CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Vote rigging - the ripples widen
, November 18, 2000
Small events in politics have an uncanny habit of reverberating like ever-widening ripples in a pond. Such was the case when a former Labor candidate found herself pleading guilty in a Townsville District Court in August to 24 counts of forging and 23 counts of "'uttering" Commonwealth electoral enrolment forms. The woman, Karen Ehrmann, was sentenced to three year’s jail for her deception during a 1993 local government election and a 1998 Mundingburra State poll.
At the time, three years jail seemed like a pretty heavy sentence for what was to most people quite an obscure crime, but astute political observers always knew the scandal had "legs". Now, a subsequent inquiry into vote rigging in Queensland has uncovered more unsavoury allegations which hit at the very heart of the most cherished part of our democratic system.
Few things are as important to the public’s faith and confidence in politicians and government than fair and honest voting and integrity in the counting of votes. Senior Labor Party figures, including former state secretary Mike Kaiser and union heavyweight Bill Ludwig, are being dragged into the imbroglio, and Labor Premier Peter Beattie is doing all he can to distance himself from the messy affair.
But the scandal has also spread to the Federal arena with allegations that a former Attorney-General may have been elected by dubious means. Michael Lavarch won the marginal seat of Fisher in 1987 from the National Party’s Peter Slipper by just 703 votes after the distribution of preferences. The victory for Mr Lavarch, who was then just 26, kick-started a spectacular career in the Federal arena which saw him become Australia’s youngest Attorney-General at just 32.
But in evidence to the Queensland inquiry into electoral fraud, it has been claimed that one 16-year-old girl voted 14 times in the Lavarch election, and that she was one of several underage Labor operators rorting the voting system.
According to evidence given by one National Party official, car loads of Labor supporters pulled up at tiny rural polling booths in what appeared to be a well organised operation. People were said to vote dozens of times impersonating people who had left the electorate.
Special Minister of State, Senator Chris Ellison, has been using the Queensland revelations as ammunition to win parliamentary support for the compulsory identification of people who join the roll for the first time. Labor opposes this because it claims this would discourage people from enrolling.
There have been wider calls for identification of voters at polling booths to prevent the problem of "voting early and voting often". However, the allegations uncovered in the Queensland inquiry are serious enough to warrant a Commonwealth judicial inquiry, even a Royal Commission, into all aspects of the electoral system.
The Electoral Commissions, both State and Federal, have long denied claims of serious fraud in the electoral system, despite a stream of evidence provided by organisations such as the H.S. Chapman Society. The society studies fraud, forgery and corruption in Australian elections. It has not had much success in airing its views, and has met a brick wall from politicians and public servants in its call for reform.
But the combined interests of the self-serving Electoral Commission bureaucracies, who pride themselves on their "professionalism", and their paymasters - the wealthy major political parties who benefit from the current system - make up a formidable opposition. It is not surprising that with such strong self-interest electoral reform has proved so elusive.
All parties would have to come clean in a judicial inquiry about their real membership lists which have been falling over recent years, but are not made public. They would also have to own up to the branch stacking which has corrupted the system.
A wide-ranging Federal judicial inquiry would be a political risk for the Prime Minister. There would be potential fallout for Mr Howard’s own party, which is far from squeaky clean, having borrowed the art of ethnic branch stacking from the Labor Party in recent times.
But his opponents in the ALP would be seriously in trouble if it were shown that senior Labor figures owed their careers to illegal electoral practices, misused union funds, as well as owing big debts to ethnic warlords.
According to a recent landmark South Australian court case political parties can no longer consider themselves private organisations free from public scrutiny. The court found that since they have accepted public funding, which now costs taxpayers tens of millions every time an election is called, political parties have to have a certain degree of public accountability. A judicial inquiry would undoubtedly reveal large scale illegal branch stacking by political parties, and serious voting fraud.
It would result in many important changes to the electoral laws, but most of all it would bring integrity back into the system and ultimately help reform the political parties themselves - something they cannot do from within. People would be able to join a political party knowing they could contribute to the democratic process and policy ideas rather than being another number used cynically by politicians to gain power and privilege.