I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.
– Abraham Lincoln
When the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015 went through the House of Representatives, it passed without one division (or formal vote) being recorded in the official record of Parliament. This means that there is no record of how individual Members of Parliament (MPs) voted on the bill.
But aren’t all votes in Parliament recorded?
Unbelievably, they are not.
There are two kinds of votes in Parliament: votes ‘on the voices’ and divisions. Votes on the voices are the most common kind of vote and involve our representatives yelling out ‘Aye’ (yes) or ‘No’ and the chair deciding which side is in the majority without writing down any names.
Divisions are less common and only occur if two or more of our representatives call for one. When a division is called, the bells of Parliament ring out for four minutes to alert any missing representatives that they should return to their chamber immediately if they want to vote. Then the chamber (either the House of Representatives or the Senate) is locked. During a division, our representatives walk to either side of their chamber: the right side to vote yes; and the left side to vote no. Then they are counted and their names are recorded.
Because most votes occur ‘on the voices’, we have no practical way of knowing how our representatives vote most of the time. What we see on They Vote For You (which takes its voting data from the Parliament’s official records) represents just a fraction of the votes actually taking place in Parliament.
Why is this important?
If we don’t know how our representatives vote, we can’t hold them accountable. Bills can speed through Parliament ‘on the voices’ without any public record of how each representative actually voted. The example I mentioned above was the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015 (‘Allegiance to Australia bill’), which passed in the House of Representatives without one division being recorded. This was possible for two reasons: (1) the bill had bipartisan support, meaning both the Coalition and the Australian Labor Party supported it; and (2) those major parties control the House of Representatives because almost all our representatives there (known as Members of Parliament or MPs) are members of those two parties.
On the other hand, many of our representatives in the Senate (known as senators) belong to minor parties or are independents. This means that the two major parties have far less control in the Senate and so there is more debate and a far greater chance of divisions being called, as was the case with the Allegiance to Australia bill.
In fact, most anti-terror bills have bipartisan support so that the only voting data about them on They Vote For You comes from the Senate. The consequence of this is that many of our related policies only include the voting habits of our senators, including:
- For increasing freedom of political communication;
- For increasing surveillance powers;
- For requiring a warrant to access citizens’ telecommunications records; and
- For revoking citizenship of dual nationals involved with terrorism offences by the minister.
So if we want to know how our MP voted on any of these subjects, our only option is to go to the House Hansard (the official transcript of the House of Representatives, which is also available on OpenAustralia.org) and trawl through pages and pages of parliamentary jargon and hope that our MP contributed to debate. If they didn’t, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know.
How can we make the system better?
If every vote in Parliament was made by division then we could always see how our representatives voted on our behalf. Unfortunately, this solution has a major downside: divisions take a long time. There is four minutes of bell ringing, then moving across the chamber, counting and recording, and then everyone returning to their seats. In other words, Parliament would go on forever.
There is another way however: electronic voting. Representatives can simply vote by pressing buttons on a screen, providing a complete record and saving time. It shouldn’t take any longer than voting ‘on the voices’ because representatives can stay in their seats and counting is done by computer.
The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure has already done an initial investigation into the possibility of e-voting back in 2013 (see their report). While they concluded against it, they emphasised that theirs is ‘very much a preliminary examination and the Committee cannot make any considered conclusion or recommendation without details of the options and their implications’.
Their main criticism was that e-voting lessens the visibility of Members’ decision-making in the House and takes away the opportunity for Members to ‘move away from their allocated seats and speak informally to their colleagues and Ministers’. The report goes on to say that ‘[a]necdotal evidence suggests that many consider these informal professional exchanges essential to their work’.
Since there are many solutions to these objections – including the use of differently coloured lights to make our representatives’ votes visible to their colleagues in Parliament and more informal discussion opportunities during breaks – the resistance to electronic voting seems to be more about parliamentarians being sticklers for tradition. Though it is possible that parties are concerned that there may be an upsurge in party members crossing the floor (or rebelling) if electronic voting was introduced. After all, it’s easier to be a rebel when it’s just a case of pressing a button rather than having to cross a chamber in front of all your party colleagues and the gaze of your party whip (whose job includes ensuring all party members attend and vote as a team).
Calls for parliaments to use electronic voting in order to increase parliamentary accountability are growing louder. In 2012, the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness was launched and has since been endorsed by a number of organisations, including the OpenAustralia Foundation. Article 20 of the Declaration calls for parliaments to minimise voting on the voices and instead use methods such as electronic voting that leave a record of voting behaviour, which can then be used by citizens to hold their representatives accountable.
What do you think? Is it time for electronic voting in our federal Parliament?