- First published in The Australian on 6 December 2011

The “light on the hill” got a good run at the weekend’s Labor conference. At least four speakers employed the phrase: Prime Minister Julia Gillard in her opening address; Left Spokesman on Everything Senator Doug Cameron against the sale of uranium to India; and Labor for Refugees’ Linda Scott and backbencher Ed Husic on offshore processing of asylum seekers (against and for respectively).

There’s an annual Light on the Hill Dinner and a Light on the Hill Oration. The phrase is embedded in the Labor Party’s psyche and purports to encapsulate its reason for being.

It comes from Ben Chifley, Labor Prime Minister from 1945 to 1949, and is usually referenced to his speech to the 1949 national conference (read it at Australian Politics) months before the election that sent them to opposition for 23 years.

Chifley was the first Labor leader to take the party to a second consecutive win (in 1946 following John Curtin’s 1943 victory). He was and remains revered in the ALP, and just after his death in 1951 the party published a book The Light on the Hill. His famous phrase has endured for more than sixty years.

What does it conjure? Perhaps: you’re poor and powerless, it’s dark and lonely and cold, there’s no one to help you, all seems lost until you see … a light on a hill.

A search through newspaper archives actually reveals “light on the hill” was a favoured phrase of Chifley’s before 1949, particularly in defence of his plan to nationalise the banks which many see as greatly contributing to that 1949 defeat.

He explained to Parliament in November 1947 that the Bank Bill “sprang from one thing only within the Labor Party … the love of humanity itself” and that “there is a light on the hill which guides the movement of which we are members”. In that same month he described a “shining light on the hill” and “shining light of idealism for humanity on the hill”.

Opposition leader Robert Menzies inevitably responded that Chifley’s beloved light was coloured red.

There is a 1947 newspaper recollection of him using the phrase when sitting on a Royal Commission into Banking in 1937, but the only reference I found to Chifley and the Commission back then was:

“… all of the Commissioners but one expressed uncompromising opposition to the nationalisation of banking. Mr. Ben Chifley, who was Minister for Defence in the Scullin Government, dissented … ”

(Bank nationalisation was longstanding Labor policy.)

Chifley is also credited with the phrase “hip-pocket nerve”—a much better one I reckon. The first instance of this I could find was in 1949, about the upcoming election. It is not clear whether the Prime Minister was being quoted or paraphrased:

“I’m ready if the people want me to continue, but the cabbage patch is always waiting. I know the hip pocket nerve is sensitive, but I will not touch it.”

“The cabbage patch is always waiting” had potential as a routine quip for politicians contemplating political mortality but it didn’t take off. (As it turned out Chifley remained Labor leader until his death so the cabbages remained untended.)

The other famous piece of 1940s political memorabilia is Menzies’ “Forgotten People”. It was the title of a radio talk, one of a series he gave in 1942. The Australians he spoke of were neither the wealthy and powerful, nor the unskilled, unionised labourers, but those in the middle:

“… salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on. These are, in the political and economic sense, the middle class. They are for the most part unorganised and unself-conscious.”

You can read the talk here.

That was a year after his first prime ministership had ended so disastrously and Labor’s Curtin had become Prime Minister on the floor of the house.

It was barely reported at the time, but in 1943 he published a collection of these radio talks and named the book after that particular one. The Cairns Post began a May 1943 article like this:

‘Some time, ago Mr. R. G. Menzies, MP., delivered a series of broadcast addresses as a voluntary contribution to the solution of contemporary problems. They have now been published in book form. All royalties from the sale of the book are being donated to war funds. The book bears the title “The Forgotten People,” …’

(Full title: The forgotten people, and other studies in democracy.)

Five months later the conservative parties suffered their worst flogging ever, with the largest one, the United Australia Party, winning just 12 of 74 seats.

Menzies, one of the lucky 12, formed the new Liberal Party the next year.

For the rest of the decade the only newspaper mentions of “Forgotten People” I could find were parliamentary reports of Labor Minister Arthur Calwell selectively quoting from it to amuse the government backbench and ridicule the Opposition Leader.

You could say Menzies laughed last in 1949, except in 1955 Calwell was still bringing The Forgotten People out for a parliamentary chortle.

In 1987, in a speech at the launch of the Dame Pattie Menzies Liberal Foundation, Opposition Leader John Howard included this:

“What sort of society is the Hawke Government creating in Australia which places extra burdens on families with children? The Liberal Party has never and will never reduce families with children to the status of being forgotten Australians.”

(It is not clear whether the link to Menzies’ forgotten people was directly made by Howard or by journalist Mike Steketee in his report.)

The words were given a lease of life in Judith Brett’s 1992 book Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People and they haven’t looked back since, with Tony Abbott borrowing them year for his “forgotten families”.

My general scepticism about political cause-and-effect applies to this phrase as I wrote earlier this year. I doubt Menzies really discovered a new demographic or was even the first politician to try to win them over, and it’s a bit of a stretch to link a 1942 talk to a 1949 victory.

But we all need our stories. Not least the ALP and the “light on the hill”.

Tony Abbott’s forgotten families

- First published in the Australian on 13 May 2011

In his budget reply last night, opposition leader Tony Abbott made two mentions of Australia’s “forgotten families”.

It was an obvious reference to Robert Menzies’ “forgotten people” speech. Kevin Rudd, when in opposition, also referred to the “forgotten people”.

The forgotten people speech was delivered on radio in 1942, when Menzies was a former prime minister and ex-United Australia Party leader.

The following year the Labor government under John Curtin won a landslide, with a two party preferred vote in the very high 50s and 66 percent of House of Representatives seats.

After that election Menzies returned to opposition leadership, creating from the ashes of the UAP the new “Liberal Party”. He lost the 1946 election but finally won in 1949.

Menzies then became Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, retiring on Australia Day 1966. (His successor, Harold Holt, then went on to record the Coalition’s biggest win.)

We really only remember the “forgotten people” because Menzies chose it as the title of a compilation of his 1942 radio speeches.

Academics and journalists love it because it contains the essence of the “secret” to his success. (They adore the bogus “Howard’s battlers” for the same reason.)

The Liberal Party under Menzies, like any successful party in this country, won and kept office largely by getting and retaining the support of the uninterested-in-politics middle class. Like most people, they can be encouraged to believe they’re being neglected.

But let’s face it, if he’d never made that speech nothing much would have happened differently.

When this sort of mythology starts creeping into politicians’ public statements, you have to wonder who they’re saying it for. It’s like Julia Gillard’s “game on” when becoming prime minister last June.

Who is the audience? The political class: politicians, academics and journalists, presumably. It’s about creating “momentum” or something like that. As if making people in the beltway believe something will make it come true.

But if “forgotten people” was an effective line for Menzies, it took seven years to come to fruition. In between was the conservative parties’ biggest federal loss ever.

One thing’s for sure: Tony won’t still be opposition leader in seven years.

Myths have their uses, but they’re not to be taken literally. You wouldn’t design a battle plan based on the Gallipolli myth.

“Forgotten people” is a myth best left to the storytellers.

Mike Kelly’s Labor preselection in Eden-Monaro may break bellwether habit

- First published in the Australian on 5 May 2015

Mike Kelly, the former Labor MP for Eden Monaro, has been preselected to run in the seat again at the next election. Eden-Monaro is a large, mostly rural NSW electorate. The whims and swings of the state with the most seats naturally has most influence on federal election outcomes, and so that’s where the “bellwether” seats — those that have a record of being won by whoever forms government — tend to be found.

Until recently, Macarthur on Sydney’s southwest fringe was the favoured “bellwether”. But in 2007 it remained with the Liberals while the nation went Labor.

Eden-Monaro is as old as federation, but it’s only since 1972 that it’s always picked the winning side. It’s not one of those big-swinging electorates like for example Lindsay (and Macarthur). It just contains a large cross section and sits around the middle of the pendulum. It tends, give or take, to swing at around the amount NSW does. Unless special factors, like personal votes, come into play.

Kelly was the successful 2007 candidate, defeating the sitting Liberal Gary Nairn. After that, like most new MPs, he developed a personal vote. That is, Eden-Monaro people got to know Mike: they might have seen him in the local paper, or perhaps in the flesh at a community function. He’s a former soldier — that’s usually a plus. Kelly has a nice guy image and a cheesy 1970s moustache.

As well, he was often on the evening news, sitting behind the prime minister in parliament, laughing and nodding at the right moments.

For the next election, in 2010, the Liberals preselected former senior staffer David Gazard. Whacko, journalists enthused, Gazard is a high-quality candidate; this contest should be interesting.

Gazard was and is no doubt a talented, hard-working, smart fellow, but unfortunately this meant little to Eden-Monaro voters because, as is routinely the case with challenging candidates, few had any idea who he was.

On election day, while the nation swung by 2.6 per cent to the Coalition, and NSW moved by 4.8, Kelly’s margin in Eden-Monaro increased (that is, swung to Labor) by 1.9 per cent.

This is one of those mundane little secrets buried beneath the colourful stories about elections: the identity, let alone “quality”, of non-sitting major-party candidates rarely makes much difference. It’s only afterwards, if they’re successful, that the supposed brilliance of their campaign is recognised. In reality most of the result has little to do with them, and more to do with national, state and regional movements.

This dynamic, of the creation of a personal vote after a new MP is elected, is sometimes called a “sophomore surge” (the term, obviously, comes from the United States).

It’s also worth noting that at the 2007 election the sitting Nairn had a personal vote. So his absence from the ballot paper in 2010 also assisted Kelly.

This can be called a “double sophomore surge”.

Back in 2010, Labor strategists naturally claimed credit for the fine performance in Eden-Monaro and other sophomore seats. Mate, they reckoned, our “sandbagging” did it. But if that were true you have to wonder why they didn’t apply those secret sauces across the country.

In 2013 Kelly was swept away with the anti-Labor tide — he only just lost — and his replacement was another former staffer (and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO) Peter Hendy.

Until this week’s news, we could have anticipated that at the next election in 2016 (or perhaps this year) Hendy would benefit from a “double sophomore surge” — from his own new recognition and the absence of Kelly’s personal vote.

But now we know that Labor will be taking a ready-made personal vote to the Eden-Monaro contest — and a substantial one. (By this measurement he retained a high personal vote in 2013 despite losing the seat.

Mumble tables: relative personal votes

So Hendy will only expect a single surge. (And perhaps a modest one because he was not given a “nodding” position behind the leader in parliament. This seems mostly reserved for brightly-clad females; Peter is a chap and a dour one at that.)

Does this mean Labor will probably win Eden-Monaro? No, you couldn’t go that far. But Kelly’s candidacy must be worth a per cent or two more than some other unknown Labor candidate. It’s bad news for Hendy.

The biggest driver of that seat’s result will, as always, be the major parties’ performances state-wise and federally. Hendy should still get that single surge.

There will also, assuming this parliament runs the full term, be a redistribution in NSW, which will affect Eden-Monaro.

But in 2013 Kelly’s popularity almost led the seat’s voters to break their four-decade “bellwether” habit.

If, as is likely, the Coalition government is re-elected with a reduced majority next time, there’s at least a decent chance it will be without Eden-Monaro.

Thanks to Mike Kelly’s personal vote.

A Liberal in Melbourne?

- First published in the Australian 26 July 2012

It has been reported that the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party is very likely to preference Labor ahead of Adam Bandt in the federal seat of Melbourne at the next election.

The expectation in some quarters is that this will send the sole Greens House of Representatives MP packing. One “senior Liberal” has told the Australian she or he would be “absolutely blown away if the party didn’t end Bandt’s career.” It’s true that Liberal how-to-vote cards helped deliver Bandt victory in 2010. If the Liberal candidate had “preferenced” Labor’s Cath Bowtell ahead of Bandt, instead of vice versa, Bowtell would now be the Member for Melbourne.

But that was then. Putting the Labor candidate ahead of Bandt on the Liberal how-to-vote card next time is not likely to see him off.

Now he’s there, Bandt won’t be that easy to move.

The logic of the “Bandt is doomed” narrative seems to be that an expected increase in support for the Liberals in Victoria at the next federal election will give them many more preferences to direct.

The flaw in this logic is that nearly all of this increase will come from the ALP, and the Libs can only return a portion of them in preferences.

Bandt is quoted as saying he is “aiming to win the federal seat of Melbourne on primary votes”. If he means he aims to top the primary vote, it is close to certain he will do that. If he means he aims to get more than 50 per cent of the primary vote, it is close to certain he won’t.

But he won’t need to. Bandt is looking very safe in Melbourne.

At the 2010 federal election., Bowtell received 38.1 per cent of the primary vote, Bandt got 36.2 and the Liberal candidate 21.0.

Thanks to the Liberal HTV card, 80.0 per cent of the Libs’ 21.0 flowed to Bandt and 20.0 to Bowtell (from AEC data) and so Bandt won the two-candidate-preferred vote 56.0 to 44.0.

In a recent post I compared the results in the state seat of Melbourne in 2006 when Libs preferenced Greens, and 2010 when they preferenced Labor.

When the Liberal candidate dropped out of the count in 2006, 74.4 per cent of those votes flowed to the Greens and 25.6 to Labor. When the Liberal candidate dropped out in 2010, 33.6 per cent went to Greens and 66.4 to Labor. The big difference, of course, is mostly due to HTV cards.

(These state numbers are not quite the equivalent of the federal 80.0 20.0 quoted above. The federal number represents what happened to all votes with a ‘1’ next to the Lib, while the state numbers represent what happened to votes that were with the Lib when they dropped out of the count. But they are almost equivalent.)

How might federal preferences have flowed in 2010 if Libs had put Bowtell ahead of Bandt on their cards? We might subtract 33.6 from 74.4, and take that number off 80.0. Then we would say 39.2 per cent of their preferences would have gone to Bandt and 60.8 to Bowtell. But let’s err on the side of Liberal preferencing power for the sake of argument and apply the 33.6 to 66.4.

If we distribute Lib preferences 33.6 to Bandt and 66.4 to Bowtell at the 2010 federal election, Bowtell wins 53.7 to 46.3 two-candidate-preferred.

One way to contemplate whether Bandt will survive next time is to ask whether we think he would have built a personal vote of 3.7 per cent or more, to overcome this deficit.

It’s very likely he would have.

But it gets worse for Labor. As we’ve noted, there is the expectation that Labor’s vote in Victoria will be down next time and the Libs will be up. Of every vote that goes from Labor to the Libs, most of it will go back to Labor but a large minority will go to Bandt.

We might say Bandt will get 39.2 per cent of them, or 33.6.

So the worse the ALP does against the Libs, the worse they do against Bandt.

In 2010 Bowtell got 38.1 while the state-wide Labor vote was 42.8 per cent against the Coalition’s 39.6 and Greens’ 12.7.

The latest Newspoll quarterly had Labor on 34 and Coalition on 42 and Greens on 15 in the state. Whichever way you look at it, Bandt increases his support on those numbers, both from the higher Greens vote (which may or may not eventuate at the ballot box) and the higher Coalition vote, about a third of which flows to him.

And that’s without taking account of Bandt’s personal vote, his “sophomore surge”.

The ALP faces an uphill battle taking Melbourne back while Bandt is there, unless its vote in the state improves to a higher level than in 2010, which is very unlikely.

In fact, if Labor does very badly, and Bandt’s vote holds up, then the Liberal candidate may get into second place. If Labor preferences the Liberals, as some in the party believe they should, then the Liberal might win the seat.

Perhaps that’s what the Victorian Liberals have in mind.

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 10.1 million in 2010 to 9.4 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 9.4 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.


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.

Polemics no use

- First published in the Australian 12 January 2015

IN the wake of the Islamist 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.

South Australia, William Robinson 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.

A quick history of enrolment

In 2013 I attended and gave a paper to a workshop run by CABER.

CABER was the then Electoral Commissioner Ed Killesteyn’s Advisory Board for Electoral Research.

From memory this was a two-day workshop and the session I spoke at dealt with automatic enrolment, or as the Commish wanted us all to call it, direct enrolment. This is something I’ve been going on about for years.

The Coalition was strongly against it and one person in attendance was the Shadow Minister of State Bronwyn Bishop. When it was time for questions she commandeered the podium to … patiently explain her position, and eventually had to be talked down so others could have a go.

I called my talk A History of Enrolment in Australia. (I think some of the words were filched from other of my presentations.) It gives a brief history of enrolment, in the “mother country” and then here, before moving to direct enrolment.

The words I read out are more or less those below.

Although this session isn’t about turnout, I’ll just draw your attention to official 93.2 per cent turnout figure at the 2010 election. Australians tend to be proud of our turnout numbers, invariably in the 90s. But that figure is not right. A figure for Australia that could be compared with, say, the much-quoted American on of 50-something—that is the proportion of eligible voters who cast a valid vote—would be below 80. Probably in the high 70s.

Some of that difference is in the five per cent informal vote. But more importantly, around 10 per cent of our eligible voters aren’t on the roll. And our turnout figure is total votes as a proportion of the roll.

That missing 10 per cent is the 1.5 million missing voters the AEC talks about.

To me the worst consequence of this is in another number: two per cent. Several hundred thousand Australians (about two per cent of eligible voters), tried to vote in 2010 and couldn’t, because they weren’t on the roll. They unsuccessfully lodged provisional votes. There would have been more who upon learning they weren’t on the roll, just turned around and left.

It is so important to have a comprehensive electoral roll.

I’m not a great fan of compulsory voting and compulsory enrolment, partly because it muddies the waters in discussions such as this. Some people say: well, it’s the law, and so people should make sure their enrolment details are up to date.

It means things like the state of the roll are seen as a tool to force people to the polls. I prefer to see it in terms of enabling people to vote. Which is what the electoral roll and the full electoral apparatus are: an infrastructure to enable an efficient, and as full as possible, registering of people’s preferences on election day.

Canada has voluntary enrolment, but a more complete roll than us. The figure they put on their missing electors is seven per cent. Why?

The answer is: because until June, at least, the AEC operated with one hand tied behind its back.

To understand what’s happened, I’m going to give a two-minute history of the electoral roll in Australia. Enrolment is responsible for the shape of the AEC today. It drove the whole process, the development of a stand-alone independent electoral apparatus.

In the United Kingdom before 1832 there was no written electoral roll. The 1832 Reform Act changed that, laying out the annual process of sticking notices on public buildings like churches and courts, advising people to get on the roll if they wanted. People did this by writing up and handing in enrolment forms. There were public objections and revision courts. People paid to get on the roll. The work was done by council employees.

This was the process inherited by Australia when we started running elections in the 1840s.

It was in South Australia from the 1850s that things started to change, and diverge from both Britain and the other colonies. Registration fees were abolished. The state became proactive: every several years police and council workers knocked on houses around the colony leaving enrolment forms (or in practice filling it out on the spot with the occupant). In between times the roll was maintained continuously. People could get on the roll or change their details at any time. By, naturally, filling in bits of paper. Births deaths and marriages records were used by officials to take people off when they died.

A standalone permanent electoral apparatus developed, the world’s first, with permanent, salaried returning officers responsible for the roll in the electorate, reporting to a central figure, the returning officer for the province.

That person was the precursor to the current Australian Electoral Commissioner. These were world firsts. As far as I can tell there were no specifically designated, permanent electoral officials anywhere else.

And towards the end of the century census collectors started doubling as roll collectors. They were building a roll, and didn’t particularly care if people wanted to vote or not.

In 1901 came federation, and in 1902 the Australian Electoral Office was created. Most of its organisational structure was picked up from South Australia: a chief electoral officer with spokes going out, this time to six state electoral officers, to whom permanent returning officers reported.

The first Commonwealth electoral roll was created in 1902–3, a centrally coordinated effort that in most states involved door to door knocks by police. But not South Australia,

because they already had a good roll and their franchise was virtually identical to the new one.

It seems to have been the one and only time the Commonwealth electoral roll was created from scratch (the SA part exempted). After that, there was continuous roll maintenance, electorate by electorate, as in SA.

Piece by piece joint roll arrangements were agreed upon, first Tasmania in 1905 and last Queensland in 1991 and then the ACT with its first elections the next year.

The rolls were initially kept in large books at the level of sub-division. In 1912 these were replaced with a card system, and in the 1970s databases on computers. Regular habitation reviews became the main source of enrolment information in the late 1970s.

A big change came in 1999. Continuous Roll Update (CRU) replaced habitation reviews. Under CRU, the AEC obtains data from various Commonwealth, State and Territory government bodies and cleans, crunches it.

Every year several million Australians move house and with CRU the AEC has been very efficient, with this new data, at taking them off the roll at their old address. But it has not been able to put them on at their new one. All it can do is send enrolment forms out and plead with people to fill them out, and they are increasingly discarded.

And this is probably the main reason for the deteriorating roll. The AEC has been asking for the right to do the other side. To do, for example what Canada can.

In June lat year, finally, parliament passed a bill to enable just that. Welcome to the 21st century. The AEC is fond of saying direct enrolment and direct update is not a panacea, it’s not a silver bullet, but it is a fine development. It was introduced in Victoria and NSW in 2010, and as Antony Green has written the resulting growing divergence between the state roll and state portion of the commonwealth roll has made the change at the commonwealth level even more necessary.

An associated remnant of the past is the organisation of the AEC. Those permanent returning officers are still there, with their 2.5 staff. The AEC has for years wanted rationalise them and parliament has let them a bit, with processes called ‘regionalisation’, ‘shared premises’, ‘amalgamation’, ‘collocation’, ‘workload sharing’, but it’s still, with a few exceptions, a DRO per electorate.

At least until a few years ago it was the case that when people sent in enrolment forms to the state office of the AEC, someone would put them into the pigeon hole for the division and they would get posted out there and data-entered.

Nowadays most of them come via the website, at least.

This structure was once a significant driver of Australia’s trailblazing in running elections, but it’s long past its usefulness.

I want to raise a couple of concerns, that really kick in with a comprehensive roll, no matter how it is created. One is privacy. The electoral roll is given to candidates at elections, electronically. Electronic data is so easy to pass around. It is a big worry.

A full, comprehensive roll, one that is closer to 100 than 92 per cent complete, will mean a lower on-paper turnout. That’s a good thing, because it is more “correct”.

But it also means more people are fined. The AEC doesn’t fine people for not being on the roll but it does for not voting. Do we really want that? The state/territory with the highest proportion of unenrolled is the Northern Territory, predominately Indigenous Australians. Direct enrolment won’t necessarily be very effective with that portion of the population, but if it were, you would get many of them being fined for not voting.

There is the political angle. It is a sad fact that over the centuries “left” progressive parties have seen it as in their interests to get as many people as possible to vote, and conservative, right wing ones have wanted to narrow it. Unfortunately parties’ attitudes to these things are driven by backroom operators who are always on the lookout for that minuscule advantage, just in case the result is close. Which it rarely is.

Some of the figures put out about the change to the vote if all these people are included are wacky. Some have suggested a 20 point two-party preferred vote advantage to Labor. By that I mean 60 40 if the rest of the country votes 50 50. That really would only apply to the minority, about 17 per cent, of the unenrolled who are aged 18-19. Overall I think it’s closer to 53 47. Which, if the roll were 100 per cent complete—it will never be—and if all the new people voted and voted formally—a large minority won’t—would mean a 0.3 per cent increase in the Labor two-party preferred vote.

I see roll maintenance, as electoral administration per se, as like maintaining the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It is there to serve the public, and its shape and nature is determined by what is in the public’s interest, but there really is no need to get the people involved in the decisions. You let the experts get on with it. So I don’t put a premium on engaging people in the process.

I also don’t see much value in finding out why people aren’t enrolling. Who cares? Just get them on the bloody roll.

It’s a bit different. A bridge, unless it is torn down and built again, will always be recognisable as that structure that was opened in 1932. It will have that look.

There are reasons why the maintenance of the electoral roll is like that: the ancestor of that organisation created in 1902. So much of it is recognisable. But it doesn’t have to be. And this change, to direct enrolment, is an important change.

I’ll just finish by mentioning election-day enrolment, which was rejected by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) report and it not being sought by the AEC. This is a pity. Hopefully it will come soon.

Short history of preferential voting

First published in the Australian on 9 December 2014.

Australians have had preferential voting for national elections since 1918, but it took almost half a century for some key concepts to be understood.

This is something I wrote in 2006 for an academic paper I never finished. This being a longish Sunday, I’ve slightly polished and updated it and plonked it here.

It’s about the history of preferential voting in single member electorates (aka AV) in Australia, and people’s understanding of it. Thinking in terms of a national two party preferred vote (which is not very applicable to UK’s three party system) didn’t really arrive until at least the 1960s.

I. History of Preferential Voting in Single Member Electorates

Preferential voting in single member electorates, using one ballot paper, is an Australian invention.

When the colonies started running elections in the 1840s–50s their starting point, as with most things, was how it was done ‘back home’—in England. For voting system this meant first past the post.

The pre-federation colony of Queensland introduced a voting system called ‘contingent voting’ in1892. It replicated the then (and now) French two-round system, but on the one piece of paper, on the one election day, rather than successive weeks or fortnights or months. From the point of view of the voter filling out his (only males voted in Australia in 1892) ballot paper, it was identical to what we today know as Optional Preferential Voting: for a vote to count, a first preference had to be indicated, and the numbering of any more squares was optional. However, in the counting it differed from today’s OPV in that there were only two ‘rounds’: if no candidate achieved over 50%, all but the top two candidates were eliminated at once and all their preferences distributed.

Contingent voting saved the added expense of an extra election. Queensland carried it on at state level until 1942, when it adopted first past the post. In 1962 it joined most of the rest of Australia in moving to compulsory preferential voting, and in 1992 joined New South Wales in adopting OPV.

At the national level, the first elections for the new federated nation, in 1901, were run by the colonies/states. Each ran its own portion, using its own rules and franchise. Federal parliament then appointed a conference of the states’ electoral administrators to make recommendations for electoral arrangements, which were to be the genesis, with substantial modification, of the first electoral act in 1902. The conference recommended Queensland’s contingent voting, but with compulsory numbering of every square (recommendation 29). The version promoted by the Barton government, through Senator Richard O’Connor, was what we would today call OPV (Jan 30 1902, page 9534) (The government also advocated proportional representation in the Senate); Australia instead got first past the post in the lower house (and the terrible ‘block vote’ in the senate).

The second Commonwealth Electoral Act, in 1918 however, contained compulsory preferential voting in both houses. The Hughes Nationalist government largely introduced it because the rise of the Country Party had threatened to split the conservative vote. In the House of Representatives it was first used at a by-election in the Victorian seat of Corangamite, and then at the full general elections in 1919.
(The CEA 1918 also introduced preferential voting for the senate, which was even worse than the block vote. In 1948 legislation introduced STV, proportional representation, for the senate.) The states adopted preferential voting for their lower houses. Today all but Tasmania, which went its own way early, have CPV or OPV (Queensland and New South Wales) )

II. History of our ‘Understanding’ of Preferential Voting in Single Member Electorates

Preferences and aggregate national two party preferred votes have therefore been with us since 1919. Our understanding of it is another story, and has evolved in part by necessity as support for the major parties has decreased and preferences become more important. It seems that from 1918 until the late 1960s, political strategists and other interested parties no doubt understood the workings of preferences in individual seats, but the concept of a national two party preferred vote did not exist. In part this was because of the limited use of opinion polls and, apart from the rise of Lang Labor in the 1930s and 1940s and the Democratic Labor Party from the 1950s onwards, the major parties enjoyed, between them, high levels of support, and so preferences were not so important as today.

The political scientist Malcolm Mackerras was central in the development of our understanding of the concept. His entry in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Australian Politics gives a fine summary of events. According to Mackerras, “[t]he intellectual origins of the two-party preferred vote go back to 1949″, conceptually anticipated in a research note by Leicester Webb. In 1957 Joan Rydon, measuring electorate margins, devised what she called the “adjusted two party vote”.

A decade later Mackerras adapted David Butler’s ‘swingometer’ to Australian conditions, called it a pendulum, and the rest is history. Mackerras continues the story:

“The first serious attempt to adjust for the massive changes brought about by redistribution came in my first book, The 1968 Federal Redistribution. The data from that was then put into pendulum form in a newspaper article. … It should be noted, however, that the Rydon expression ‘adjusted two-party vote’ never caught on. By contrast my re-naming of it as the ‘two-party preferred vote’ did win immediate recognition essentially because it was combined with a pendulum and because observers instinctively understood what it meant.”

In an email Mackerras has told me that the first federal election his pendulum was used for was in 1972.

In 1984 the newly created Australian Electoral Commission (which replaced the Australian Electoral Office), headed by academic Colin Hughes, began calculating and publishing full two candidate preferred votes for every seat and two party preferred nationally. They went back to the previous federal election, in 1983, and counted them out to full exhaustion, and then did it for all elections starting with the next one in 1984. They also estimated them from 1949 to 1980 by assuming likely preference flows for minor parties and independents. Gradually, most state authorities followed suit.1 Since around the mid nineteen eighties political scientists and other political observers have recognised the importance of the concept.

To explain the importance of two party preferred over primary votes, I like to make two points. One is that in a seat where the two main contestants are Labor and Coalition, the candidate who gets the higher two party preferred vote wins the seat – always. It is embedded in the preferential electoral system.

Secondly, a simple conceptual explanation is that if, after an election, you took all the voting papers in the country and made of them two piles, one containing ballot papers where the Coalition is ranked ahead of the ALP, and the other vice versa2, this is the two party preferred vote. It doesn’t matter where on the ballot paper the ranking is, and so it might be seen as especially appropriate in an age of much discussion involving electors choosing between ‘the lesser of two evils’. Another clear explanation is to draw on the comparion of the French/Russian/Latin American two round system, alluded to with Queensland’s contingent voting, above.

The most casual observer of Australian politics today can tell you that Labor won the vote but not the election in 1998 and the Coalition did the same in 1990. In 1987 the Coalition won more primary votes than Labor, but fell behind after preferences; this election is never included in the list because consensus, correctly, looks predominately at two party preferred votes. However, contemporary accounts in 1954, 1961 and 1969 observed only that Labor won ‘the vote’, that is, the primary vote, and there was recognition (for the last two) that DLP preferences had made the differences. The concept of a national vote after preferences did not occur. From today’s post-Mackerras world, we can say that, despite DLP preferences, the ALP also won the two party preferred vote on those three occasions. (The 1987 election was the first at which the party leading on primary votes did not win the two party preferred vote; the second was in 2010. [Update: but see this comment and response below about 1954.]) At all elections swings are ‘lumpy’, and there really is no particular reason why the winner of the national two party preferred vote should necessarily win the most seats.

But two party preferred data is a much better indicator of a party’s competitiveness than primary support.