It’s time (for reform)

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WORDS | Sarah Basford

Australia has been dealing with the contentious issue of electoral reform for some time now. With the controversies of past elections still looming in the minds of the politically conscious; issues of corruption and transparency are now being raised.

Australia is widely regarded as one of the most efficient, liberal democracies in the world. It was placed sixth on The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2012. Despite this, there have been calls to reform the system that is said to have become convoluted, with certain parties suggesting that it could invite corruption. These requests come in light of the 2013 election, where reported incidents of misplaced votes resulted in numerous recounts required.

The pursuit for the perfect democratic system in Australia began at Federation in 1901. One year on, electoral reform gave Australia’s (white) women the right to vote, although not in all states. It wasn’t for another 16 years that the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was extensively revised; introducing the infamous preferential voting system we have today. From then on, change consistently came to Australia; in 1924 compulsory voting was established and in 1948 proportional representation in the Senate was introduced. Since the major reforms by the Labor government in 1983, Australia’s electoral system has remained relatively unchanged, and unreviewed.

The events in the federal electorates of Indi and Fairfax in the 2013 election, reminded the general public that the system was corruptible and becoming outdated. Julia Patrick reported in The Quadrant that the system was once secure, but due to its simplification it has become more susceptible to exploitation. Patrick suggests that Australia should consider digitising the voting roll, a change Macquarie University made in 2011 to its system in order to avoid multiple casts from a single voter. In particular, this change would limit the possibility of voters using pre-poll and Election Day to double their vote.

On the local level, Macquarie University too, has had its fair share of electoral reform. The Manager of Student Engagement, Angela Voerman, explains that before the current digital voting process, paper ballots were used for student elections. However, in limiting corruption, Voerman admits that this system was difficult. With the new digital process, the university also now employs an independent body to handle and count votes. Since these changes, the whole process has become more transparent.

Voerman also says that the digitalisation of the student voting roll has increased the voter turnout, allowing students to learn more about the candidates with a compulsory platform shown during the voting process. “We basically doubled our participation rate,” she confirms, “[the online aspect] shows the students that there is an election on.”

However, poor voter turnout is still a major concern at Macquarie University. The last few elections saw approximately six per cent of the student body participated. The real issue on campus is therefore, not corruption but getting over 40,000 students to engage and actively take part in the issues that affect their time at the university. Although, strategies to alleviate student apathy have seen a small growth in voter participation, the road to greater student involvement appears to be a long journey. Unfortunately, it is currently difficult to understand how the elected representatives can truly represent the student body if they are unable to efficiently communicate with the cohort.

Reform is the key, but how to reform is the problem Macquarie University students and the Australian people are now facing.