By Heath Pickering. Deputy Editor, Election Watch
The cost to hold a federal election has risen 15% on average since 1990. This year’s poll is predicated to cost taxpayers at least $227 million, or around $15 per voter.
Why so much? Well, Australia’s federal elections are the country’s largest logistical event – with over 15 million enrolled voters. Compulsory voting ensures mass participation, with voter turnout in 2013 around 93%. Increasingly, the financial cost of implementing our democratic principles has ballooned.
Data from the Australian Electoral Commission shows that the 1990 election cost $55 million. This year the federal election is predicted to cost more than four times that amount – around $227 million. This will expand beyond $300 million by 2021.
Since 1990, the cost per federal election has increased by around 15%. Interestingly, the 2010 election costs $2 million less than the 2007 campaign and is the only modern election to not increase in cost. However, the ‘cost-effective’ 2010 election is more likely to have profited from the bloated 2007 election – which increased by $46 million or 39%.
In addition to the upcoming federal election, the government is considering holding a plebiscite (a non-binding public vote) on same sex marriage. A recent report by consultancy organisation PwC estimated that the proposed plebiscite could cost $525 million as a standalone vote, $113 million if undertaken on the same day as the 2016 federal election (which is not occurring), or $17 million as a parliamentary vote. Supporters feel empowered to have a say on the issue while critics deplore what they say is a waste of money.
There is also the problem of unexpected by-elections and re-elections. Following the 2013 election, Western Australians went back to the polls to re-elect six senators, after the Australian Electoral Commission lost 1,370 ballots. The saga almost resulted in the micro-party, the Australian Sports Party, gaining a Senate seat. This re-election cost over $20 million. A by-election was also held in the Queensland seat of Griffith following the resignation of Kevin Rudd several months after the election. The by-election cost $1.2 million.
A final issue is the frequency of Australia’s elections. Statistically speaking, Australia holds elections more often than most other parliamentary democracies. The short three-year parliamentary terms are an anomaly in liberal democracies where 92% of similar democracies have either four or five year terms. For instance, the UK, Canada and France all have five-year terms. In the last 50 years, Australia has held 19 elections, while the UK and Canada have held 12 and 15 respectively. If Australia had five-year fixed-term elections, we would have gone to the polls just 10 times and would have saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Clearly, one way to reduce the cost of elections is to have fewer of them. That is, extend the parliamentary term to four or five years—instead of the current three. This would provide significant financial savings over the long term, which is particularly relevant in today’s political climate where finding savings (as opposed to increasing revenue) is the government’s core ethos.
Naturally, any debate on increasing parliamentary terms would require critical analysis beyond pure financial savings from fewer elections. Even so, this could be a cost worth considering.
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