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.