Here’s a little article that I wrote for the Esperance Tide on the upcoming election and some unique features of our democratic system. Enjoy!
In 1924, a bill passed through both house of Australian Parliament in a single day, making it compulsory for all Australians who were ‘British Subjects’ to vote in Federal elections. Since then, Australia has been one of only 22 countries worldwide where voting in elections is compulsory, and one of only 10 who actually enforce compulsory voting. We are the only English-speaking country with compulsory voting.
Australia has also been very innovative in other areas of our democratic system – we were one of the first countries worldwide to use a secret ballot for voting – the secret ballot system is sometimes known as the ‘Australian Ballot’. Before the secret ballot was introduced, voters would just shout out their votes to the electoral official. At this time, elections would often take place at pubs, and politicians would ‘buy’ votes with beer or cash. Shouting out votes would help the person who was buying the vote to know that the voter had earned their money by voting correctly.
Australia is also one of the only countries in the world to have voting on a Saturday – perhaps leading to the ‘party’ atmosphere of some polling booths, with sausage sizzles (selling ‘Democracy Sausages’) and cake stalls. Of course, we were one of the first countries in the world to give women the vote, and South Australia can claim the honour of being the first state in the world to allow women to stand for public office. We were even one of the first countries to use a ‘booth’ for voting to give the voters privacy. We are not advanced in every area, though. It wasn’t until 1962 that all Indigenous Australians were given the vote.
Our unique system of democracy is something we should keep in mind on 18th of May, when Australians all over the country head to the polls. This election seems to be a very close race. The Coalition of the Liberal and National parties is facing off against the Labor party, with either Scott Morrison or Bill Shorten likely to be the Prime Minister when the dust settles. This is not a given though, as of course here in Australia we seem to change our Prime Minister more often than we do our underwear, as the saying goes. In fact, it’s been 12 years since a Prime Minister in Australia served a full term! This is worth keeping in mind as we decide who to vote for – we should look at the party’s policies rather than the leader’s personality.
Australia has a preferential voting system, which is another very unique part of our voting system. For those who are a little rusty on how this works, voters get to number their choices on their voting sheet in order of their preference. If no one gets an absolute majority of votes, then the person with the least votes is eliminated, and their votes redistributed according to the second preferences. In the Senate, voters also have the choice to vote above the line – the way that their chosen party distributes preferences – or below the line, numbering each box according to their preference. The preferential voting system makes it possible for a lot of independent politicians and minor parties to have an influence. As an example of how this can work, in the recently contested seat of Wentworth, Independent Kerryn Phelps got 29% of the vote, compared with Liberal Dave Sharma’s 43%, but after preferences were counted, she won with 51% of the vote. It also means that voting for a minor party or independent politician is not ‘wasting your vote’. Minor parties and Independents could possibly have a lot of influence this election. And they’re fighting for it! This election Clive Palmer’s United Australia party has already spent more on election advertising that both major parties combined last election.
Here in Esperance, we are part of the O’Connor electorate, which is one of the largest electoral constituencies in the world, covering over 868,000 square kilometres. (Of course, the Western Australian electorate that covers the north of our state, Durack, is even larger, being around the same size as Mexico.) Albany, Kalgoorlie, and Esperance are all part of O’Connor. The seat has always been held by a conservative politician, and currently is held by Liberal Rick Wilson. There are 7 candidates for the seat in this election.
So is compulsory voting a good thing? In the USA, around 55% of eligible voters cast their votes in Presidential elections. Canada had their highest voter turnout in 20 years in the 2015 election, with 68% of registered voters turning out to vote. In countries that don’t have compulsory voting, it is often young people, and whose who are lower-income or from minority groups who don’t vote. As a result, politicians don’t need to consider the needs or views of these groups. In Australia, compulsory voting makes people get involved with our democratic system, meaning that politicians have to consider all sectors of society in their policies.
Compulsory voting has also meant that here in Australia, we are quite engaged with our democratic system. So as you head off to vote later this month, you can do so with the pride that you’re involved in a unique and robust democratic system. Young people who are enrolled to vote should also pat themselves on the back, as youth enrolment is currently at an all-time high of 88.8% for 18-24 year olds. If you’re unsure who to vote for, there are sites such as www.votecompass.abc.net.au that can help you work out how to vote according to your values. Don’t forget to grab a democracy sausage, and stock up on popcorn. It’s going to be an interesting one! And keep in mind that in their recent elections, the Ukraine elected a TV comedian as President. If this election doesn’t work out too well, maybe we can keep that in mind for the future.