After months of pseudo-campaigning, John Howard today called a federal election for Australian voters on 24 November. The six week campaign is likely to be heavily presidential in style with a large focus on the record of the two leaders, Prime Minister John Howard and Labor leader Kevin Rudd. The 68 year old Howard is seeking a fifth and apparently final term in office, having promising to hand over the reins of power to his deputy Peter Costello “some time” in the next three years. Howard emphasised the continuity of his leadership team in his election announcement today, saying it was “the leadership that has the experience to further expand the prosperity of the Australian economy and to ensure that everybody gets a fair share of it.”
But voters are not heeding this message, if the opinion polls are to be believed. Labor has a 12 percent lead in Two Party Preferred terms. Many commentators see Labor leader Rudd as a younger version of Howard. Rudd is a self-described “economic conservative” and has taken the “small target” strategy used so successfully by Howard when he won power in 1996. However there are strong areas of difference between Rudd’s Labor and the ruling Coalition. Labor has pledged to sign the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions and also roll back the Government’s most controversial industrial legislation, Workchoices, which Rudd said today “[strips] away penalty rates and overtime and basic conditions which working families for generations have enjoyed."
While Labor and the Coalition will dominate the lower house, a slew of minor parties will be hoping to form the balance of power in the Senate. The Liberals gained outright control of the review house for the first time since 1961 in the last election but opinion polls suggest that they will lose some seats this time round. Because most Senate seats (except for the 4 ACT and NT seats which are one-term only) are six year tenures, only half its members are up for re-election this time round. All four Democrats are up for re-election but only Queensland’s Andrew Bartlett has any realistic hope of winning this time round. The Greens have two senators seeking re-election in Tasmania and NSW and have also hopes of winning in Victoria and Queensland. South Australian ‘no pokie’ independent Nick Xenophon is the new wildcard having decided last week to move from the SA upper house where he took a staggering 22 percent in the last state election.
Because of the plethora of electoral bodies at local, state and federal level, Australians seem to be in almost perpetual electoral mode. The first parliamentary election in Australia occurred in 1843 when propertied adult males were granted the right to vote for the NSW Legislative Council. By 1859 all the eastern seaboard colonies had full secret ballot suffrage for all adult males over 21. In 1894, South Australia followed New Zealand’s lead to become only the second polity to allow women the vote. This right was extended to all states by 1908. Early elections were voluntary but by 1924, all parliaments had made voting compulsory.
Australia is one of about thirty countries that enforce some form of compulsory voting. More accurately it is a compulsory duty to attend a polling place. All political parties have a self-interested reason to retain this system and there is no need for parties to campaign to ‘get out the vote’. Currently the fine is $20 for non-compliance and even this fine is not strictly enforced. Nonetheless the system ensures that turnout in Australian elections is always in excess of 95 per cent of eligible voters.
The federal government has a three year term of office. The House must be dissolved no later than three years since the first sitting after the previous election (hence Howard could have in theory delayed the election until January 2008). There is no minimum term. A government can call a double dissolution election if the Senate fails to pass a Bill twice. From 1901 to 1973 there were only two such dissolutions but then there were four in fifteen years: 1974, 1975, 1983 and 1987. There have been none since.
About 3 percent of the voters, either accidentally or deliberately cast what is called a ‘donkey vote’. These voters simply number the boxes on their ballot paper from top to bottom. Prior to changes in the Electoral Act in 1984, candidates were ordered on the paper in alphabetical order, a candidate whose surname started with ‘A’ or ‘B’ stood a greater change of winning. Since 1984, the position on the paper is now in random order but because the donkey vote still exists, getting a position on top of the ballot paper remains a significant advantage.
Although the government changed the laws in April to close enrolment on the day of election, there is a still a small window of opportunity for voters to get on the rolls to vote this time round. Enrolment for new voters ends on the same day as the electoral writs are issued. This occurs at 8pm this Wednesday 17 October. Those already on the rolls but with an out of date address have an additional week to get their details up to date.