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Compulsory Voting and Its Antipodean Ills

Time and time again, we are told that making people vote improves representation and representativeness. Herding them on pain of penalty will somehow keep politics honest, and ensure that those in Parliament, or whatever chamber it may be, will be kept accountable. Imagine how awful it is to have a president voted in on a mere third of the vote, or political representatives who only ever speak on behalf of a small portion of their electorate?

The argument is only superficially appealing. A look at the ABC’s Four Corners episodes, featuring picked electors by the national broadcaster, did little to instill confidence in compulsory voting, which has been the mainstay in Australia since 1924. From that year on, electoral legislation has stipulated that “it shall be the duty of every elector” to vote “at each election.”

What was dismal in the exercise by the national broadcaster was the happily conceded ignorance of the punters, who, with the exception of one “voter,” seemed to have gone for the whole political spread in their electing history. In other words, they were swingers, fidelity adjustable. This ignored the fundamental point that Australians remain, even now, hostile to eclectic coalitions and representatives unaligned to the major political parties. On the issue of whether the Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese would be a suitable leader, let alone prime minister, no illumination was offered, only a blanket of ignorant darkness, occasionally rented by observations that “he might be a decent bloke” who hated Tories and loved his beer.

The major parties still command automatic blocs of votes: the Labor voter who could never imagine voting for the party of the corporate boss; the Liberal, business-minded voter, who cannot possibly conceive of an alternative that might mean more taxes or a raid on the family trust. This state of affairs has produced a particularly mercenary approach in politics, with political apparatchiks ignoring campaigning in safe seats while obsessing over the swinging “marginals.” Don Aitkin, rather accurately, has also observed that Australian political parties have had little need for mass membership in such a system. Parties, he remarks, “have become career structures for the politically active.”

The history of compulsory voting in Australia is fascinating. Those protecting it do so with a suicide-bombers fanaticism. Many who have questioned the system invite apostasy and ostracising. After the 2004 federal election, there were some murmurings of disagreement from some members of the Liberal Party, unsurprising given the historic advantage left-wing parties have had over conservatives in the process.

This sentiment, however, went nowhere. The approach is rusted down, and opinion polls on Australian attitudes to compulsory voting have persistently shown that “never less than six out of every 10 voters [support] compulsory voting.”

The arguments for maintaining the status quo include, for instance, a chance to snuff out potential extremists. They are neutralised by the sheer bulk of the beige middle ground. The problem with that line of thinking is evident. Such a process also discourages the voting in of independent voices unattached to worn, factional party machines.

For its modest merits, no compulsory voting system creates a more enlightened voter. In Australia, the ritual is a well-rehearsed one on polling day. Often held on the weekend so as not to be a disruption to work. Sausage-sizzles. How to vote cards handed out by volunteers. Party paraphernalia just outside the polling booths. Many trees felled in the enterprise.

None of this guarantees a more educated, informed choice. Dismally, individuals who turn 18 can be asked whether they even know the bicameral nature of the Australian Commonwealth, only to be greeted by blank stares. How puzzled are those looks when they are asked to fill out the boxes of the Senate candidates at the polling booth, which has historically had ballot papers so long they would provide gift wrapping for many an occasion. To date, the teaching in schools to rectify this problem has shown no evidence of correcting this. But then again, the teachers may themselves be ignorant of it.

Certain authorities on the nature of electoral choice, such as Keith Jakee and Guang-Zhen Sun, argue that compulsion for those who are not interested in the first place in the process can lead to an increase in the proportion of random votes. Less popular candidates, ironically enough, can find themselves being elected.

There have been some clever arguments framed against the compulsory voting model, notably within the peculiarities of the Australian political system. Unfortunately, these have not made much headway except in the dry and narrow channels of academe and the occasional policy paper.

One is that such a system infringes the implied freedom of political communication recognised by the Australian High Court since 1992. Another goes back to the basic understanding of a right to vote, one recognised by the same judicial body as inherent in the Constitution. A right to vote entails the freedom not to vote. In making Australians vote, the right becomes an obligation or, as the propagandists for this cause claim, a duty.

There are some things that would not be addressed if voting was made voluntary. The Australian voter has had an enormous capacity to tolerate illegal wars, incursions into foreign territories without parliamentary approval, the torture, degrading, and permanent detention of refugees, and pandemic policies tinged with a policing frown. Big picture issues, at least since the 1990s, have been treated with withering suspicion.

Voters will remain purchasers and customers, the political parties hawking products and opportunities to entice self-interested choices. Talk will continue to remain about interest rates, the crushing mortgage, the housing market, and finance. Climate change chatter has finally made it into the pubs and public halls, but this has been a painfully slow thing in a country where digging the earth and exporting readymade resources is a dandy thing to do. We can only hope, come the next federal election, that voters resolve to make their elected officials work. And there is no greater incentive than a hung parliament in achieving that aim.