Australian Fabian Society.  

Making elections more democratic: Informed, fair and affordable elections

Valerie Yule
August 2002

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties" (Milton, 1644)


For truly democratic elections, the people must be enabled to cast adequately informed votes for policies and candidates, not just parties. The surging 'all-is-not-well' feeling and alienation about the working of our Parliamentary democracy is serious, especially among the young.

Yet democracy could work. Current anomalies are so serious that reforms are needed. There can be no argument that human brains cannot devise ways of making the democratic reforms possible, when we see the success of the brainpower currently devoted to devising weapons of destruction. Rather than sweeping the recommendations for reform aside as impracticable, readers are asked to consider how they could be possible.

Australia has been among world leaders in improvements to parliamentary democracy, and can respond today to the challenge to still lead and innovate, with its traditional spirit.

A major recommendation is made at 4.1. The two major political parties can put up two candidates for the same seat, at the same cost. Objectionable as this may seem to party politicians, and it is possible to point to how it did not work in Bandywallop in1921, it seems to me that trials should be made to counter:

a) the widespread voter unhappiness with party candidates they feel are 'foisted' on them, and

b) the shenanigans that too often degrade preselections. It is possible to devise ways of ensuring that the 2 candidates do not turn their campaigns into mutual assured destruction.

Legislation. Some of the reforms below can be achieved or assisted by legislation. All need public action.

1. Improving democratic elections

Informing the Electorate. What are we voting for? We must know.

i) Continual public discussion of policies as a matter of public interest. A party policy is not like some statue to be draped in secrecy until the election is announced, or kept from the children until Christmas by Santa Claus, whatever the tactical reasons to keep it private. New policies under consideration should be put forward to public debate as well as to internal party discussion, This process should be intensified when an election is felt to be in the offing, even before it is announced. The media must have something more nourishing for its teeth rather than obsessions with 'When?' or 'Who will win?' or petty faux pas.

ii) Financial statement by Treasury and public record of the government in power. The Treasury must present a financial statement by one week into an election campaign, and the Government present a summary of its legislation, income from selling public assets, the costs of selling off assets, who profited, increases in total foreign debt resulting from government sales (more private debt, which pays a higher interest) and how major funders of its political party have benefited.

A statement of the Commonwealth's economic independence should also be presented, including, eg a map of how much of the country has become foreign owned before and during the government in power.

iii) Revelation of policies by parties and candidates, includes two-page summary form that is given more publicity and leafleting than slogans, plus some degree of 'eventualities' alternatives to give pragmatic latitude if gaining power, and reduce the scope for broken promises 'because the situation has changed'.

iv) Commercial confidentiality must not apply to government dealings, especially at elections. Government must be truly open. (Secret clauses in government contracts should not be binding on a new incoming government).

v) Notice of an election. The timing must never be manipulated to coincide or be affected by foreseeable events of great public interest which can distract voters. To reduce the sitting party's advantage, notice of the election date should be given at least a week before the official campaign opens. Fixed election dates may be desirable.

vi) Truth in electioneering. When politicians make promises, they put up a personal bond, to be paid back on losing the election, or for winning candidates, settled according to the situation within 12 months.

2. We must be able to vote on policies

Electronic technology now makes this feasible. The party winning power can then not claim a mandate for everything that it may want to do.

3. Costs

This country cannot afford the escalating costs of elections.

i) A more level playing field by capping expenses of candidates and parties. A ceiling on money spent on political campaigns is more important for democratic justice than subsidies paid for votes received. The more money spent, the more it become glitz, PR, and commercial persuasion, and wastes economic resources.

Since government subsidies are merely added to the war-chests funded by business or organisations, the end result is only more expensive elections. Their only value is to enable smaller parties to survive, to be competitive challenges to the otherwise self-indulgent mammoths. Creative accounting is always impossible to stop completely, but glaring anomalies will glare and can be nailed.

ii) Expenses of elections. These are becoming more than this country reasonably should afford. They could be substantially cut by the measures proposed - especially by reduction of costly spin-doctored advertising and the waste of brains and money in intention surveys. The introduction of voting for policies, now technically possible, including by computer, even through interactive television, would be most costly at its introduction, but would prove its value - and indeed, stimulate more voter interest among the presently cynical citizens than any amount of color television spectacle.

Political policies and candidates should be treated by the media as news, of intrinsic public interest to recount, more than sensational private scandals or details of grisly murders. This reduces the need for expensive advertising. The public can learn to insist on this publicity, so the media respond to their demand.

iii) Waste in elections, as with How-to-Vote cards. Sensible solutions are obvious, while still making it possible for voters to 'meet the parties' and have both information and personal contact with candidates' supporters on election day at the booths. (A list is available of recommendation to avoid the current waste - eg postcards with candidate's policies, photos and record could be consulted at the boundaries of polling stations, or returned to the candidates' supporters.)

iv) Costs of by-elections. Parliamentarians who stand down during their parliamentary term for any reason other than serious illness or family tragedy immediately lose their benefits and they pay for by-elections incurred. This includes leaders or ministers who lose office under an incoming government. If they take their bat and go home, they have not right to take home swag as well.

4. A more level playing field

i) The two major political parties can put up two candidates for the same seat, at the same cost - e.g a single deposit. This much-needed reform can enable voters to decide between policies and positions, gives more chance to new blood, and reduce pre-selection shenanigans.

For example, Labor can put up left/right wing candidates, party-hack/local; Liberals can put up wet/dry lawyers/other-experience. They must all be pledged to support their party's electoral platform, but can rank their priorities and 'core-policies' among these, so voters can see where they will put most effort, and where they could be swung should circumstances appear to require it.

ii) Preferential voting should not force anyone to vote for a candidate they do not want by having to rank all candidates to the end of the list, although they should be notified that if all their listed preferences fail in turn, their vote is lost and they may be letting in a candidate they want even less. But it can do parties great good to realise that their candidates have been elected on less than a majority of votes, even when preferences are included.

The simple block vote that is predetermined by parties not voters should not be the only alternative to complex rankings of long lists.

iii) No push-polling. This is blatantly carried on by two-party-preferred opinion polls, which should be banned because they are effective attempts to mislead respondents and the public into thinking that no other choice is possible.

iv) No voting intention surveys once the election campaign begins. The underlying purpose of these is to try to persuade swinging voters where the strength lies. I would fly as a kite, even as an impossible one, that any interviewer on the broadcast or print media who asks anyone who they think will win deserves to be fined $100 on the spot - which might make huge amounts of money, space and time available for important issues - and also increase excitement as the outcomes would be even more unpredictable. Instead, have surveys about public opinion on particular policy issues - each survey's content and information being approved by representatives of both major parties and an independent media. so that it did not distort issues by leading or misleading questions.

v) Freedom of speech. This is being progressively reduced for those without financial power, eg by limits, permits and charges for permits. During elections campaigns, anyone should have the right to stand in public places offering campaign material and discussion, provided they do not obstruct , create noise, or actively approach people. Melbourne should have well publicised places like Yarra Bank in every locality, where soap-boxing and poster-sticking is free. A good tourist and leisure attraction.

Organisations for civil liberties could collate and report all incidents where people who make public statements (e.g. in letters to newspapers) are intimidated with threats of legal action, when they have been critical, but not outrageously scurrilous or libelous. All media should be free to criticise without fear. There is a need for public servants to carry out the orders of the government without fuss and public criticism, but those orders of the government must be publicly known, and public servants should be allowed to whistle-blow when the public interest is clearly being harmed and 'confidentiality' is being abused.

vi) More information about ALL parties and candidates is essential.

THE PARTY IN POWER must not put any advertising material for its party on a government-funded website, even under the guise of 'press-releases'. Facts are what matter. For 3 weeks before an election, 'government' letterhead, funding and helicopters cannot be used in campaigns.

vii) NO POLITICAL ADVERTISING ON TV saves an enormous amount of campaign money and debt of gratitude to big funders. See 'The role of the media' for socially responsible alternatives on television.

5. Attracting candidates

Attracting candidates with ability and ideals of public service, and discouraging candidates attracted by financial and security advantages. This requires more space, but public cynicism about voting is becoming too great to omit it here. Some recommendations include:

i) Parliamentary incomes be set at the median wage. (This will encourage more concern for Australia's prosperity and for the low paid! Their pay is related to what they do!) Comparison with the self-set incomes of the higher paid in the business world is deleterious. Parliamentarians inevitably represent the income group that they personally represent. (And there will always be some with higher incomes from outside sources.) It is also a good example to the developing world when parliamentary representatives are paid and live modestly.

A Parliament composed entirely of people living in an upper income group can only represent that upper income group.

ii) Parliamentarians be assured of retirement income above penury, according to length of service and positions, but not more than the median wage, plus free public transport (which would cost the taxpayer nothing) apart from air travel.

iii) Qualifications openly desired in a candidate include at least a week's 'Work Experience' in an understaffed nursing home, a week on night shift, and a week in a job away from home. (Schools 'Work Experience' organization can help arrange these if necessary. Indeed students with ambition should all undertake such experiences). They can be undertaken during holidays if necessary, and could be repeated every ten years. This can help put in perspective the idea that there are no harder workers in the community than MPs.

iv) No candidate should have had only political staffer, legal, or union organisation experience since leaving education, without having spent at least one year, preferably recently, at something that gives another view of the world.

v) Parliamentary remuneration committee should be composed of members with lower incomes than MPs. If they have higher incomes, there is a moral pressure on them to raise MPs incomes higher.

vi) Candidates and politicians with ideals of public service will value the honor and status that people give them because of what they are and what they do. They will value not being seen as 'pigs at the trough'.

6. Role of the media

Includes recommendations made in other sections. i) Political policies and candidates should be treated by the media as NEWS, like Sport. VOTERS ARE INFORMED on all the important issues likely to face the government, all the candidates and their chief policies, what costs will be, and who pays for them. THIS IS NEWS-WORTHY BEYOND MOST 'NEWS'. It should take up as much time as the sports news, and not be a cost on the political parties.

Elections and government could rival Olympic games in fascinated interest for all citizens.

There are DEBATES on all major issues by the major parties with minor parties also getting a chance. There are rights of reply for anyone who is personally criticised, or for a party that feels that it has been misrepresented.

There can be documentary reports presented on the State of the Nation and the Land, in which different political opinions can have their say.

ii) Reduce the push to government by The Leader. This is a bad trend, and is largely the responsibility of the media. The public needs to know much more about other candidates, especially Ministers and Shadow Ministers

iii) News headlines are not fudged by distractions and minor personality issues

iv) Reversing public cynicism. Public cynicism is deliberately fostered to encourage apathy. Elections are boring, Kennett urges persuasively. Active citizenship can be encouraged, as a leisure activity with all the excitement of computer games, and all the luck of gambling, the adrenalin of sport, and the thrill of joining in.

The media could keep a running record of promises like a batting list. Post-election this promise list is periodically reviewed.

The media might also present election information under two headings: -

  • TRIVIAL pursuits include all leader personality cults, gossip and funny events.

  • SERIOUS pursuits are about policies, past records, future problems, and relevant information about all candidates' qualification and previous record.

    PARLIAMENTARY RECORDS OF OTHER PARTIES AND INDEPENDENTS are also published. Print media will set this out in a consistent place and layout so that voters can collect and refer back to it when preparing to vote.

    MEDIA DEFINES TERMS such as 'growth', and asks candidates about their buzzwords.

    LIES do not lie down however much they are nailed down, so the media should surely have a responsibility to set out the facts when lies are published.

    v) MAKING THE REAL BUSINESS IN ELECTIONS MORE FUN. Run as recommended, Australian elections could become a popular international tourist attraction, and a highlight of people's lives, regarded like an Olympic event. We do not need American style balloons, razzmatazz , circuses and waste. Australians have never been stuffy in the past. World innovations in governance are feasible now.


    Score every election out of 10 for how close it comes to being a democratics election, as described

    The Internet and the Electoral Commission

    i) THE ELECTORAL COMMISSION WEB PAGE provides full information, plus links to all parties and independents and their policies, summary pages on issues provided by the parties for comparisons, and an ongoing debates page specifically for all claims, counterclaims, and a page for corrections of misinformation in the media, regardless of its source. If the Electoral Commission cannot do this, for fear of inability to be sufficiently impartial, some independent public body could have this role, the EC would be preferable. ii) Other Internet involvement. All political candidates' web pages are listed in the papers and on tv. If they are barmy - all the more debate is needed.

    6. Concluding comment

    All these recommendations are feasible. More is needed to promote democracy at every level, but it would be good to have open public debate about the innovations in these recommendations, and to look at even unexpected ideas seriously, as well as applying the obvious solutions to current defects.

  • Australian Fabians Inc. 2014