PETER MARES:  While Special Minister of State Senator Joe Ludwig hasn’t yet had time to take a serious look at the questionable use of how-to-vote cards in the South Australian election, other politicians at state and federal level have vowed to push for reform. Labor’s deployment of blue T-shirted Family First look-alikes at polling booths in four marginal seats may well have helped Premier Mike Rann to secure his third term. Yet even he now says the tactic was wrong and he’s promised to make similar actions illegal before the next state election. And it’s worth remembering that we’ve been here before – in Queensland, in Victoria, at state and federal level – and that both sides of politics have used the tactic of dodgy how-to-vote cards in the past. Joining me is Victorian federal Labor MP Michael Danby who has particular reason to be concerned about this issue, and not just because he’s a member of the federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Michael Danby, welcome.
MICHAEL DANBY: Thanks very much, Peter.
PETER MARES: And in the ABC’s Adelaide studio is South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham who also sits on the Electoral Matters Committee. Senator Birmingham, welcome.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you very much Peter, pleasure to be with you.
PETER MARES: Senator Birmingham, did you witness Labor’s ‘Put your Family First’ tricks in action at polling booths last Saturday in South Australia?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Peter, I have to say I didn’t witness it first-hand … I was at a booth on a relatively safe Labor seat and there was no real trickery taking place in that electorate in question. However I had very early feedback from volunteers elsewhere, including my wife who was campaign manager in one of our marginal seats, about what was taking place, and what was taking place on the ground were volunteers, or indeed party staffers and ministerial staffers as it has turned out, wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘put your’ and then in very big letters ‘family first’ and handing out blue how-to-vote cards carrying those same words ‘put your family first’, with ‘family first’ the largest words on the blue how-to-vote card, that advocated a ‘number one’ vote for Family First, yes, and then went on to give their second preference to the Labor Party. Then in smaller…
PETER MARES: And do you think it made a difference to the outcome?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It probably isn’t the reason that Mike Rann has formed government again, I suspect his margin is enough to have formed government, but I’m sure that it confused, misled, or indeed defrauded some voters of what they would have intended to do in genuinely following what were the real Family First how-to-vote cards.
PETER MARES: … which of course preferenced Liberal above Labor.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: In the seats in question Family First were preferencing Liberal above Labor. Now Labor will argue that in smaller print on this it said ‘preference someone who shares your values, preference Labor’ … but that was the only mention of Labor on this card, it was much smaller than the rest of the print and certainly for anybody who looked at it at a superficial level, they would have thought that it was a Family First how-to-vote card handed out by a Family First volunteer, not by the partner, staff member or volunteer of Labor MPs.
PETER MARES: Michael Danby, what do you think of Labor’s tactics in South Australia?
MICHAEL DANBY: Well frankly I’ll be blunt about it, I think it’s a bodgy effort … but it’s an effort, I think, as I pointed out in the media here in Victoria, that began in Victoria for the 2004 election and so we should have eliminated this kind of behaviour … in the reports from the 2004 election.
PETER MARES: That was the federal election in 2004?
PETER MARES: And what happened there?
MICHAEL DANBY: Well, actually in my seat, the seat of Melbourne Ports, virtually the same thing … green leaflets that did put the Liberal Party on Green preferences ahead of where they were on the Green ticket, with young women who were actually paid employees of an event company in green T-shirts and green hats, saying to voters misleadingly, as they came, particularly younger voters, ‘Vote Green, vote for the environment’ and then giving them what was a Liberal Party ticket, if you looked at it closely, that said …  gave ‘one’ for the Greens and then gave the Liberals the higher preference than they were on the Green ticket … certainly ahead of Labor.
PETER MARES: Now you said that the Liberals pioneered this in Melbourne Ports, in your electorate, in 2004, and I actually live in that electorate so I experienced that one first-hand, but I’ve got to say it’s happened at other places before that – it happened in Mansfield, in Queensland, when Labor put out a how-to-vote ticket that looked like a One Nation ticket, and put preferences to Labor … it happened way back in 1985 in a by-election for the Upper House seat of Nunawading in Victoria, when one Peter Batchelor, who was then State Secretary of the ALP and who’s now Minister in the Victorian State Government, put out how-to-vote cards which resembled how-to-vote cards from the Nuclear Disarmament Party, that was back when Peter Garrett was still a rock singer.
MICHAEL DANBY: Look, I think there is a way forward with all of this stuff, Peter. You and Simon may not be aware of this, but in Victoria we have boards where the Electoral Commission actually has to authorise how-to-vote cards, so I think that’s probably … from all of the registered parties and candidates … and I think that gives them, the Electoral Commission, some ability to act, even if it is on the spot, if some of these bodgie cards turned up.
PETER MARES: So you’re saying … given that rule in Victoria, that the state elections how-to-vote cards have to be registered before polling day and approved by the Electoral Commission, something like this couldn’t happen, or if it did happen, the officers at the polling booth could say ‘stop this, this is not allowed, go away’?
MICHAEL DANBY: Yes, precisely … and I think we have to look … I mean I’m not blaming Simon for deceiving, he just recently came on the committee, but when the Liberals had the majority – 2004 to 2007 – they should have taken this more seriously, because you see the package … you have in my case an events company, and Simon said in South Australia’s case … volunteers or staff dressed up … the hat, the attitude, the slogan … it’s sort of part of a package and Australian politics doesn’t need this, and I’m pleased to hear from Simon that Labor didn’t actually win on this bodgy tactic because that would really make it awful if someone did steal an election on the basis …
PETER MARES: Senator Birmingham?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Peter, a couple of points … firstly, just because it didn’t work, because Labor may have got enough other votes in other means, doesn’t of course diminish the significance of the fact that this is … poor behaviour and probably in many ways fraudulent behaviour. I wanted to just … I don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat about stories here but I have seen the how-to-vote card that Michael refers to from Melbourne Ports in 2004. It mentions the Liberal Party five times on the how-to-vote card, it mentions the Liberal candidate’s name three times, it gives a first preference very clearly to the Liberal candidate … now I don’t know what people were wearing or what they were saying…
PETER MARES: Well I can tell you they were saying ‘vote for the environment’ and they were wearing green T-shirts and green caps, but I mean … I appreciate you’re quite right to point out the differences between the two how-to-vote cards, they were significantly different, but does that make what happened in Melbourne Ports acceptable to you, Senator Birmingham?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look I think we clearly need to tackle this issue, the issue that Michael suggested of mandatory registering of how-to-vote cards is an option … we have in the South Australian electoral laws at present a voluntary registration process that is used to actually, in a sense, save votes for those who only put a number ‘one’ in a box and do nothing else so that they can be readmitted to the count at a later stage, so there’s already the mechanism that you could adopt something similar like that in South Australia. I think federally we certainly need to look at it as well … we need to make sure that these types of approaches, be they written material, which is very easy to prove, and we certainly have an instance of it here from Labor Party, written material that attempts to present itself as being from another party should very clearly be outlawed … behaviour that attempts to purport itself as being from another party should equally be tackled … it’s a little harder to do that of course, what colour T-shirt somebody wears on the day if it doesn’t have the party slogan, doesn’t have the name of the party, doesn’t have any of those sorts of things on it … that’s a little harder to pin down, but look, I think we need to tackle all aspects of this, and certainly I would hope that everyone wakes up from it, otherwise it becomes a real risk of an escalating fraud of voters and voter intent.
PETER MARES: So Michael Danby, can we expect the Electoral Matters committee to discuss this and to put some proposals to the Special Minister of State, Joe Ludwig, for the next round of electoral reform?
MICHAEL DANBY: Look the chairman of the committee, Daryl Melham, as Simon knows, is a barrister … he takes these kinds of things very seriously … a very serious person, a very fair person … and the last thing we need is to have people actually dispute the veracity of a federal election based on these kinds of bodgy tactics, so I think this is the kind of thing that is the exact kind of thing that the Electoral Matters committee should look at. I understand that Senator Xenophon and Senator Fielding have actually raised this with authorities in parliament. I’m sure, working sensibly … and I think the fact I’ve said something on this which is relatively compromising … you’ll get the feeling that if the Liberal Party or Senator Fielding/Xenophon … bring this before the committee, it will be dealt with seriously.
PETER MARES: Michael Danby and Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you both very much.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Peter.