BILL: Electoral Reform

Today Mark made a contribution on the Government's Bill to reform our state electoral laws.


The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: I commence my remarks on this bill by pointing out that the fundamental approach that the Greens take to these matters is to look at a threshold question: does the bill taken as a whole improve or detract from our democracy? That is the test that we are going to be applying. I want to run through quite a few separate elements in this bill. It will take me a little while, so I would appreciate the indulgence of the house.

I want to talk about some of the less contentious matters very briefly because, not being contentious, they do not require a lot of discussion, but I think I need to touch on them. I will address the issue that the Hon. Kyam Maher focused on in his contribution, that is, the move for optional preferential voting in the lower house. I will probably spend the bulk of my contribution on the issue of corflutes, because that does appear to be the last of the major contentious issues in the bill. I will talk a little about some further reforms that are required, particularly in relation to financial accountability and some unintended consequences that have arisen from previous amendments to the act. And I will very briefly outline what will shortly be six sets of Greens' amendments to this bill.

First, I will start with some of the less contentious issues. As the Hon. Kyam Maher pointed out, if this bill had consisted entirely of recommendations made by the Electoral Commissioner following the last election, then probably the bulk of it would have sailed through quite smoothly. But the government has tacked on to the Electoral Commissioner's recommendations a number of their own hobbyhorses, and that is what I think is going to occupy most of our time.

One of the recommendations from the Electoral Commission was in relation to pre-poll voting. In my discussions with electoral officials, I understand they are planning for a continued increase in the number of people voting prior to election day. It could be pushing 30 per cent because it has increased year on year, or election on election. I cannot vouch for this figure, but someone told me they had heard the same number. The recent Western Australian election had something like 60 per cent of people voting before polling day. Again, I cannot vouch for it, but it was certainly something that I was told. What I can say is that it is indisputable that the number of people voting before polling day is increasing across the country and across jurisdictions.

The Electoral Commissioner was keen to have a period for pre-poll voting that was long enough to enable all those who wished to do so to vote beforehand. The bill provides for up to 12 days' voting. I am quite torn by this particular amendment. One of the views that I have always held is that our democracy is best served when everyone has access to the same or similar information and the longer a pre-poll period, the more likelihood that something could happen. It means that people who vote very early do not have the benefit of that information.

A classic example would be a scandal that emerged a week out from election. That would mean that that could have affected the votes of people, but they had already voted; they voted the week earlier. Part of me thinks that we should constrain that period. However, the Greens will be supporting the 12 days. That is the position we have reached.

There is a consequential amendment that we may not support, but we will see what happens in committee; that is, the presumption in favour of polling day. The provision that the government seeks to remove is the following:

The Electoral Commissioner must, where relevant in the carrying out of the Electoral Commissioner's functions under this Act, promote and encourage the casting of votes at a polling booth on polling day.

I have always liked that provision. I thought that there is the convenience of pre-poll voting. I accept that there are some people who just are not going to be able to get to a polling booth on polling day, but I am not sure that we should be abandoning entirely the concept of a polling day and replacing it with a polling period. That is the direction that we are going in, where the Tuesday a week and a half before polling day is just as valid as polling day itself. If that provision is removed, there will be no requirement on the Electoral Commissioner at all to encourage people to vote in their local community on polling day. We will see where that one lands, but the Greens have accepted the 12 days as a convenience to voters.

The Electoral Commissioner also recommended some alternative ways that people should be able to lodge information with the commission. I think that makes sense. The idea of people being able to apply for postal ballots by phone or online—I think that makes a lot of sense. Part of the incumbency problem that we need to overcome is that for many, many years postal voting has been a racket, in a way. That is where the old parties have collected details of postal voters. They have asked for people who want to vote by post to send their applications into a political party. The political party then passes them on.

The advantage, of course, is that the political party then has the names and addresses of all the people who they know they are not going to reach on election day with material, so it basically becomes your direct mail list. That is a racket that the old parties have had for too long. I like the idea that voters should be able to liaise directly with the Electoral Commission and not have to go through the intermediary of political parties. I think there are some sensible reforms there.

Similarly, in relation to the way election information is published, newspapers have traditionally been a way of publicising information. I do not know anyone under 30 who reads a newspaper. The ones that I am connected with do not read newspapers. They are not going to get their information that way, so I think we do need to enter the modern realm. I do not think we necessarily need to outlaw advertisements in newspapers, but we certainly should not be mandating them. I know this is an issue we are going to come back to in relation to the local government bill, because again there are issues around how information is published.

There is an amendment in relation to itinerant elector reforms, which makes sense. But I would like to now get onto the key issues; firstly, optional preferential voting. At one level, we possibly do not need to spend a lot of time on this because the government has made it fairly clear that they are not proposing to withdraw these amendments, but we are told we they are not proposing to advance them with any particular vigour. Where does that leave us? I think we need to work on the assumption that they are before us and we need to address them.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition in his assessment. I think it is an exercise in self-interest. That is not just my view. In researching this, I went to some of the best known election experts in Australia to see what they had to say about optional preferential voting in the lower house. I was quite attracted by the words of Mr Antony Green, whom we all know as one of the lead commentators on elections. I will just read a few sentences that he wrote about this issue. He said:

In proposing that South Australia adopt optional preferential voting for House of Assembly elections, the Marshall government is highlighting democratic principles in favour of making preferences optional. But you don't have to be cynical to see that in backing principle, the SA Liberal Party is also backing its own self-interest…

What the Marshall government no doubt finds attractive about OPV is that it makes life harder for candidates who must come from behind to win on preferences.

Every exhausted preference under OPV removes a vote from the pool of possible preferences needed by a trailing candidate to catch the leader. Leading candidates benefit most from receiving a preference, but under OPV, leading candidates also benefit from exhausted preferences. Every exhausted preference puts a leading candidate slightly nearer the [winning] post, which is 50 per cent of the vote remaining in the count.

And history explains why the Liberal Party might find OPV attractive. Since 1982, there have been 26 South Australian electoral contests where a trailing candidate won from behind on preferences. Of those 26 contests, 14 were won by Labor, 11 by Independents or minor parties, and only one by the Liberal Party.

So you do not have to look very far to see the self-interest. We know from interstate that once there is optional preferential voting for lower house seats—where it is not an onerous task, there is a small number of candidates—it very quickly becomes first past the post. Parties tell their voters, 'Just vote 1, just vote 1,' and without preferences there is that difficulty for anyone who is coming second to catch up on preferences.

The Hon. Kyam Maher's assessment was correct, and Antony Green agrees. This is a move by the Liberal Party to prevent other parties from being able to take the advantage of voters' preferences—and we have to remember that these are preferences cast by voters, they are not something invented by the parties. It is going to make it harder for small parties, Independents or the opposition to catch up. The Greens will not be supporting optional preferential voting, and we appreciate that the government is not going to push that very hard—that is good.

I would now like to get onto the issue of corflutes. This is an issue that is quite vexed, even within our political party. One thing we did last year, when this bill first came up, was organise a meeting of members—always tricky in a COVID environment. However, we had a meeting of members and we discussed whether or not to support the ban on corflutes, whether to modify the ban on corflutes, or whether to take some other position. I think it is very fair to say that opinion was divided. I will come back to what that might mean for the approach the Greens take in relation to this bill.

I would like to explore some of the arguments for and against corflutes. The first argument people raise is in relation to democracy. What is clear is that for very many South Australians the first time they realise an election is looming is when they see the first signs appear on the Stobie poles. They know then that it is election time and they know the campaign is underway. That is the case for the vast bulk of the population who are not engaged in politics.

The corflutes in the public realm are also an indication of who is running. I think the experience has been, even from small parties, that there is a fear that if voters do not see their preferred candidate or preferred party on a Stobie pole maybe they are not running, maybe they are not serious, maybe they are not part of the election. I think it is that fear of invisibility that sees all the major parties using corflutes; they want to be seen, and they want to be seen to be serious about contesting the election.

The flipside of that argument, of course, is that if nobody has corflutes then perhaps nobody is disadvantaged. That is probably true in relation to the contest between the two old parties, but it is a very hard sell for a local Independent candidate, for whom corflutes might be their main campaign strategy. Corflutes for Independent and minor parties often seek to direct traffic to a website people can visit, and that then explains who they are, what their policies are and what commitments they are making in the event they are elected.

If those small party and minor candidates cannot use corflutes then they need to get their message out in some other way. The other way is generally through paid means. This is important, because while corflutes are not free, they are free to erect; you just need volunteers. Once you have bought the corflute—maybe it is $10 in round figures—it is free to put up and it can stay for the duration of the election campaign.

Most other forms of paid advertising are out of the reach of very small parties and Independents. They cannot pay for TV ads, radio ads, newspaper ads, Google ads or Facebook ads. Most other forms of communication cost money. Corflutes, on the other hand, are relatively cheap. With a cost of close to zero, certainly for installation, they are attractive to small parties. I raise those two issues because the democratic argument cuts both ways. There are arguments for and against corflutes.

Let's look now at the annoyance factor. I will admit that I do not know anyone who loves corflutes. The only exception I recall was when we had small children. Every election we would have a game as we were driving down the road, and that was to associate an animal noise with the different corflutes. I will not embarrass members by saying which animal was associated with which party or which candidate, but what I can tell you is when you got into the built-up areas, the back of the car resembled Old MacDonald's farm. There was oinking, there were rooster calls and there were cows mooing. That cacophony of noise from the back seat actually tells you just how many corflutes there were on the Stobie poles.

I think most people would say, 'It's annoying. It's a blight on the landscape. It's visual pollution. It's un-Australian to brag and self-promote. As we all know, all politicians are crooks and you wouldn't want to vote for any of them anyway.' That is the prevailing feeling you would get at the front bar perhaps or around the water cooler.

However, in a quiet sober moment, I think most people would probably express to you the view that they are grateful that the way democracy works in this country is generally peaceful, that we live in a democracy with free speech and that we resolve issues at the ballot box. I do not want to be channelling the Prime Minister—

The Hon. T.A. Franks interjecting:

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: —but it was something Bob Brown used to always talk about in terms of the alternatives to democracy, but I will not take that any further at the urging of my colleague.

The Hon. T.A. Franks: Just don't channel the Prime Minister.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Okay. I accept that the annoyance factor is real but it can be taken with a grain of salt. I think it is hard to imagine a popular protest, 'Save the corflute'. I accept that in the public what this legislation proposes would probably be a popular move.

In terms of the effectiveness of corflutes, one thing that is often said is they do not influence how people vote. I think that is probably true a lot of the time, but what corflutes do, as I've said before, is tell people the election is on. They tell them, in a compulsory voting system, that they had better start thinking about it and they alert them to the choices they have on voting day. People can see that there are a plethora of choices out there and they know that from what they see on the Stobie poles.

I am not saying that there are not more effective strategies for gaining recognition or increasing the vote. Doorknocking is obviously well recognised as a way of personally reaching voters and regarded generally as more effective than, for example, just popping something in the letterbox. You could say that if corflutes were banned then parties with considerable volunteer resources might engage in these other activities as well, but I would also point out that corflutes are not just the smiling face and vote 1.

Certainly, the Greens over the years have had lots of message corflutes and that does help, I think, to frame key issues in an election. I expect if I was to explore the dark reaches under my house I would find 'Save the River Murray', 'Solar on every roof' and 'Free the refugees' I think would be in there as well. Message corflutes are in fact a way of bringing into the public consciousness some of the key issues at election time.

The issue of the expense again is an argument that cuts both ways. I said before that corflutes are a relatively inexpensive way of alerting the public to the fact that you are running. On the other hand, you can end up with an arms race, especially in relation to big parties that buy thousands upon thousands and every single Stobie pole and light pole has a poster on it. So whilst there is some advantage for small parties and candidates, there is also the arms race amongst the big candidates, and it can become expensive.

Probably one of the key issues that concerned Greens members when we discussed this was the fact that most corflutes fall into the category of single-use plastic, and that is something that causes some concern. What I think people probably do not recognise, and I suspect the big parties do not recognise, is that corflutes are recyclable—it is just that they mostly are not recycled. Certainly, I know some go into the shed for a member who intends to contest again and again, and despite the passage of years that might ravage the faces and bodies of members, on the corflute they are forever young. I have 15-year-old or 16-year-old corflutes under my house, and I have not changed a bit.

Certainly, some corflutes are reused, but most of them are single-use plastic and are thrown away. Having a quick look online, I went to a web page, the EnviroPrint Australia web page, and they pointed out:

Retired polypropylene packaging, printed signage and off cuts can be recycled and re-processed in a purpose built recycling facility - creating refreshed boards for new sign printing. Our recycled corflute signs are made from 100% post industrial Polypropylene (such as Fluteboard and Corflute).

So they can be recycled and turned into new corflutes. I think that a better approach, if corflutes are to remain, would be to look at the alternatives to plastic corflutes. I found at least four that were available in Australia; they are not that hard to come by.

I mentioned EnviroPrint, which has a recycled, fibre-based corflute alternative that is recyclable and biodegradable. When I looked at the images on their website, I found that our Greens colleagues interstate were some of their biggest customers. Another supplier, Mesh Direct, provide a product called EcoBoard that is biodegradable, recyclable and will start to break down after two months. I will read you a sentence about EcoBoard:

Ecoboard is our new biodegradable, organic and chemical-free alternative to traditional corflute and plastic products. Being biodegradable means that it can be broken down rapidly by microorganisms and therefore, doesn't stay in our environment for thousands of years like other materials.

The product is very simply a wood pulp core with a high-quality paper lining. Its…white surface provides an outstanding print surface…

Due to its biodegradable nature, it's not quite as durable as traditional corflute. We recommend it as a great short-term material for outdoor signage solutions and projects. However, it can last up to 12 months for indoor applications…

The signage industry can be wasteful. That's why we are making it easy to feel good about using Ecoboard signage. It's 100% recyclable and can go straight in the green recycling bin, it's that simple.

So it does not have to be plastic corflutes.

Another one, a company called LF Media, is promoting something called Katz Outdoor Display Board. Again, it is 100 per cent biodegradable. They say it lasts up to 10 weeks in an outdoor setting. They are about $10 each and are not that much different from the plastic corflutes. Given that it is paper based and moisture can affect it, they recommend 12 weeks before it starts to degrade, long enough for an election campaign. There is one more that I looked up, Oppboga outdoor board. It has all the same attributes, being 100 per cent biodegradable, paper based and, they say, water resistant. Again, they recommend 12 weeks for outdoor use.

The point that I am making is that the single-use plastic issue is one that concerns Greens members, but it is not insurmountable. Another argument used against corflutes is in relation to litter. Yes, I am sure corflutes have been ripped off Stobie poles and thrown into creeks, but that they become long-term litter is very rare, in my experience. If you do not take them down after the election the councils are onto you. Most of them are recovered. I would suspect that it would be one-thousandth of one per cent of the litter stream if you were to look at everything else that is out there. I am not saying that they are never part of the litter stream but it is a tiny proportion.

The visual pollution argument I touched on before, but what I find interesting is that people have chosen to take offence at a smiling face on a Stobie pole for one month every four years when they do not appear to take the same offence at, for example, an unhealthy product billboard—maybe it is fossil fuels, maybe it is hamburgers, maybe it is alcohol—that is far greater in size, 24/7 and illuminated at night as a permanent part of the landscape. That is not offensive, but the smiling face is. When it comes to visual pollution, it really is in the eye of the beholder.

I do not worry too much about that, although the sheer numbers, we would have to accept, are a problem, and a problem to the extent that you cannot not see them. They are a problem if you put them in the wrong spot. You are not supposed to put them on traffic islands or attach them to traffic lights or anything like that. There have in the past been suggestions that the numbers be limited. In the past, there have been amendments put in this place for 100 per candidate per electorate, or 200 perhaps.

I am attracted to those, but of course the main problem is one of compliance. When they are pulled down and replaced, if 10 get pulled down and vandalised and you replace them with 12 you are two over the limit and you could be fined. It is problematic from a compliance point of view, but that is an option that has been looked at in the past.

Public safety is often raised. Again, if people put them in the right spots I do not think that is a problem. That said, you do want to be very careful on narrow, winding hills roads where people are on a ladder up a pole on a blind corner—yes. But, again, I am not aware of any statistics that relate to death or injury as a result of people putting up corflutes.

In the bill the government will be talking about limiting corflutes to polling booths, and I will come back to that one later because that is the subject of an amendment that I have filed. I was inspired by the Treasurer the other day when we were having a discussion about a different piece of legislation and we were trying to work out when it was last debated. I was making fun of the Treasurer saying, 'No, you should write your speech again. You don't have to look at the old one.'

Well, I did look up some old speeches. I am accused of lots of things but I do not want to be accused of changing my mind that often. I went back to what I had said about corflutes when we last debated this issue in 2009. I think members may be amused by some of the positions that were taken, because of course back then it was a Labor government that had moved to ban corflutes and the responses of the Liberal Party were different to the responses they have now. Back in 2009—so 12 years ago—I said:

When the government puts up changes to electoral laws you can be pretty certain there will be a strong element of self interest involved. Some of the changes proposed in this current series of amendments are, I believe, quite blatant in their attempt to advantage the big, old parties over the smaller parties and Independents. The government seems very keen to make it more difficult for parties to become registered and, once elections are called, they are determined to make it harder for small parties and Independents to get out their message, and there is really no other explanation for the proposed restriction on public space electoral advertising.

The government knows this is one area where competition is fierce and where small budgets can make a big impact. They know that small parties cannot compete for TV or newspaper space, and now they want to outlaw the one area where the playing field is a little bit more level.

The lens through which the Greens look at bills such as this involves some fundamental principles. The first test we apply is: will these measures improve our democracy?

I then went on, but I thought that even more interesting than what I had to say back in 2009 was what the Liberal Party had to say back in 2009. I was very attracted to our former colleague in this place the Hon. Robert Lawson QC, shadow attorney-general. Here are the Liberal Party's words on exactly the same question in 2009, when Robert Lawson said:

This is a major change, and it has undoubted political consequences.

Any restriction on political advertising or activity will prove to be an advantage to incumbent members and to an incumbent government. Quite apart from that fact, such restrictions are restrictions on the concept of free speech and ought be very closely examined.

This is the important bit:

We on the Liberal side oppose these amendments in the strongest possible terms.

What amendments are those? Exactly the amendments the Liberal Party is now moving.

The Hon. R.I. Lucas: They are Labor's amendments. They are your amendments.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Sorry, the amendments that the former government moved. Robert Lawson goes on about corflutes:

They are a very important way in which candidates can put themselves before the electorate to gain some name recognition for themselves and/or their particular party.

He goes on:

It is a clear example of this government's desire to close down the debate, to restrict opportunities for political engagement, and to limit the capacity of small parties and newcomers to participate. The reason is obvious. This government sees itself as riding high in the polls; the Attorney-General has said publicly, and somewhat arrogantly, that he regards the Australian Labor Party as the natural party in government in South Australia. Clearly, he wants to keep it that way.

On a more reflective note, the Hon. Robert Lawson went on:

We do not pretend that corflutes are popular with the public or with local councils; many regard corflutes as visual pollution. However, that is not really surprising, as many people are disdainful of the whole political process, and regard letters and brochures from aspirants to political office with annoyance and irritation. All the polling shows that they get heartily sick of electioneering. The way to overcome that cynicism is for us, as political parties and candidates, to engage the public and enthuse them. The government has chosen the easy way—namely, banning the most visible form of political activity—but the opposition does not believe that is the way to go.

He concludes by saying:

In very brief conclusion, the opposition is strongly opposed to the restriction on electoral advertisements. They are already an important part of our political process. There are already in place adequate controls and regulations over them. Indeed, one might say there is actually over-regulation of electoral signs, but this is a politically motivated proposal to improve the prospects of the current government and should be opposed.

What a difference 12 years makes. I put that on the record because I expect there will be a fair bit of chest beating going on and people who are standing on principle and saying how important it is, that they are listening to the community and they are trying to address all the evils in relation to corflutes, but I think it is worth reminding us that oppositions very quickly can not just change but be diametrically reversed.

As I said at the outset, this is an issue where the Greens as a political party have a divergence of views, so when we get to the committee stage in this bill we reserve the right to have a divergence of views in our party. It is not something we do very often, but that is certainly something that we might look at.

I want to very quickly raise some of the amendments. I am not going to go through them obviously because we can do that in committee. You might not have set 6 yet, but there will be six sets of amendments. Some of them relate to the situation if the corflute ban goes through and there are some that relate to the situation if the corflute ban does not go through. In other words, if corflutes are allowed, there are some amendments that deal with that, in particular making sure that they are not made of plastic unless that plastic is biodegradable and compostable.

In relation to if corflutes are banned, then there do need to be some consequential amendments because there are some unintended consequences of that ban. I pointed out to some people—and people say I am wrong, but I do not think I am wrong—that the definition of 'electoral advertising' is very broad and includes effectively any political comment.

Imagine if the march we had yesterday in relation to safety for women, violence and appropriate workplace behaviour took place in an election period where every second or third person is holding a sign, then under the government's bill they are potentially breaking the law. They are on a public road. The word is 'exhibiting'. This bill does not deal with cable tying or wiring corflutes to Stobie poles and lamp posts. This is about exhibiting on a public road.

Imagine the school kids on School Strike 4 Climate just before an election. The only safe children would be the ones under 10, who cannot commit a criminal offence. Over 10, they can be charged with a criminal offence. Nearly all of their posters are political. Many of them name members of parliament. The Prime Minister often features on these schoolkids' posters; perhaps state members of parliament do as well. There are some unintended consequences.

Similarly, a local member or a candidate who is out doorknocking may put an A-frame on the corner of the street saying, 'I am in the neighbourhood meeting people,' or saying that they are having a street corner meeting. Those signs are outlawed as well—they are banned. There are some consequential amendments, but, as I say, I have some amendments to cover most situations, whether the corflutes on Stobie poles are banned or whether they are allowed.

I also have what for the Greens is a very important amendment. It is not new. We have been raising it for 20 years and it is about how we can improve our democracy by giving those who stand to benefit or lose the most by our political decisions the right to vote. I am talking about voluntary voting for 16 and 17 year olds. It has been our policy forever. I have certainly moved it in amendments to bills. My colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks moved a private member's bill in 2010 calling for voluntary—so not compulsory—voting for these young people who are engaged.

We know they are out there; we see them. We see them at the marches. They are the ones who are going to inherit the climate mess if we do not do something about it. I think they are stakeholders, and I think they should be entitled to vote. That is certainly a Greens amendment that I have put on the table.

There is one other final substantive issue that I want to raise. It is something that I was urged to put into this bill. I have decided not to, but I want to put it on the record, so that the government deals with it in another bill. I understand that when it comes to the issue of financial disclosure the government has seen the complete mess that is now the electoral act, with, I think, section 133ZZ, something, something. It is a complete mess, and I understand the government's intention is to extract all those provisions that relate to financial reporting and accountability and put them into a separate act, and also to deal with some of the problems that have emerged now that those provisions have had an election to operate.

I just want to put on the record that I have received communication from two of the peak bodies representing civil society groups. I am talking about SACOSS, representing, if you like, the charity or the civil society sector, including a lot of the religious charities—they are part of SACOSS—and also the Conservation Council. In an email that I received from Craig Wilkins, the chief executive, in just a couple of sentences he says:

The main concern we have is that an org such as mine, which spends $10K in the lead up to a state election (inc. staffing, travel, advertising, printing etc) on 'expression of views on an issue in an election by any means'—

those are the words—

becomes a 'third party' under the Act.

There are a whole lot of onerous reporting requirements that then ensue.

The most egregious is a requirement for any donors of ours…who donate more than $5,000 to us in a financial year at any time between elections even if that donation was not intended to be for political expenditure, must also lodge a return.

In other words, the donor—someone who gives money to the Conservation Council to do some monitoring of animals or to do something to help with an environmental project, or a person who donates to a religious charity for relief of poverty, housing the homeless, or whatever it might be—all of a sudden, if the organisation expresses political views (as they all do and as they should) becomes a donor who has to put in a return.

That is a crazy situation. I know the government is aware of it, but I am putting it on the record now to say that I did not move it as an amendment here—there are enough amendments for us to consider in this bill—but I do want the government to consider that when we come back with the other bill.

In a nutshell, that is the position that the Greens are taking. We are supporting the recommendations made by the Electoral Commissioner, we are opposing optional preferential voting, but we appreciate the government will not be pursuing that with any great vigour and we have a number of amendments in relation to corflutes.