Lessons in power to, for and by the people

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THE ACT can show the Federal Parliament a thing or two about empowering the people. Gay marriage and fair, empowering electoral systems provide just two examples.

Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, moved quickly on equitable marriage legislation. It is incomprehensible to me why some heterosexual people seem to think it will harm them when two people with a different sexual orientation who love each other wish to marry.

The Federal Parliament can learn from the ACT about how to run empowering elections.

The major parties do not hesitate to work together when it helps to marginalise smaller parties. Together they have manipulated the electoral system for years. And now it has come back to bite them.

The advent of the so-called “micro parties” is a direct result of major parties attempting to ensure the electoral system suits themselves. The irony is that people who have been elected in a democratic manner have actually worked to ensure that more power remains in the hands of the parties than in the hands of the voters. The ingrates!

The principle that applies to the ACT legislation is simple: maximise power to the voters.

There are three major changes that work well in the ACT and should be adopted: first, optional preferential voting; second, give priority to voter intention; and, third, apply Robson rotation.

SA Senator Nick Xenophon has nailed the first, announcing legislation to provide optional preferential voting. His goal is to get rid of the stupid, arrogant preference deals that even the well-informed voters cannot hope to understand and which have been partially responsible for the rise of the “micro-parties”.

However, optional preferential voting should not just be limited to the Senate. To empower the voters in the House of Representatives is as important. There is not a single logical reason why someone who places three numbers in the boxes next to favoured candidates, where seven candidates are contesting the election, should not be considered to have cast a formal vote. Under the current system there must be a number against every candidate or the ballot paper is discarded.

Xenophon’s proposal removes the above-the-line vote. It is possible to retain this easy method of voting by also applying the optional preferential system above the line. A first vote above the line would be equivalent to voting for everyone listed below the line in the order they are presented, the second preference then continuing with the next list below the line and so on. The voter would be empowered rather than the parties.

Voter intention should be paramount. The ACT Electoral Act 1992 states at Section 180: “Effect shall be given to the elector’s intention as far as that intention is clear”.

When a voter makes a mistake at their fourth or fifth preference, the ballot is not informal. The voter’s intention for the first, second and third preference is clear and that should be applied. A similar system operates in SA. The voter remains empowered.

Finally, the ACT applies Robson rotation on its ballot paper so that no candidate within a party gains advantage over another. The power transfers from the party to the voter. Those casting a “party vote” have their vote distributed evenly. More informed voters then have the chance to influence which of the party members should be elected.

Labor is attempting to use a more democratic system to sort out its leadership contest between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese. Now there is an opportunity for them, and all the elected members of the Federal Parliament, to improve our democracy. It is time to deliver a fairer and more effective electoral system.


Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health


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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.


  1. Great post. NSW also has optional preferential voting for the Legislative Assembly.
    For the Legislative Council, parties must have a minimum 15 candidates to qualify for a Group Ticket (following a similarly huge ballot paper in the 1999 state elections), you can just vote 1 or continue to preference groups above the line, or can number at least 15 candidates below the line.
    Where the voting intention is clear – marking an X by a single candidate, or numbering 1 to 30 but skipping number 24, the vote is counted as formal.

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