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Hungary takes the John Howard route

Hungary’s government comes to grief in an attempt to change the electoral law to its advantage, in much the same way that John Howard did in Australia.

As far as I can see none of the Australian media have picked it up,  but the BBC had the story this morning: “Hungary’s constitutional court has struck down a controversial electoral law that critics said would have favoured the ruling party, Fidesz.” (Read more about it here.)

Fidesz, which started out as a radical liberal party but turned itself into a conservative party during the 1990s, won a large majority in the 2010 Hungarian election. Since then it has embarked on a number of controversial measures. Among the changes to the electoral law, what seems to have aroused most opposition was a requirement that voters had to enrol at least 15 days before polling day.

That has now been struck down by the court, and the government has said it will comply with the ruling – even though, having a two-thirds majority in parliament, it could at least in theory have amended the constitution to get around it.

And this is interesting, of course, because it echoes what the Howard government tried to do in Australia back when it had a Senate majority. Amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 2006 provided for the rolls to close on the same day writs were issued for a federal election. Just as in Hungary, the ostensible reason was to crack down on possible electoral fraud.

Also just as in Hungary, the real reason, quite transparently, was to disenfranchise young and itinerant voters who were more likely to vote for left-of-centre parties. And the Australian provision met the same fate (after the Rudd government had failed in an attempt to repeal it), being struck down by the high court in 2010 in Rowe v Electoral Commissioner.

But Australia’s provision was more drastic: if a government were to issue the writs on the same day it made the announcement of an election, as is quite possible, it would have given people essentially no time to fix their enrolment. In Hungary they would at least have had until 15 days before the election date.

Rather than a story about the bastardry of John Howard, however, this is really a story about different expectations in Australia and in Europe. What upset people in Hungary was the idea of any requirement for pre-enrolment at all: the established practice there, and in most of the rest of the continent, was that if you showed up at a polling place with proof of your eligibility to vote (usually an ID card of some sort) then you would be allowed to.

Australia has always been different. Our elections have been based on pre-prepared rolls, and you had to enrol first in order to vote. Eligibility alone was not enough.

A hundred years ago, that was one of the things that made Australia a world leader in electoral practice; our system guaranteed the integrity of the roll at a time when other countries were plagued by ramshackle or corrupt administration. Its relevance in the twenty-first century is less obvious.

New South Wales and Victoria have already moved to automatic updating of the electoral roll, and the commonwealth will go the same way prior to this year’s election. (Antony Green explains the issue in some detail here.) We may not get voluntary voting any time soon, but at least in some respects we’re moving closer to European practice.

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  • 1
    Person Ordinary
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    On what basis would voluntary voting or “moving closer to European practice” be a good thing?

  • 2
    Charles Richardson
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I think that given what’s now technologically possible there’s no reason to close the rolls prior to election day; it just disenfranchises a number of people who are less well-organised, sometimes thru no fault of their own. Better to move to what, as I said, is the European norm, that if you show up at a polling place on the day with proof of eligibility, you’re allowed to vote.

    Compulsory voting is a bigger issue; I’m against it, as I indicated the other day, partly because I think it’s one of the factors in Australians’ abysmal ignorance about politics, not to mention the inordinate power wielded by a handful of swinging voters in the mortgage belt. But that’s a debate for another time.

  • 3
    Person Ordinary
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Surely “Australians’ abysmal ignorance about politics” is more about the low quality of our media, and perhaps some aspects of our education system?

    Yes, you have indicated you are against compulsory attendance, but you have not given an argument as to why.

    Given that you mentioned voluntary voting favours conservatives, why risk moving our whole political game to the right? Considering that under our system One Nation came and went, but in America the far right now controls the House and gridlocks the political system, primarily because the most disenfranchised demographics are less inclined to turn up and counter the believers.

    And what is the great disadvantage of compulsory attendance that outweighs this risk? Potential inconvenience?

  • 4
    Charles Richardson
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Yes, agreed the media and the education system are a big part of the problem. But you have to ask why they’re so much worse in that regard than in Canada and western Europe, and I’m inclined to think compulsory voting is part of the explanation. I think treating voting as a duty rather than a right gets the emphasis wrong from the start; it also gives both government and media less incentive to explain to people how voting works and why it’s important. Not that I’m saying voluntary voting would be a panacea at all, but I think it’d be a step in the right direction.

    I also don’t think we should make decisions on electoral systems on the basis of who they’re expected to favor. While I expect voluntary voting would advantage the right in the short term, there’s no sign of any general long-term effect of that nature: the Democrats have controlled the US house of representatives rather more often than the ALP has controlled ours.

    More generally I guess I just start with a presumption that people shouldn’t be forced to do something they don’t want to unless there’s a clear public benefit to be gained, and I don’t think that’s been shown in this case.

  • 5
    Person Ordinary
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Thanks. I appreciate your response, although I respectfully disagree with many of your presumptions. I think most Australians take voting in their stride, just like being “forced” to maintain a driver’s licence or car rego. And I think a drift to the right may not be temporary or harmless – it is obviously not a matter of which side of politics is on top at any point in time, but more how secure and effective our democracy is. To promote the disenfranchisement of parts of our population, whether they are in the mortgage belt or not, seems a bit like gerrymandering to me …

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