Is Increasing the Membership Requirement to Register Political Parties Justified?

The government’s proposed changes to party registration rules, released last week, will increase the number of members required to register a political party from 500 to 1,500. Understandably this proposal has attracted criticism, especially from the small parties that will now have to recruit more members.

I posted on Thursday about this and other proposed changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Is this just an attack on small parties, or is it a justifiable attempt to make Senate ballot papers easier for voters to read and understand, and for the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to print and count?

The 1,500 member rule was proposed by the Commonwealth Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) after the 2013 Senate election. It was one element of a reform proposal for the Senate’s electoral system. The package’s main feature was the abolition of group voting tickets (GVTs), ending party control over between-party preferences. Voters were given a new option to express preferences for parties in the party voting squares ‘above the line’ on the ballot paper, while voting for candidates remained available ‘below the line’. Preferences were made optional beyond a suggested minimum number.

GVTs had encouraged a tactic known as “preference harvesting” that allowed parties to achieve victory from only a tiny fraction of the required vote quota. This led to a rapid increase in party registrations and Senate nominations as parties joined the preference lottery for seats.

AEC Magifying SheetThe increase in nominations caused ballot papers to reach their maximum printable width and forced the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to reduce font size. This made ballot papers less readable and resulted in the AEC making magnifying sheets available so voters could read their ballot paper. (See image)

The difficulty of reading and understanding these giant ballot Senate ballot papers led to confusion. At the 2013 NSW half-Senate election, 44 parties/groups nominated, and each was entitled to a column on the one metre wide ballot paper. Columns had to be narrowed, forcing party names to be split over several lines, resulting in many voters confusing the “Liberal Democrats” in column A with the much better known “Liberals & Nationals” in column Y.

The increase in members for party registration was dropped when the Senate electoral reform package was legislated ahead of the 2016 election, The abolition of GVTs was expected on its own to reduce nominations over time. The graph below shows the number of groups on NSW Senate ballot papers at elections since 1984, the year the current ballot was adopted, and the average number of groups across the six states. The numbers peaked at the last election using GVTs in 2013.

The number of columns on Senate ballot papers has declined since the changes were introduced. NSW Senate ballot paper columns declined from 44 in 2013, to 41 at the 2016 double dissolution election, and 35 at the 2019 election. Nominations may have decline, but voters are still left trying to understand a complex ballot paper. Vast numbers of names makes it difficult for a voter to find the parties they know amongst others on the ballot paper, especially when deciding preferences. Then there is the added difficulty of manipulating a one-metre wide ballot paper in a 600mm wide voting partition.

In my previous post, I quoted Chief Justice Gleeson from his judgement in the 2004 Mulholland case that decided the 500 member registration requirement was constitutionally valid. That logic in that ruling suggests the High Court would be unlikely to invalidate an increase to 1,500 members.

Gleeson wrote that minimum nominators and nomination deposits "are well-known forms of regulating candidature at elections which have never been regarded as infringing the electors’ right of choice, or as involving unreasonable discrimination. A requirement that, to be eligible to be treated as a political party for the purposes of the Act, a group must have some minimum level of public support, is not materially different." Justice Gleeson noted the number 500 is to an extent arbitrary, but not outside the range of reasonable choices available to parliament.

Registering as a political party delivers two very significant advantages. First, it allows the party's name to be printed next to its candidates on ballot papers. Second, it allows a party to nominate candidates without the need for 100 nominators per candidate.

Past experience has shown that a good name can attract votes. Well-known preference 'whisperer' Glenn Druery has stated that adding "marijuana", "cannabis" or "sex" to a party name can deliver you a percent or two of extra votes. I'd back this claim from my experience covering elections, especially for a party listed at the left hand end of a Senate ballot paper.

Having a name that might be confused with a better known party can also help, which is why the proposed legislation toughens rules on party names. It was confusion between a "Liberal Democrat" candidate and a "Literal Democrat" candidate that led to tighter regulation of party names in the United Kingdom.

The right of a registered party to nominate candidates centrally without nominators is an overlooked advantage provided by party registration. Two independent candidates nominating for the Tasmanian Senate would each require 100 unique nominators. Those nominators must be enrolled as a Tasmanian voter, though the candidate does not. In contrast, registered parties can nominate candidates for any House or Senate contest without local nominators. Recent Tasmanian Senate contests have seen many mainland candidates nominated by minor parties using the central nomination process.

If you need 200 nominators for a Senate contest, and 100 for each House seat, is a minimum membership of 500 enough to be granted access to central nomination? It seems a very low figure for the power granted to each party. Even more so for parties registered under the name of a sitting House member or Senator, the path used to register Fraser Anning's Conservative National Party for the 2019 election.

It is also low compared to the numbers required to register in each of the states, NSW requiring 750, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia 500, South Australia 350 and Tasmania 100. The states also require much greater proof of membership than is required by the AEC.

The JSCEM report that recommended the increase in members also suggested another form of party registration that would only apply to registrations in a single state. A lower membership requirement would be set with the power of central nomination limited to that state. The JSCEM report did not canvas further details and the proposal has not re-surfaced since.

In the end, party access to central nomination means party registration is only one step removed from the use of nominators to regulate the nomination of Independent candidates. There is no question about the principle, just a practical question of how many.

There is nothing magical about the 500 membership number, or 1,500. But it is my opinion that given the ease with which parties can nominate candidates in comparison to the hurdle faced by Independents, there is justification for introducing a higher membership threshold.

After all, it is evident from Senate results at the 2019 Senate election that voters are not craving the quantity of parties offered on ballot papers. Voter support for some parties is so low, you have to ask whether voters would notice if they weren't there.

Performance of Minor/Micro Parties at the 2019 Senate Election

The graph below is based on party vote share in each state at the 2019 Senate election. This covers a total of 131 party groups across the six states. I have excluded the small fields in the two territories, along with Independent groups, Ungrouped columns, and Labor and Coalition groups. The bars show the number party groups within the percentage vote range shown on the left.

The number of groups in each state were New South Wales (35), Victoria (31), Queensland (26), Western Australia (23), South Australia (16) and Tasmania (16).

Of the 131 party groups included in the above graph, 81 attracted less than 1% support, and another 27 between 1% and 2%. Excluding the Greens, One Nation and the United Australia Party, only seven party groups across the country polled more than 2% of the vote. Only the Jacqui Lambie Network in Tasmania polled more than 5%, reaching 8.9%.

The other six party groups above 2% were Derryn Hinch Justice Party (VIC 2.82%), Centre Alliance (SA 2.60%), Shooters Fishers and Farmers (NSW 2.54%), Labour DLP (VIC 2.53%), and HEMP in SA (2.13%) and NSW (2.12%).

The 81 party groups attracting less than 1% of the vote polled 6.4% of the vote in total. The 108 party groups with less than 2% totalled 11.9%. Voters supporting those parties did not end up unrepresented. Preferential voting meant most of these votes were directed to other parties by each voter's choice of preferences. If there had been fewer parties, voters would still have had a choice of the other parties to which they directed preferences.

The graph below shows the percentage vote for all the groups included in the previous graph, along with the major parties. A log scale on % vote has been used to separate the low polling parties. If you are using a computer with a mouse, you can hover over points to see how each party polled in each state.

Some may say it is undemocratic to deny potential candidates easy access to appearing on the ballot paper. Against this, we have always had nominator requirements and nomination deposits to regulate access. Setting a minimum number of members to register a political party is exactly the same mechanism. The question is whether the membership level is too low in comparison to the tougher hurdle set for independents.

In my view the current rules allow too many candidates with minimal support to appear on Senate ballot papers. Perhaps the current high number is a legacy of the old GVT system when some low polling parties fluked election. The numbers nominating have already dropped since the new Senate system was introduced and may drop further. I'm not sure they will, which is why a debate on the minimum number of members a party needs is worth having.

Elections are a process by which electors voting together return the most preferred candidates as representatives in Parliament. Past Senate elections have shown that when ballot papers become unwieldy, the ballot paper and the voting process interfere with the way voters make their choices. If random ballot draw, font size and confusion over party names interfere with the conduct of the election, then steps should be taken to make it easier for voters to understand the candidate and party options available to them.

At half-Senate elections, it doesn't matter how many parties and candidates are on the ballot paper, there are still only six positions to be filled. As the data on 2019 results show, there are only a small range of parties who attract votes and have any chance of election. Will voters be disadvantaged if the clutter of parties with no hope of victory were cleared out by a tougher test on party registration?

In my view no. The 1984 choice of 500 members as the requirement to register a party was essentially arbitrary. All states that have followed the federal registration route have eventually increased the number required, or adopted much tougher proof requirements on voters being members of their party.

Increasing the minimum members required for registration is likely to reduce the number of parties contesting the next Senate election. As I've pointed out, more than half of all parties attract less than 1% support. If imposing a tougher membership test sieves out some of these parties with little electoral support, the only thing most voters will notice is that they are being given a smaller and more manageable Senate ballot paper than they've seen in the past.

14 thoughts on “Is Increasing the Membership Requirement to Register Political Parties Justified?”

  1. Out of scope at the moment it would seem – but I’d like to also see a minimum number of members in each state (that a party intends to run candidates in) to avoid state-based parties/senators clogging other states ballot papers without any semblance of support outside of their own state, I.e. FACN (QLD), NXT/CA (SA), JLN (Tas), KAP (QLD) + even smaller parties.

    1. The Conservative Nationals don’t exist anymore, and the JLN and Centre Alliance only run in the states you mentioned. Problem solved.

      COMMENT: No it is not. Single MPs can still register parties with no members and gain access to all the rights of a registered party. Former Liberal MP Craig Kelly could register a party that entitles him to nominate candidates without nominators, including nominating himself. It is a ludicrous provision to retain while proposing to increase the membership requirement for registration from 500 to 1,500. The MP registered party has been abolished in most states because it is ludicrous provision to have two classes of party, those with 500 members and those with none.

      1. I forgot about the Rex Patrick Team, which is exactly what it sounds like. Kelly merging with whatever that NMVP is in WA would probably get them free enrolment as a party and lots of random candidates

    2. The issue at the present moment isn’t that the minimum will increase but (a) to what that number will eventually be and (b) which election this is for.

      So yes if you are going to increase the numbers needed to register then it should only apply from the next but one election so no one can complain that it’s interfering with the forthcoming election.

      Or have a two step increase. So 500 (as now) for the forthcoming election, 1,000 for the election after that, 1,500* for the one after that one, or some step to whatever the final figure ends up being.

      Or simply abandon the national party requirement totally and simply have X nomination signatures per electorate (and a another X figure for senate). That doesn’t require party membership but does require support from people living in the electorate.

      In the UK you need 10 signatures and pay £500 to stand as a parliamentary candidate. That’s the same for someone standing as an independent as it is for someone from one of the major parties.

      In Canada it’s 100 signatures (50 for large or remote electorates)

      COMMENT: The rule in Australia is 100 nominators and a $2,000 deposit. There is a 4% threshold for deposit return. The same rule applies for both houses, but for two-candidate Senate tickets the nominators must be unique, so effectively 200 nominators for a ticket. The nominators rule is dropped for registered parties but they still pay the deposit. Nominations and deposits for parties are all handled centrally and only Independents need to lodge with the Returning Officer. I’ve been in favour of bringing back nominator requirements for Senate elections for some time as a way of stopping parties nominating for every state simply because of their registration. I’d also bring back local nominators for lower house by-elections where multiple micro-parties are more likely to nominate for House seats. With the way the AEC has constructed its procedures for nominations, there would be problems reverting to local nominators for House seats at general elections.

    3. Every post by Antony Green on these matters ignores the key issue – who should make the electoral rules? The incumbent politicians or an independent body at arms-length from the vested interests of incumbent politicians?

      For 20 years Antony Green has offered personal views on all kinds of issues related to elections, except for this most crucial question – who should make the electoral rules?

      The only conclusion one can draw from this 20 year history is that Antony Green does not wish to offend incumbent politicians by advocating they be relieved of their power to set the rules.

      Is it possible to draw any other conclusion?

      COMMENT: You can have all the independent bodies you like, but that independent body has to be created by politicians to have any authority, and any findings such a body recommends can only be implemented by politicians legislating to implement them.

      1. The only way to have this type of system without any parliamentary/political influence is to have every member of the public vote on each proposal recommended by an independent body, which would be a huge logistical exercise.

        1. Nonsense. The ABC is created by federal legislation, and has enormous autonomy in doing basically whatever it likes. It’s current affairs programs are not presented to parliament for prior approval before going to air.

        2. This is a nonsense response. There are literally hundreds of independent bodies created by federal legislation that have authority to implement legislation as they see fit. NDIS is a good example. The NDIS Act simply says that the CEO of NDIS may determine a fair and reasonable allocation of resources for each NDIS client. That does not need to go back to parliament for their endorsement. The ABC is another – it has the autonomy to produce current affairs programs as it see fit.

          Similarly, the AEC could be authorised to determine fair and reasonable methods for the registration of political parties as it sees fit. Period. There is no need whatsoever for incumbent politicians to retain the power to adjust these rules to suit themselves. But they retain this power because it is handy for them to retain it.

          Why would Antony Green defend this right of incumbent politicians to set the rules themselves? Especially when we know that they attempt to adjust them to suit themselves in every term of parliament?

          COMMENT: The Commonwealth Electoral Act is unusual compared to most legislation in being highly prescriptive. It includes an immense amount of detail that in other Acts would be left to regulations. In part this is because there are a very limited set of functions that the AEC has to carry out. I can’t see governments or parliaments being prepared to move away from that structure.

          As an example, last decade the Newman government changed the Queensland Electoral Act to require voter ID. Is such a deeply political decision something that parliament should decide or be left to an independent authority? The change that ID should be shown was put in the act, but what qualified as ID was left to regulations, rules that didn’t have to go through parliament, though parliament does have to right to overturn regulations though not to change them.

          1. Tom the first and best

            The Commonwealth Electoral Act having detailed provisions, rather than leaving them to regulations, is not surprising. All parliamentarians are directly effected by electoral legislation, so they have an interest in tighter control of it. Regulations are easier to amend, with only half the Senators being required to allow a regulation to survive and the ability to implement them just before an election and only allow parliament to veto at them after the election and as such Parliament is correct to favour legislation over regulations for electoral legislation.

            * This is how current proceedure interprets section Section 23 of the Constitution saying that questions when the Senate is tied are “passed in the negative”. My personal (non-lawyer) interpretation is the opposite, on the grounds that disallowance is the negative.

            COMMENT: I won’t re-write your words but they could be said more clearly. Regulations made under acts of parliament don’t require the approval of parliament, but they can be disallowed by a vote of either chamber of Parliament, which is what I presume you mean by “allow a regulation to survive”. The regulation may be disallowed by a chamber but they can’t be amended.

            The AEC tends to like prescriptive legislation as a defence from political attack. In 2020 there was criticism of the AEC for abolishing a seat in Western Australia, and the second NT seat, when the Commissioner had zero free will in the decision given the wording of the Act. There was criticism of the AEC for not ordering those purple signs in Chinese be taken down in Chisholm and Kooyong. In that case it was having to try and interpret the Act and past cases on the relevant provision.

          2. Tom the first and best

            The enlarged party size is overly one size fits all.

            It is a pity the individual state party registration proposal was not more detailed and has not been included, that would be a good option state specific parties and still reduce out of state micro-party candidacies.

            Tiered party size requirement for the Senate are another option. Say 500 or 750 members per Senate candidate allowed, so a minimum sized party either gets an ungrouped candidate or a candidate in a joint ticket with another party or an independent (so a minimum 600 or 850 voters needed to back a ticket). A single party 2-candidate ticket would require say 1,000 or 1,500 members.

          3. To me, it seems as though a good solution which would eliminate many of the issues Antony and others have raised in I think a less controversial way, would be to simply eliminate Federal/National registration of parties. Let the states determine reasonable requirements for a party to register in terms of number of members etc, including presumably an allowance for an MP or Senator to register a party in their state. This would go a long way to eliminating cross border pointless nominations without unduly disadvantaging (or giving the impression of disadvantaging) minor parties from the smaller states.

            That said, I don’t disagree with generally increasing the number of people required for a minor party. As past experience has shown, even fairly large and well supported minor parties can have major failures in their candidate vetting processes (eg Fraser Anning), so it doesn’t really inspire much confidence in who the parties desperate to find candidates are choosing. It would be much better if many of these minor parties would combine, pooling both their resources and their talent/candidate pools.

            COMMENT: I’m not sure national elections can rely on state registration as the states can’t regulate Commonwealth elections. Even if they could, the Commonwealth would still need to legislate to tie the state registrations into national parties otherwise, for instance, there would be eight registered state Labor parties.

            On another point, nearly all the parties that can capture 1% of the vote are also registered in most of the states. It’s the other 20-30 parties that are registered for national elections that are not registered in the states. If a party only wants to contest federal elections, I’m not sure why it has to register under state acts.

          4. Antony, can you please shed some light on how the 1500 figure was determined? If 500 was an arbitrary number in 1984, can we assume that 1500 is also an arbitrary number in 2021? Shouldn’t there be some sort of modelling against voter numbers or similar?

            COMMENT: It is a higher arbitrary number than the current arbitrary number but still lower per capita than for any of the states. I seem to remember a conversation from 2013 that the number is around half of what a party would need to be registered for every state and territory election. If a Federal party wanted to contest every state and territory Senate contest with two candidates and had to provide nominators, the number would be 1,600 nominators. Those are my views though, not a view from parliament.

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