks after an election. Parties have until the end of the financial year.  This is unfair.
  • We need to rethink optional preferential voting. The system should be 50% plus one vote.  That is, we should have a majority of votes, not a de facto first-past-the-post system based on a low number of votes cast.
  • MMEs would provide more coverage of the electorate for Members with large electorates.
  • The media is important and can change the way people vote. Cited the example of the Four Corners Don Dale program but questioned the timing and stressed that the media must be fair.  Media has a lot of power in a small jurisdiction.  Cited the example of the NT News not printing any of his media releases in respect of abortion.  Media is critical to democracy.

Jeff Collins:

  • Supports the current system, which has been inherited from South Australia and the Commonwealth.
  • MMEs would represent fundamental change and he doubts it would get anyone closer to a local MLA. MMEs would be five times bigger than present electorates.
  • Our electorates are small in terms of the number of electors, which makes it easier for MLAs to know their community and constituents.
  • The Committee on parliamentary reform visited Queensland to look at its portfolio committee system. They are the review bodies for the Lower House.  The NT committee will report soon, but will propose a process to refer all legislation to a committee for review and public hearings.  Bills passed on urgency will be exempt.  This is an exciting change.
  • Supports Gerry Wood on full preferential voting. Our system requires compulsory attendance at a voting booth, not compulsory voting.

Ken Parish:

  • Political donations – different time limits require disclosure after an election. The public should know about donations before an election, otherwise the information is useless.
  • The Electoral Commission is required to publish details of donations 25 weeks after an election, which is too late. NTEC is obliged not to disclose until that time, which is more than six months too late.  These provisions of the act require radical reform.
  • There is no reason we should not have real time online disclosures.
  • MMEs are a good idea. He supports a mix of three- and five-Member electorates.  The advantages are (1) proportional representation of MLAs is closely aligned to the number of votes they receive; (2) proposing a 40-Member Assembly provides a larger talent pool and rids the knock-down, drag out nature of the present system.  We need enough MLAs from which to select Ministers.  Under the 40-Member system, there would be five x five-Member electorates (cities) and five x three-Member electorates (rural, outback).  This would be achievable under community of interest requirements in the Act.  7% of the vote per Member would be required in the five-Member electorates.  This system would not have impacted on successful Independent Members during the last NT election.  The vast majority would be either CLP or ALP Members, which is reflective of the votes.  We should seriously consider MMEs.

Danial Kelly:

  • There is no gene pool problem in the NT. Deterrence is a much bigger problem.  The political process is terrifying to people who might otherwise be attracted, but we are not so small as to be without talent.
  • Funding is a big contributor to the problem. NSW reform is a case in point.  Any change needs to be robust.  For every $5 at the Federal election, the ALP spent $4 on negative advertising to $1 on positive advertising.  In the NT, it’s more of a case of the movie Dumb and Dumber.  What impact does this have on potential candidates?
  • Three areas for reform: (1) all election expenses should be attributed to individuals, not parties, and the amount should be capped at between $15,000 and $20,000.  (2)  If an individual candidate allocates some donated monies to a party, that is fine, but the cap still applies and the individual cannot then top up that money from other donors.  (3)  NTEC should be required to provide the same information for each candidate, regardless of party status, on its web site.  This evens the playing field at low cost via a reputable vehicle.  The likely outcome would be (i) quality information; (ii) limited ‘dumb’ information/advertisements; (iii) a more sophisticated conversation about the issues; and (iv) is conducive to good governance.
  • The majority of people disenchanted by politics are interested in good governance.

Panel Discussion:

  • Antony Green – the standard Australian system is a form of Hare-Clark. The New Zealand system was introduced in Scotland.  It relies on a party list system.  We toss votes away because they don’t meet the ‘formal vote’ criteria.  This is bad about optional preferential voting.  Good systems exist that don’t require preferential voting; Greece and Malta use a top-up system to create a government.  His preference is for single-Member seats and a top-up system.  In the NT this would be 20 single seats and five top-up seats, the top-ups comprising under-represented parties, which achieves proportionality.
  • Jeff Collins – supports majority government by preference. Optional preferential voting worked last time on primary and preference votes.
  • Steve Hatton – compulsory preferential voting is the only way to avoid manipulation. Opposed to MMEs in the NT.  Small NT electorates force the Member to work the electorate.  Councils have MMEs and no one accepts responsibility for anything.
  • Gerry Wood – when optional preferential voting was introduced, there was no debate on it. Overall, however, it reduced the informal vote.  Our Act is better now because a ‘formal vote’ is decided on the intention of the voter.  It is possible to have a Hare-Clark system with preferences.  We should have a good review of the system of elections in the Northern Territory.  How can 31% of the vote result in two Members in the Assembly?
  • Question from floor to Danial: what about candidates who work in Ministers’ offices?  Is their role conflicted?  How do you handle the individual cost limit when they’re out campaigning every time they’re with the Minister?  Response:  my proposal wouldn’t address that at all; it’s about campaign advertising.  Ken Parish:  you will never create a completely level playing field.  Both parties do it and it can’t be prohibited.
  • Moderator asked Graeme about the abolition of public funding. Response:  we need a mechanism to reimburse X% of candidate expenditure.  Going from no public funding to full public funding is radical.  On other matters, critical mass is required for a Super Committee system so if the NT proposes to go down that road, it might need more than 25 Members.  Gerry Wood – the level of influence can be restricted by capping donations.  There should be no public funding.  In the areas he visited in Canada, candidates can’t touch their campaign funds; they’re managed by a Financial Agent who is responsible to the Electoral Commissioner.
  • Question from the floor to Danial: how realistic is your proposed regime given the subliminal use of social media (eg Brexit and Trump)?  Response:  we need to define ‘election campaign material’.  Social media advertising and promotion – if free – would not come under the cap.  If it was paid for, however, it would be caught by the cap.  There should be a clear financial link with the company doing the social media marketing.  Graeme – you can’t regulate political culture.  If there is big money seeking to influence an election, it will.  Gerry Wood – I have no Facebook and I had the highest vote in the NT at the last election.  Personal contact is far more important.
  • Question from Marshall Perron to Antony Green: how are top-up Members selected?  Response:  In New Zealand, if John Key wins half the votes, he’s allocated half of the top-ups, or you vote for an individual on the first ticket/ballot paper and for a party on the second ticket/ballot paper.  It’s a way to ameliorate majorities.  Marshall Perron – MMEs would be a failure – look at the Senate.
  • John Bailey – sitting Members campaign for four years. How is that fair to candidates?
  • Question from Trevor Jenkins: why doesn’t CDU offer courses in politics and governance, and allowances, etc?  Response from Danial Kelly – good idea!  He has a short course in mind.
  • Moderator asked about political donations. Jeff Collins – campaign funding is a different issue.  He likes the idea of a cap on funding.  On the matter of disclosure, we have to make more serious inroads.  He likes the idea of online real time donations.  People should know who donors are.  Antony Green – the biggest problem is that the NT is a very small jurisdiction.  In the NT parties are dominant, but they need to be watched.