Australia was one of the first nation states to give (white) women the vote (in 1902), nearly a decade after New Zealand did so, in 18931, and we often pride ourselves on it. We also pride ourselves on our compulsory voting, especially when we compare it with the shambolic US system where, in the 2018 midterm election, 49.3% voted, the highest turnout since 19142. There have been numerous calls over the years for Australia’s compulsory voting to be scrapped. One was by former Howard minister, Nick Minchin, who in an interview with the late great Mark Colvin, claimed that as New Zealand had voluntary voting (with 80% turnout in their 2005 election) we should too3. In New Zealand’s most recent general election (2017), turnout was 79.8%4. Of course, Minchin uses the old chestnut, stating that it is the democratic right of citizens “to choose not to vote”3. Such calls almost invariable come from ultraconservative neoliberals. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) wants to have voluntary voting considered, despite it having little support (27%) among the general populace5. The fact that the IPA, a lobby group for big business who campaigned against plain packaging for cigarettes, and now campaign against action on climate change, want voluntary voting, is reason enough not to consider it.
Voting in Australia was voluntary after federation in 1901, although after 1911, it was compulsory to enrol to vote. Voter participation had been dropping steadily since federation such that voter turnout dropped from 71% at the 1919 federal to less than 60% at the 1922 election. Senator Herbert Payne was concerned about this trend and introduced a private senator’s bill to make voting compulsory. The bill was passed and voting became compulsory at the 1925 federal election. This immediately increased the turnout rate to 91%6. According to the Parliamentary Education office turnout has never dropped below 90%6. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, voter turnout is 91%7. So, what has happened to make it not much better than New Zealand’s turnout, when their voting is voluntary and ours is supposed to be compulsory?
Those who didn’t vote in the 2019 federal election will receive a letter from the Australian Electoral Commission asking why they did not vote. A valid and sufficient reason needs to be provided or the non-voter will be fined $20. Reasons such as “being ill, having to save a life, natural disasters or car crashes” are all valid reasons for not voting. The person who decides if that excuse is valid is each electorate’s Divisional Returning Officer8. It took my partner and me about a half hour to walk down to the voting centre and back. If we couldn’t be bothered spending that half hour, it would cost me $20, which is less than I was paid for a half hour of my job. Fining people as little as $20 is not a serious attempt to enforce compulsory voting. That is probably something the coalition parties are quite happy about, after all, they do not want people to vote. It just goes to show you there are ways to get what you want, other than by legislating.