KENEALLY: So bacon and eggs on high rotation in your house?
SMITH: Yes, there’s a bit of that. Hamburgers. My wife thinks I’m a bit of a barbecue freak because of it. She thinks it stuck with me the whole time.
KENEALLY: A husband who can cook is a blessing, I suspect. Well, I certainly think it is. Now, Tony, welcome to Keneally & Cameron, it is your first time on the show but you’re a long-time viewer.
KENEALLY: As the callers say: first time caller, long-time viewer. Ross here is very keen to put to you some questions about the electoral reforms issues your Committee is currently considering. I just want to kick off with one. Your Committee is investigating the loss of 1 370 ballot papers in Western Australia. Have you found them yet?
SMITH: No, and we’ve had another election, so I hope we don’t.
SMITH: …at a cost of $23 million. Look, this was the AEC’s biggest failure and to be fair, they agree. So we’ve had the re-run. We had the Keelty Inquiry, former police commissioner, who found a whole smorgasbord of problems. So really, the AEC is undergoing a bit of a Renovation Rescue. We’re getting regular updates on the implementation of all of that. Not only have they had the re-run, they’ve had the Griffith by-election. So they’ve had a chance to have a look at how things work.
ROSS CAMERON: Tony, the UK Electoral Commissioner, the Honourable Justice Richard Maury visited Australia not so long ago. And his observation was that if the potential for fraud exists in the electoral system, it will be exploited. I note you wrote an opinion piece for the Herald Sun where you described ours as a hundred year old, honour-based voting system in need of reform. Excepting some of these potential reforms like electronic voting as very expensive, I mean where do you see the major vulnerabilities in our current voting laws?
SMITH: Well one of them we addressed in the report yesterday—it didn’t get a lot of attention—but that is having an electronic certified list, or what your viewers would know as a computer-based list. So when we all vote, we get asked the question whether we’ve voted anywhere else, we get asked our name crossed off on a paper roll, and that identical paper roll is in every booth. So having an electronic certified list; so when Ross Cameron’s name is crossed off, it goes off simultaneously in all the other booths in that electorate. Not only does it prevent errors, it prevents multiple voting. And I think it give the elector confidence. I think that’s an important first step. But the Committee’s also considering the issue of voter ID, it was there in our terms of reference, and that’s something we’ll get to in the coming weeks and months. We’ve had the pressing WA issue and the Senate voting system itself, which we thought were priorities in our first months of works.
KENEALLY: Well we should touch on that briefly, the Senate, because you put out an interim report…
SMITH: Back in March.
KENEALLY: …where you recommended some changes. You seem to have bipartisan support for those. Do you think the recent events of this past week will either lend the electorate’s—the wider community’s—support for those reforms, or are they likely to be seen as a cynical move to keep minor parties out of the Senate?
SMITH: I think there is widespread community support. I mean, at the last election, I think when voters voted on those huge Senate ballot papers that are as big as they can get—they can’t make them any bigger, that’s their maximum printable widths—they were scratching their heads on polling day. And then in some states, they were pulling their hair out when they saw some of the results because it did not reflect the genuine will of the voter, where people were getting elected on a half of a per cent of the vote due to a lottery. So, I think there’s widespread support. And as you rightly pointed out, it was a unanimous report—Labor, Liberal, and a Green member—as was the report on electronic voting. So that’s rare in Canberra.
SMITH: Thank you.
CAMERON: Tony, Gerard Henderson—an avid viewer of the programme—has a piece in today’s Media Watch in his column in The Australian online where he talks about the changes to Senate voting that were introduced in 1984—which increased the numbers of senators, in effect, from 10 to 12—which was introduced really led by the New South Wales Right of the Labor Party but supported by the National Party—who thought it was in their interests. And arguably, that lift from 10 to 12, or from five to six at a half-Senate election, is what got somebody like Jacqui Lambie over the line. I mean, is there, do you think, in hindsight, it was a mistake to expand the size of the Senate?
SMITH: Well, I wasn’t even at Denny’s in 1984. But look, it’s 30 years ago and that’s when the voting system changed. I mean, that’s probably not a bad point but it’s not ever going to go back; it’s not going to shrink. And…
CAMERON: Government never gets smaller.
SMITH: I’m one of 150 members of the House of Reps and we’ve got 100 000 constituents. But it’s an interesting point.
KENEALLY: Can I just say though that often some of the criticism of these senators—like Jacquie Lambie, Ricky Muir, Glenn Lazarus—is that they attract such a small proportion of the vote, and therefore they don’t have a right to be in the Senate; is the off-hand critique your hear. But if you look at, say, the PUP party across the nation got about five per cent of the Senate vote, Lazarus got 10 per cent in Queensland, Jacquie Lambie got 6.5 per cent in Tasmania. Now, those are votes they’ve actually shifted away from the major parties. And I suspect Bill Shorten or Tony Abbott would chew off their arm to be able to shift votes of that quantity. Shouldn’t our democratic system allow for some type of representation of that significant of a shift?
SMITH: There’s no issue about how people vote. The issue is how their preferences are distributed. And of course what happens at the moment under that Senate system is that if you vote “1” above the line—as 95 per cent of people do—your preferences are forfeited to the group voting tickets. What we say in that report is restore the will to the voter. Let’s have optional preferential above the line, so that you preference to the extent that you wish. You can go “1”; you can go “1”, “2”, “3”, you can stop when you wish, You can preference in exactly the way a party wants you to if you want to. And what’s happening is, certainly I agree, there’s more people voting for minor parties but then they don’t know where their preferences going to go. Sometimes it goes to a polar opposite party.
CAMERON: Can I just ask—let’s go back to making our current system more robust—I mean, one of my concerns—I spoke to Alasdair Webster, the former member for Macquarie—who lost his seat, I think, by a hundred votes, or something like that…
SMITH: In ’93, I think it was.
CAMERON: …in 1993, yeah. And look, his concern is the ease with which you can put onto the roll names which might be, you know, which might well be bogus. Which might be deceased people. You’ve got people voting on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses and this kind of thing, who would not otherwise be voting. I mean, it’s much tougher, harder, to get a licence, to get a video, to get a library card in many cases than to get onto the electoral roll.
SMITH: Or to vote, in that matter too. That’s why the principle should be voters have confidence that the roll is accurate, that when they vote their vote is counted accurately, and that other people aren’t voting in their name and other people aren’t voting more than once. So it’s every step of the process. And the vulnerability is there. I mean, we know at the least election that there were 18 000 multiple votes. Now I’m always very quick to point out that 10 000 of those were clerical errors. We’ve got the facts in. And…
CAMERON: 8 000 votes can turn a lot of marginal seats.
SMITH: But you know, 2 000 admitted. So, what we really need to do is look at how we can make things more robust. Computer-based systems and also that’s why we’re looking at the issue of voter ID.
CAMERON: Tony Smith, we’re glad you watch the show while you’re there signing constituent correspondence on a Friday afternoon. Thanks for joining us today. We hope you’ll join us again.
SMITH: Absolutely, would love to.
KENEALLY: Thank you.
Media inquiries: Andrew Hallam – 0404 043 764