Monday Breaking Politics - Fairfax Media - 4 November 2013

In my weekly video discussion for Breaking Politics I talked about the respected work of the Australian Electoral Commission and an expectation that within a generation it will adopt electronic ballots. Host Tim Lester also asked about same-sex marriage, climate policy and mandate theory. Here's the full transcript:


TIM LESTER: Western Australia is on course for an historic re-run of the 2013 senate election. To help us understand what's happening there and some of the other politics of the day, our Monday regular Andrew Leigh, the Labor Member for Fraser is in, and of course also Shadow Assistant Treasurer. Thank you for coming in Andrew.

ANDREW LEIGH: Pleasure Tim.

LESTER: Is there a need for a new senate election in Western Australia?

LEIGH: It'll be a matter ultimately for the Court of Disputed Returns to determine it. But certainly I'm concerned about the over a thousand West Australian voters who appear to have disenfranchised through this process. The Australian Electoral Commission is a great national institution. It's one that I'm immensely proud of. When I lived in the U.S. for four years I thought many times, what the U.S. really needs is an institution of the calibre of the AEC. But even great institutions sometimes make mistakes and I think it's telling that the last time something like this occurred was a hundred years ago and perhaps that's the place we'll end up, ultimately having another election in W.A.

LESTER: So, how serious is this mistake, losing 1375 votes?

LEIGH: I think it's deeply concerning and certainly Ed Killesteyn, the Electoral Commissioner, has spoken of his embarrassment at the error that's taken place. I don't believe that there has been any intentional foul play that's taken place. It's simply an error by the AEC's hard working staff. The question is, what's now practically the best way of dealing with the situation we find ourselves in.

LESTER: There's also questions going forward as to the best way for us to deal, handle, so many votes. Isn't this screaming for electronic voting in some form?

LEIGH: Electronic voting has certainly got its appeal Tim, not just for making sure that we keep track of votes, the speed of recount, but also making sure that we bring down the informal rate. One of the things that troubles me is that the informal voting rate as steadily crept up in recent elections. It's harder to make a mistake, even with a large number of candidates on the ballot paper with electronic voting. In fact, you can structure the systems so it's impossible to vote informally.

LESTER: So, would you recommend we now take a serious look at electronic voting?

LEIGH: I suspect it'll be something that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters looks into when the parliament resumes. Electronic voting is something that I'm sure we will have in 50 years’ time. The question is whether we have it in five years’ time.

LESTER: Or, whether we should have had in 2013?

LEIGH: There’s challenges with electronic voting Tim. There’s questions that you don't have the paper trail in place. There is a sense of security and stability that comes with paper ballots, this recent error notwithstanding. But I certainly think that the move towards electronic voting, an inevitability within half a century, has been accelerated.

LESTER: On balance, you’re a supporter?

LEIGH: I think it's worth exploring but I think you have to absolutely have to make sure that you get the data security issues right. Everyone's worst nightmare is internal software which is somehow able to tamper with results. We need to be absolutely sure that those machines are as secure as a paper ballot popped into a box as Australians have engaged in since federation.

LESTER: Right or wrong, Labor is about to take one hell of a pounding on carbon pricing, isn't it?

LEIGH: Our view Tim is that we ought to have a position which is grounded in science and getting lowest cost approach to dealing with the scientific problem that is climate change. We don't see climate change as a political problem, which is the way Mr Abbott approaches it. For Mr Abbott, you can go to the 2007 election promising an emissions trading scheme, advocate a carbon tax on national TV, then back-flip to say you don't even accept the science of climate change because it's ‘absolute crap’, then say that maybe you should have amendments to the CPRS Bill, then oppose it all together. He’s taking every possible position on carbon pricing, as Malcolm Turnbull says, he's a weather vane on the issue.

LESTER: Which is why I guess, I said right or wrong, from here to next July 1, the coming is going to bash you guys up on carbon. Every way you turn, they're going to saying, the Australian electors told you they did not want a carbon tax, and they're going to have a point.

LEIGH: Tim, the Australian electors voted for me in good part because I supported the evidence of the scientists and the economists. That's my own electorate and I believe that I have an ethical obligation to do after the election what I said I would do before the election. If I was to behave like a weather vane with my electors, I'd be no better than Mr Abbott, swinging with the political winds. We've just had the hottest summer of record, the hottest winter on record. We have to take action of climate change and the cheapest way possible. Mr Abbott's ‘soil magic’ Direct Action plan is not a plan that any serious economist believes can deliver results and start making a difference to bring down carbon emissions that can help to save the Great Barrier Reef in the way an emissions trading system can.

LESTER: So, are there any circumstances ever where you believe an Opposition after an election ought to change its policy based on the vote of the people? Is there no place for this idea of a mandate that we have?

LEIGH: A mandate simply says Tim that you should do after the election what you said you would do before the election. So, for example, a mandate says that when Tony Abbott went to the 2007 election campaigning for an emissions trading scheme he should have voted for one on the floor of parliament. A mandate doesn't say that when Tony Abbott went to the 2010 election opposing a mining tax that he needed to vote for a mining tax after the 2010 election. Indeed, he didn't. He voted against a mining tax even though Labor clearly had won an election campaigning for a mining tax. It is entirely appropriate that we do after an election what we said we'd do in the election campaign - not back-flip, not swing in the wind, not throw the science to one side and pretend, for the sake for our children and future generations that climate change doesn't exist. History would judge us very harshly if we did that.

LESTER: Right. So it sounds like you're saying there are no circumstances in which a new government can claim a mandate to force opposition to any issue to fall into line.

LEIGH: I'm sure there are instances Tim when an Opposition may choose to change its position after the election. We'll have sensible reviews of our suite of policies and we won't take to the next election precisely the same set of policies we took to the last one. But I think Mr Abbott is engaging bully-boy tactics and indeed his own writings after the 2007 election explicitly urged the Coalition then to ignore the talk of mandates. So Mr Abbott is a weather vane even on the issue of what mandate theory means.

LESTER: Is the High Court the right place for Australia to settle the same-sex marriage issue?

LEIGH: I don't believe so Tim. I think this is fundamentally a political issue and I think there's something cowardly in Senator Brandis running off to the High Court to attempt to strike down the ACT's same-sex marriage laws. I don't see two men or two women walking down the aisle as something which is so extraordinarily threatening to Australia that the Commonwealth needs to take the unusual action of a High Court challenge, a challenge that would normally be brought, if by anyone, by a private citizen. If he wants to challenge it on the floor of the federal parliament, he can bring such a bill. I certainly hope Malcolm Turnbull is right when he says that there would then be a conscience vote within the Liberal Party.

LESTER: Give us a quick read of what's going on politically here Andrew Leigh inside the Liberal and National parties on this issue. Where are they up to do you think?

LEIGH: Well, as I understand it, there are a number of people who support same-sex marriage within the Liberal Party party room – people like Kelly O'Dwyer, Malcolm Turnbull, Simon Birmingham – and they had their hands tied the last time the issue came before the parliament. They were forced by Mr Abbott to vote against their own conscience. The Liberal Party prides itself in being a party which allows people to vote their conscience. They ought to let people like Malcolm Turnbull vote in favour of same-sex marriage as indeed conservative leaders have done in New Zealand and in Britain over recent months on the basis that marriage is a stabilising institution which can be good for the fifth of lesbian couples who have kids in the home. We're going to have same-sex marriage in half a century's time Tim. That's an inevitability. The question is when we get to it. Mr Turnbull is clearly reflecting the position of the future. Mr Abbott the status quo of the past.

LESTER: Andrew Leigh, thank you for your time this morning.

LEIGH: Thanks Tim.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.