Trust the voters? Why not?
Last year I had the honour of being elected to the Australian Parliament by the people of Mayo in South Australia. I was elected at a by-election following the retirement of Alexander Downer who had represented Mayo since its inception in 1984.
The by-election was hard fought with ten other candidates representing all political parties and a range of independent (with the exception being the Labor Party who chose not to run a candidate presumably because it is so ashamed of how it has treated the Lower Lakes, but that is another story…)
Something struck me during and following the campaign that I did not expect and that was the genuine lack of interest in participating in the election.
On Election Day just over 80% of those who were entitled to vote did. That means 20,000 people didn’t vote for one reason or another. In the Lyne by-election, which was held on the same day, 87% of electors voted to send the popular Independent Rob Oakshott to Canberra.
There are many reasons given for the low turnout, some say that it was because of the quality of candidates on offer and that may be true, however I think it raises a fundamental question for our democracy.
Should it still be compulsory to vote?
The compulsion to vote was introduced in 1924 through a Private Members Bill introduced by National Party Senator Herbert Payne. It slipped through the Parliament will the support of the then Nationalist-Country Party Government quickly and without much debate, changing our electoral system overnight.
Section 245 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act requires that every Australian elector votes. That is enforced by having your name crossed off the electorate roll when you attend a polling station on polling day. The compulsion is one line in an Act of over five hundred pages. One line followed by five pages of regulations on how that one line is to be enforced.
To use the Mayo by-election example again, the AEC has so far fined over 1,000 people for not voting so far with many more to come, costing an enormous amount of time and angst.
Is this compulsion worth the effort?
I suspect the reason that the Federal Parliament has not made this quite simple change to the Electorate Act is the fear of the unknown. Many of both sides of politics think that this change will damage their electoral standing and are therefore fearful of making the change. Some claim that the amount of people who vote will drop dramatically de-legitimising governments. Others are worried too much effort and money will be spent on getting people out to vote.
But if you look at the international experience, this may be more of fear of fear itself.
Australia is one of the few countries that compel people to vote. Our allies in the UK, NZ the US and Canada all have voluntary voting.
If you look at our friends in New Zealand voluntary voting has seen a turnout rate of between 77 and 98% since 1946. Equally the United Kingdom while suffering a drop in the last two elections (where the incumbent Labour Government was re-elected easily against an uncompetitive opposition) has maintained an average of about 70% of people choosing to vote.
I believe it is time for us to move into the 21st century and join our allies in trusting the population.
Australians are now more educated and better informed than in any time in our history. Access to information has never been so easy. People are empowered and intelligent enough to make their own decisions.
But I believe this is more than about choice. It is about voter empowerment.
Compulsion means that politicians and their Party’s can become lazy. As our system stands we don’t need to give people a reason to vote.
In a voluntary system, we will only have ourselves to blame if people don’t turnout. Offer the big ideas and they will come.
Compulsory voting is big government at its worst, it is government telling the people it knows best, I say trust the people and their instincts.
I believe it is time to liberate our democracy and empower our population. It is time to remove the reward for policy and political laziness that currently exists in our system.
Give people the choice and they will use it wisely.
Lets start by this forum and tell me what you think!
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