Our response to the ‘Electronic voting in the House of Representatives’ Report

Report Response 1 - Report

Back in March, we submitted our views to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure’s inquiry into electronic voting. And their Final Report is out now!

Our submission outlined the benefits that electronic voting could bring by creating a fuller voting record, which increases accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, the Committee didn’t quite see it that way. In fact, the entire Final Report can be summarised by just one of its sentences:

“The House would not need to significantly change its practices and procedures in order implement electronic voting, if it did not wish to do so.” (paragraph 2.21)

And in case you’re wondering: no, the House does not wish to do so.

What were the Committee’s conclusions?

The Committee was Chaired by Liberal MP Andrew Southcott and followed on from an earlier 2013 inquiry into electronic voting chaired by former Labor MP Geoff Lyons. While that earlier inquiry concluded against introducing electronic voting, this inquiry supported it – so long as it didn’t change current voting procedure too much.

The Final Report concluded that if electronic voting were introduced:

  • the House should continue to physically divide to the left and right of the Chair during divisions (or formal votes);
  • there would not have to be any more divisions than normal; and
  • the Chair should keep the ability to stop a division when there are four or fewer MPs on either side (indeed, the Committee said in paragraph 3.5 that the Chair “must retain” that ability).

One of the “significant benefits of electronic voting” is the increased speed that results could be published (paragraph 2.12 to 2.16). However, keeping current voting procedure relatively unchanged means that any time saved by electronic voting would be modest (paragraphs 2.7 to 2.11).

What about our submission?

In our submission to this inquiry, the OpenAustralia Foundation proposed that electronic voting should be used by the House to ensure that all or most votes can be taken by division (which means they are officially recorded) rather than ‘on the voices’. We argued that this:

“will resolve a major gap in the current counting and reporting procedures by allowing the House to produce a fuller voting record. This record will be used by Australians to hold their MPs accountable, and will become an important historical record of MPs’ contribution to our democracy. Without this level of accountability, our democracy remains open to abuse by politicians who say one thing to their electorate but vote quite differently within Parliament.”

The Committee disagreed, concluding that:

“All decisions of the House, whether a division is called or not, are recorded in the Votes and Proceedings. Therefore the Committee considers that there is sufficient transparency for votes that are taken on the voices.” (paragraph 3.13)

What does “sufficient transparency” look like?

To find out what this “sufficient transparency” looks like,  I’ve decided to see if I can use Votes and Proceedings to find out how my MP voted on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015. The main idea of this bill was to remove the Australian citizenship of a dual national in certain situations, including if they fight for or serve a terrorist organisation (read more in the bills digest and ABC News). This marked a fundamental change in how citizenship was treated in our country and yet the bill passed through the House of Representatives without any divisions being recorded – all votes were ‘on the voices’.

When I enter the Votes and Proceedings website, I’m greeted with this screen of sitting dates:

Report Response 2 - Votes and Proceedings screen

So to use this site, I’ll first need to look up the date my bill was debated. Since I’ve been playing around on the Parliament’s website for a while now, I know that every bill has a homepage that includes the relevant dates. I find my bill’s homepage and see it was debated over four days in the House of Representatives. Since I’m interested in all the votes that may have happened on this bill, I start from the first day of debate. But it turns out that there were no votes until the fourth and final day. The entry in Votes and Proceedings about these votes looks like this:

Report Response 3 - The votes

Luckily for me, I speak almost fluent parliamentary jargon, so I know that this record means that three MPs shouted “NO!” when asked if they agreed with the bill’s main idea (known as giving the bill a second reading):

The House divided and only Mr Bandt, Ms McGowan and Mr Wilkie voting “No”, the Deputy Speaker (Mr Mitchell) declared the question resolved in the affirmative.

Those same three MPs then shouted “NO!” again when asked if the bill should be agreed to after being amended by the Government. The record does not say if anyone shouted “NO!” when asked if they wanted to pass the bill (which is known as giving the bill a third reading). This seems a little strange as I can’t see those three dissenting MPs suddenly shouting “AYE!” after all that previous objection. Did they give up at that point and say nothing?

My MP wasn’t one of those three dissenters, so I’m still no closer to finding out how they voted. With no list of who was in the Chamber when these votes ‘on the voices’ took place, I have no way of knowing whether my MP was even in the room! After all, our representatives’ attendance levels vary greatly: from 100% attendance to just 7.3% (Clive Palmer). Perhaps the Committee who wrote this Final Report on electronic voting believes that we have the time to sit and watch our MP in Parliament all day in a situation like this. Does that sound like “sufficient transparency” to you?

Two standards of transparency?

After concluding that “there is sufficient transparency for votes that are taken on the voices” (paragraph 3.13), the Committee then considered the importance of transparency for votes taken by division. They wrote:

“Votes taken by division are votes where there is significant dissent from the majority view of the House and it is of the upmost importance that there is transparency around these decisions. Electronic voting has the potential to further enhance the transparency of division results and their speed of publication.” (paragraph 3.14)

Does this mean that the Committee believe that transparency is only of great importance when there is “significant dissent” in the Chamber? And that, where there isn’t significant dissent, transparency only need be “sufficient”? If so, that would be troubling indeed. Not least because several of the most controversial bills in terms of public opinion attract very little dissent in the Chamber of the House of Representatives – like the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015 mentioned above.

Other controversial votes that passed through the House of Representatives ‘on the voices’ (and therefore, without significant dissent), include:

Compare those issues to the following list which did generate enough dissent for the House to vote by division rather than ‘on the voices’:

We can’t see any clear difference in the level of importance between the two lists as both touch on important issues that should be debated.

So our question to the Standing Committee on Procedure is this: why aren’t all these subjects worthy of the same level of transparency?

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Rebels in the ranks? Hardly.

Members of parliamentary parties rarely cross the floor, because parties expect loyalty from their team members. … [Crossing the floor] may be seen to be giving greater preference to the needs of the electorate than the needs of the party. … A member of parliament who crosses the floor may be considered a traitor to their party.

[Parliamentary Education Office, “Crossing the Floor Fact Sheet”]

We believe that rebellions are a sign of a healthy democracy because they are evidence that a politician is putting the needs of their electorate before the needs of their party. But how many politicians actually do this?

Consider the example of our Prime Minister and Liberal Party MP Malcolm Turnbull. Despite presenting himself as a supporter of marriage equality, he has voted against it with his party on every occasion. Similarly, Labor MP Anthony Albanese recently issued a media release on his website that he “support[s] every effort to move children and their families out of detention and into the community as soon as possible”. And yet, back in 2012, he said nothing in Parliament to oppose his party passing a bill that made sure that they could continue to remove unaccompanied asylum seeker children to regional detention centres without having to consider the interests of the child.

Only 18 of the current 227 federal politicians have rebelled against their parties and crossed the floor since 2006 – 19 if we include Senator Nickolas Varvaris’ accidental rebellion. Not one of these rebels–accidental or otherwise–was from a Labor Party MP or Senator. This is because it requires all members to take a pledge that they accept and support the Party Platform and will be kicked out of the party if they rebel (though some have avoided expulsion in the past). Although the Liberal Party doesn’t forbid rebellion, the circumstances should be exceptional and there may be consequences, such as when then Prime Minister Tony Abbott threatened to sack any frontbencher who crossed the floor on the issue of marriage equality.

Our most rebellious politician in Parliament today (not including now Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie) is National Party MP Barnaby Joyce, and yet since 2006 he has only rebelled 0.96% of the time.

The fact that rebellions are so low in Australia today suggests that our representative democracy isn’t working. Instead of representing their electorates in Parliament where it counts (as required by our Constitution), our politicians are representing their parties. To make things worse, they’re hiding it from us by making inconsistent statements outside of Parliament.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The picture is very different in the United Kingdom – another representative democracy and the birthplace of the Westminster system of government on which much of Australia’s parliamentary system is based. There, rebellions are becoming the norm rather than the exception. British Conservative Party MP Peter Lilley believes that the growth in rebelliousness there is a result of growing interaction between MPs and their constituents, less party loyalty among voters and the fact that politicians are now more scared of losing their seats than they are of being punished by their party whips for rebelling – which is how it should be, in our opinion. And Mr Lilley agrees, writing that “I find Parliament even more worthwhile now than when I was first elected”.

Australian MPs and Senators haven’t always been so hesitant to cross the floor either. Liberal Party Senator Reg Wright rebelled 150 times in his eighteen year career between 1950 and 1978. And despite strong Labor Party discipline, 28 different Labor MPs rebelled between 1950 and 2004.

Information is crucial for citizens to be able to keep tabs on their representatives and make sure that how they vote matches what they say to us outside of Parliament. They Vote For You can help. With They Vote For You, you can look up your representatives, see how they’re really voting on issues you care about and then share what you learn on Twitter, Facebook or old fashioned word-of-mouth. That way we’ll all be in a better position to remind our representatives that they should be answering to us, not to their parties.

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What we’ve got planned for 2016

A few weeks ago we had our second planning session of 2016. As we mentioned in our last planning update we needed to have our usual quarterly review but we also needed to finalise our overall plan for the year.

It was a really tough day. Whittling down the huge laundry list of things we want to do to a list of what we can get done in just one year is always hard. It was also important to scrutinise the mix of new project work we take on and the maintenance we do, which we discuss in more detail later in this post.

We’re really happy with what we’ve come up with. It’s a nice mix of finishing up some new stuff and consolidating and building on our existing projects – we make things for people, we maintain things for people.

Q2 April – June

Photo of the timeline of our plan for Q2 2016.

Our plan for Q2 2016. You might need to squint, or click to embiggen.

Write To Councillors

Write To Councillors continues to be our focus this quarter. The project has been dragging on for a while now so we put some serious effort into creating realistic estimates and working out what’s been stopping our progress.

It’s the usual story – with just two full-time staff, maintaining and supporting half a dozen major projects is difficult enough. Trying to also create new projects at the same time means there’s plenty of overhead context-switching. We’re going to be exploring ways around this so we can continue to make things for people as well as maintaining them.

We’ve estimated approximately 7 weeks of effort remain on Write To Councillors for us. Spending about half our time on it means we’re due to finish up mid-July.

However, in the time since we had our planning session we’ve had a major breakthrough – most of the technical infrastructure has now been created and deployed. How did this happen? Just by changing approach and quickly spiking 2 weeks worth of work in an afternoon – sometimes you need to be slow and methodical and other times you need to move fast and throw things together. It’s important to remember to make this shift early when you recognise things aren’t working.

Hopefully this breakthrough will mean we finish the project a lot quicker than our estimate but for the moment we’re just focussed on getting it done.

Other Stuff

We’re currently in residence at Frontyard and we’ll have a hackfest this Saturday the 23rd of April, mainly centred on PlanningAlerts and local government.

In May Henare will be giving a talk at the g0v Summit in Taipei, Taiwan. Luke’s scheduled a day to explore/hack on a prototype that gives us feedback about the use and impact of PlanningAlerts.

In the lead up to the end of financial year we’ll once again be doing a call for donations (Psst, you don’t need to wait for the end of financial year). Last year we got quite a positive response and a good number of donations. This year we’ll be trying to shift this focus to recurring donations (see also our PlanningAlerts supporters project later in the year).

With the election now seeming almost certain to happen on the 2nd of July, surely we’ll be doing something for that too? Stay tuned ;)

Q3 July – September

All through July we’re scheduled to be finishing off Write To Councillors. With that live and humming we’ll move on to our next major project for the year.

Right To Know – Adding states, doing research, education, promotion

Our major project will be spending all of August and September working on Right To Know. The biggest priority is adding support for the remaining states of Australia and launching that. It’s a big bit of work and will make Right To Know so much more useful for so many more people. A party might be in order.

We haven’t prescribed what we’ll work on after that – we want to carry out some investigation and research about what’s most useful and let that drive us. We’ve got plenty of ideas, from things like creating educational resources for people making FOI requests through to developing a guide to what makes citizen-friendly FOI laws and promoting that here and abroad. There’s also lots of work we could do to promote the use of Right To Know, from optimising AdWords through to demonstrating the project to interested groups around Australia.

Q4 October – December

PlanningAlerts supporters

Last year we ran a project to see if we could get some of the many commercial users of PlanningAlerts to financially support us. Spoiler alert: they didn’t. After a number of iterations and pivots we couldn’t get it to work. While this was a blow we think we can see a positive way forward.

If we can’t get commercial users to pay, maybe some of the many passionate supporters would like to chip in more regularly? You can become a morph.io supporter so why not do the same for PlanningAlerts – we know lots of people love the project and want to support its continued operation and growth. We’ll spend about 6 weeks on this starting in October.

They Vote For You improvements

The response to They Vote For You was bigger than we expected. It turns our people really care how their representatives vote on their behalf in our nation’s parliament. So we’ll spend the end of 2016 repaying that passion by working on some improvements.

Once again we’ll let research drive what this means in practice. We’ll also pick up some of the things that have been bugging researcher Micaela – as the person that works on the site the most, she’s the expert.

Celebrate!

It was great last year so to finish off the year we’ll once again get together to celebrate all of what we’ve done and the people that have helped along the way.

We hope to see you there.

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They Vote For You and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – Continued

Back in mid-March, we announced that They Vote For You was getting into the Open Government Partnership (OGP) action. We started by developing policies related to the Anti-Corruption Working Group:

We then looked at the Public Resources Working Group and came up with these:

This week we’ve been going through our list of over 90 existing policies that touch on these and the other three working groups: Access to Information, Civic Participation and Public Services. Here’s what we found:

Do any of these inspire you to get involved with the OGP process?

 

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OpenAustralia Foundation in residence at Frontyard Projects

A photo posted by FRONTYARD (@frontyardorg) on

A few weeks ago my partner Lisa and I were checking out the Marrickville Open Studio Trail (MOST). MOST is a wonderful initiative organised by my local council, Marrickville Council, where over 50 local studios and galleries have open days over the one weekend.

Being the artist of the two of us, Lisa had picked a few places she wanted us to visit. The first place we visited was Frontyard Projects. As I walked around the gallery, and got a sense for what they do, several ideas started to come together (the Marrickville cà phê sữa đá must have kicked in!).

Years ago OpenAustralia Foundation co-founder Kat had the idea for an “Office of Ideas – a public space for public data work”. This would not only be a physical office space for the Foundation but also an open office where anyone could drop in and hack democracy.

My experience being on the jury for last month’s Walkley’s Editors Lab hackathon had reminded me of how much I like a good hackfest—and we hadn’t yet planned one for this year.

Frontyard offer mini residencies to artists and non-artists. In return for the space and time to think, Frontyard asks for a small gift of time from each resident. That could mean anything from giving a public talk, sharing skills via a workshop, symposium, film night, performance, or something else important for the community.

So I thought – could we combine all of these things?

After a quick chat with the lovely people that run Frontyard the answer was a resounding yes! So from the 11th of April OpenAustralia Foundation will be in residence at Frontyard Projects, culminating in one of our renowned hackfests on the 23rd.

During our residency we’ll have an open office and we invite anyone to join us to hack, share ideas and skills, all while we prepare for the hackfest. If you’d like to join us just pop down to 228 Illawarra Rd, Marrickville NSW 2204 weekdays between 10 am and 4 pm from the 11th to the 22nd of April.

As PlanningAlerts is our most locally focussed project it makes sense for us to work on that at the hackfest. During the Frontyard PlanningAlerts Hackfest we’ll expand the coverage of PlanningAlerts by writing scrapers, work on the core project, and hopefully create some art with public data. We hope you’ll join us – please RSVP to reserve your spot and so we can organise catering.

And yes, we even have some artworks in mind during our residency so make sure to come by and check them out.

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What we’ve been up to so far in 2016

It’s the eve of our second planning session for 2016. Tomorrow we’ll be deciding what to work on for the next 3 months and scheduling it in. We’ve been getting in the habit of writing a blog post with a quick retrospective of our previous quarter and laying out the plans for the next one.

Unfortunately we didn’t do this at the start of 2016. This was partially because we got wrapped up in time-sensitive work for the Open Government Partnership. But it was mainly because we didn’t come out of the several planning sessions we had with a rough plan for the year, as we did in 2015.

This turned out to be fortuitous because the last three months have seen us work on a number of things we didn’t and couldn’t plan for. It’s good that we can continue to be flexible but tomorrow we intend to end up with a detailed plan for the quarter and complete our rough plan for the year. Wish us luck.

Hang on, what about the end of 2015?

That’s a good question. Let’s do a quick review of what we planned for the last quarter of 2015 and how it worked out.

A chart of how much time we spent on each project during Q4 2015.

Our time tracking for 2015 Q4 by project

We did another great scraping workshop. They’re undoubtedly valuable and we enjoy doing them but they’re heaps of work and financially marginal for the Foundation. We’ll be giving them a break for a while.

They Vote For You for Ukraine, or should I say Вони голосують для тебе? It’s launched, our partners are thrilled, we’re thrilled, and we’re certain the people of Ukraine will be thrilled. This is one of those things we really should blog about sometime soon. It’s an amazing example of international civic tech collaboration.

PlanningAlerts – Write To Your Councillor progressed a lot but not as much as we planned. We’ve rolled it out to 3 authorities and we’re already seeing citizens and councillors have helpful discussions about planning applications – that’s really exciting. We’d hoped to have more of the infrastructure completed but even now that’s still pending.

Charging commercial users of PlanningAlerts. We said this quarter would be the decider. It’s decided – we’re not working on it any more. We already have a way forward though and I hope we can write more on this soon and go ahead with our plan.

The server upgrade. Oh the server upgrade. We bloody did it! That’s a huge amount of technical debt paid off and has made all of our projects more secure and sustainable.

We said hi to Melbourne. The meetup was massive, we met loads of people, and the relationships we forged are already proving mutually beneficial. Win!

And finally we had our end of year celebration in a park on Sydney harbour. It was a beautiful day and the turn out was great, with many humans and several dogs. We ate some great food people had gone to a lot of trouble to make or bring and had a few drinks. We’ll be doing this again for sure, it was such a nice way to celebrate our year with many of the people that helped make it happen.

The first 3 months of 2016

Phew. Hang on, we need a breather after all that. Ready? Okay, let’s go.

A chart of how much time we spent on each project during Q1 2016.

Our time tracking for 2016 Q1 by project

I’ve split everything we’ve done in the last 3 months into projects but I’ll start with some stuff that didn’t fit into those categories:

  • We ran 2 pub meets in Sydney which were really good and had a great lineup of speakers each time
  • I gave a talk with volunteer Keith Pitty at the Sydney Ruby meetup, RORO, about why you should contribute to OAF projects and how you can get involved
  • Luke gave a workshop at the Walkley’s Editors Lab hackathon and I was on the jury
  • Luke presented at WDYK Sydney March 2016 and told the crowd to roll up their sleeves when they see a design problem
  • We dealt with 389 support email threads
  • Wrote more rada4you.org scraper documentation and assisted our local partner with scraper debugging
  • Wrote 7 blog posts and sent almost 5,000 emails about them to interested people

PlanningAlerts: 37 scrapers worked on by us and volunteers. Maintenance including bugfixes and adding the ability to disable an API key after some abuse of the API. We had to manually deal with a lot of comment abuse on a few applications.

Write To Councillors: 3 trial councils rolled out and working. Added comment performance charts to ensure the work we’re doing is having a positive impact. Started creating Popolo data for Australian councillors. Added the ability to load councillors from Popolo data. Opened 5 pull requests on WriteIt project. 3 pull requests merged into everypolitician-popolo gem.

morph.io: Merged pull requests from 5 volunteers including adding support for webhooks and several bits of node.js documentation. Maintenance including bugfixes and ensuring we have enough disk space. Added a new sysadmin.

Right To Know: Work with mySociety on site promotion stuff including AdWords. We were on ABC Radio’s PM programme talking about a specific request and the importance of transparency and our approach to it.

They Vote For You: Merged a helpful bugfix from a volunteer. Researcher Micaela continues to summarise dozens of divisions and maintains policies. She’s also created policies specifically for OGP topics. We wrote a Senate submission about voting in parliament.

Open Government Partnership: Kat was sent to represent Australia and the civil society network at the OGP Civil Society Leaders’ Workshop in The Hague. We set up the Australian OGP Civil Society Network, including creating the website and network collaboration tools.

OpenAustralia.org.au: Update data for 2 resigned MPs and their replacements. Removed the mySociety research experiments we started last year.

Election Leaflets: Began talks with a potential media partner about running it for the upcoming federal election.

OK, what’s next?

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Scrutinising the audience experience of Election Leaflets

I relish elections. The political commentary, the placards, the barbeques and the jam stalls on the day. And I love election leaflets. Surprisingly still relevant artefacts of the democratic process that have maintained a unique style of kitsch for as long as I can remember. And so I got involved in OpenAustralia Foundations’ Election Leaflets, first as an enthusiastic contributor then as a volunteer Twitter moderator.

I monitored the Twitter feed looking out for tweets to promote and questions to answer, and I developed a hunch about who was contributing. Many seemed already familiar or affiliated with the OpenAustralia Foundation and I was curious about the experience of new users. I decided to investigate further and experiment with using Twitter as a source of “voice of the customer” data.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 2.22.03 pm

I manually screenshot 17 months of relevant tweets from 28 April 2012 through to 30 September 2013 which was just after the federal election. (Screen scrapers could only yield one week old results due to constraints of Twitter’s search API.) I then analysed this sample of 132 raw data points from approximately 70 unique profiles. The findings were positive but also revealed a break point in the experience stopping engaged Twitter followers from becoming active contributors.

On the positive front the findings showed plenty of advocates of the OpenAustralia Foundation and Election Leaflets who encouraged others to share content, promoted the Twitter profile, were proud of their own contributions, and used the tool as it was designed – to scrutinise promotional electioneering material.

But there was evidence that despite this activity some followers could not easily work out how to contribute expecting to be able to add content directly to the Election Leaflets Twitter feed somehow. This experience was best typified by one Twitter follower, a journalist who needed to ask for help to work out how to contribute leaflets.

margotsjourney

There were also indications that richer and more instructive experiences needed to be created for would-be volunteers to join the community and participate across all channels – from the Election Leaflets site, to Twitter, and the Google Group.

Election Leaflets had created a community of advocates and influencers but the evidence showed that it was hard for the uninitiated to contribute. The conversation and engagement that was generated by the leaflets was all on Twitter – there was nothing connecting Twitter to the site and nothing connecting the site back to Twitter to demonstrate the impact that Election Leaflets was generating.

What can we learn from this? Election Leaflets had proven itself as a successful and even fun tool. The next step for it and perhaps similar projects is to develop as an end-to-end experience. For Election Leaflets this could mean borrowing some techniques from content marketing and creating specific landing pages for new users coming to the site from Twitter outlining how it all works. It could include specific onboarding experiences for the general public and journalists. The pride and fun of people contributing could be harnessed by encouraging healthy competition and bragging rights. Further research and experiments would no doubt yield more ideas.

Election Leaflets was a minimum viable product that successfully made election ephemera easily accessible online. Its future may be at a cross roads – the National Library also archives election pamphlets although it doesn’t yet publish content live for either enjoyment or scrutiny. The next step should its evolution continue will be for us to create a minimum viable experience for both familiar and new users to meet the needs of the community as a whole.

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Our submission to the Inquiry into procedures for counting and reporting the vote in a division

If you follow this blog, or our projects like OpenAustralia.org.au or They Vote For You, you’ll know that we work hard to increase peoples’ access to information about what goes on in Parliament. We recently wrote about problems with the way votes are recorded. The lack of a complete record of voting makes it really hard for you to find out what your elected representatives do on your behalf. This problem needs to be fixed.

The Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure is currently holding an inquiry into using an electronic voting system to record divisions (votes in Parliament). We think electronic voting is an important solution to some of the existing problems.

Here’s the OpenAustralia Foundation submission to the inquiry:


Dear Committee Secretary,

The OpenAustralia Foundation welcomes the opportunity to make submissions to the Inquiry into procedures for counting and reporting the vote in a division. We congratulate you for taking the time to review this aspect of operations as it has the potential to deepen our Parliament’s ability to fulfil its legislative, oversight and representational responsibilities.

Who are we?

We are a pioneering charity whose vision is to transform democracy in Australia by giving all Australians the tools they need to effect the change they want. We create technologies that encourage and enable people to participate directly in the political process on a local and national level.

One of our projects is a website, They Vote For You, that helps Australians keep track of how their federal representatives vote on issues they care about. The website tracks how politicians vote and draws on currently available voting data from the Parliament’s official records.

What is the problem with current procedures?

Under current procedures, Australians cannot look at the official records of Parliament and easily see how their Members of Parliament (MPs) have voted on a given matter. That is a giant transparency and accountability problem.

Only divisions are recorded in the official record and yet most votes take place ‘on the voices’. This means that many bills pass through the House of Representatives without any written record of how each MP voted. Without this information, Australians cannot hold their MPs accountable. For a good overview on how voting data is currently recorded in Parliament, and the impacts of this system, see our blog post They Vote For You – Finding the real facts about voting.

Solutions

The problem of accountability could be solved if all or most votes were taken by division rather than ‘on the voices’. This is impractical under current procedures as divisions take up considerable time. However, electronic voting can change that.

Electronic voting would allow MPs to vote by simply pressing buttons on a screen which cuts out the time spent moving across the chamber, counting and recording, and then everyone returning to their seats. This time saving could allow many more votes to be officially recorded. We believe that all votes that are crucial to the passage of bills (for example, second reading and third reading votes) should be recorded so that everyone has access to a more accurate record of how their representatives vote on their behalf.

The 2012 Declaration on Parliamentary Openness supports electronic voting for this reason. Article 20 calls for the use of roll call or electronic voting in most cases and calls for “maintaining and making available to the public a record of the voting behavior of individual members in plenary and in committees”. Our Foundation has endorsed the Declaration alongside many of the world’s leading parliamentary monitoring organisations. Over 170 organisations have now registered their support.

We believe that the arguments against electronic voting that were raised in the Committee’s June 2013 inquiry Electronic voting in the House of Representatives can be readily overcome. One concern was that electronic voting would lessen the visibility of other MPs’ decision-making in the House (section 3.6, 2013 inquiry report). This can be resolved by using, for example, coloured lights to give a clear visual representation of the MP’s vote to the rest of the chamber.

This particular solution is used in the Irish Dáil Éireann (Ireland’s lower house), where a large display panel, that reflects the horseshoe layout of the chamber, lights up in green or red to show how each Member is voting. The display panel is positioned above the seat of the Ceann Comhairle (the Chairperson or Speaker). You can learn more about this system in the press release announcing its introduction in 2002 at or in the Dáil Éireann Standing Orders. Once voting records are captured as digital data in real time we can create all kinds of new, helpful ways to see how how MPs vote – for those inside and outside the House.

Further, the concern that electronic voting would take away an important opportunity for MPs to “move away from their allocated seats and speak informally to their colleagues and Ministers” (section 3.40, 2013 inquiry report) can be overcome by introducing more informal discussion opportunities during breaks. Time saved through the introduction of electronic voting could be allocated for this for example.

Summary

Electronic voting can improve transparency and efficiency in the House of Representatives. It will resolve a major gap in the current counting and reporting procedures by allowing the House to produce a fuller voting record. This record will be used by Australians to hold their MPs accountable, and will become an important historical record of MPs’ contribution to our democracy. Without this level of accountability, our democracy remains open to abuse by politicians who say one thing to their electorate but vote quite differently within Parliament.

The OpenAustralia Foundation supports the introduction of electronic voting into the House of Representatives and looks forward to the opportunity to discuss this further.

Yours Sincerely,

Katherine Szuminska and Henare Degan
OpenAustralia Foundation

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They Vote For You and the Open Government Partnership (OGP)

Homepage TVFY

In July Australia will submit its first National Action Plan to the Open Government Partnership (OGP). These National Action Plans are lists of concrete commitments to advance open government in an OGP member country over a two year period by improving transparency, participation, and accountability. The commitments are co-created by the government and civil society.

The OpenAustralia Foundation plans to contribute a commitment around greater parliamentary openness. You can read about how we’re going about it, and how you can create your own commitment, in Kat’s recent blog post How to make an OGP National Action Plan commitment.

You might be able to tell that we’re quite excited about the OGP process. In fact, we’ve joined a collection of civil society organisations to set up the Australian OGP Civil Society Network. Through the Network you can join a Working Group that interests you and help create ambitious commitments for the our OGP National Action Plan. There are currently five Working Groups:

  1. Access to Information;
  2. Anti Corruption;
  3. Civic Participation;
  4. Public Resources; and
  5. Public Services.

They Vote For You is also getting in on the action. We want to help the Working Groups see how our elected representatives are voting on these subjects in Federal Parliament. We’ve started with the Anti-Corruption Working Group and already have two new policies to They Vote For You:

Take a look at how your representatives voted and join the Anti Corruption conversation. Or maybe one of the other Working Groups tickles your fancy?

Posted in OpenAustralia Foundation, They Vote For You | Tagged , , , | 1 Response

How to make an OGP National Action Plan commitment

Start Starting Line Americorps Cinema Service Night Wilcox Park May 20, 20117

Photo by stevendepolo on Flickr (cc by 2.0)

Australia has only 5 months to define ambitious open government reforms for its first Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan. In this time we must gather raw ideas, research, discuss and deliberate them into fully developed, budgeted, and agreed commitments. In July the government must announce the commitments it will implement over the next 18 months.

Defining concrete commitments, building support for them, and negotiating with our government is the most important work our Civil Society network can do right now. Unfortunately, it’s not very clear how to actually do this yet. Last week, Henare, Luke, and I got together to discuss what the OpenAustralia Foundation might do to make the process clearer. We soon realised we didn’t really know what the process was ourselves.

To demystify it, for ourselves and others in the network, we’ve decided to jump in and have a go. We’ll create one commitment in an area we care about and document the process for everyone. We invite you to collaborate with us. Join us on the journey, and together we’ll show how one group of citizens creates an action plan commitment towards reforms that make a big difference in our community.

At the OpenAustralia Foundation we work to make parliament more open through projects like They Vote For You. We see some clear gaps in Parliamentary openness that our first National Action Plan can address, so that’s the area we’ll focus a commitment on.

To start things off here’s the process we plan to go through to create our first OGP National Action Plan commitment:

  1. Define the problem – what is it? Who else cares about this?

  2. Work out what makes an effective commitment

  3. Develop the commitment according to the OGP’s  template

  4. Submit commitment somehow – how best to do this? By when?

I’m off to get started now. We’ll keep you posted about what we learn along the way. Drop in or lend a hand in this Open Parliament discussion.  Or find out more at our pub meet tonight in Surry Hills.

Posted in Announcement, OpenAustralia Foundation, OpenAustralia.org, They Vote For You | Tagged , , , , | 3 Responses
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