Roll reversal

It stands out because this government has such little legislative ambition. When they do make new laws, they are freighted with meaning. They pose the question: Why is this important?

The Morrison government’s intention to institute identification checks at polling booths is an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist. There is no evidence of voter fraud affecting elections. It is hard to see it as anything other than voter suppression. Or worse: a chance to claim that vote rigging occurred, to borrow the great lie of contemporary politics.

Nearly one in five American adults – 47 million people – believes the myth that Donald Trump was the victim of electoral fraud and that Joe Biden’s presidency is illegitimate. More than half of all Republican voters think this. It might be the most effective fallacy of Trump’s time in office and could well contribute to his re-election.

In Australia, there is broad confidence in the voting system. There should be. The electoral commissioner told estimates this week that there were just over 2000 miscast votes at the last election, out of 15 million. It makes this new law only more perplexing.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham says the new law would “further enhance public confidence” – although it is likely it would do the opposite. At the very least, it would disproportionately affect racial minorities, homeless people and the young. If there is any doubting the law’s racist intent, Pauline Hanson has claimed credit for it. The opposition calls it segregationist, a piece of “Jim Crow legislation to corrupt the ballot process”.

There is a tendency to see this in American terms. Voter suppression is a congressional art form. Trump’s exploits no doubt inspired Morrison. Both are rapacious dilettantes, interested in only power and not that to which it can be turned. Both live wholly on the surface and are cunning with the epidermis of meaning that can be made there.

But Morrison has another great mentor in the form of John Howard. He was an enthusiastic proponent of voter suppression. Immediately on coming to power he dismantled the branch of the Australian Electoral Commission concerned with Indigenous franchise. He effectively forced the commission to stop outreach to Aboriginal voters. It was the first time the authority had been instructed by government on how to direct its budget.

Howard chipped away at the voting rights of prisoners, attempting to remove them entirely. Eventually, he managed to strip the vote from tens of thousands of prisoners. The numbers are not significant, but the pettiness and superiority is.

In a final sly trick Howard legislated the early closure of the electoral rolls. A seven-day window was slimmed to a matter of hours after the writs were issued. Again, this was described as a measure to ensure the integrity of the roll, although the Electoral Commission said it would have the opposite effect. Hundreds of thousands of people were unable to update their details or add themselves to the roll. Most of them were young or poor, more likely to move regularly and not vote Liberal. By the time Howard lost office, there were 1.2 million Australians left off the roll.

It is telling that Scott Morrison is making laws to stop people voting rather than laws to win their votes. This is how he plays politics, in the negative. It’s a game of opportunism, of minute advantage, eked out at the expense of the system that gave him government in the first place.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 30, 2021 as "Roll reversal".

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