Australians who value democracy should turn their eyes to Canada to catch a glimpse of what might be heading our way.
Two weeks ago, international academics added their names to a call by 160 Canadian experts to stop a piece of legislation being rushed through parliament that aims to radically change electoral processes in Canada.
There has also been a concerted campaign by some politicians to discredit the AEC.
Introduced by the Conservative Party government in Canada, and with a name that would do George Orwell proud, the ‘'Fair Elections Act’' seeks to insert partisanship and inequality into Canadian electoral procedures in a manner reminiscent of 19th century processes. The proposed act will reduce voting rights, foster partisan bias in election administration and weaken campaign finance laws.
Along with Australia, Canada has a reputation for being a world leader in electoral processes, which makes the proposals all the more shocking and internationally significant.
Elections Canada - the equivalent of our Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) - is considered a strong and fiercely independent electoral administrator. But, if passed, the proposed act will move the enforcement arm of the agency into the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, a government department. This will diminish the independence of the agency but also, crucially, it means the activities of the commissioner would no longer be reported to parliament.
Elections Canada will also be prevented from publishing its research reports on the electoral process and, in a bizarre world-first, it will even be prohibited from promoting democratic participation and voting through ‘'get out the vote'’ campaigns.
But one of the most worrying aspects of the proposals is the attempt to wind back to the political patronage of yesteryear and, geographically, sideways to American-style partisanship in electoral administration.
At the moment, Election Canada employs poll supervisors who work at polling stations to make sure the processes of voting go smoothly. The act will instead require Elections Canada to appoint poll supervisors from lists of names provided by the candidate or party that came first in the last election. This blatantly favours the incumbent. It also means poll supervisors get their job because of party loyalty and, if they want to be picked again or have other ambitions in that party, will need to do a ‘'good'’ job by their party’s standards. Presumably, top of their criteria will be looking out for party interests rather than running a clean election.
In order to vote, Canadians have to prove their identity and address. But they also have a system of ‘'vouching'’, where a person without identification can still vote so long as a registered voter vouches for their identity. The proposed act will prohibit vouching and the use of voter information cards. This will make it harder for Canadians to vote, but especially seniors, young people, the economically disadvantaged, and Indigenous Canadians. Canada’s chief electoral officer has estimated that this could disenfranchise more than 100,000 people.
In Canada, the prohibition against vouching is ostensibly to reduce voter fraud, yet there is no evidence that vouching results in voter fraud. We are seeing a similar sleight of hand happening in Australia.
There is a long-standing preoccupation on the part of some Coalition members to introduce voter ID requirements in Australia. This is a solution in search of a problem. As political scientist Professor Brian Costar has noted, no investigation of our system has ever found widespread fraud or misrepresentation due to an absence of ID. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that the vast majority of suspected multiple voting incidents in Australian elections are the result of clerical errors made during the marking of the roll at polling stations, while the rest are usually due to voter confusion often associated with age, illness and English language ability.
Taking it a big step further toward American-style low turnout, several Coalition MPs have said they would like to see voluntary voting introduced - including Eric Abetz, Julie Bishop and Jamie Briggs.
In terms of partisanship, some Australian political scientists suspect there may be an attempt to re-introduce a parliamentary veto for electoral boundary redistributions - something that was done away with in 1983 to reduce partisan interference in independent electoral processes.
There has also been a concerted campaign by some politicians to discredit the AEC. The debacle of the lost ballots in Western Australia couldn’t have come at a better time for critics who would use that incident as a pretext to make Canadian-style changes that reduce the independence of electoral administration.
In Canada, the process of the changes has been as worrying as the content. The government is bypassing the usual forms of consultation and full parliamentary and public debate that normally occur with any major changes to electoral administration.
If all of this can happen in Canada, it can potentially happen anywhere, and there are hints that aspects of these reforms might be on the agenda here.
It is bizarre to have to worry that a government in 2014 would even consider unpicking some of the most basic principles of Australian democracy and wind back the clock to a more partisan era. But at a time when imperial honours are being brought back after 30 years, when the past 20 years of racial discrimination protection are being wound back, and when there are already claims of unprecedented partisan bias in the conduct of the Speaker, anything seems possible.
Sally Young is an Age columnist and associate professor of politics at the University of Melbourne.