7.1 Seventy-seven political parties were registered for the 1998 federal and Newcastle supplementary elections. This number of parties may seem surprisingly high but is largely due to the fact that many parties choose to separately register each of their State and Territory branches even though this is not necessary under the Act. A full listing of parties registered for the elections appears at Appendix 4.
7.2 The legislation and administration governing registrations of political parties at State and federal levels have in recent times come under sharp scrutiny. Concerns have, in particular, been prompted by the large number of small parties registered for the 1999 New South Wales upper house election which resulted in a 'tablecloth sized' ballot paper and by the deregistration of Pauline Hanson's One Nation by the Electoral Commission Queensland after a finding by Justice Atkinson of the Queensland Supreme Court. These concerns, while not directed at the federal system, have some resonance.
7.3 Federal registration carries more benefits than just the entitlement to have the party name or abbreviation printed beside candidates' names on ballot papers. The agent of a registered party becomes the payee for the election funding entitlements of its candidates and groups. Further, a registered party is entitled to receive printed and electronic copies of the Commonwealth electoral roll. Clearly, private roll information should be protected from persons and entities not entitled to it.
7.4 The Act requires, amongst other things, that to be federally registered a political party must have either:
Parties are recognised respectively as Parliamentary and Non-Parliamentary parties under the Act. The rights and entitlements of Parliamentary and Non-Parliamentary parties are largely identical, but the Act does specify some slight differences in administrative operations, such as deregistration.
7.5 The AEC seeks to undertake periodic reviews of the continued eligibility of political parties to federal registration. These reviews are an administrative initiative and are not expressly authorised by the Act. As a result, some parties have questioned the AEC's authority to conduct these reviews.
7.6 The AEC believes that reviewing the Register of Political Parties is the sole effective means of ensuring that only entitled political parties remain registered and enjoy the benefits of federal registration. To guarantee the integrity of the Register of Political Parties, the AEC believes that reviews of the continued eligibility of political parties to registration should be underpinned by express legislative authority.
The Australian Electoral Commission be given express legislative authority to:
7.7 As mentioned above, in order to be eligible to be counted among the 500 members of a Non-Parliamentary political party for registration purposes, the Act requires that a party member be entitled to enrolment on the Commonwealth electoral roll. Apart from this specific requirement, the Act does not define, or place any preconditions or restrictions upon being, a member of a political party. The terms and conditions of membership are governed entirely by the rules of individual parties.
7.8 While 500 members are needed to register a Non-Parliamentary party, any three can deregister their party. In either instance it is critical that the AEC be able to establish a person's standing as a member beyond any doubt. But many of the less established parties have deficient rules governing their membership which undermines the AEC's ability to establish with certainty a person's status as a party member.
7.9 The AEC believes that the Act should set the following further requirements for party membership under the Act for registration purposes:
7.10 Just as the current registration condition on membership does not preclude parties from having members who are non-citizens, these additional rules would not prevent parties from offering memberships that do not meet these requirements. Other classes of membership that do not conform to these rules, such as life memberships, would still be allowable under parties' own rules but simply could not be counted for federal registration purposes.
The definition of a member of a political party be expanded to include the requirements for a person to have:
7.11 The membership criterion is effectively the legislative control that prevents unlimited numbers of parties being registered. Its intention is to ensure that parties demonstrate a level of support within the community, but a Member of Parliament acting alone can short circuit this condition by the option of registering a Parliamentary party. There have been recent cases of independents being elected to the New South Wales State upper house primarily on preferences, having received a relatively minor first preference vote. An MP elected with few first preference votes is nevertheless entitled to register a political party with no other members other than him/herself, but it must be questioned whether that MP, and therefore that party, enjoys the level of community support envisaged by the registration provisions of the Act. Even where the MP may have demonstrated direct electoral and community support, it does not necessarily follow that that support is automatically transferred to the new party. Similarly, the electoral support can be questioned of an MP elected with the endorsement of a registered party who then later resigns or is expelled from that party. Again, such an MP is free to register a political party without any demonstrated support for the party from the community. Rather, the reverse can be the case – the registration of a party is used as the genesis for building public support.
7.12 The entitlement of an MP to automatically register a political party allows manipulation of the registration procedures. There is at present no restriction on the number of political parties of which an MP may be a member. In the past this has allowed MPs to register, or assist the registration of, more than one political party. Such parties are entitled to registration regardless of the level of community support they might have. This provision also affords an MP the opportunity to reserve another party name simply by registering a 'shelf' party, without having to show that there is any intention of the party being operative. Such manipulation of the registration system also comes at a cost to the taxpayer of around $8 000 to $10 000 for each application.
7.13 The AEC can see no justification for the Act continuing with the presumption that a political party that has an MP as a member necessarily enjoys community support equivalent to 500 members. Indeed, the current situation is open to exploitation not only of the registration provisions of the Act but also of the electoral process through registration of multiple parties.
Consideration be given to amending the provision for a political party qualifying for registration on the basis of having one or more members who are members of a Federal or State parliament or a Territory legislature as an alternative to having 500 members, to either:
7.14 Parties are free to organise themselves according to the constitutions upon which they are founded. The AEC's observation, however, is that while the major, established parties have detailed rules governing their operations many smaller parties have few if any meaningful rules. For instance, the procedures for accepting persons into a party as members or for terminating those memberships are often absent or indeterminate, as are procedures for installing and removing party office bearers.
7.15 While the Act should not impose itself unnecessarily on the internal structure and operations of political parties, some deficiencies in a party's constitution can undermine the administration of the party registration provisions of the Act. While political parties should be allowed to organise their own affairs, clearly there is an obligation for them to meet minimum requirements of legislation such as the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Unlike what currently applies to federally registered political parties, unincorporated associations, for example, have model rules which they can be required to follow. The Act should provide the AEC with the power to set standard rules which would supplant deficient rules.
The Act provide the Australian Electoral Commission with the power to set standard, minimum rules which would apply to registered political parties where the party's own constitution is silent or unclear.