Queenslanders who voted ‘Yes’ for four-year fixed parliamentary terms last weekend may live to rue the day. The people have spoken, although there is a vigorous debate about how well-informed they were at the time they voted. And while vote counting is not complete, critics are saying 53.1% for the affirmative is a poor result, considering it had bipartisan support.
The people certainly spoke back in 1967 when a referendum was held to count Aborigines as part of the human population − 90.77% of registered voters said ‘Yes’. (Voters were also asked to approve an increase in the number of members of the House of Representatives without increasing the number of Senators. That one got voted down.)
Sometimes politicians do that – sneak an extra question in which is arguably the real reason they are having a referendum in the first place. But the people aren’t stupid, are they?
There have been referendums held to consider questions less vital to human rights and equality than whether or not Aborigines should count as people. For example, in 1968 Tasmanians were asked if they wanted a casino in Hobart and (only) 53% said ‘yes’. In 1975 West Australians were asked to vote for or against daylight saving (No) and again in 1984 (also No). In 1992, after a three-year trial, Queenslanders were also asked to vote on this somewhat vexed question and the ‘No’ vote got up then too.
Didn’t we get asked this question 25 years ago?
In 1991 voters were asked if they wanted the Queensland Parliament to have four-year terms. The proposal was narrowly defeated, with 51.1% voting against and 48.9% in favour.
University of Queensland Professor of Law Graeme Orr told FOMM one of the travesties of this year’s referendum was the ‘bundling’ of two separate issues, ie the question of whether to have ‘fixed terms’, but also whether to have four year terms instead of the current three. According to Professor Orr, the government of the day could have legislated for fixed (three year) terms, without the need for a referendum, as “the three-year term was entrenched in the old Constitution”.
Prof Orr said it was remarkable that this referendum could only attract a 53% ‘Yes’ vote, given both major parties backed it, there was paid advertising, high-profile support, and no organized ‘No’ case.
“It shows how less trusting people are today of the two big but dwindling parties.”
Prof Orr added that the last referenda which had bi-partisan support (in 1977 – to allow Territories to vote in referenda) attracted a 77.7% ‘Yes’ vote.
Saturday’s poll was the third ‘Yes’ result from eight Queensland referendums held since 1899. The result also defied a national trend, with only 18% of referendums passed since Federation. An astute local political observer remarked that the referendums which are won usually have bi-partisan support.
Federal referendums are much harder to win because not only do you need a majority, but at least four of the six states must also say ‘Yes’.
Only eight of the 44 referendum questions posed to the Federal electorate (38 of them were held prior to and including 1977), have been approved. Canberra has clearly lost its appetite for referendums as there have been only eight held since 1984, the last one being the failed bid (at a cost of $66.82 million) to turn Australia into a Republic in 1999.
A conscience vote would be cheaper
While a referendum in Australia is always a proposal to amend the Constitution, a plebiscite is a non-binding vote used to determine the electorate’s position regarding an important public question. So while Australia has not had a referendum since 1999, a plebiscite vote on same-sex marriage is very likely in the next year or two, unless the electorate cracks up about the mooted cost ($158.4 million), although accountants PwC distributed a press release which stated that lost productivity could push it out to $525 million.
While some political interests get mileage from playing up the unseemly cost of democracy, we calculated the per voter cost of Saturday’s exercise at just $3.73. The budget for Queensland’s 2016 referendum ($11.5 million) was relatively modest as it was held concurrently with local government elections. The State Government said this strategy saved Queensland taxpayers $5.1 million. FOMM asked Electoral Commission Queensland to identify the biggest single expense in holding a referendum. Forty percent of the budget ($4.60 million) went on postage, which tends to support the e-voting alternative discussed below.
Elections and referendums chew through serious money. Data drawn from the Australian Electoral Commission shows the five Federal elections held since 2000 cost $745+ million while another $8.26 million was spent on 10 by-elections and another $21 million on a half senate election in WA. So if PM Malcolm Turnbull makes good his threat and goes to a double dissolution in July, democracy in Australia will have cost us close to $1 billion in just 17 years.
E-voting – a good question for a referendum?
Surely in 2016 we could have our democratic say on things and spend less money? After all, hundreds of thousands of Centrelink, Medicare and ATO clients can log on to MyGov and carry out simple administrative tasks on their own behalf.
We’d only need to raise the bar a little to allow voters to vote from home, using dedicated WIFI gadgets, smart cards and ASIO-level backroom security.
Hackers, electoral fraud, I hear you say? How could it be more full of loopholes than the current system?
The long-term savings seem obvious. An online scheme would involve a large up-front cost manufacturing terminals and cards and setting up secure data management. They would also have to be installed in public libraries to ensure people who do not own a computer or a smart phone still get a vote. Special arrangements would also be needed for those who are too remote to have access to such technology.
But once the scheme was operating, it could be utilised not only for Federal elections, by-elections and referendums, but by all states and territories and local governments. The accumulated savings over, say a fixed, four-year term would be significant. This is not some random FOMM fantasy either – check out the e-voting experiences of the State of Victoria and countries like Switzerland and Estonia.
Girt by dire songs
An online system would need a trial run, preferably using a non-critical issue. May I suggest we revisit the 1977 plebiscite that asked Australians to choose one of four songs as the National Anthem? I say this on the basis that people tire of old songs that get played to death, particularly if they were sappy songs in the first place: I Go to Rio, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina and Living Next Door to Alice were all big hits in 1977.
First we’d need a national songwriting competition to come up with a short-list of songs, including one written by a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island descent. Historically, 90% of the people should agree with this. You might say we’ve got plenty of existing songs to choose from – From Little Things, This is Australia, Land Down Under, True Blue, Great Southern Land.
Dame Edna Everage’s duet with Loudon Wainwright III singing C. Carson Parks’ Somethin’ Stupid is not a contender for our national song circa 2017.
I just thought since it’s a public holiday and you have time to spare, and given that this is such a turgid subject and what’s another 100 words anyway, you should know such a thing exists. Happily no video of that performance could be found. But there is this.
Should we include the runner-up from the 1977 plebiscite? Can anyone remember the names of the three songs which were not Advance Australia Fair? See if you can remember without using your favourite search engine. I realise that anyone under 40 will struggle with this question, so I’ll give you another subtle clue – one song relates to a bloke camped by a billabong in the shade of a Coolabah tree; he’s sitting, watching, waiting till his billy boils.