Bring me your tired, your complacent and your lazy
I appreciate that our attention is elsewhere as we wait to see, to paraphrase Mal Farr, whether the Treasurer takes a Swan dive off the back of Kev’s ute. But as all of this was going on a report into the conduct of the last election was tabled in the parliament last night.
Nelson Mandela said there is no easy walk to freedom. Those in Iran, Iraq, Burma and Zimbabwe and any number of others striving to join the league of truly democratic nations would agree.
As one of the oldest democracies in the world, I wonder whether our passion for this most prized of personal freedoms is growing cold and whether what Richard Dreyfuss has to say in the video about democracy lost in the US (see video www.tinyurl.com/democracylost) reflects our own challenges.
A close review of turnout and enrollment statistics show that we may want to think about placing a new plaque at Circular Quay which says ‘bring me your complacent, your disinterested and all those who just couldn’t be bothered’, when it comes to how some feel about voting in this country.
The fact that as Australians we try not to take ourselves too seriously is one of our most admirable traits. It’s the reason why millions of visitors come here every year to hang out with us.
On most days it is fair enough that we would prefer to think about something other than politics. However, it is not too much to ask that we take the time to look after the one thing that, more than any other, is responsible for the peaceful lives we can enjoy in this country.
The heavy lifting for our democracy was done many years ago. The fact that more than 7 million women (more than the number of men) in this country and an unknown number of indigenous Australians were able to vote at the last election is the enduring and proud legacy of previous generations.
What do we ask in return? Not much. Enrol to vote, keep your details up to date, show up to vote every three years and fill out your ballot properly.
Yet at the 2007 election more than 2.4 million Australians, one in seven eligible voters, found this all too hard. This included 1.138 million who didn’t enrol to vote, 715,000 who didn’t show up and 510,000 who failed to complete their ballot properly.
Now this actually represents an improvement on 2004 and Australia’s rate of voter turnout at around 87.5% of the eligible voting population is high by world standards. New Zealand comes in next at around 75.1%. However, the key difference is that in Australia voting is compulsory. In New Zealand, Canada, the United States, the UK and other jurisdictions, voting is a choice. In this country voting is an obligation of citizenship.
I have no problem with this requirement. There are very real risks with non-compulsory voting, most significantly relying on the extremes of both sides of politics to turn out the vote. My problem is how Labor wish to compromise the integrity of our electoral system by appeasing those who fail to comply with our electoral laws, for Labor’s own political advantage, under the guise of increasing participation.
If you believe Labor, they say in their majority report tabled last night, that the problem with participation is not apathy, but that we are placing too unreasonable a burden when it comes to voting. Please! you fill out a form, you change it when you move and you turn up at your local public school every 3 years and count to ten. I have no doubt some administrative processes could be improved, particularly in the use of technology, by they are missing the point.
Labor have recommended removing proof of identity requirements, ignoring the need for citizens to update their enrolment details, removing sanctions for those who fail to enrol before an election is called and, amazingly, abandoning requirements for a voter to complete their ballot properly, no longer requiring them to number all squares in sequential order.
At the same time they have recommended against optional preferential voting that would halve the rate of informality, yet preserve the integrity of our system.
By contrast I would argue that there must be consequences, rather than appeasement, for those who fail to comply with the law and the extraordinarily reasonable requirements of our electoral system, i.e. they forfeit their vote.
The longer term answer rests with awakening a greater appreciation of civics in our schools and broader community. You don’t honour what you don’t value.
It is clear that we, like many western nations, are failing to connect younger citizens with the relevance of our democratic institutions. This will not be solved by rewarding apathy as Labor proposes, nor can Facebook and Twitter be relied on to do the job.
For starters, it requires giving younger people more reasons to respect and engage with our system, not just at election time. It means all of us underscoring the importance of our democratic institutions through our own actions. And it means a real commitment to civics in our education system.
Like all MPs serious about this issue, I would welcome the thoughts of others about how we can encourage greater participation through better engagement rather than lower standards.
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