Productive discussions and pointed attacks

It’s been a busy few weeks for They Vote For You. We’ve benefited from a surge in interest despite, or because of, some very pointed attacks by two MPs on the integrity and motivation of the site and the work of the OpenAustralia Foundation in general.

With a renewed surge of interest from the general public comes renewed interest from other MPs.

On 16 November we received the a letter from the crossbencher MPs Helen Haines, Rebekah Sharkie, Zali Steggall and Andrew Wilkie about how their voting record appears on theyvoteforyou.org.au.

We include the text of the letter here for easy reference:

They Vote For You is an important platform and we commend Open Australia Foundation’s initiative enabling voters to easily access parliamentarians’ voting record on matters significant to them. However, we have concerns that the They Vote For You platform is misrepresenting how we vote, in some instances quite significantly. We acknowledge that this is not intentional and can attribute several reasons to why this may occur.

  1. If fewer than five Members place a dissenting vote on a matter then a formal count is not held and the question is resolved in the affirmative under Standing Order 127. The dissenting votes are recorded in Hansard and the Votes and Proceedings, but are not picked up by They Vote for You. Dissenting votes are often crossbenchers expressing disagreement with the two major parties. For example on 25 March 2021 the House divided on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Amendment (Extension and Other Measures) Bill 2021 and only Mr Bandt, Dr Haines, Ms Steggall and Mr Wilkie voted ‘No’ and the question was resolved in the affirmative.
  2. The Opposition routinely move second reading amendments to Government bills that are not directly relevant to the substantive matter of the Bill before Parliament, and are often used for political purposes or as a procedural tactic. This is of course their right, but it greatly expands the substantive matter of the debate. The effect of votes on second reading amendments are also materially different to votes on Bills themselves, which reflect a Members position on specific proposed legislation as opposed to a general proposition. It seems that They Vote For You records a vote for or against these second reading amendments in the same manner as votes are recorded for Bills. This distorts our voting record on some topics quite significantly, and does not accurately reflect the question we are voting on. For example, the Opposition’s second reading amendment on the Health Insurance Amendment (Prescribed Fees) Bill 2021 was “whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House urges the government to implement policies to better protect Australians’ Health”. Further, second reading amendments moved to the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020 concentrated on funding for vocational education, rather than the Bill itself which established a new statutory office of the National Skills Commissioner. This may mislead people on a Members’ views on health policy or vocational education funding. 
  3. Due to COVID-19, remote participation in Parliament has been necessary but regrettably, the Government and Opposition have done a deal that prevents crossbenchers from pairing in the House of Representatives. This means that crossbenchers participating remotely cannot have their votes cast in the moment during a division. However, we do have an arrangement with the Speaker that our voting intention on each issue is tabled at the end of each sitting. This is not recorded by They Vote For You and instead we are recorded as voting with the majority or as absent. 
  4. Finally, where there are multiple votes on the same Bill or issue, some consideration should be given to the effect of the legislation or division. For example with the Cashless Debit Card, there were four divisions on the trial card but only two divisions on the decision to make the card a permanent feature of the social security system. Some crossbenchers supported the trial in order to gather evidence for whether it worked or not and when it was decided that it was ineffective voted against making it a permanent feature. Despite this their overall record shows that they voted ‘for’ the card because the number of divisions on the trial outweigh the number on the permanent card. The summary text written by They Vote For You therefore does not represent the true substance of the vote. 

We strongly believe it is important for the public to have full and transparent access to Members’ voting records in plain English. We also believe that the public is best served when this information is as accurate as possible, and reflects the true workings of the Parliament and the votes we cast on behalf of our constituents. This would be best achieved if They Vote For You accommodate the above concerns. Our offices would be pleased to work with you to achieve this. 

We ask that you review this website to ensure that our voting record is accurately represented and that voters are correctly informed. 

Yours sincerely 

Andrew Wilkie MP
Member for Clark

Rebekah Sharkie MP
Member for Mayo 

Dr Helen Haines MP
Member for Indi 

Zali Steggall OAM MP
Member for Warringah 


We replied two days later.

Dear Mr Wilkie, Ms Sharkie, Dr Haines and Ms Steggall,

Thank you for your letter. We appreciate that you ‘strongly believe it is important for the public to have full and transparent access to Members’ voting records in plain English’. 

We thank you for taking the time to list your concerns. We are always pleased to receive information that may improve They Vote For You (theyvoteforyou.org.au).

We have gone through your four points and will respond to each in turn.

  1. Currently, the only form of voting that is properly documented is division voting. While, as you mentioned, dissenting votes are recorded in Votes and Proceedings, it is only those few names that are recorded. We do not know who else was in the chamber at the time, and we cannot know without doubt how other present members would have voted in any case (we can assume, but we don’t have written evidence). Even if we could input these dissenting votes into our system, we would have to mark all other members as either absent or voting with the dominant position, and we have no actual record of either of these things. So we could be in a position of recording many more other votes incorrectly in that case.

    We’re between a rock and a hard place with this one.

    This is a very unfortunate aspect of the parliamentary voting system as it is now, but one that can only be solved by parliament.

    If only the votes were all recorded.

    In 2016 in our submission to the Standing Committee on Procedure’s inquiry into electronic voting we suggested that electronic voting may be a solution. By using electronic voting for all votes the full voting behaviour of all members of parliament could be recorded quickly and fully.

    We would hope that Mr Wilkie, Ms Sharkie, Dr Haines and Ms Steggall would support a move by parliament in that direction.
  1. All divisions are included on They Vote For You, but not all of them are attached to policies. And even where they are attached, we have the ability to weight the votes more or less strongly to account for their different levels of importance (e.g. votes are connected to policies as either “yes” or “yes (strong)”). Generally, votes on second reading amendments like those you describe would be classed as weaker policy connections or not included in a policy area at all.

    For example, you mentioned the bill Health Insurance Amendment (Prescribed Fees) Bill 2021. There is currently only one division on that bill, and it is to keep the usual second reading motion unchanged. It is not connected to any policy area, which means it is not affecting anyone’s voting records.

    You also mention the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. There are two divisions listed for this bill in the House of Representatives. The first is on Dr Haines’ amendment in relation to regional Australia and is currently attached to a draft policy we are developing called “For increasing support for rural and regional Australia.” This policy is still in development, so it doesn’t appear on your voting records.

    The second division is a vote to keep the usual second reading motion unchanged after Ms Plibersek proposed an amendment of the type you mentioned (“whilst not declining…” etc). While Ms Sharkie, Dr Haines and Ms Steggall voted “Aye” in this division, Mr Wilkie voted “No”. The vote is currently attached as a weaker vote to the policy “for increasing funding for vocational education” and it appears appropriate to leave it there. It doesn’t seem to be overly political (though, of course, all motions are a little political) and its subject matter is clear. That is, by voting for or against it, you are not voting on the bill itself but on the subject matter of the motion (i.e. vocational education funding). The vote on the bill itself came afterwards and it was done ‘on the voices’ and so doesn’t appear on our site.

    We would be interested to hear your thoughts on this matter.
  2. Thank you for sharing this information. This isn’t something we’ve been made aware of before. Could you please provide a specific example on this point? If your votes are being erroneously included with the majority, this is a serious issue. On face value this looks like a fundamental issue with the way your votes are now being recorded in parliament. However we would like to better understand this problem before we comment further on this.
  3. We do try to take account of the effect of the division, which is why divisions that are connected to a policy are classed as either strong or weaker. That said, the issue in this point seems to be that the cashless debit card has become highly politicised and it would therefore be useful to make policies as specific as possible – and we agree. The original policy was created by a user on our site, and back then (five years ago) there didn’t seem to be a problem with its phrasing. Today, however, we do agree that it is worth amending. We will change the existing policy so that it is specific to temporary trials and create a new policy on making the card ongoing.

    Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention.

We want They Vote For You to be as accurate as possible, and so the more eyes on it the better. If there are any specific instances where you believe the voting record is inaccurate, please do not hesitate to reach out again. The more specific you are, the better, so please try to provide us with the actual policy name at issue and – even better – the division links. We do appreciate your assistance in working through the details.

We thank you once again for your letter and the explanation of the concerns you have. We feel that this is an important conversation that deserves public attention and so we would like to share it publicly, including our response in the context of a discussion on how voting happens in Australia.

Yours sincerely,

Katherine, Matthew and Mackay


Since this exchange we’ve had a follow up meeting with the offices of Andrew Wilkie and Zali Steggall to work through more details. We also have a meeting planned with Helen Haines’ office.

There are huge issues around the completeness of the official parliamentary voting record as we outlined in our response. It’s something that we highlight whenever we can because it so fundamentally makes it harder to get a complete picture of how your representative in parliament votes on your behalf. Only around 20% of all the votes in parliament happen through divisions. They’re the only ones where people’s votes are accurately recorded and so that’s all we have to go on right now. This is terrible.

We’ve had a few ideas, still in their early stages on how we might improve the situation. To do that it’s important we get various perspectives on what “votes on the voices” really means and how to interpret them. This is why we called out on twitter last week for any staffers belonging to the major parties that would be willing to talk to us. So far we’ve not heard from anyone unfortunately. Can you help?

With this renewed surge of interest comes a welcome scrutiny to They Vote For You. In fact we designed the site to be scrutinised. Every change is logged. The source-code for the site is open-source so anyone can inspect and understand how it works and what it does in every minute detail. There is no hidden black box. We believe this makes it as straightforward as possible to dig into how we’ve made sense of and characterised the limited data we’re working with.

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One Comment

  1. Simon Rumble
    Posted December 3, 2021 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Great exchange and well handled by both sides, as opposed to Sharma and Bragg’s petulant dummy spit.

    How about enabling members to place an explanation for their voting record alongside any particular policy?

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