This blog/website is currently sort of in hiatus while I work out what to do with it. You can read some recent writing at Inside Story.

In Fairfax on same sex marriage referendum and the danger of failure. Here.

In Fairfax on asylum seekers. Here.

In SMH on Trump win (ignore the headline).

In Fairfax on Australia’s in-built political logjam, here.

And here on my experience at Rupert Murdoch’s Australian.

Gillard becomes PM

Published in the Australian on 24 June 2010

Forget loyalty to the leader or “ the Labor way”. The federal ALP partyroom should do what it thinks gives it the best chance of winning the election. Either it was in their electoral interests to replace Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard or it was not.

It was not. This was a blunder. For the first time, the Coalition must be slightly favoured to form government later this year.

Warm the set and cool the tinnies, we now have a contest.

This was not as disastrous as the December 2003 vote that made Mark Latham opposition leader instead of Kim Beazley, but that’s because Labor is in government.

Latham, like Gillard, was very popular – the then most popular opposition leader in opinion poll history – but he was difficult to vote for.

Gillard is rather the same, but she at least enters the contest as prime minister.

Until today, the only thing – the big thing – this government had going for it was incumbency versus the “risk” of Tony Abbott. Forget this week’s opinion polls, the most likely public opinion trajectory between now and polling days was towards a comfortable Labor win – probably with an increased majority.

Rudd’s approval is low, his stature is down the gurgler and people think he is a jerk. Big deal. It’s votes that win elections.

Labor has now thrown away a large chunk of the benefit of incumbency, all but admitted the opposition was right all along about everything and is pleading for a fresh start.

The maddest idea going around is that Gillard should go to an election soon. On the contrary: she needs time to accrue the benefits of incumbency. An election held today would be between to untried contenders, with one side weighed down policy disappointments.

We need to hear and read the words “prime minister” and “Julia Gillard” together as often as possible, to see her getting in and out of commonwealth cars, to see her making important decisions. She has to become the the person with authority, the one who is safe to vote for. Glamour and charisma mean nothing at the ballot box.

On one television show this morning we learnt that published polls showed Labor couldn’t win, Gillard could have had the leadership in late 2006 if she wanted it, and Rudd “never runs away from a fight”. Tall stories all, but that’s commentators for you. Many of them inhabit narrative-land, where cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause.

Don’t feel too sorry for Rudd. His defeat of Beazley came about in similar fashion.

We now have a contest. It could go either way.

A stinker of a day for the government’s election chances, but marvellous for politics addicts.

Another Julia

First published in the Australian 17 March 2013

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard was a wildly popular politician, in the community and across the political divide, widely seen as engaging, intelligent, charming and good at her job. The high esteem even extended to conservative commentators.

Andrew Bolt confessed a “secret passion for Julia Gillard” whom he found “warm and attentive”. Janet Albrechtsen reckoned “Gillard is impressive … And she knows how to charm.”

Even grumpy Gerard Henderson described himself as a “great admirer”.

And here’s Miranda Devine reviewing a press club appearance: Gillard “spoke so much sense in her speech, and answered questions with such verve and wit, that reporters leaving the Press Club could do little more than shake their heads.”

No, I’m not describing a weird parallel universe or road not travelled. The trick played here is in time-frame. There’s a word missing from the first sentence: “deputy”. The collective memory has largely excised that two-and-a-half-year stint, when she was viewed very positively, effusively even, in voterland, and not just among Labor’s true believers. The contrast with the cold, clinical Kevin Rudd was alluring to many.

Yet what mostly remains is that final snapshot: widely detested, even ridiculed,and increasingly, in desperation, playing to a shrinking but loud cheersquad.

Talking to, drawing succour from, the self-appointed “base”, the conscience of the party. Rather like Tony Abbott is now.

In recent weeks a few articles have pondered the supposed contrast of deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop’s rockstar status with Gillard’s diabolical standing. Why has Bishop succeeded where Gillard did not, given their obvious similarities?

But that comparison is wrong. If one must be made it’s between their times as understudies. And there are many similarities: both held in high regard in the electorate and, reportedly, the partyroom. Visits to MPs’ electorates produce flocking crowds.

There are differences. As prime minister, Rudd was once extremely popular, while Abbott never has been. Rudd’s star had waned when Labor’s dills knocked him off in June 2010, but he never reached anything like Abbott’s current plummeting lows.

Gillard was always the obvious replacement for Rudd if and when he departed, while the counterpart today is someone other than Bishop. But thanks to Malcolm Turnbull’s stubborn inability to fully commit to the government’s songsheet, the gap between the two is narrowing.

I got all the above quotes from an interesting Bolt column in March 2010 in which he reflected on his and his colleagues’ affection for Julia. (The middle part, the thoughts of some American psychologist, is not so interesting.)

Bolt perceptively noted that “Gillard’s popularity among conservatives is in part due simply to the fact that she’s not Rudd.” Something similar applies today to both Turnbull and Bishop among the left-leaning commentariat—and more widely. When a leader is doing badly the alternatives always look good.

Bolt ends with this: “So while we love challenger Gillard now, she’s smart enough to know we may find Prime Minister Gillard not so charming, in the end.

“But how keen I am that she prove me wrong. Before the end of the year would be good, Julia.”

Andrew got part of his wish three months later. In March 2010 a Labor re-election later in the year still seemed all-but assured, but by June a Coalition victory looked at least a decent possibility. As election day approaches partisanship hardens; Liberal-supporting commentators naturally barracked for their side.

And regardless of what she did, it was inevitable that Liberal supporters would find Gillard as prime minister “not so charming”. Because she was a Labor prime minister.

The same applies to Bishop or Turnbull this year. If they replaced Abbott they would do and say things Liberal prime ministers do and say. And because they would be the figurehead, the chief spear carrier of the “enemy” they would become the object of feral Labor and Greens supporters’ hatred. (The dark horse, Scott Morrison, can already boast that.)

As Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard were to the other side as prime ministers, despite the fuzzy recollections today.

The important question is whether whoever replaces Abbott also ends up toxic in outside the politically interested, among the unengaged masses, like Gillard and Abbott (and, to a point, Keating) did. (It’s fair to say Keating was widely loathed, but grudgingly respected.)

By the end of the year, perhaps a lot earlier, we’ll probably be finding this out.

It’s not just the numbers

None of us are getting off this planet alive. We’ve all got to go sometime. But are all deaths equal?

You might die peacefully, medicated, surrounded by loved ones. Or instantly in a head-on collision. Or spend your last 24 hours suffering unthinkable degradation and pain at the hands of serial killer Ivan Milat, or burnt alive in a cage by ISIS.

Contemplating these fates for yourself or your loved ones, it’s obvious a death is not just a death.

How about succumbing to Covid19, in an intensive care unit, medicated and if not comfortable, then not in agony, albeit without your family. Alternatively, you could go very painfully, on the street outside the hospital, along with hundreds of others, among the stench of those who’ve already expired. And, perhaps, dying when you would not have had an intensive care unit bed been available.

This prospect, rather than the raw numbers, is driving countries around the world in their responses to the corona virus.

Months ago I was among those who reckoned this was a lot of fuss about little, breezily contemplating in late February, on that website of record Twitter , the prospect of 25 thousand deaths, on top of Australia’s usual 160 thousand or so, as a statistical speed hump.

And some much more eminent than me, such as Ross Gittens, expressed similar sentiments.

Yet today most of us are accepting this economic deep freeze produced by heavy government restrictions, to keep deaths much far below that. Why?

Those earlier calculations weren’t necessarily wrong. What has changed?

For me at least, the penny dropped that most of that 25 thousand (or whatever) would not be spread in an orderly fashion over a year, meeting their maker peacefully, but over a nightmarishly awful several weeks at the peak of the curve. Those scenes from northern Italy, but much much worse. Tens of thousands suffering terribly, and unlike with the 400-odd who on a normal average day leave this coil, out of sight and mind for 95 per cent of us, we all would be bearing witness.

Perhaps 25 thousand was too low. Estimates of what would be required to achieve “herd immunity” vary, but the top end seems to be around 150 thousand, which you get by taking 60 per cent (a stab at the infected proportion required) of our 25 million population and dividing that by 100 (because the death rate is about 1 per cent). In theory you could do it with fewer deaths by protecting the vulnerable. On the other hand, the overloaded health system would push it the other way.

Still, some of those continuing to push herd immunity have a point.

No, not the weirdos who cite the current low death toll as evidence that the government has overreacted. Using that logic we could conclude that because fatalities from skydiving are so rare, parachutes have been a waste of time.

But most public policy involves trade-offs. If, for example, we truly wanted to slash the 1,000 or so annual car crash deaths, we would just put in place a very low flat speed limit, say 20 km per hour. Or simply ban cars. But the social and economic repercussions are not worth it.

Technocrats apparently put a roughly $5 million tag on avoiding a death when formulating policy, although the figure is lower for elderly people.  Applying $5 million to our 150 thousand deaths gives $750 billion. Aggregating extra government spending and depleted GDP from our responses might or might not get us to this number, depending in part on how long it takes to recover economically. If we slot in $2.5 million instead, because of the high age of prospective fatalities, then saving those lives at all this expense definitely does not pass the cost benefit analysis.

And that’s without taking into account the deaths and misery from suicide and domestic violence that our response will cause.

Economist Paul Frijters believes aiming for herd immunity is justified purely in death numbers alone, estimating deaths that result from the economic downturn.

But none of those who stoically volunteer themselves, or their parent, to take a bullet for society seem to contemplate the reality that the death would very likely be a terrible one, along the lines described above, and in many cases unnecessary, in the sense that they would have lived had the health system not been overloaded. And that because all the beds are used, their other parent is more likely to die from another ailment.

With bodies clogging up the roads outside hospitals. No government, no society, would deliberately engineer such a scenario. That’s why attempting to achieve herd immunity is out of the question.

Every estimate I’ve seen of the length of time it would take to get to herd immunity without overwhelming the health system puts it at years. It can’t be done quickly without that unspeakable carnage. And keeping the numbers of infections down to that acceptable level would still involve restrictions (and quite a balancing act), and it’s not clear they’d be much more liberal than the ones we’re currently labouring under. And in one or two years we will probably have a vaccine anyway. Maybe we won’t. But nor is there a guarantee that immunity is achievable, or lasts very long.

Does our government’s, and most governments’, response to the corona virus pass a clinical utilitarian test? Only if quality of death, and societal trauma from witnessing the outcome of our handiwork under the herd immunity strategy, is taken into account. Can they put a dollar value on that?

Why the ALP should preselect more union leaders

- First published in the Australian on 1 March 2014

New research reveals that contrary to popular belief, it would be in the interests of the federal Labor Party to preselect more, not fewer, former union leaders as candidates.

Researchers at an elite unit at the University of the Australian Capital Territory have analysed statistical returns for federal elections over the last four decades and found that a former ACTU leader is worth an astonishing 15.94 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote.

According to the research unit’s supervisor, Professor Roger Daintree, had the Labor Party run former ACTU leaders in 28 more House of Representatives electorates in 2013 they would have retained government.

“ The ACTU is not, strictly speaking, a union, but we used it as a proxy for high-profile union identities”, he explained.

“We analysed the performance of former ACTU leaders Greg Combet, Martin Ferguson, Simon Crean, Jennie George and [Bob] Hawke in their respective electorates and found on average they outperformed the average Labor vote, across all electorates at all elections since 1974, by 13.67 per cent in primary terms and 15.94 after preferences.”

Team leader Dr Peter Tenownd continues: “We controlled for all sorts of things: height, weight, age, median income and incumbency but the pattern persisted. We ran various regressions over the numbers and they came to the same conclusion.”

These astonishing findings suggest that Labor should preselect union identities wherever possible, preferably former ACTU leaders.

“This is very exciting news that has the potential to turn election results around”, says Dr Tenownd.

The policy unit is currently involved in other interesting projects. In one they have documented party spending at elections by electorate and tentatively find that concentrating resources in electorates produces the opposite effects to those intended.

Dr Tonownd: “In the seats the Coalition threw money at the 2013 election, seats like Lindsay, Eden-Monaro and McEwen, they performed quite poorly compared to others, like North Sydney, Kooyong and Groom, which they didn’t highly prioritise.

“Our conclusion at this stage is that allocating resources to particular electorates is not just a waste of time, but is counterproductive.”

Another of their studies involves the apparent link between residing in The Lodge and becoming prime minister.

According to Professor Daintree, “every prime minister over the last 70 years has lived in The Lodge at some point in their lives. There is obviously a complex relationship there, possibly to do with social class, which requires much more research.”

This research unit, called the Cart and Horse Institute, has more exciting projects planned over coming months and years. We will keep an eye out for more of their findings.

Polemics won’t do it

- First published in the Australian, 12 January 2015

IN the wake of the Islamic terrorist killings in Paris, let’s get a few things straight.

The pen is not really mightier than the sword. That’s just a nice line picked up from an old book. Napoleon Bonaparte isn’t a huge figure in global history because he crafted fine words or drew clever caricatures.

Journalists, essayists and cartoonists don’t keep us safe in our beds at night; our security apparatus, laws and police do.

And our society’s norms, neighbours watching out for each other, they help protect us. They are sustained, to a point, by those words and pictures mentioned above, but in the end they can also fall back on the muscle of the state.

Australia is not “under siege” from Islamic terrorism. There is no more “existential” threat from terrorism than from, say, car accidents.

The “values of the West” are not in danger. Not from this anyway. Maybe, eventually, from the Asian century.

The events in France were shocking (though for context see northern Nigeria) but they’re hardly in the “I never thought this would happen” category. We know that quite a few people around the world yearn to perpetrate such horrors in western capital cities. They generally can’t, so settle for a crowded market near them.

And maybe I’ve consumed too much television fiction, but I assume that in many countries, including Australia and France, people do sit around making plans to carry out mass killings.

I just also assume they are usually thwarted by security apparatuses, or someone dobs them in, or they have second thoughts, decide it’s not really warranted or too much of a hassle. But not always. Not in Sydney last month and, with a greater repercussions, in Paris last week.

Four Jewish people were killed in an apparently coordinated incident soon afterwards, but the identity of the main target in Paris, staff at the magazine Charlie Hebdo, injects free-speech into the interpretation of this atrocity. And nothing gets the rhetorical juices running in the mainstream media and those who rotate around it more than free speech.

It’s “Mill” this,”Voltaire” that. “Values” get a good run. We must not give in!

But there really are few philosophical questions at stake. Murder was against the law last week and is this week. This is not some sort of “defining moment”.

As with the Martin Place siege last month, the search for heretics began immediately. Any person in the media who didn’t respond appropriately is named and shamed. Most abuse is directed not at the actual perpetrators, but media identities deemed progressive, particularly, in this country, the ABC.

“Appeasers” and “apologists”, apparently. Because they’ve been too “tolerant”, too eager to not offend. What we should all do instead is hurl gratuitous insults at the quarter of the world who are Muslims; it will toughen them up.

I think that’s it. It is difficult to discern what these angry folks are actually saying, because when you ask them to reveal what’s beneath the slogan they um and ah. They operate from the gut. It’s all emotion, air-punching, with little structured reason.

Culture war fodder.

Some combatants seem to believe this is an ideological contest, that we must be vigilant in defending our values. Continually insist that my ideology is better than yours and we will win this argument. But that mistakes the world for a debating society.

Societies aren’t peaceful because they contain total unanimity about values. There is, instead, a broad consensus that keeps, in the vast majority of people, some instincts at bay. Backed up by (and I’m sorry to keep bringing this in) state coercion.

A large number, possibly a majority, of Australians, believe convicted murderers should be executed. But they don’t act on it.

It’s not realistic to expect every single Muslim living in, say, Australia to agree in their heart of hearts that people who insult the Prophet should not die. The best we can hope for, in the medium term, is that for those who do believe that, it remains at the theoretical level only, like many religious tenets.

Yes, if you come to our country, you obey our laws. Bloody oath.

And the disenfranchised and alienated will always be with us. Problems in this world are never eradicated, just (hopefully) minimised.

In the meantime, everyone’s an essayist. Let’s let the “defend our values” wannabe Christopher Hitchenses get their polemic rocks off. In the short term they are more part of the problem than the solution, but eventually they’ll tire and move their lovingly-crafted words to something else.

But when it comes to the threat of Islamic terrorism, I’m more interested in what the experts have to say. And our governments and agencies.

The parameters in which our arms of government operate, the trade-off between security and privacy, will always be contested. (You may have gathered I don’t particularly sit at the “libertarian” end of this spectrum.)

But I suspect the security pointyheads would want us to continue our daily lives and not behave as if we are under siege.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think they would recommend we pick needless fights with people on buses, or go out of our way to offend members of minority groups in some Utopian desensitising project.

Most of all, they would want us to keep it in proportion.

Be, I suppose, alert but not alarmed.

Voter ID coming to Qld

– Originally published in the Australian on 28 November 2013

QUEENSLAND’s Newman government is set to bring in voter identification requirements.

They are part of the Electoral Amendment Reform Bill 2013 which, as the LNP has about 90 per cent of the seats in the state’s single house of parliament, stands an excellent chance of becoming law.

The press release is here and bill here.

Electoral Act as it currently stands here.

Guarding against impersonation has been a thorny issue ever since the evolution of mass voting. In the very old days, in the United Kingdom, there was no problem because only the wealthy few men could vote, everyone knew who they were and voting was open. There was not even a written electoral roll.

This changed with the 1832 “Reform Act” which among other things expanded voting rights and laid out the procedure for producing the first codified rolls. When the Australian colonies began holding elections from the 1840s (in NSW) this was the procedure they inherited.

The risk of “personation” (as it was called then and some purists insist on doing today), or at least the perception of a risk, was ever present. Voting certificates, which electors got from the government in advance, were tried from time to time but were a hassle and expensive.

Like much of the argy-bargy around aspects of vote-enabling, the argument has long divided along “left” and “right” (or “progressive” and “conservative”) lines. People who don’t have voter ID are more likely to be poor and are more likely to vote left-of-centre.

In America, where the states determine who and how people vote for national elections, a slew of Republican administrations introduced voter ID laws between 2010 and 2012. There are several variations, as you can see here.

Political parties spend too much time playing politics with matters like this, damaging the public’s trust in electoral processes for, in the end, very little partisan gain.

It’s the fact of people being disenfranchised that matters, not their political persuasion.

The simple logistics of organising fraud along such lines in any meaningful way make it untenable. The numbers required would be large, and it’s never known in advance which electorates will be the closest ones.

After South Australia’s 2010 election someone wrote a letter to the state’s electoral commission and a newspaper claiming to (along with their family) have cast 159 fraudulent votes. The full letter has not, as far as I know, ever been published; but the available excerpts can be found on pages EM47–48 of this JSCEM transcript.

He or she wrote they “did this simply by using careful research and planning. The research provided names of those who could not vote, would not be voting, or needed assistance to vote.”

Writing a letter is easy, and no proof of anything. As far as I know they didn’t provide the list of people they impersonated, which would have added weight to their claim.

Like anonymously claiming to have poisoned a product in a supermarket, it’s just a form of vandalism, anti-social behaviour.

(The letter claimed “Our activities may or may not have influenced the outcome of the election” but 159 votes could not have changed the overall result.)

I understand why some people have an instinctive desire for the system to be less lax around the question of identification. But there is always a a trade-off between ID requirements and robbing people of their right to vote.

The way some, including politicians, jumped on the South Australian letter as “evidence” for something was worrying, and people who knowingly overstate the “problem” and consciously encourage lack of trust in the electoral process deserve contempt.

Anyway, Queensland’s “acceptable forms of ID”, according to the press release, will be:

“- Current driver licence
- Current Australian passport
- Voter identification letter issued by the ECQ [Electoral Commission of Queensland]
- Recent account or notice issued by a public utility [or]
- Identification card issued by the Commonwealth or a State as evidence of the person’s entitlement to a financial benefit (eg a Commonwealth seniors health card, Medicare card, pensioner concession card)”

According to the Attorney-General’s office, that letter from the ECQ would be a recent standard piece of correspondence from the commission, for example verifying that an elector who has moved residence has had their details changed.

So what does happen when a person gives a name to the official, and that name is on the roll, but the person doesn’t have appropriate ID?

They “will be required to make a declaration vote, similar to people who vote outside of their electorate on polling day”. That is, they will fill in and sign a declaration, and put it, and their filled-in ballot paper, in an envelope. The details will be checked and if all is well their vote will be counted.

The checking, presumably, will be of the signature, and perhaps date of birth. And that no one else has voted under that name.

Technically, this procedure doesn’t guard against the 2010 South Australian claimed fraud, but in reality the requirement to fill in a form, and interact more fully with an official, would be a strong disincentive.

It makes voting a bigger hassle for people without ID, which would be more of an issue under a voluntary voting system.

But, importantly, it requires no further action of the voter. That is, after they leave the polling station they don’t have to do anything more (which is not the case with, for example, provisional voting).

That, in my humble opinion, is fine thing.

Without more knowledge of the planned procedure, this legislation seems a reasonable compromise between inclusiveness and integrity.

It might even indicate the Queensland government is driven, in this particular change, by concerns about integrity and not simple partisan advantage.

Fancy that.

Newspoll net “good for economy”

In my opinion the best Newspoll measure of the political worth of a budget. What will the next instalment bring?
(Question: “Thinking of the federal budget handed down by the treasurer (name), recently. Overall do you believe the budget will be good or bad for the Australian economy? If good do you believe it will be extremely good or just quite good? If bad do you believe it will be extremely bad or only quite bad?”. Total “bad” subtracted from “good” to give a net “good”.)

Hover mouse for numbers.

Revenge of the auditors

- First published in the Australian 17 November 2014

IT’S now a little over a year since the Australian Electoral Commission discovered that 1, 370 ballot papers were missing from the recount of Western Australia’s Senate vote for the 2013 federal election. Worse, much worse, was that the closeness of the count made an expensive re-election necessary.

It was around this time that the AEC crawled into the doghouse. It has not yet been invited out.
Once the media has its teeth into a theme it is reluctant to let go, as we saw during the re-election in April when every rumoured AEC broken pencil, every disorderly queue was gleefully retold as further evidence of how hopeless this organisation is.

The Abbott government is going hard against the statutory authority, and the Labor opposition is not exactly rushing to its defence. AEC staff fronting the Joint Standing Committee into Electoral Matters tend to receive lots of finger-pointing and shouting, even more (from what I’ve seen) from ALP members than Coalition ones.

Everyone claims to be trying to “restore Australians’ faith” in the AEC, but this will not be possible as long as every mole hill is blown into a mountain.

All organisations make mistakes. Which newspaper doesn’t, for example, find the odd rogue apostrophe slipping through the cracks, or worse?

After the bungle was uncovered last year, the then commissioner Ed Killesteyn got former federal copper Mick Keelty to investigate. Keelty’s report, released in December, was quite damning.

It gets worse, because back in 2010 the Australian National Audit Office delivered the findings of an audit of the AEC which it now says have not been sufficiently acted on.

And this year the ANAO has conducted two “follow-up” audits of the AEC, the second of which was released early this month.

The approach of Acting Commissioner Tom Rogers seems to be to cop it sweet, accept all criticism, not argue, put hand on heart and assure JSCEM this has been a wake-up call, a “period of reflection” for the organisation. We know we’ve let everyone down and we’re determined to make this right.

This has involved, from my observation, not arguing the toss when really the toss should have been argued. Some of the criticisms are trivial. But it’s understandable that the commission has adopted this strategy.

Killesteyn was terribly unlucky to be the schmuck left standing when the music stopped, but his departure early this year makes the self-flagellation easier. Unfortunately the latest Audit Office update has found fault in the time since Killesteyn.

How much of the bagging of the AEC is warranted? I don’t know enough to answer that, but certainly not all of it. And from what I’ve observed, some JSCEM members and National Audit employees don’t fully appreciate the uniqueness of election management bodies.

As someone once said, elections are the greatest logistic exercise outside wartime.

Australia is actually unusual in having a permanent, comprehensive electoral body like the AEC. In most countries local governments run the vote-taking. This can present problems of partisan interference. Mistakes occur, but usually the blame is cauterised. (Think of Florida’s butterfly ballots in 2000.)

And then there are our vast distances with sparse population.

At an Australian federal election, tens of thousands of employees work in thousands of polling stations across the country. There will be errors. But there can’t be. But they’re inevitable because humans are involved.

So procedures are put in place. And procedures onto procedures. But stuff still happens.

I’ve only read the Auditor-General’s most recent instalment. It no doubt makes some fine points, but also seems to reveal a misunderstanding of the task of an election management body.

(This month’s report contains a couple of mathematical/typographical errors of the sort I’ve never seen the AEC allow through to a published document.

One is: “At the 2013 election more than 91 per cent of the 14.7 million votes counted were received at either a PPVC (18.1 per cent) or static polling place (72.9 per cent).”

No, 13.7 million votes were counted; 14.7 million was the number enrolled.

And more trivially: “fewer than 73 per cent of total votes counted being received at a static polling place.” I make the figure 73.4, which is not “fewer than” 73 per cent.)

The Audit Office has a bee in its bonnet about polling places and the increasing number of people voting before election day.

Last week Brian Boyd (Executive Director, Performance Audit Services Group) formulated an analogy between the AEC and Telstra/Telecom which was revealing of the ANAO’s mindset. He noted that the proliferation of mobile phones over the last two decades had seen telephone boxes all but disappear from our streets, but the AEC by contrast is not keeping up with the modern world and is “still putting a Telecom Australia box on every street corner.”

He was referring to the 7,697 booths around the country on election day last year, with 73, 434 staff.

The comparison is terrible because Telstra is (now) a profit-making organisation. The vast majority of Australians don’t miss phone booths, but a tiny proportion, people without mobiles (including some who don’t have landlines either) sure do. They are few in number and mostly low in income and don’t matter in a business sense.

The AEC’s role is to provide (or try to) voting facilities for everyone, not just most people. If it were a profit-making organisation that was paid by the vote, it would be rational to service only the 70 per cent or so who are easiest to get to. The marginal cost per vote of going that extra mile is very high. Of course.

The auditors make a big deal about the increasing rates of early voting. Modern lifestyles and expectations have led to increasing demands, and a few years ago federal parliament decided to go with the flow and relax the eligibility rules for pre-poll voting.

It had a big effect, and it turns out the AEC overestimated the number of people who turned up on polling day 2013. The ANAO reckons, and from their tut-tutting JSCEM members apparently agree, this led them to man too many polling places and hire too many workers.

But to me it is an example of an electoral body erring on the side of caution. It’s certainly preferable to the opposite: anticipating a big drop in election-day turnout, hiring employees accordingly and running the risk of being understaffed.

If the ANAO and JSCEM nagging succeed in forcing the AEC to anticipate another big drop in 2016, and it doesn’t happen, who’ll be to blame?

The “Telecom” prism leads them astray in other ways.

The latest ANAO report, and JSCEM witnesses, bang on a lot about the decreasing proportion of voters attending on Saturday. They say its decline—to only 73 per cent last year—should mean fewer polling places are needed.

But the proportion has nothing to do with the number of booths and workers required. The total roll grows every year and the facilities needed to cater for, say, 10 million people across the country is independent of what percentage that 10 million happens to be of some larger number.

Now (from ANAO figures) the actual numbers of people who attended polling places did decrease from 10.8 million in 2010 to 10.1 million in 2013. If the AEC’s crystal ball had indeed been operational, what staffing level would have been appropriate?

Even the ANAO accountants would recognise the economies of scale and that the number of booths and staff required wouldn’t drop proportionally. But perhaps they don’t get how unproportional it is.

It might horrify them to know that in 1903, at the first election run by the National Electoral Office, fewer than a million voters were serviced by 26, 254 staff at 4, 525 polling places across the country.

So the staff-to-voter ratio jumped from 1:36 to 1:138 in 110 years, which isn’t bad considering the mechanics, of people lining up, having their names crossed off, given ballot papers etc, has barely changed.

(Whether those ways of doing things should be altered is another topic.)

What would be an appropriate number of booths and staff to take the votes of 10.1 million on polling day? We could look for the last time a similar number turned up. In 2004, the number was 10.2 million. From that year’s annual report it involved 7, 729 polling places and “approximately 65, 000 polling officials”.

(I got 2004 from the 2004-5 annual report. I think I’m comparing apples with apples here, but am not totally sure. There has been a change in what counts as an “ordinary vote”.)

So there were more polling places, but fewer staff, a decade ago.

Maybe the pen-pushers have a small point there.

Wrong promise broken

- First published in the Australian 19 October 2011

The carbon pricing bills that passed the House of Representatives last week represent a broken promise by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. But it’s not the one everyone seems to think.
In this paper’s Media section on Monday Errol Simper was very scathing of Julia Gillard for breaking her “no carbon tax” promise. He wrote that:
“It would be fascinating to see some segment of the media try one of these days to forensically examine the mechanics of that broken promise, even if they eventually had to veer off into informed speculation. Because, in terms of a blatantly broken promise, it’s more or less in a league of its own.”
Simper also ridiculed Penny Wong’s half-hearted “semantics” defence. But semantics is an important element of this “broken promise”.
Earlier this month, Manufacturing Australia’s Executive Chairman, businessman Dick Warburton, was accused of hypocrisy because he supported a “carbon tax” two years ago but now campaigns against one.
For example, in a letter to the Australian Financial Review in October 2009 he wrote that “of the two choices currently available for combating global warming we should select the simple and flexible method of instituting a carbon tax rather than the complex method of an emissions trading scheme”
Warburton’s response last week to ABC radio was that “in those days the carbon tax was just going to be a tax as such but now we are getting into permits and rights which the ETS [emissions trading system] is involved in.”
That is, the scheme he opposed two years ago, Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, was an ETS that started with a fixed price. And the scheme he doesn’t like today, Gillard’s package, is also an ETS that starts with a fixed price.
Warburton is being consistent. And so is Gillard—to a point.
During the 2010 election campaign she (now famously) declared there would be no carbon tax under a government she led, but she did leave the way open for an ETS.
See this article by Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan, published the day before the election. It begins with this sentence:
“Julia Gillard says she is prepared to legislate a carbon price in the next term.”
And they quote her: “I don’t rule out the possibility of legislating a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a market-based mechanism … I rule out a carbon tax.”
Can’t get much clearer than that, can you? Well you can, because who knows what’s a carbon tax and what’s an ETS?
What did she mean by “carbon tax”? Was it what the Greens and Ross Garnaut were advocating—a fixed carbon price for an indefinite period?
Or Tony Abbott’s description when he argued for one in 2009 (see this video clip on Sky News, 9 minutes 15 seconds in)?
Or was it something like the plan described by economist Geoff Carmody to Kelly in 2008, a consumption tax whose main benefit would be that it penalises goods made overseas as well as in Australia?
Gillard never said and possibly didn’t know herself. She just wanted it off the table. But she left the door open for a scheme just like the one passed last week.
If it is a “tax”, then so was Rudd’s CPRS, and Australians voted for a “carbon tax” in 2007. But of course they didn’t.
So where is the broken promise? It’s in the timing. Gillard said any mechanism would (in Kelly and Shanahan’s words) “not be triggered until after the 2013 election”. That would give people a chance to vote for it. This scheme starts in July next year. She broke that promise.
The government never calls its scheme a “tax” but it is widely known as one. Allowing this to happen was a serious political own goal. But our Prime Minister is quite accomplished at those. We might guess it was driven by a desire to differentiate herself from all things Kevin. And an assessment that arguing the toss about one broken promise while conceding another (the timing) would be unpleasant politics.
Better to just admit the broken promise and move on. Except moving on proved difficult.
Perhaps she was allowing the Greens to save face, because most experts agree this ETS is weaker than the one they refused to support in the last parliament.
But the result is that in the eyes of most Australians—and most commentators and news editors—this is a tax, and the connection between the 2007 election, which was for a time seen as an overwhelming vote for a scheme just like this, is gone. Now it’s a broken promise, a tax, a cave-in to the Greens, something that will stuff the economy.
In February 2010, Newspoll found 57 percent in favour of the Rudd government’s CPRS. Then in May, days after Gillard successfully urged Rudd to dump the policy, a Nielsen poll found support for “an Emissions Trading Scheme for Australia” at 58 percent. The next month, as new Prime Minister, she declared that “we need a deep and lasting community consensus about [putting a price on carbon]. We don’t have it now.”
Today support for the government’s carbon pricing package hovers in the 30s.
How’s that for deep and lasting consensus?

South Australia, William Boothby & the development of Australian electoral institutions

In 2012 I gave a talk in Adelaide’s Parliament House to the Electoral Regulation Research Network. It was a short version of the main findings of my PhD thesis, with the boring bits taken out.

It deals with the development of South Australia’s electoral apparatus in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was the model of running elections, and most importantly enrolling people, that the Australian Electoral Office adopted upon its creation in 1902.

Be warned: it’s five and a half thousand words long and written as a rough guide for speaking. It has no references.

Also a website I constructed while writing the thesis. I took it down several years ago but have put it up again here.

Title page

I’m talking today about some of the things I discovered when researching and writing my PhD thesis I submitted in 2008. About things that happened in this province, this colony in the second half of the 19th century.

I came to it not from a historical background, nor from an electoral administration background, but from an electoral behaviour background—which is totally different. I learnt many new things and along the way became someone who is interested in electoral administration.

Some of what follows will not be new to historians or South Australians generally, some will, and how they came together to explain the development of Australia’s electoral apparatus: that is new, unless you are one of the very few people to have read my thesis or academic papers.

I’m going to meander around a bit. Please feel free to interrupt if I haven’t explained something properly, feel free to interrupt for any reason.

The reason the things that happened in South Australia in the late nineteenth century are important for us today is that they are responsible not just for the way elections are run in this country, but for the actual existence of the Australian Electoral Commission. I mean, the standalone, independent electoral apparatus we have grown up with but which is unusual in the international context. It gets rave reviews from international great and good, such as David Butler. Australian electoral expertise is exported to new democracies.

Any country looks good in comparison with the United States in the running of elections. We look good compared to most modern democracies.

There is no party involvement in the electoral process here. The AEC has permanent staff located across the country. Until a couple of decades ago each electoral division had a permanent AEC office, containing returning officer and staff. Nowadays there are about 130 or 140 of them to service 150 electorates. There’s been some rationalisation.

But the permanent existence of electoral officials, geographically dispersed, around the country: that is unique, or if not unique, very unusual.

That was the organisation structure the new Commonwealth parliament chose in 1902 when they build the new electoral office. And they got it from South Australia. Not just that, they got lots of things from South Australia: continuous enrolment, transfers, voting through the post office.

They did because they judged it judged the best.

We tend to think of federation in 1901 as the time when Australia became a “nation” or “country”. This is natural in terms of telling stories about our nation, but at the time it was mostly seen as an amalgamation. The status of the new, federated body, vis a vis the mother country, changed a bit but not much in 1901.

Those pre-federation colonies considered themselves countries. They had two houses of parliament and the titles premier and prime minister were interchangeable.

In the sense that New Zealand was the first “country” to give women the vote, South Australia was the second “country”. South Australia and New Zealand had equivalent statuses vis a vis the mother country. And of course South Australia was also the first country to enable women to stand for parliament.

Australia today has nine EMBs – election management bodies. Each is run by a commissioner. Kay is the commissioner here. Each conducts its elections, although they lend each other personnel, give support at election times.

It’s a rather inefficient setup, and consideration was given at federation in 1901 to just have one that would do them for all the states. Consideration was also given to continuing the arrangements under which the first election in 1901 had been conducted, when each state conducted its own portion.

As happens today, in America. Except over there some 14 000 local councils run their portion of national elections.

Americans get bad reviews for their electoral administration—and rightly so. Practically any country that takes elections seriously compares favourably with them. America’s decentralised system is at the extreme end of international practice and Australia’s is at the other.

Local council involvement is the usual way of doing things in “old democracies”. In England local government still do the vote-taking and registration, but the rules, the laws, are central, they’re acts passed by parliament. That’s the usual setup in democracies, for example in continental Europe.

If local government had existed in any meaningful way in South Australia 150–160 years ago, the way we run elections today would be very different. We wouldn’t have the Australian electoral commission. We would be more like England.

Picture: Bentham

This man is Jeremy Bentham. He was an English philosopher who wrote about Utilitarianism, about the greatest good for the greatest number. He famously called Locke’s idea of natural rights of man “nonsense on stilts”. The statement “All men are born free” he called “absurd and miserable nonsense!” because:

“not a single man ever was, or will be. All men, on the contrary, are born in subjection, and the most absolute subjection—the subjection of a helpless child to the parents on whom he depends for every moment of his existence.”

To Bentham, rights and happiness needed to be sustained by laws. Of course there were such things as bad laws, but laws per se were desirable and necessary. They could be arrived at scientifically, rationally.

The thoughts, the writings of Bentham, and others such as James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, were popular at the time Australian post-European settlement institutions were being created.

There was a parliamentary democracy “back home” in England, with a limited franchise, not very democratic by today’s standards, not as democratic as some parts of the world, but it was a different time to, say, the earlier settlement of the United States.

This is one reason Government was never the dirty word here that it is in America. Because of that time of settlement. The conditions in England, and fashionable ideas at the time.

Bentham was interested in electoral reform. He advocated having a secret ballot, widening the franchise, equal electoral districts and so on. In 1819 he published what he called a ‘Radical Reform Bill’ which described how he envisaged elections being conducted. It included a description of a secret ballot. It involved bits of wood in a box that electors would stick their hands in.

In the radical reform bill Bentham advocated the creation of “[a]n office, under the name of the National Election Office … attached to the House of Commons.’ The ‘office-bearer’ could be called either ‘Master of the National Elections Office, or Election-Master-general, or Election Master.’

His functions are as follows:-

1. To issue out election-writs for the receipt of votes.

2. To receive the returns made in obedience to such writs.

3. To direct and superintend the conduct of all persons in the offices of polling and

district clerks.

Nothing like this existed anywhere in the world. It did come to exist, largely, in South Australia, in the body of the returning officer for the province. And that position was filled by one man, William Robinson Boothby, from its creation in 1856 to his death in 1903.

It’s actually not clear whether the people who created this position were consciously following Bentham’s prescription. I found no record that they did. It came about largely due to necessity.

Bentham was popular among the chartists and particularly the middle class radicals who would come to occupy important positions in Australia. The chaps we’ll meet here, Boothby and Richard Hanson, probably read Bentham.

It was this mindset towards society and an active role for the state, active that was responsible for the invention in Melbourne of that crazy bit of bureaucracy: the Australian ballot. To many in London at the time, when they heard about this, they thought it was typical of the colonies: coercive, red tape. Expensive. Pretty wacky.

The Australian ballot was an important driver of the development of our electoral institutions.

In some historical narratives the Australian ballot is conflated with “secret ballot”. Some have said and written that the secret ballot was first used in Australia. That isn’t true. And when chartists and radicals were calling for a secret ballot her and “back home” in England, they weren’t calling for the Australian ballot. No one had ever suggested such a thing. If they thought specifically about what they wanted, it was many people in, for example, France and America had.

Those countries, or American states, with “secret ballot” generally had a system that was supposed to be secret because it wasn’t open.

Electors bringing their own bits of paper, with candidate’s name written on it, and it was “secret” because the voter’s name wasn’t on it, and they didn’t announce who they were voting for publicly.

But in practice a candidate’s agent could stand near the ballot box, with their sometimes coloured pieces on which was the candidate’s name, and the elector could take that bit of paper and put it in the box, in full view.

The whole idea of secret ballot was to eliminate bribery and coercion, these secret ballots were not very secret. They didn’t work very well. Secrecy had to be mandatory, not optional. This was what motivated Bentham to plan his weird bits of wood in box.

The identifying feature of the Australian ballot is the government-supplied voting paper, with candidates’ names on it. And the electoral official signing the paper, giving to the voter who goes to the secret compartment before coming out and putting the paper in a box and leaving. This was the invention.

It was the mandatory nature of the Australian ballot that made it special, and something adopted, eventually, later in the century, around the world. It was also a hell of a lot of work for electoral officials. A real hassle. Expensive. Typical of the Australian colonies.

The Australian ballot was invented in Victoria in January 1856, but it was refined in South Australia two years later.

This “Benthamite”stuff I’ve mentioned go the perhaps social, philosophical conditions in which electoral administration, along with other institutions, developed. The later harvester case, White Australia, tariffs, compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting, all of these can be seen in the context of the Australian way of enforced equality, of making people do things that are good for them. The “talent for bureaucracy”.

This is the context. But the events I’m going to describe were also driven by particular, more material circumstances. There were of course many drivers, but three were particularly important in the development of an electoral apparatus in South Australia: the male franchise in 1856, the Australian ballot at the same time, and enrolment of electors.

Enrolment was the main driver of the development of the electoral office. It made it a permanent, going concern, rather than something that would come into being at election time. Today it remains the glue that keeps the AEC in operation.

Because this South Australian story is substantially about enrolment, here is a quick history of enrolment, of electoral rolls, until then.

Way way back in the mother country, before Europeans came to Australia, there was no electoral roll. Not many people enjoyed the franchise, the right to vote, and everyone knew who those people were, and chaps would turn up and vote for so and so. Different boroughs and counties had different franchises. Some widened their franchise, and the increase in eligible voters saw some confusion on election-day. There were sometimes arguments about who could vote.

In 1832 the franchise was made uniform across the country, or at least across all boroughs and across all counties, and widened. With more and more people able to vote, it needed to be written down, codified. With a written roll, arguments about who could and could not vote were sorted out before election day.

The 1832 set of acts, collectively known as the first Reform Act, did both of these. It described who could vote, and it laid out in detail an annual registration procedure of hanging notices, written in forms, objections and revision courts. The procedure on election day was also described. Unlike today, such legislation was detailed, it was very specific. The tasks were performed by local council employees.

This, with some amendments, was the process inherited by Australia when we started running elections, colony-wide elections, in the 1840s. That was the first New South Wales Legislative Council election in 1843.

There had been local government elections before that. One had been for the Adelaide Corporation, in 1841. That procedure was based on British practices, involving Returning Officers and lists, but the election-day procedure was something of a hybrid of some pre- and post- 1832 practices. It also involved arguably the first use of proportional representation anywhere.

That’s a South Australian first, but it is separate to the story I’m telling here. It does not seem to have influenced later, colony-wide elections that started a decade later in 1851.

So in 1843 NSW conducts its first colony-wide election, with limited franchise, for 2/3 of the 36 man legislative Council. That proportion was the standard in the pre-self government colonies.

But who to run it? Who would construct the rolls?

There was by now a local council structure in Melbourne and Sydney, and so they were used to collect the roll. Elsewhere there was no local government in place, and the only administrative structure in place was police. There were police districts, which had a magistrate atop each. Strangely, I couldn’t determine exactly how many, but between 35 and 40. There were 18 electoral districts, for 24 seats, two thirds of the 36-man Council.

At election time the returning officers were appointed. And it was their duty to construct a list for their district, from those created in the procedure above.

The construction of the roll was performed under magistrates but more directly supervised by chief constables who could be a former convict and, several decades earlier at least, probably was.

I searched the Australian Dictionary of Biography online and found no reference to any of them. I don’t claim this is a rigorous, foolproof measurement of “importance”. But it’s an indicator.

What about returning officers? I got hold of 16 of the 18 names of returning officers and searched for their presence of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. There were 8 appeared, and 3 would go on to contest elections themselves.

That’s all for NSW. But here’s a webpage I started to construct several years ago about those first returning officers.

On to South Australia in 1851 for the first legislative council elections. Like elsewhere, for 2/3 of the Council.

Picture: Paths to Oz

South Australia was the only part of the country holding elections that hadn’t been part of NSW. It looked instead to England. Tasmania did the same, having separated before NSW’s first election. This was a feature of the colonies/countries: looking to England rather than the other colonies. (The Australian ballot, which zipped around the colonies in January and February 1856, was an exception.)

So, who to construct the rolls? Not local council employees, because there were none. The Adelaide Corporation had been abolished. It was re-activated in 1852. There was none outside Adelaide.

There wasn’t a colony-wide, robust police force, possibly partly because South Australia hadn’t had convicts. There were some unpaid militia.

The closest operation South Australia had to a colony-wide apparatus were the District Roads Boards. These were bodies that oversaw construction of roads. There were elections for these.

So the 1851 Legislative Council Act said “the Clerks and Collectors of the several District Road Boards … shall ex officio be Collectors’.

These men collected eligible names in their Roads district they had previously worked on. Once again, these did not coincide with Legislative Council electoral districts. As with collection by police district, this procedure necessitated that extra step of separating names into correct electoral districts.

Returning officers were then appointed. 15 of the 16 of them were magistrates. The exception, CB Newenham, was Sheriff of the colony, the third since the position was created in 1837.

Our friend Mr Boothby was still in England, but he would succeed Newenham in 1856.

Magistrates had high status. These South Australian returning officers sat on Revisions courts. This was a break from English (and NSW) practice. They sat on revisions courts for neighbouring electorates, not their own. In later decades they would start sitting on their own.

This is the webpage I made for the SA 1851 returning officers.

Responsible government, ie self-government, came in 1855. It had been envisaged that it would come earlier and in 1853 a parliament bill contained arrangements for the new bicameral legislature was passed. It described the House of Assembly and Legislative Council which would replace the Legislative Council. It was rejected by London, some say because it included a fully appointed upper house.

Picture: Hanson

Advocate-General Richard Hanson drafted the enrolment clauses, about which there was little debate.

This is a feature of much of these developments. There were chartists and radicals and other meetings demanding this that and the other, ballot, equal districts, etc, but none made demands regarding arcane matters such as who constructed the roll and how. Understandably.

Hanson explained that it was

‘was well known that in some of the electoral districts the electoral roll was very defective, and in [one district] there was no list of electors”

And so, as the Register reported on 20 June; “The machinery of Collectors of Claims and Electoral Clerks will be dispensed with, and the duty of making the roll thrown upon the Returning Officer.’

This meant that Returning Officers were no longer just appointed whenever an election was held, but for at least several months every year. For the first time, in each electoral district in the colony, one person was in charge of virtually all aspects of elections, and he was responsible for his district and no other. Rolls were collected along the boundaries for which they would apply. In reality, rather than construct the rolls themselves, they employed staff to do it.

This is a very important development.

That bill passed parliament but was killed in London. There was one more election for the Legislative Council (two-thirds of it) in 1855. It was carried out under the old legislation.

The returning officer for the district of West Torrens was a 26 year old W R Boothby Esq.

Also included in the 1855 list of Returning Officers were the current and two future Mayors of Adelaide.

Picture John Lazar

John Lazar, one of the latter, was a Scotland-born ‘prominent member of the Jewish congregations in South Australia and [later] New Zealand.’ His CV included a comedian, playwright, theatrical manager, tailor, jeweller and silversmith. His career as a Shakespearean actor had been cut short by ‘[a]ttacks from the … press on his limited acting capabilities and “vulgar cockneyism”‘. He was an alderman of the Adelaide City Council in the 1850s and Mayor of Adelaide from 1856 to 1858. He was the Returning Officer for Adelaide until 1861. He went to New Zealand and I recently read that he played a part in introducing the Australian ballot there.

That was the last general election before self-government. It was apparently very disorderly, which probably accounts for South Australia going overboard with, for example, the gagging clause. (I can tell people what that was in questions if you like.)

In 1856 the second consolidated electoral act contained instructions on how to run elections for a 36-member House of Assembly, elected on virtual full male franchise, and an 18-member Legislative Council, also fully elected, but on a restricted franchise. House of Assembly members were returned from 17 electoral districts electing from one to six MPs each.

Full male suffrage roughly doubled the number of electors.

It had the new ballot, the Victorian invention. There was a system of voter certificates, which had to be presented on polling day. They also abolished nomination on the hustings and plural voting.

And there were those new clauses that gave returning officers enrolment duties. Enrolment was, as in England and other colonies, annual. But now it was Returning officers, these important chaps, not roads collectors or council employees, who performed enrolment duties.

So those first bi-cameral 1857 elections were held under doubled franchise and new rules.

And another thing. The Legislative Council was elected from one multi-member district, the whole colony. This was radical, as it meant all votes counted equally: weighting in favour of rural votes, as was done in the lower house, was not possible. It eliminated plural voting.

And for this story, there was another consequence. By the English tradition every electoral district has a Returning Officer. So this new, massive electoral district has one

The Register noted the logic of this in late January 1856. The electoral bill, it said, ‘clearly implied’ the existence of the position of a ‘Returning Officer-in-Chief’, but did not appear to ‘empower the Governor to appoint’ such a person.

But the paper’s fears proved unfounded, and in November that year—five months before the first general election—the Governor did appoint the first ‘Returning Officer of the Province’ (sometimes referred to as Returning Officer for the Province), young William.

Returning Officers needed assistants, or deputies, to perform the duties at the various polling places. In the case of the single Legislative Council district, the deputies were the Returning Officers for the House of Assembly. That is, each of these men was a Returning Officer for his district of the House, and also a deputy Returning Officer for a portion of the Council district (the whole colony), answering to the Returning Officer of the province (Boothby). The geographical area each Returning Officer was responsible for in the lower house, his electoral district, was also a sub-district for the upper-house.

Returning officers now constructed the rolls as well as ran elections. This new returning officer for the province position was very powerful.

Picture: Boothby

And it was, of course, William Boothby who was appointed in late 1856. In March that year he had become Sheriff.

So Boothby had nothing to do with the 1856 electoral act but he was returning officer for the province in 1857 elections.

William was born in 1829 in Nottingham Park, England, the second of 15 children of Benjamin and Maria. His mother’s maiden name was Robinson. He ‘took his BA degree at London University’ and years later he spoke of having “three months of an experience in an election for the Borough of Finsbury, in London.”

When his father was appointed as the second Judge on the South Australian Supreme Court in 1853 the family sailed to Australia.

I can’t tell what William did for the next year and a bit; he may have worked for the government in some capacity, or perhaps assisted his father, but in December 1854, aged just 25, he was appointed Deputy Sheriff of the Province.

In addition, his father Benjamin had sat on a Revision Court in the Borough of Ripon in 1845.

William’s father Benjamin is actually better-known: an apparently difficult and pedantic judge whose behaviour led to Westminster’s 1865 British Colonial Laws Validity Act, which applied not just to South Australia but all or most British colonies. I’m sure others know more about this than me.

Boothby was returning officer for the province, as well as sheriff and, for a time at least, superintendent of prisons, right through to his death in 1903. He didn’t, as some have reported, draft every electoral bill, but he drafted some and he was a constant presence through those decades.

An obituary in the Public Service Review described William as ‘though reserved, … always courteous and affable’ and noted ‘prowess upon the cricket field’, ‘remarkable intellectual facilities, indicated by his broad, high brow’ and his being ‘a signal example of the advantage of the great public school and university system of education in England’. He was ‘fair, just, firm and resolute’.

But back to 1857. Actually, back a bit further.

The old English way of running elections involved very little expense for government. Electors paid a shilling to a collector to get on the roll, and a further shilling to stay on it every year. This was the collector’s only remuneration aside from the wage he received for performing his usual, non-electoral tasks. In addition, at the elections themselves, the candidates paid expenses for the hiring of venues and so on.

South Australia’s 1851 act was along these lines, although the state paid for unanticipated expenses. But the 1856 act fully shifted costs from candidates and electors to the state. Collectors (now returning officers) still received a shilling per claim, but it now came from the government, and so electors paid nothing to get on the roll. Similarly, Returning Officers and their staff received remuneration, but it also came from the public purse. The ‘other expenses’ clause remained, meaning general colonial revenue would still pay for any unforeseen expenses.

So now the government paid all electoral expenses. How very Australian. And commonplace today.

And pay they did. The 1857 elections cost a hell of a lot, partly because of the newly enrolled people, and because of the new ballot system. Returning officers and their staff had to write or print ballot papers. And certificates. Costs exploded mainly under the “other expenses” category.

Boothby later recalled that because ‘the first election conducted in South Australia … under the Act drawn up by the Attorney-General of the day, the late Sir Richard Hanson … was found to be exceedingly expensive in its provisions’, Hanson had told Boothby that he ‘thought that an electoral system which cost so much as that would be a great deal too expensive for South Australia.’ Boothby suggested modifications to bring costs down, and Hanson ‘asked me whether I would mind preparing a bill to give effect to my opinions’. This he did with what would become the 1858 Electoral Act. According to Boothby (decades later), Hanson ‘did not alter’ any of Boothby’s work, and it was ‘passed with scarcely any amendments in the House’.

The Act eliminated the open-ended ‘reasonable costs’ funding clause and in its place attempted to define all tasks Returning Officers (or their staff) might perform, or would pay third parties to perform, stating amounts payable for each task. It really nailed the procedure down.

It put the Returning Officers on annual salaries of £25, and declared that Returning Officers were to be paid the amounts stated in the legislation, ‘and no other’.

William gave himself a salary of £100 on top of the £500 he got as Sheriff.

The 1858 Act created, therefore, almost certainly the world’s first salaried electoral officials, by which I mean people who were paid an annual amount specifically to perform electoral tasks. The position of Returning Officer was not full-time, and £25 not a large amount—Attorney-General Hanson, for example, earned £1000 for annum. Keeping expenses down was, after all, the Act’s chief raison d’être.

Being returning officer was permanent, but it was part-time. They tended to do other things, be small business people with their own offices.

In financial terms, the 1858 Act produced extraordinary results, slashing costs and must have earned many points for Boothby.

It also introduced continuous enrolment, using what were in effect habitation reviews: police and council workers, reporting to returning officers, went door to door with enrolment forms around the colony. Initially every year but quickly changed to every five years. In between times, people could get on the roll themselves by contacting their returning officer. There were still revisions courts every six or so months. A system of transferring between electorates came into being.

The 1858 Act also saw the change in the secret ballot paper from strike through to cross in the square.

This was South Australia’s big change to the Australian ballot, one that proved versatile. The commonwealth picked it up, and then the states gradually did.

Interestingly, after just one general election, in 1860, everybody involved—including Boothby and the DROs—agreed the replacement of the ‘strike through’ method with the cross and the square had been a serious mistake. It had caused widespread confusion and resulted in a jump in accidently spoilt ballot papers. Boothby went so far as to recommend a return to the old method.

However, it was not reversed and people got ued to it. At the 1861 committee it is unclear who was responsible. Was it Hanson? Boothby? Someone else?

Decades later, Boothby was happy to claim credit.

There were five more consolidated Electoral Acts in South Australia between 1858 and the end of the century. With the possible exception of the final one, in 1896, none was as ground-breaking as that of 1858. However, the 1861 consolidated Act did give birth to a new arrangement of words. T Previous references had been to ‘Returning Officers for the Electoral Districts’, but from that year they were called the ‘District Returning Officers’. This came to be shortened in general usage to ‘DRO’, an acronym that remains in use today (although at the commonwealth level the ‘D’ stood for ‘divisional’ and not ‘district’.

For the next several decades, until the Commonwealth adopted South Australia’s electoral arrangements, the Returning Officer for the province and his DROs would form the organisational framework of an ever-expanding bureaucracy, created by both internal and external pressures, some of which we will examine in future chapters. Despite this enrolment system Boothby felt able to boast in 1889 that South Australia had the least expensive electoral arrangements of all the Australian colonies.

Through the decades there was tension between Boothby and his DROs. They often complained to committees that they were underpaid. He thought they were well remunerated. In 1889 he actually tried to get rid of them, at least as permanent fixtures, and move towards a system more like other colonies and England. He wanted to deal directly with council employees.

He reckoned:

the clerks of municipal corporations and district councils [should] make up and keep the rolls, and the Returning Officers … should have entirely distinct and separate duties from the registration.

The DROs said no. They argued that this system would be ‘more costly’ and would mean ‘the whole control of the electoral power of the colony is centred in one person (Boothby)’ and that the ‘autonomy of electoral districts [would be] absolutely destroyed’.

Boothby stood firm. So did the DROs. The DROs won. One reason a committee member gave was that council clerks would be ‘considerably mixed up in the affairs of the people’, they would be ‘likely to be partisans on one side or another’.

This committee report included a sop to William: that future legislation should:

contain enactments whereby the experience of the Returning Officer for the Province may be effectively employed for the purpose of directing and controlling the preparation and maintenance of the electoral rolls throughout the province.

One of Boothby’s greatest foes in this and other endeavours was James Dominick Woods, ‘barrister and journalist’, author and DRO for East Torrens. He served as Returning Officer from 1861 until 1899 and wrote several books, one of which, South Australia, devoted six pages to the election process with an emphasis on a Returning Officer’s duties.

Picture: John Banks Shepherdson

Another was this guy, John Banks Shepherdson. Although he boasted in 1889 of ‘twenty years experience’ as a DRO, there is no mention of it in his ADB entry.

The next Act, the Electoral Code 1896, kept the permanent Returning Officers but did state for the first time that they answered to the province Returning Officer.

So by the turn of the century, in every colony but South Australia, the coordinating office mentioned in the legislation for electoral matters was of the Chief Secretary (or Colonial Secretary). In South Australia it was the Returning Officer for the province, a public servant, paid a specific salary to run elections across the colony.

And it was this arrangement that the new Commonwealth government adopted for the new electoral office, a branch of the department of Home Affairs, in 1902.

In 1903 the first Commonwealth Chief Electoral Officer explained the change to a conference of DROs in Sydney.

He began by describing the DROs, along with their deputies and registrars, and the six State Commonwealth Electoral Officers (CEOs), plus of course Lewis himself, as collectively ‘embrac[ing] the entire permanent working staff of the Act’.

Every other person involved either performed electoral duties on top of their normal jobs (police were in this category), or were full time but temporary, for example the clerks working on electoral rolls.

But Lewis warned that anyone who had worked as Returning Officer in the States/colonies would, with the exception of those who had had experience in South Australia, find these new arrangements very different.

Lewis employed rhetorical flourishes. He referred to the ‘old’ arrangements, that is, in the colonies other than South Australia, under which:

[t]he Returning Officer is galvanized into life about four or five weeks prior to the Election to prepare for warfare, and then all the energy of the Electoral Officer is centred into about six or eight weeks of time. Then he lapses into a state of quiesence (sic) during the winter of his Electoral age, until the drum sounds once more. Now all this is changes.

Now, under the arrangements, Commonwealth DROs would be:

the very centre of life and authority from which all the active, motive, administrative power emanates, and upon the Returning Officer of the Division will rest the responsibilities as well as the privileges of administering the entire Act … From the time you accept the responsibilities and privileges of the position, you are the directing, controlling power …you become the Electoral King. [Italics added.]

Kings indeed. DROs remain strong today, too strong for recent Australian Electoral Commissioners. They would sympathise with Boothby in the 1880s.

But that’s another story.