Australia

‘Unworkable’: Government drops electronic voting for House of Representatives

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tony Smith, in the House of Representatives Source: AAP

While the potential system would have saved time and freed up debate in the house, it would have done away with the traditional "division" and crossing the floor theatrics.

The Federal Government has quietly shelved its plans to introduce electronic voting in the House of Representatives by the end of the year, despite claiming the move would “dramatically improve” efficiency and transparency.

“Electronic voting is not on the agenda for this year, but the government hopes to revisit the issue in 2020”, Attorney-General and Leader of the House Christian Porter told SBS News.

Last May, the former Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, announced “electronic voting will be operational in 2019”, declaring the adoption of technology already used in more than 65 per cent of the world’s parliaments, “will reduce significantly the time required for each vote in the chamber".

He said the shift to electronic voting would free "up more time for important parliamentary business".

Christopher Pyne heralded electronic voting as a game changer for parliament.
Christopher Pyne heralded electronic voting as a game changer for parliament.
AAP

SBS News understands the plan was abandoned as it lacked bipartisan support and was deemed “unworkable” without the opposition’s support.

“Your job as an MP is to turn up to the chamber and vote," Leader of Opposition Business Tony Burke said.

“Surely that’s not too much to ask of our elected politicians?

“E-voting would cost taxpayers millions of dollars to set up – just to save MPs an estimated eight minutes a day.”

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tony Smith, declined to comment on the matter.

While the US House of Representatives has voted electronically since 1973, the debate about embracing similar technology in Australia has stretched for more than four decades, despite a 2016 Parliamentary Committee concluding “the ayes have it” when it comes to electronic voting.

Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter speaks to the Manager of Opposition business Tony Burke.
Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter speaks to the Manager of Opposition business Tony Burke.
AAP

The Committee reported “an overwhelmingly positive” response from MPs and that “modernising voting procedures will save the time of the House, will ensure immediate availability of accurate results and will send the message that the House is willing to embrace technological change while retaining valued traditions and practices”.

The idea of MPs being able to vote at the press of a button or the swipe of a card was first flagged in Australia as early as 1970, when a Joint Select Committee recommended “new” Parliament House, which last year celebrated its 30th birthday, “should have the necessary conduits to provide for electronic voting as a future date”.

In 1993, former Speaker Stephen Martin led a delegation of MPs who inspected electronic voting systems in the parliaments of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the European Union and the United States.

A division in action in the House of Representatives.
A division in action in the House of Representatives.
AAP

He concluded the "speed of operation, accuracy and reliability was such that is should be implemented (in Australia)” and the idea was again raised in the Coalition party room in 2016 by Victorian MP Kevin Andrews.

Government and Opposition tellers - who are appointed to verify the count when there is a division - began using ipads to tally the results earlier this year, ahead of the planned introduction of wider electronic voting before the Christmas break.

The Department of Parliamentary Services told the 2016 Committee the implementation of electronic voting could cost between $2.3 million and $4.6 million to implement plus an additional $250,000 to $400,000 a year in “support costs”.

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