Review of Judith Brett, From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting
Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 2019
There’s a puzzle about Australian politics I’d never been able to figure out. Given that compulsory voting advantages progressives, why did conservatives let it pass parliament in 1924?
It wasn’t as though they weren’t warned. In 1915, a conservative government in Queensland mistakenly thought that compulsory voting would bring affluent but apathetic property owners to the polling booths. They introduced compulsory voting, and were smashed in the subsequent election by the Labor Party, who went on to govern the state for the next 14 years.
But in 1924, when Tasmanian Senator Herbert Payne introduced into the federal parliament a bill for compulsory voting, something crucial had changed. The conservatives, led by Billy Hughes, had just campaigned in two conscription plebiscites for the right to compel people to fight for their country. They could hardly now say that compulsory military service was good, while compulsory voting was evil. The parliamentary debate lasted barely an hour. At the next election, the voter turnout rate jumped from 58 percent to 91 percent.
The tale of compulsory voting is just one of the fascinating stories contained in Judith Brett’s new book, From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting. Compulsory voting, she claims, is such a significant innovation that it should rank with Gallipoli in the national pantheon. But it is just one among many instances in which our electoral system has led the world.
In 1894, South Australian suffragettes brought the state’s parliament to the brink of passing a bill to allow women the vote. At the last minute, opponents came up with a cunning strategy – they amended the bill to include what they thought was a ridiculous notion – that women would be able to not only vote, but run for office. Their ploy backfired, and South Australian became the first jurisdiction to allow women full electoral equality.
But while Australia was progressive on gender, the nation was sadly retrograde on race. Indigenous Australians faced a series of barriers to voting – from property qualifications to bans on welfare recipients casting a ballot. Brett explains this as a mix of political calculation and racism. She points out the shocking fact that it was not until 1983 that enrolment and voting were made compulsory for Indigenous Australians. Even today, the Australian Electoral Commission estimates that voter turnout among Indigenous Australians is just 52 percent.
Australia takes our electoral innovations for granted. We invented the polling booth, arguably an even greater contribution to the wellbeing of the world than the Hills Hoist. We created the secret ballot, which other nations sometimes call ‘the Australian Ballot’. We were among the first in the world to ensure that elections are run by a non-partisan electoral commission.
Two years after Federation, Australia doubled the size of the electoral roll, thanks to a massive census-like exercise to ensure that everyone was signed up to vote – producing what Brett contends was ‘the most comprehensive electoral roll of any nation at the time’. Another innovation is preferential voting in lower house elections, a system that empowers coalition and minor parties.
Australians. Brett says, ‘are good at elections’. But that doesn’t mean we won’t face attempts to narrow the franchise. In 2006, the federal government banned all prisoners from voting, a law largely overturned by the High Court the following year. Periodically, conservatives such as Nick Minchin and Campbell Newman have advocated a return to voluntary voting. Last year, government members on a federal parliamentary committee recommended that voters be required to produce identification at the polling booth. Judith Brett suggests that these moves owe a good deal to US Republicans, who have employed similar strategies to keep Democratic voters out of the ballot box.
There’s no shortage of reasons for despair about our levels of democratic engagement. The share of Australians who are satisfied with democracyfell from four-fifths in 1996 to two-fifths in 2018. Voter turnout in the 2016 election was thelowest of any election since compulsory voting came into force. Yet as Judith Brett’s splendid book reminds us, the fundamentals of our electoral system should make us all proud.
Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fenner, and his website iswww.andrewleigh.com.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.