As we watch the slow, momentous collapse of American democracy, a Scott Morrison-ism comes to mind: How good is the Australian Electoral Commission?
In Australia, Donald Trump would always have to win fair and square, and if he lost there would be no polls a year later showing that 80 per cent of his party still think the election was stolen, as 80 per cent of US Republicans apparently do of last year’s US election.
The latest American outrage is a PowerPoint presentation written by Trump’s Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, entitled: “Election Fraud, Foreign Interference & Options for 6 Jan”.
It was a plan for overturning the 2020 result and installing his boss as the winner, and started with: “VP Pence delays the decision in order to allow for a vetting and subsequent counting of all the legal paper ballots”.
They would then go on to declare a “National Security Emergency”, based on the proposition that Venezuela, which is itself barely alive, interfered in the US election for some reason, and then declare electronic voting in all states invalid because of that foreign influence and only “count paper ballots or revert to a constitutional remedy delegated to Congress”.
Bear in mind, the author of this insane sedition was the President’s Chief of Staff.
Pence refused to do it, which led to a mob storming the Capitol Building on January 6 shouting, among other things, “Kill Pence”.
Republicans are now preparing for the 2024 presidential election by launching campaigns to install Trump allies as the electoral officials in a number of key states.
That project is running in parallel with a Republican push across the country to enact voter suppression laws based on Trump’s election lies.
And now Donald Trump is favourite to win in 2024.
Thank God for the AEC
As I read about all this, all I can think is: Thank God for Tom Rogers.
Rogers is the Australian Electoral Commissioner and he wouldn’t stand for any of the nonsense going on the United States – in fact his mere presence and the existence of the AEC stand against both the perception and reality of electoral fraud in this country.
I’m not suggesting the AEC is perfect, and I’ll get to its imperfections later, but it’s worth remembering that the only serious challenge to the integrity of Australia’s electoral system occurred in 1977 when Reg Withers, the then Minister for Administrative Affairs, tried to change the name of the Gold Coast electorate to McPherson over the head of the Australian Electorate Office, as it then was.
There was a Royal Commission. And Reg Withers lost his job.
Seven years later, the Hawke government rewrote the electoral laws and turned the office into an independent statutory commission with powerful laws to both run and regulate elections.
The minister behind that was Mick Young, Special Minister of State, but he was forced to step down when he failed to declare a Paddington Bear in his wife’s luggage at the airport – which, as an aside, was a wonderful, nostalgic, affirmation of Australian political integrity, and something that would definitely not happen today.
Anyway, his key adviser, the future Treasurer Wayne Swan and an architect of the new electoral laws with Michael Maley of the AEO, kept the project going with Swan’s new boss, Kim Beazley.
Watching what’s going in the US now, it’s pretty clear that while that legislation is not usually remembered among the Hawke/Keating government’s most significant reforms, it might well have been the most important of all.
Australia takes for granted a network of strong federal and state electoral commissions that operate the elections, as well as their funding, and that stand as a bulwark against creeping modern fascism.
Solution in search of a problem
Lately we’ve been having a silly, unnecessary argument about voter IDs: They’re not required when voting in Australia and some bright spark in the Coalition persuaded the Prime Minister to back the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Voter Integrity) Bill 2021 to require them, but it expired due to lack of interest.
The system works fine, which we can now see more clearly by comparison with a certain democracy where it’s not working fine at all, except …
The AEC should get more involved in enforcing truth in political advertising and the transparency of political donations, preferably with a cap on federal election expenditure by parties and individuals.
South Australia has had truth in advertising laws since 1985, Queensland has real-time political donation disclosure, and New South Wales has a cap on spending.
The AEC doesn’t enforce any of those things, but it should.
Clive Palmer can spend any amount of cash he likes and in the process he and Craig Kelly can distort the election with lies.
Perhaps a better idea might be to have two federal bodies: One to operate elections and the other to regulate the behaviour of those involved, a bit like the Reserve Bank and APRA operate in the financial system, with the RBA running it and APRA watching the banks.
Either way, it’s time for another look at the way the Australian electoral system works.
Not that it’s broken – far from it – but it could do with a service.
Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is also editor in chief of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news