The Guardian November 24, 1999


New NSW electoral laws:
Attack on democracy

On November 10, the NSW Legislative Council (Upper House) passed 
legislation making it virtually impossible for small political parties to 
stand candidates in their own name in the Upper House. The Bill, which 
amends the Elections Act, introduces steep fees to register political 
parties and nominate candidates, and more than triples the minimum number 
of members a political party must have to be registered.

The Bill introduces a $2,000 fee for parties to register. If they are not 
registered they cannot stand or endorse candidates.

(Party members could stand in their own name, but not in their Party's 
name, making it virtually impossible to be elected.)

There will be a 12-month waiting period following registration before a 
party can stand.

The original Bill specified a $3,500 registration fee but the Government 
compromised at $2,000 after opposition from Legislative Council members Ian 
Cohen and Lee Rhiannon of the NSW Greens and Peter Breen of the Reform the 
Legal System.

The Government also came under pressure from within its own ranks, and from 
other parties, including the Communist Party of Australia which campaigned 
against the changes.

At present a party must collect the signatures of a minimum of 200 members 
to register on a form provided by the NSW Electoral Commission. When the 
Bill is enacted, this becomes 750.

Furthermore, this list will be open to public scrutiny and the list of 
names will have to be updated annually.

"This is a clear violation of a person's privacy and civil and political 
rights", said Rob Gowland, Chair of the Sydney District Committee of the 
Communist Party of Australia.

"We have a system of secret ballots so that any citizen who wishes to keep 
his or her political preferences private may do so.

"The demand for details about individual members of political parties 
conflicts with this", Mr Gowland told The Guardian.

The CPA, which is a registered party in NSW, is one of the smaller parties 
that will be affected by the legislation. It has a small budget for 
election campaigns, most of which would be swallowed up by registration and 
deposits.

Optional preferential

At present there are two methods of voting for candidates for the Upper 
House  for a party or group above a line on the ballot paper, or for 
individual candidates below the line.

Voting above the line means that preferences are distributed according to 
that party's preference allocation. Most voters do not know how these 
preferences are allocated.

"As we know, too often their vote can help elect somebody they may well not 
support", said Ms Rhiannon.

"It is clearly undemocratic to have people elected on the strength of 
preference flows from front parties."

Ian Cohen was successful in moving an amendment to make voting above the 
line for the Upper House optional preferential.

Under the Greens' amendment, the voter allocates preferences, this is done 
by numbering the boxes above the line or by voting for individuals below 
the line.

Whether voting above or below the line, preferences must be given to a 
minimum of 15 candidates.

Any party nominating less than 15 candidates (the minimum number of 
preferences that need to be allocated) runs the risk of its supporters 
casting an invalid vote if voters just put a "1" in the box above the line 
of their preferred Party.

This change to above the line voting "delivers the power back to the voter 
to make the decision [about preferences]  that's democracy", Ian Cohen 
told The Guardian.

The deposit for 15 candidates has been discounted to $5,000 (it is $500 per 
candidate) again favouring the larger parties.

Two-party system

The aim of the Government's legislation is shore up the "two-party system".

In the 1999 NSW State elections around 30 per cent of voters cast their 
primary vote for parties other than Labor or the Liberals/Nationals.

In the Upper House, 13 out of 42 Members are independents or belong to 
smaller parties (Greens, Democrats, etc).

This trend towards higher votes for smaller parties is a response to the 
growing disillusionment with the ALP and the Coalition.

Instead of changing its policies to address the problems facing the 
electorate, the Labor Party is legislating away democratic rights and 
making it difficult, if not impossible, for parties expressing a genuine, 
progressive alternative to be elected.

It has done so with the full support of the Liberal and National Parties, 
and the Australian Democrats (who also feel threatened).

The Democrats did, however, support amendments attempting to reduce the 
impositions on registering and standing parties in elections.

Ian Cohen, Lee Rhiannon and Peter Breen opposed the legislation and, in the 
face of substantial opposition, were successful in gaining some 
compromises.

A party will have to pay between $3,000 and $7,000 to stand candidates, 
before it even starts spending money on campaigning for the 2003 State 
election.

"This is inherently undemocratic as it heavily favours wealthy parties", 
said Ms Rhiannon.

Under the Act a party must be registered for its name to appear on the 
ballot paper. If it is not registered then candidates from that party 
appear in a list with other candidates with no party identification.

The 750 members required for registration in NSW compares to the 500 
required for Federal registration which can be drawn from all over 
Australia.

The Howard Coalition Government, which has been contemplating changes to 
the Senate, will now be able to point to the NSW "reforms" by the Carr 
Government and introduce its own measures to exclude smaller parties.

Other States will also follow the NSW lead creating an even more 
undemocratic electoral system in Australia.

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