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Voluntary voting is long overdue

By Klaas Woldring - posted Wednesday, 4 April 2007


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.

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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.

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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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