What price compulsory voting?

By November 9, 2012History, Politics, Society

At lunch today with an editor, we remembered another editor, John Allan, who died today. He was a good friend and boss when I was writing leaders (editorials) for The Canberra Times in the second half of the 1960s. My task was the Monday leader, and for that I would first go to talk with John in his office late on Friday. We would chat about what was happening, and likely to happen, and fix on the likely leader for Monday. I would write the piece on Sunday afternoon, and a car would come for it about 4 pm.

This arrangement worked very well, and I learned a great deal about politics and society, not just in Australia. A coup would occur in Ghana, for example, and I would drop what I had been doing and start on a new leader, learning rapidly about recent Ghana as I did so. I also learned how to write simply and clearly, not something that comes automatically to an academic.

One Friday John was busy, too busy really to spend the usual half-hour we devoted to chat, tea and the Monday leader. ‘I was thinking about compulsory voting, anyway,’ he said over his shoulder, as he apologised in leaving me. ‘That should be easy for you!’ I agreed: dead easy, and writing it would be easy too. The car came for my work, and I thought no more about it until the phone rang.

‘You’ve written one in favour of compulsory voting!’ John said with some feeling. ‘This paper is opposed to it, on principle!’

‘Well, you didn’t tell me!’ I protested.

John lost his bad temper, and laughed. ‘No, you’re right. the fault’s mine. Yours is a good piece, but I’m not going to run it. But I’ll pay you for it.’

And that was nice of him. We never did discuss compulsory voting, so I didn’t find out why the paper had a traditional antipathy towards it. The usual reason is a libertarian one: we, the citizens, decide who should represent us in parliament, and if we don’t like either of the candidates, or any of them, it should be our privilege to abstain from voting. The state has no business in telling us how to behave as citizens; we come first.

It’s not a silly position, at all. But it doesn’t deal with my reason for supporting compulsory voting — and compulsory enrolment, which is actually more important. And that is that we have no business, as citizens, in opting out of the crucial decision in governance: who should rule us. The quality of those we elect affects the laws they make and the character and style of politics. We are a society, and a self-governing one. There are responsibilities that go along with being a member of the Australian society, and one of them is taking seriously the business of elections and parliamentary democracy. With rights come responsibilities.

Yes, you can be a free rider, and opt out of it all. There are some who do that self-consciously, disliking the notion of ‘the State’ and everything that goes with it. But I would want to insist that just as they cannot escape taxation (if only the GST) or military service in time of war, they cannot escape the fact that they are governed by laws (from which they benefit, too), and that it is almost fatuous to say that voting is a waste of time. It isn’t: it determines who makes the laws. And our system offers such people a way out. They can cast an empty ballot-paper, and fulfil their democratic duty that way.

Compulsory voting didn’t come about because of a great debate about citizenship. It was a tacit agreement between the parties that voluntary voting was expensive for everyone, because each party had to ‘get the vote out’ — bring its supporters to the polling place. So in 1924 the parties agreed to introduce compulsory voting for the next federal elections. Compulsory enrolment had been there since 1911. The next election was in 1925, when more than 91 per cent voted. It is now our standard practice, and despite grumblings from time to time, I doubt very much that we will abandon it. Yes, it is another example of our relatively authoritarian political culture, but I can live with that aspect of it.

We’re by no means the only country to employ compulsory voting — Belgium and Singapore have it too, along with a dozen or so other countries — but we have had it longest. And we also have probably the best and most honest electoral systems in the world to accompany it. When I look at the shambles that characterises so much of the electoral systems in the USA, which we have just seen in action, I think how lucky we are.

I’m not interested in exporting it, however, and if I were asked to advise another society on the reform of its electoral system, it wouldn’t be a measure high on my priority list. But it works well here.

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