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Voluntary voting is long overdue

By Klaas Woldring - posted Wednesday, 4 April 2007


The dissatisfaction with the major parties, their policies and leaders is widespread. Up to 35 per cent of the voting population has given first preference to minor parties and Independents in recent years without this being reflected much in seats won.

Australia’s current single-member district electoral system ensures that most preferences end up with the major parties, at least in all lower houses of federal and state parliaments except perhaps Tasmania. This means that the claim that Australia is a representative democracy is a myth - and not only on this ground. In any electorate nearly half the population is not represented by their MP.

The unrepresentative “winner takes all” mentality is typical of that electoral system. Other major disadvantages are: pork barrelling, frequent boundary adjustments, neglect of safe seats and minority government. However, I would like to concentrate on the desirability of abolishing compulsory voting as soon as possible. Compulsory voting further strengthens the unquestionably negative effects of the single-member district system.

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It has turned the two-party system into a two-party tyranny of two look-alike parties.

Very few industrialised countries use compulsory voting. Australia is the only English speaking country that has compulsory voting. Some scholars of the University of Adelaide, for example, Hill, L (2002) and Louth, J & Hill, J (2005), have advocated in recent years that Australia should export its model (template) to other countries.

The motivation behind such ideas is that this would reverse the rather modest decline in voter turn-out in such countries. It reminds one somewhat of the export of Australia’s so-called “Pacific Solution”.

Compulsory voting could be a valuable aid in the prevention of civic demobilisation and the re-establishment of civic habits in established democracies that are currently experiencing a democratic deficit problem. Britain and the United States are just two examples. (Hill L. 2002)

It is a non-solution. We would be exporting a dubious practice while there is an urgency to put our own house in order. Much is made of the fact that Australia has efficient Electoral Commissions and Administrations. However, the relationship between an efficient administration and the democratic quality of an electoral system are two entirely different mutually exclusive aspects. A completely inappropriate system can be administered effectively - with guaranteed unsatisfactory results.

Furthermore, the decline in political participation, while fairly widespread in the West, is related to many factors. It is very difficult to try to quantify these in a meaningful comparative fashion. Moreover if, say, the introduction voluntary voting in Australia resulted in a turn-out of 40-45 per cent, conceivable at least initially, the quality of the vote might go up enormously, as most of the uninterested, the indifferent, the gullible and ignorant would no longer vote.

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Many have had quite enough of the political system simply because they are compelled to vote for the major party candidates many of whom are not regarded highly at all, for many reasons.

Opinion polls, which claim that 60 per cent to 70 per cent approve of compulsory voting, are based on a situation where respondents cannot make a comparison because most have no experience with voluntary voting systems. Also they cannot assess the effects of it in Australia either: comparisons with voting patterns prior to 1924 are now quite meaningless.

The Adelaide scholars also make the error of assuming that compulsory voting would result in a significantly higher level of political participation, knowledge and interest. but there is no evidence of that. And in Australia this is simply untrue: knowledge of the political system, the Constitution, public policy, and so on, in Australia is appallingly deficient.

My contention is that there is no longer a case for compulsory voting but on the contrary there is a compelling case for abolishing this system. We need an urgent renewal of the Australian political system and the Constitution. Compulsory voting is one big hindrance to achieving that.

Compulsory voting forces the major parties’ policy programs to the centre of the spectrum and this has helped make them become look-alike parties. It is the antithesis of diversity and democracy. This is so because they don’t have to be concerned about the far left or the far right of the spectrum. These people’s preferences will flow to them anyway though much less so in the Senate on account of Proportional Representation.

We are all forced to vote for the least unappealing major party. The recent New South Wales state election voters have just had to suffer again and it was very obvious. Recent opinion polls confirm this entirely.

Arguments that major parties would have to mount longer and costlier election campaigns if voluntary voting was introduced, to get the voters out, are valid, but these are arguments against voluntary voting that benefit the major parties. More public funding is the remedy here, nothing less, if we take democracy seriously.

The “civic duty” argument should be countered by increased democratic individual choice, an enormous benefit.

The very low passage rate of constitutional referendums in Australia, ever since 1901, can be attributed to the compulsory vote as much as to the distrust of politicians. When in doubt vote “no” and most did. Consequently, only eight out of 44 referendum proposals have gone through.

There has been suggested the fear that voluntary voting would lead to a small extreme group taking control of the government. This is very unlikely - show me where that has happened in comparable, advanced countries.

So who will abolish compulsory voting so that ridiculous “elections” like the recent NSW one won’t re-occur? NOT the major parties! No meaningful electoral system reform will come from either major party. That is why voters must favour reformist “minor” parties and Independents whose chances in the current system are so minimal as to be hardly relevant. Minor parties remain minor as a result of the present system and this is bad news. Diversity is not served and new ideas don’t get up.

At the very least in forthcoming elections major party voters could vote for Independents and minor parties in the Senate. Only a very low percentage of major party voters in the House of Representatives vote for the other party in the Senate (possibly around 3 per cent not counting the Hanson period). As a first step towards political reform in Australia the balance of power should revert to the Senate as a viable Opposition to the two-party tyranny. The institutional power of the Senate should be used to initiate reform.

Let me conclude on this note. Of all the many countries who have proportional representation as their electoral system none have compulsory voting.

Could Australia finally wake up politically? And could the political scientists of this country start educating the voters rather than recommending the export of an inappropriate template? It is Australia that has to import new models to democratise its society, not the other way around. And it is the role of political scientists to lead on. This leadership role has been painfully absent for an entire generation.

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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