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Opinion_

Australian elections not as good as you think

7 April 2016
Researchers from the Electoral Integrity Project gathered views of more than 2,000 election experts

We might have a reputation for fair and free elections, but how well do Australian elections fare when compared to other countries? Professor Rodney Smith and Dr Ferran Martinez i Coma explain. 

"Australia has a longstanding reputation for conducting free and fair elections. However, this reputation has rarely been tested systematically in a comparative context."
Dr Ferran Martinez i Coma and Professor Rodney Smith

Australian politics is in an unsettled and unsettling period. Some of this instability has been obvious, typified by the Turnbull-Abbott and Rudd-Gillard-Rudd carousels of the past six years. Leading the electoral victory charge from opposition no longer means an automatic period as prime minister, as Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott discovered.

Australian electoral politics is also unsettled. The Coalition's 2013 electoral success in the House of Representatives contest did not transfer to the Senate, where it, along with Labor and the Greens, lost votes. In South Australia, the Nick Xenophon Group won a quarter of the Senate vote. The Palmer United Party took 5 per cent of the vote nationally, enough to secure three Senate seats at its first federal outing. The Australian Motoring Enthusiast, Liberal Democratic and Family First parties all won seats.

In an effort to deal with some of this instability, the government's Senate ballot reforms will make it much harder for the so-called micro parties to win seats but it is not clear exactly which parties will benefit. A double dissolution election would increase the micro parties' slim chances and almost certainly boost the representation of the Xenophon Group.

Beneath these political uncertainties lie other less discussed uncertainties about the integrity of Australian elections. At the last federal election the Australian Electoral Commission lost 1370 votes from the Western Australian Senate vote count, causing a re-run of Senate elections in that state at a cost of around $20 million. The political and public outcry led to the resignation of AEC commissioner Ed Killesteyn and AEC state manager Peter Kramer. This may have been an isolated incident but it could also indicate deeper issues with the conduct of Australian elections.

Australia has a longstanding reputation for conducting free and fair elections. However, this reputation has rarely been tested systematically in a comparative context. Scholars from the Electoral Integrity Project at the University of Sydney have gathered the views of more than 2000 election experts on national parliamentary and presidential contests held in 139 countries since mid-2012. Our latest report, The Year in Elections 2015, compares how well countries around the world meet standards drawn from internationally agreed treaties and guidelines. 

"Electoral experts considered the administration of electoral processes, the performance of the Australian Electoral Commission and the vote count the three strongest elements of electoral integrity in Australia," Dr Martinez and Professor Smith said. 

Image credit: Stilgherrian under CC-BY-2.0

 

Australia does not perform not as well as we might hope. On an overall scale of 0-100, the 2013 Australian election scored 70 points, ranking it 34th out of 180 contests since 2012. This score was similar to recent elections in Spain, Japan and Greece. Australian elections were judged better than those in the US and UK but behind those in New Zealand and Canada and well behind a number of European countries, including Germany, Estonia and The Netherlands. The top five elections were held in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Lithuania and Costa Rica, while the worst five elections were in Syria, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti and Burundi.

The report focuses on 11 specific stages of the electoral cycle, from election laws through to voter registration, voting processes and counting the ballots. Countries tend to do better at some of these stages than others.

For the experts, the most troubling stage of the Australian 2013 election concerned media coverage of the campaign. Asked about balance in news coverage and fair access to media for all candidates, the experts scored Australia 47 out of 100. Governments in Australia are able to exercise less influence over media coverage of elections than they are over electoral laws and administration.

Campaign finance has been consistently ranked as the worst stage of the electoral cycle since the project started. Scandals over the role of money in politics make headlines every day and regulating political finance is a challenge facing many countries. Australia is no different, as recent events in NSW suggest.

Notwithstanding the Western Australian Senate vote problems in 2013, electoral experts considered the administration of electoral processes, the performance of the Australian Electoral Commission and the vote count the three strongest elements of electoral integrity in Australia. If the experts are right, that is good news, since the Australian Electoral Commission faces the difficult task of implementing the new Senate ballot laws at a federal election that is just months away. Its success or failure will undoubtedly have a strong influence on the way Australian elections are judged.

The results show that countries cannot assume that electoral integrity comes with economic development, broader democratic freedoms, or belonging to a particular region of the world. There is a relationship between economic development and electoral integrity, for example, but it is not as clear as we might think. Some wealthy countries performed poorly in running elections, while some poorer countries such as Lesotho and Benin performed well. Countries have to work at electoral integrity, rather than assuming it will occur naturally.

Dr Ferran Martinez i Coma is a research fellow on the Electoral Integrity Project and Rodney Smith is a professor of Australian politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. This article was first published on the Sydney Morning Herald. Read the original article.