During December last year the Howard regime launched one of its most blatant and direct attacks on democratic rights yet seen in Australia. On the last sitting day of 2005, the sardonically titled ” Electoral Integrity and Other Measures” Bill was introduced into the federal House of Representatives.
By Will Kaplan Socialist Party, MelbourneThis Bill proposes to amend several acts to raise the disclosure threshold for corporate political donations to political parties; close the electoral rolls immediately once an election has been called; and disenfranchise prisoners altogether. The Bill underscores the increasingly corrupt character of Australian parliamentary democracy, and equally appallingly, highlights the almost total media silence on issues that directly affect the content of our so-called democracy. These proposals have not received any real public debate, in stark contrast to the artificial dispute over who should control a single type of abortion pill, or the so-called Bali Nine. Perhaps this is not surprising in a country where the Murdoch group owns 70% of print-media.
Last financial year, the late Kerry Packer donated $2,750 to the NSW branch of the Australian Labor Party. Or at least his company, PBL, did. That might not seem like very much money, and indeed it’s not, compared to $47,000 that Mr Packer forked out for the Liberal Party. But if the Bill currently before parliament becomes law, then in future, it will not even be possible find out about donations like Mr Packer’s small gift to the ALP. The Electoral Integrity Bill will lift the threshold for declaring political donations from the current $1,500 to $10,000 (to be adjusted annually). According to The Financial Review, that would make it possible for a company or an individual to make secret donations of up to $90,000 to a single party by spreading those gifts across different state and federal branches. According to Liberal Senator Abetz the threshold ‘adds nothing to Australia’s democracy other than unnecessary red tape’.
Altogether, officially-declared private and corporate donations (excluding all other funding) for 2004-05 showed that $48.6 million flowed into Liberal Party coffers, just slightly more than the $48.1 million that found its way into Labor’s. An estimated 85 percent came from donations of more than $10,000, underscoring the dependence of both parties ? the Liberals as well as the ALP ? on corporate sources, rather than on the relatively small donations from party members and ordinary voters. This again emphasises that the ALP’s ? which has not uttered a peep ? traditional working class rank-and-file are leaving the party in droves.
Secondly, the Bill proposes that the electoral rolls would be closed on the same day that an election is called, immediately disenfranchising all voters ? officially estimated to be nearly half a million ? who have changed address since the previous election or failed to enrol correctly. Those most likely to be affected are young voters who turned 18 after the previous election, and people who have moved house ? often those living in rental accommodation or employed in insecure or casual jobs. According to Abetz ” During the rush to enrol in the week following the announcement of a general election, incredible pressure is placed on the Australian Electoral Commission’s (AEC) ability to accurately check and assess the veracity of enrolment claims received.” The AEC, however, has explicitly rejected this notion.
Strict new ID conditions for enrolment and voting at elections will require people to show a driver’s licence, passport or some other form of photo-ID. Again, these rules, concocted without any evidence of electoral fraud, will be most likely to strip low-income people of their voting rights ? particularly those who cannot afford to drive cars or travel overseas.
Thirdly, the Bill will extend the current ban that applies to prisoners serving sentences of more than three years and deny all prisoners denied the right to vote. Prison statistics of course demonstrate that inmates are primarily drawn from the most disadvantaged layers of society ? the unemployed, poorly educated, mentally ill and immigrant. In 2004, Indigenous Australians were 16 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians.
Finally, this Bill steps up a previous campaign to reduce working people’s chances of real representation by making it harder yet again to form and register new political parties and candidates. Election candidates’ deposits will increase to $500 for the House of Representatives and $1,000 for the Senate, and any political party that fails to win a parliamentary seat will be automatically de-registered. In order to re-register and contest elections in their own names, parties will have to re-submit lists of the names and addresses of 500 members.
This legislation appears amongst the raft of radical anti-democratic policies in Howard government has been producing for the last few years, fitting hand in glove with the so-called “anti-terror” legislation which finally removed the most basic of legal rights of citizens. Now working Australians, especially its most disadvantaged layers ? the unemployed, poorly-educated, mentally-ill, recently-immigrated, Indigenous, casualised young workers, students and the homeless ? can expect no representation or and even less chance to express its voice in those hallowed halls of Australian democracy. Every day, more and more openly, Howard’s government is openly governing for the rich, and by the rich.
The Bill was referred to Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee on 8 February. The government plans to push this legislation through parliament immediately after this Committee tables it “report” on 27 March this year.