Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Coronavirus And Australian Politicians And Elections

Just a post to comment on some aspects of interest regarding the current COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak and its impacts on Australian politicians and elections.  (Note added April: this article is being updated continually but no further politicians have been diagnosed for a while.)


In the last week three federal Coalition MPs (Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, Senator Susan McDonald and Senator Andrew Bragg) have tested positive to COVID-19.  Dutton is believed to have caught the disease in the USA, Bragg at a wedding in Australia and McDonald via unknown community transmission.  No state politicians have been reported as testing positive, but that's surely just a matter of time.

Politicians represent a tiny percentage of the world population, yet there have been many cases of them testing positive, a fact already attracting much attention.

A rough and doubtless incomplete tally of politicians who have tested positive, culled mostly from this Wikipedia page, accepting their description of "politician" status blindly but excluding those who I could quickly and clearly see were only former politicians, is as follows:

The table shows that countries that have politicians who have tested positive usually have more than one.  Of the 13 countries with more than one known infected politician, Australia has the fourth lowest ratio of total cases to political cases, currently above only Brazil, Romania and Iran.  Some countries with high coronavirus counts have none so far (such as South Korea and Switzerland) while China has relatively few.

Australia has, by my count, 835 current federal, state and territory politicians (two of a total 837 seats are vacant pending by-elections).  So at present, 0.36% of politicians have tested positive.  However, currently 454 of Australia's estimated 25.63 million people have tested positive, or 0.0017%.  The sample size of politicians (three) is of course small, but for the time being politicians are over-represented for their share of population by a factor of about 203 times in the Australian case list.  Worldwide, the over-representation is probably much lower, given that Australia is only about 1/300th of the world's population and the Wikipedia list's criteria are more relaxed than mine, but probably politicians worldwide are tens of times more likely than average people to be diagnosed with COVID-19 at this stage.  

So why do we have a disease where politicians have suddenly acquired the germ magnet status of a toddler with a mouthful of dirt?  The TIME article gives a good coverage of the main reasons why politicians might get overrepresented.  They are ideal targets because they travel a lot (especially overseas), they meet lots of people who also travel a lot, they attend lots of meetings and gatherings, and they are often very touchy-feely with colleagues and strangers (in some cases seemingly compulsively).  They are also more likely to actually get tested, in contrast with average people who may have symptoms but either choose not to get tested or are not even allowed to be tested.

(Note: the Wikipedia article I used as a resource is currently under nomination for possible deletion.  UPDATE 20/3: It has now been deleted though the deletion is being challenged. FURTHER UPDATE: The challenge was unsuccessful and Wikipedia now only tracks notable deaths.)

Upcoming Elections

Australia has a number of known state and territory elections coming up:

March 28 Two Queensland state by-elections
May 2 Two Tasmanian Legislative Council seats
Aug 22 Northern Territory
Oct 17 ACT
Oct 31 Queensland

There are also local government elections in Queensland (March 28), NSW (September) and Victoria (October), but Victoria's council elections are mostly postal voting.

The issue of coronavirus precautions is already being raised in relation to some of these elections.  The Electoral Commission of Queensland has encouraged voters to bring their own pens or pencils and also to make use of early voting, and has made various hygiene recommendations.  A surge of postal vote applications for the council elections has been reported.  Early voting is soaring as voters aim not only to avoid possible crowds on election day, but also anticipate that transmission rates in the community may have risen sharply by that time.  This could make for even messier election night counts than we are used to - how many people will actually vote in booths at all?

Use of tables and screens to maximise physical distances has also been foreshadowed for Queensland.  Similarly in French local elections, lines on floors are being used for this purpose, while UK local elections have been postponed for a year.

The Tasmanian Electoral Commission is unable to unilaterally reschedule elections or change the election method so the May 2 Legislative Council elections will be going ahead unless the Tasmanian Parliament postpones them.  Under Section 19(4) of the Tasmanian Constitution Act 1934, the elections could only be postponed to another date in May (which would make little sense unless time was needed to prepare for an alternative method of holding them), so a major change to the schedule would require legislation to be passed through both Houses of Parliament.  The Tasmanian Electoral Commission has briefed the government and made an announcement, which currently sees the elections going ahead but with similar precautions to Queensland and an expectation of a slower count.  Social distancing measures would affect both the conduct of counting in booths (though perhaps not by much) and the checking of consolidated primaries.  It would especially affect the larger exclusions during the throwing of preferences, where the normal method involves large numbers of staff throwing ballots into piles around a small number of tables.

Among the challenges electoral officials may have to face includes dealing with voters who are forced to self-isolate after the point at which they can apply for a postal vote.  While this would presumably be accepted as a valid excuse for not voting, what if the voter wants to vote?  Will they be visited by an electoral worker in a Hazmat suit?  Similar issues (as noted by Rosevears candidate Jess Greene on Twitter) include lockdowns of aged care homes - probably these would be covered by mobile polling booths in any case, but extra precautions would be required.    There is seemingly not much time before the Parliament rises for these elections to potentially be postponed, but as we have seen so far with this virus, the nine days between now and that occurring could be a very long time.

The remaining elections are too far away to say what the situation might be like when they are scheduled yet, but ACT Labor has already suspended face-to-face campaigning, a step also taken by Labor and Green candidates in Tasmania and possibly others I am not yet aware of.

For those elections with more time to prepare, there may be interest in the option of moving to a system of predominantly or full postal voting.  This has the advantage of greatly reducing exposure risk issues for booth workers and voters, but postal voting is less secure than booth voting in terms of being sure the voter voted privately and without coercion to vote a particular way.  It also carries risks that voters may not get their ballot papers (because of failure to update their address or, as seen on a small scale in the Marriage Law Postal Survey, because of ballots being pulled out of letterboxes), and there is likely to be some skew against young voters in such cases.  Plus the count will still be slow.

There will also of course be interest in online voting but I need to remind readers that at this stage online voting remains a fundamentally bad idea.  There is simply no reliable way to protect online voting systems against hacking and accidental data loss while at the same time safeguarding the voter's identity.  Online voting is completely dissimilar to online banking - with online banking there is no requirement for secrecy (quite the opposite) and also errors can be tolerated because they can be detected and reversed.  The problems with online voting will probably not be safely solved in six years let alone six months.  If you see someone proposing online voting, please introduce them to this.

This article will be updated to track the overrepresentation of politicians in coronavirus statistics, and also electoral developments, from time to time.

Update (Queensland) 20 March:

There have been a few significant developments in Queensland since the article was written:

* Shortly before suspending until whenever in the next six months the government chooses to sit again (if at all) the Queensland government passed legislation enabling the postponement of the elections on March 28 if necessary.  However no such action has yet been taken.

* The ECQ has issued guidance on how to vote cards and polling stations, which bans party volunteers from shaking hands and discourages unnecessary handing out of how to vote cards, among other things.

* The Courier-Mail has reported a YouGov poll showing 52-44 support for postponing the local government elections (sample size 609).  The survey question was "As you may be aware, local government elections (for councils and mayors) are scheduled throughout Queensland for Saturday March 28. Given the recent announcements regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia, which is closer to your own view about these elections?" I understand more detail about this poll may be public in the near future.

Further Queensland Update (21 March):

The ECQ has now banned the handing out of how-to-vote cards and canvassing for votes at booths entirely.  Compliant cards can be displayed inside booths by booth staff for voters to consult.

n=4 (23 March)

Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick is the fourth Australian federal politician to test positive.  Australian state politicians are still on zero.  As it has been a while since the last federal politician and the case rate has increased rapidly, Australian politicians are now over-represented by a factor of 75.

Tasmania Postponed (23 March)

On advice from the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, the Government will postpone the Legislative Council elections by four weeks to May 30.  This is to give the TEC more time to prepare and encourage postal vote and early vote options - it does not seem a full switch to postal voting is being canvassed.  May 30 is the latest date possible without amending or overriding the Constitution Act.

Tasmanian Schedule Released (26 March)

A revised schedule for the Legislative Council elections has been released together with information about how the TEC will encourage postal voting.  Mobile booths will not visit aged care homes.  Pre-polling will run for five weeks!

I support the decision to defer these elections by four weeks and not longer.  Not usually one to hold such concerns, I do now feel that liberal democracy could be a little fragile in these extraordinary circumstances and that now is not the time to mess about with constitutions or put elections on the never-never with long deferrals (which could later be deferred again).  It is better to minimise the risks and go ahead.  My feeling on this has been strengthened by seeing many people who for many years were always raising concerns about the robustness of our democracy - with many of these concerns being petty or even unfounded - now carrying on like a bunch of Johs in favour of taking lockdown measures much further than governments and their advisors support at this time.

I have the same view regarding the Queensland elections in progress - to scrap an election after most people have voted would be a deeply disturbing precedent.

Queensland Scrutineering (26 March)

The ECQ has issued a document dealing with scrutineering issues.  Scrutineers will not be allowed to observe the count inside booths on election night, which will make preference-sampling on the night impossible.

Tasmania Deferred Again (5 April)

The Tasmanian Legislative Council elections have now been deferred indefinitely, but with an intent to hold them before August 25 when the Legislative Council is expected to next sit (if not recalled earlier).  Although it was not being discussed explicitly in those terms at the time, it appears that there were sufficient powers in various existing and new legislation to do this.  I don't really mind this deferral by itself (given that the LegCo will not do anything controversial in the next few months) but the prospect of indefinite deferrals is unappealling; I would prefer all-postal voting if that possibility arises.

Tasmanian Term Expiries (7 April)

The issue is now being raised that if the Huon and Rosevears incumbents' terms expire as normal in May, those divisions would have no representation until elections are held.  It appears that the issue here is that while section 13(1) of the COVID-19 Disease Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 allows for an extension of the time for meeting a deadline for action (in this case to hold elections when required under S 19(4) of the Constitution Act), it does not enable any change to the amount of time an MLC holds office for under Section 19(1) of same Act.  So for Legislative Council incumbents to retain their seats beyond their six years, parliament needs to pass special legislation.

UPDATE: Tasmanian Parliament will be recalled for this purpose (and also for another matter).

Politicians and Queensland Update (11 April)

To my knowledge no further Australian politicians beyond the early four have now tested positive.  As a result the over-representation of politicians in the early figures has receded; they are now only over-represented by a factor of 19.

Meanwhile the moving of the Queensland election to postal voting is under consideration.  Noting that normally postal votes are not broken down by locality, it would be interesting to see if an all-postal vote would result in breakdowns comparable to past booth breakdowns being published, or in some other form of local breakdown.

Tasmanian Update (April 18)

Two things of note have happened in Tasmania this week.  Firstly new proclamations were issued confirming that the May 30 election date is cancelled and the Legislative Council elections are now slated for June, July or August - though this could still be deferred again.  (Previously some confusion was caused by an out-of-date proclamation appearing after it had been announced the elections would be moved - this turned out to be a publication issue).  Secondly the Tasmanian Electoral Commission issued a detailed statement about the deferred elections.

The detailed statement points out that an all-postal election would be illegal under the Electoral Act while a booth election would contravene Public Health directives.  Both these matters could be resolved in theory by Parliament amending the Electoral Act and exempting electoral conduct from Public Health directives - however the latter might be currently unwise, and most candidates would choose not to campaign in person at this time anyway.

The statement also contains the following which has aroused some interest:

"There may also be other grounds for legal challenge to May elections, due to the restrictions on movement and campaigning by candidates. In addition, the dominance of COVID-19 across Tasmania in all forms of communications has meant there has been no opportunity for any community conversation and debate regarding the 2020 Legislative Council elections."

I am not sure on what grounds a legal challenge might have occurred to a May election, assuming that the relevant exemptions were granted to allow voters to vote legally and as safely as possible.  It does not seem that federal implied freedom of communication would be an issue as said freedom can be limited where limits are proportionate and reasonably adapted.  (Also it is not automatic that state electoral arrangements are affected by implied freedom, but they can be where electoral communication concerns issues relevant to federal politics.)  However it is possible that existing campaign spending caps could appear less reasonably adapted in the context of an election where paid advertising through TV and radio would be major means of reaching electors.  It is also possible those spending caps are federally unconstitutional anyway.

Tasmania Update (May 1)

Yesterday the Tasmanian Parliament passed new provisions relating to the elections.  Under these:

* The elections can be held on any Saturday this year subject to Public Health advice that "there is no longer a significant risk to public health that would make it undesirable to hold the 2020 elections".

* In the event they are not held this year, they are deferred to be held alongside the 2021 elections, which will be held on a Saturday in May unless amended by further legislation.

* The current members retain their seats until the winners of the elections are declared.

However the Premier has stated that the intended time for the elections is early August.

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