Time for debate over party regulation?

The current inquiry by the federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JCSEM) into the conduct of the 2016 federal election should be an opportunity for real debate over party regulation.  Despite electoral reform passed prior to the election that was meant to reduce the number of micro parties in the Senate, in 2016 voters had to be issued once again with magnifying sheets to read the tiny print on metre-wide ballot papers.

There were 151 candidates on the NSW Senate ballot paper, 122 in Queensland and 116 in Victoria. Of course, it was a double dissolution election, so many parties were standing more than six candidates. Nonetheless, over 50 parties stood candidates for the Senate, many of them relatively unknown in the community and contributing to over-crowded ballot papers rather than informed voter choice.

It had been thought that by abolishing group voting tickets and hence removing the possibility of preference harvesting between micro parties, the incentive to create micro parties would be removed and ballot papers would return to a more manageable size. But micro parties continue to be registered and in January 2017 there were 80 parties on the federal register. Some of the most recent include the Involuntary Medication Objectors (Vaccination/Fluoride) Party and Love Australia or Leave, both registered in October 2016.

Despite electoral reform, why do micro parties continue to proliferate?

One reason is that the laws relating to party registration were barely touched. In fact, the only changes were to enable the use of party logos on ballot papers and measures to prevent the same person being the registered or deputy registered officer of more than one party.

The threshold requirements for registering a political party at the federal level are very low. Parties are only required to have 500 members and those registered by a sitting Member or Senator (like the Jacqui Lambie Network) are not required to have any members at all.  A relatively modest fee of $500 must be paid for registration, opening the way to having the name and (since 2016) the logo of the party on the ballot paper.

Parties are required to have a written constitution but nothing is said about its nature.  However, if one looks at the Interpretation section of the Commonwealth Electoral Act (s.4) rather than the section on political parties, one finds that a political party is defined in terms of standing candidates for federal parliament. This justifies the later provision (s.136) for parties to be deregistered if they haven’t endorsed candidates for four years and don’t have a sitting member of parliament.

What kind of regulation is required to enable healthy party competition but not the infinite multiplication of parties and fragmentation of the party system?  This is one of the subjects of our book Party Rules? Dilemmas of party regulation in Australia.

In his chapter on the relationship between party formation and political participation, Norm Kelly points out at the federal level in Australia parties may be required to have a written constitution but they are not required to have a democratic constitution or to make their constitution available to members or potential members. He found that micro parties typically do not have a link to their constitution online or encourage the participation of members in the internal activities of the party.

The JSCEM inquiry into the conduct of the 2004 federal election recommended that there be minimum requirements for party constitutions and the Rudd Government’s Electoral Reform Green Paper suggested that party constitutions be made available on the Electoral Commission’s website. However, none of the current parliamentary parties seem to have the same appetite for internal party democracy as the Australian Democrats once did.  Only Queensland requires political parties to have internal democracy, including democratic rules for preselections.

Digital technology has made it easier to create a political party than ever before and it can be done off the back of a popular online petition. In 2013 one party, the Cheaper Petrol Party, was refused registration because the Electoral Commission found that some of the members used for registration purposes remembered signing a petition but denied having joined a party. The Flux Party, registered in March 2016, allows potential members to join online and is free of charge.

The combination of a very low threshold for party registration (and the digital revolution) has resulted in a high rate of party formation in federal politics. At the same time, however, membership of established political parties continues to wane. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the Turnbull government did not act upon the recommendation of the JSCEM inquiry into the 2013 federal election that the membership requirement for party registration be increased. And so far, it seems unlikely that the JSCEM will pursue the membership issue in the current inquiry.

The total number of submissions is down from over 200 for the 2013 inquiry to 133 for the present one. Of these, only a few, such as ABC election analyst Antony Green’s submission, touch on party regulation. Green (Submission 30) recommends that JSCEM consider lifting the membership requirement. He also repeats the recommendation he has made to previous inquiries that all Senate candidates have local nominators. At present Independents need 100 local nominators but registered parties do not. Only the registered officer of a political party needs to sign the nomination paper, so it can be done centrally and registered parties can crowd Senate ballot papers with interstate candidates.

Another submission that grapples with party registration but from the perspective of a micro party is that of the Science Party (Submission 70).  The Science Party, which attracted only 1,306 Senate votes in 2016, believes that the current system is strongly weighted towards the larger parties and incumbents in general. As one measure to address this it recommends that parties with a sitting member have the same membership requirements as all other parties and be subject to the same membership audits to maintain registration. The Science Party also believes the current threshold of 4 per cent of the vote for public funding is a barrier to the participation of smaller parties and recommends its removal, so that all votes attract public funding.

There are arguments on both sides regarding regulation to ensure more intelligible ballot papers and more internal democracy.  Our book is a starting point for informing debate on these issues. Next should be an inquiry, preferably at arms length from the party interests likely to dominate the JSCEM.

Marian Sawer is Emeritus Professor  at the Australian National University and Anika Gauja is Associate Professor at the University of Sydney