15/06/2018 - 09:28

Ticking the boxes on eligibility

15/06/2018 - 09:28


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Opinion: A big weekend of by-elections could have been avoided if tighter candidate guidelines were in place.

Ticking the boxes on eligibility
The absence of Liberals on by-election ballots next month means Malcolm Turnbull can avoid a potentially embarrassing trip to WA, and questions on the GST. Photo: Attila Csaszar

New guidelines from the Australian Electoral Commission on the eligibility of candidates might be shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, but at least they are a start.

The guidelines are designed to prevent a repetition of the events that have triggered a series of federal by-elections, with four of the five contests scheduled for July 28.

The July ballots, as annoying as they might be to unwilling voters (and hugely disruptive to the government’s legislative program), will set the parameters for federal politics until the next general election, due within 12 months.

Already the Australian Labor Party has been forced to defer its national conference in Adelaide, which had been set for the by-election weekend, until December. But there will be other disruptions.

It is almost 12 months since Western Australian Greens senator Scott Ludlam volunteered that he unwittingly held dual Australian and New Zealand citizenship, and was therefore ineligible to sit in the parliament under section 44 of the Australian Constitution.

This started a process of resignations and High Court hearings to determine the eligibility of other MPs with foreign family links that had not been renounced.

English-born Fremantle Labor MP Josh Wilson has been caught up in this process, and will have to recontest his seat next month. The other federal by-election in WA, for the seat of Perth, has been caused by the resignation of Labor’s Tim Hammond for family reasons.

Under the new AEC guidelines, candidates will now be presented with a nomination form, which includes 11 questions directly linked to their eligibility to stand.

The form covers such key issues as: whether the candidate is an Australian citizen by birth; if a parent or grandparent was born overseas; whether their spouse or former spouse was born overseas; what steps have been taken to ensure the candidate has not acquired the citizenship of another country; and whether the candidate has ever been a subject or citizen of another country.

There is a potential weakness in the new arrangement. According to the AEC, the checklist is only an optional component in the nomination process; and it will require the candidate’s permission for his or her checklist to be published on the AEC website, following the declaration of nominations.

After the current shambles, however, it would be a surprise if aspiring MPs weren’t keen to show voters they were squeaky clean and deserving of support.

After all, if they are going to pay the deposit of $2,000 to contest a Senate election, or $1,000 for the House of Representatives, they will want to meet all the requirements.

Of course some potential candidates have left their run too late in the past to get their affairs in order and be eligible to stand.

But rarely do sitting members fall foul of the nomination timetables. There was one celebrated case in NSW in 1973, where the member for the safe northern Sydney Liberal seat of Gordon, Harry Jago, who was also the health minister, was late in nominating and ruled ineligible. Traditional Liberal voters in the seat were urged to support the Democratic Labor Party candidate, who was duly elected and served one term only.

There will be some comparisons with the by-election for Perth and Fremantle, but here the Liberals will be absent on the ballot papers by choice.

This tactic means Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can bypass WA for the next four weeks and avoid embarrassing questions on the state’s shocking GST deal.

However, an independent Liberal is likely to contest Perth. He is tipped to be James Grayden, son of former Sir Charles Court government minister and party stalwart, Bill Grayden. Coincidentally, Bill Grayden won the seat of South Perth in 1956 as an independent Liberal, before joining the party, while his younger brother, Dave, held Nedlands as an independent, going down to Sir Charles Court in 1953.

So James Grayden’s independent credentials are sound.

A strong Liberal vote in next month’s contests would be a huge boost for Mr Turnbull, with the government consistently trailing Labor in Newspoll on voting intentions.

A good result for Labor would be just as important for party leader, Bill Shorten.

Regardless, both sides will be hoping the recent eligibility debacles are quickly despatched as just a bad dream.


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