Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
RAY HADLEY: I spoke yesterday about the Australian Electoral Commission’s advertising campaign, which has been on this radio network and in newspapers, on the internet for the past week about the new way to vote for the Senate in the upcoming Federal election. The ads are running in all forms or media. Now the ad clearly states, and I’ve got a copy of a newspaper ad in front of me, did you know that voting rules have changed in the Senate. Make your vote count. If you choose to vote above the line, you now need to number at least six boxes. Put the number one in the box for the party or group that’s your first choice and then it says at least six boxes, and then two, three, four, five and six. Below the line, you must number at least twelve boxes. That is what it says quite clearly. I then took a call from Pauline Hanson, who is running as a Senate candidate in Queensland. She says the ads are completely misleading, because under Section 269 1b of the Commonwealth Electoral Act a ballot paper in a Senate election won’t be informal if a voter has marked the number one above the line. In other words you don’t have to mark one to six according to the Act. While the ad says you must part at least six boxes. I spoke to Phil Diak, the spokesman for the Australian Electoral Commission. It didn’t really clarify the situation. He said it would be up to scrutineers in concert with the people in charge of the various booths to make a decision on whether the vote was informal or formal. I said I wanted to speak to the Minister responsible for the AEC about why the advertising campaign appears to be on face value misleading. Special Minister of State, Mathias Cormann is on the line. Minister good morning to you.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good morning Ray. Good morning to your listeners.
RAY HADLEY: Now who’s right and who’s wrong. I have got the Act in front of me and it appears on my reading of it, unless I am confused, that Pauline Hanson’s right.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The advertising by the AEC is accurate. The Parliament made a decision as part of our efforts to empower voters to determine what happens to their preferences and not political parties to be able to trade preferences away through opaque preference arrangements that are then reflected in some group voting tickets. We have decided to give voters the power to direct where their preferences go when voting for the Senate above the line. The instruction on the ballot paper for voters when voting above the line in the Senate is to number at least six boxes in order of their preference from one to six. The experience in other places around Australia where this is the case, like for example in the ACT, is that where such an instruction is on the ballot paper, less than two per cent of voters number less than seven boxes, as is the case in the ACT. Now ... interrupted
RAY HADLEY: But those two per cent are counted as formal obviously.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Separate to that the Parliament made a conscious decision here. We have had a system here in Australia where for thirty years now, people have been able to number just one, when voting in the Senate above the line. So there is a risk that some voters, because they have been used to this, could continue to do this. We don’t want to lose all of those votes. Wherever the voter intent is clear, we want to ensure that those votes can still be counted towards the result. That is why in the legislation there is a so called savings provision, which ensures that where a voter makes a mistake, but the intent is clear, where they vote one, two, three, where they fill one, two, three, four or five boxes, where the voter intent is clear, the votes are counted to the extent that they are... interrupted
RAY HADLEY: But what if they only, see what it says here Minister and I read from the page. A ballot paper in the Senate election is not informal under paragraph 268 1b if b) the voter has marked the number one. So ...
MATHIAS CORMANN: Yes, that is right.
RAY HADLEY: So you’ve just spoken about their intent being one, two, three, four, but now, it actually is if they just put one number down there it will be a formal vote.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is right. If somebody fills in any number less than six, it would still be saved. So whether it is just one or one and two or one, two, three, or one, two, three, four, five, the point is, the decision that the Parliament has made is, the instruction on the ballot paper will be that to vote above the line in the Senate, voters should number at least six boxes in order of their preference.
RAY HADLEY: But they don’t have to.
MATHIAS CORMANN: If they don’t, then the objective is to ensure that where the voter intent is clear that the vote still gets counted ... interrupted
RAY HADLEY: But wouldn’t it have been easier to either remove this paragraph I have just referred to so that a vote that didn’t contain one to six became informal immediately as opposed to the returning officer having a blue with the scrutineer?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There is no blue here. It is black and white really. We have actually included this paragraph intentionally... interrupted
RAY HADLEY: You put it there?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We put it there, because before it was irrelevant. Before, all a voter could do when voting above the line was vote one. As soon as they put the number one in favour of the party of their choice, they lost control of their preferences. It was then up to the political party of their choice to direct preferences according to their wishes. What we have said is we want you, the voter, to determine where your preferences go.
RAY HADLEY: But it’s not obligatory?
MATHIAS CORMANN: If somebody does not follow the guidance, their vote will still be counted as we believe it should be, because it reflects their intent.
RAY HADLEY: But the ad is misleading to be fair Minister. It says you now need to number at least six boxes, when in fact you don’t.
MATHIAS CORMANN: It is not misleading... interrupted
RAY HADLEY: Yes it is.
MATHIAS CORMANN: It reflects the guidance on the ballot paper. It reflects what the legislation provides for. It says that to vote above the line you should number at least six boxes. That is the instruction on the ballot paper. The advertisement reflects the instruction on the ballot paper.
RAY HADLEY: ‘If you choose to vote above the line you now need to number at least six boxes’. Well you don’t.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is the guidance... interrupted
RAY HADLEY: With all due respect to you, it is not black or white, or blue or pink, or anything else. You can’t have two fathers here, you can only have one. And what this ad says is, ‘you must number at least six boxes’, and you have now confirmed to me you don’t have to.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Under the previous system... interrupted
RAY HADLEY: I don’t care about the previous system Minister.
MATHIAS CORMANN: No, it is an important point. The point is that there have always been savings provisions. It is important to have savings provisions in place, because you don’t want to inappropriately exclude votes that have been issued from the count. Under the previous system, when voting below the line, the law required that you needed to fill in every box. But there was a savings provision, where if you got, because the Senate voting paper became very large with lots of individual candidates, so there was a savings provision in place where if you filled in at least 90 per cent of the ballot paper correctly with no more than three mistakes in sequence, it would still be counted. So the principle of having savings provisions in place is long established.
RAY HADLEY: Sure, but the point I still make is your vote will not be informal if you don’t put one to six above the line, as it insists you should on every ad that has been played on this radio network and has been displayed in newspapers and on social media and on internet sites since last Monday.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The advertisements of the AEC reflects the provision ...
RAY HADLEY: I know that.
MATHIAS CORMANN: ... in the law that the instruction on the ballot paper is to number at least six boxes when voting above the line.
RAY HADLEY: Yes.
MATHIAS CORMANN: But there is a savings provision, which the Parliament very consciously put in place to ensure that we don’t have a significant increase in informal votes, because people having voted a particular way for thirty years, there is a chance that a number of them will continue to vote that way. But the experience for example in the ACT, where these sorts of instructions have been put on the ballot paper, is that overwhelmingly people follow that instruction.
RAY HADLEY: I can understand that, but people must be aware that they don’t necessarily have an obligation to follow, they can do what they like really. They can put one, two, three, four, five, what happens if they put eight there?
MATHIAS CORMANN: They can fill in every box above the line if that is what they... interrupted
RAY HADLEY: They have to put at least six, but they can put as many as they like.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is exactly right.
RAY HADLEY: Above the line as well and those preferences will then flow.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is exactly right.
RAY HADLEY: But if they wish to just put one, they can do that, it will be a formal vote. So we’ve confirmed that.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The instruction will be to number at least six, but if they do just put in one above the line, it will be counted for that one.
RAY HADLEY: Good, that’s all I wanted. So we’ll be telling people that, that they have the option to do that. I would have thought giving you wanted to get away from the whispering preferences that you would have made it obligatory you have got to do at least six numbers, but you haven’t done that.
MATHIAS CORMANN: We have got away from the whispering preferences, because if somebody... interrupted
RAY HADLEY: Not if everybody puts one you haven’t.
MATHIAS CORMANN: But we have, because if somebody just puts one, unlike in the past, these votes will not then go to other parties without the voter having determined that that should happen. If you put one above the line under the previous system, it was then up to the party to determine where those preferences go.
RAY HADLEY: This is a very important point, so tell me what happens if I put one now, I don’t go to any preference? I only vote for that one party?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is exactly right.
RAY HADLEY: So there are no preferences flowing anywhere if I put one?
MATHIAS CORMANN: If you put one above the line, you vote for the candidates of that party and the vote exhausts after that. You see, the problem with the previous system was that people ended up helping to elect people into the Senate that they didn’t intend to elect. We thought that was a problem.
RAY HADLEY: I think the most important point of our conversation Minister, with all due respect, is that yes we have established that you would prefer people did one to six or one to eight or nine, whatever they want... interrupted
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is the instruction on the ballot paper.
RAY HADLEY: That is the instruction, but it is very important to point out, yes you can put one there, but your preference is terminated immediately upon putting the one there.
MATHIAS CORMANN: They terminate at the end of the ticket that you have supported with your number one vote, yes.
RAY HADLEY: Exactly. So if you vote for Labor or the Liberal Party, the National Party and put one there, they won’t flow anywhere else. So if you put one to the Greens that won’t flow anywhere else, they don’t flow anywhere.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That’s right.
RAY HADLEY: I think that is the most important point to come out of this and on that basis, I think it is fairly well explained and I appreciate you coming on.
MATHIAS CORMANN: No worries, thanks Ray.
RAY HADLEY: Thanks very much Minister. Mathias Cormann. Well we took a long way to get there, but we finally got there. So my raising of the whispering had him commenting that it has changed. That they would prefer you to put at least six numbers there above the line in the Senate to illustrate where your preferences flow, where you want your preference to flow. But if you only put the number one there, well they exhaust for that party and that party alone. The party doesn’t determine where the preferences flow, which is the most important part of it. So, I can understand that.