08/11/2005 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Power behind Libs’ vote push

08/11/2005 - 21:00


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State Scene realises the most common school debating topic after whether capital punishment should be re-introduced is whether compulsory voting should be abolished.

State Scene realises the most common school debating topic after whether capital punishment should be re-introduced is whether compulsory voting should be abolished.

That as much as anything should disqualify it from consideration here.

However, several powerful Liberal personages – primarily Prime Minister John Howard and senators Nick Minchin and Eric Abetz – are on the warpath to overturn this 81-year-old voting arrangement.

It’s worth noting that, when compul-sory voting was adopted nationally in 1924, it was not the result of broad community pressure in favour of it.

There was no citizen-initiated referendum for compulsory voting, since our politicians won’t counten-ance such a democratic practice.

The fact is politicians, not voters via a nationwide citizen-initiated referendum, decided Australia would have compulsory voting.

What had emerged soon after WWI was a rare confluence of views between the conservatives and Labor, with both believing it would enhance their respective electoral performances, while the Country (now National) Party concluded rural voters were more likely to get to the booths under compulsory voting than without it.

Today its backers argue compulsory voting is an accepted practice and so should stay.

Opponents say people shouldn’t be compelled to attend polling booths if they either don’t care or are satisfied with their local MP and the government’s performance.

Backers say voting is a civic duty that all citizens should exercise.

Libertarians view compulsory voting as an infringement upon personal freedom. Compulsory voting backers say voting, like jury duty, simply must be mandatory. Opponents say only jury duty and payment of taxes should be compulsory, and most countries get along without compulsory voting.

State Scene has dealt at close quarters with politicians for years, and therefore knows they are generally disinterested in such philosophical considerations.

They are invariably concerned with how particular changes will affect them and their party.

Because of this, State Scene obtained an excellent 80-page assessment of all aspects of this issue, published by WA’s Electoral Commission and written by Parliamentary Education Fellow, Professor Harry Phillips, titled, Compulsory Voting: The Australian Experiment.

Page one carries an interesting point: “The history of compulsory popular involvement in political processes can be traced at least back as far as Solon in Athens in the 6th century BC.

“Indeed, Plato made provisions for compulsory voting in The Laws.”

Professor Phillips quotes Plato’s The Laws: “Every elector shall cast his vote: any who declines shall, if his conduct is brought to the cognisance of the authorities, be fined 50 drachmas.”

Compulsory voting is, therefore, not a recently devised practice.

Moreover, 21 countries – including Belgium since 1831 (though the franchise was limited), Greece, Thailand, Singapore, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein – are with Australia.

And four Swiss cantons have compulsory voting, with St Gallen adopting it in 1835.

Even the US, with no compulsory voting and low voter turnouts – once had it in the states of Virginia (1649), Maryland (1715), North Carolina (1764), Delaware (1734), and Revolutionary Georgia (1777).

Professor Phillips’ monograph shows that, at referendums and Senate and House of Representatives elections, Australia has a high voter turnout, meaning compulsory voting has had one of its intended outcomes.

Turnouts traditionally run at 95 per cent, whereas Senate elections between 1901 and 1922, before compulsory voting was adopted, ranged from 46.86 per cent in 1903 to 77.69 per cent in 1917. Australia never recorded below 46.86  per cent during those early years in either chamber’s elections or at a referendum, even though it hovered around that several times – 50.21 per cent in the Senate (1906) and 50.27 for the House of Representatives (1903).

Professor Phillips considers a range of other associated questions.

But back to the one foreshadowed above; what of the politicians?

“As early as 1956 Senator John McCallum a NSW Liberal, introduced a private member’s bill to abolish compulsory voting, which lapsed upon prorogation,” Professor Phillips writes.

A delegate at the Liberal Federal Council in 1973 (the Whitlam government’s first year) argued that compulsory voting helped Labor.

The 1988 Liberal Federal Council adopted a policy backing voluntary voting.

And Peter Reith, included voluntary voting in his leadership policy package.

Interestingly, WA’s Commission on Government, called after the WA Inc years, rejected scrapping compulsory voting. And Labor’s outgoing upper house president, John Cowdell, presented a paper favouring the retention of compulsory attendance at polling booths.

He wrote: “There is no doubt that compulsory voting has an educative role and contributes in this way to our civic culture.”

Labor’s Kim Beazley, in 2001, charged the Howard government with wishing to use the People’s Constitutional Convention as a “Trojan horse” to introduce voluntary voting, since the Liberals sought to have voluntary voting for that convention. It’s pretty clear, then, that some non-Labor MPs are likely to oppose compulsory voting whereas Labor ones back it.

Those non-Labor MPs with an unmistakable combative approach towards Labor, like Mr Howard and Senator Minchin, want change.

And their stance isn’t necessarily based on some firm principles but on alleged marginal differences they believe exist between aggregate Labor and Liberal votes cast.

Professor Phillips says: “At the same time it should be remembered that it was the ALP which first adopted the measure as part of its platform.

“Many observers tended to adopt the line of reasoning by [Professor James] Jupp, that the ALP was the main beneficiary of compulsory voting because of overseas evidence that abstentions from voting were most likely to come from the ‘working class’, the basis of Labor support.

“In election climates some of the prominent national political commentators, such as Anthony Green, Geoff Kitney, Michelle Gratten and Graham Richardson, are all on record as hypothesising that compulsory voting possibly advantages Labor.”

And Canberra academic political scientists, Malcolm Mackerras and Ian McAllister, estimated that Labor in 1996 “gained about 2.5 per cent of the first preference vote through compulsory voting, while the minor parties gained just under 3 per cent.

“Left-wing parties benefit electorally because high turnout mobilises disproportionately more of their supporters, who might otherwise abstain. Minor or protest parties benefit because high turnout also mobilises disproportionately more swinging and uncommitted voters, who have usually defected from major parties.”

Now, State Scene isn’t convinced compulsory voting necessarily uniformly favours Labor across Australia and identically at each election or referendum.

But that’s not important here.

It’s fairly clear Labor and some non-Labor MPs believe compulsory voting favours Labor, which helps explain why it’s difficult to find the former lobbying for abolition and why combative Liberals MPs want it scrapped.

That said it’s worth noting that Canadian Liberal senator Mac Harb (Ontario) this year sponsored a bill to adopt compulsory voting.

“This legislation is a direct response to a rising electoral crisis,” he said.

“Voter turnout has been on the decline in Canada since the 1960s, reaching a record low of just 60.9 per cent in the 2004 election.

“Other Western democracies are also experiencing the same dramatic drop. Only 53.3 per cent of Americans voted in the 2004 presidential elections and the 2001 British general election recording a turnout of just 57.6 per cent.”

In other words, abolishing compulsory voting would almost certainly mean Australia returns to its pre-1924 turnout levels, with non-Labor candidates perhaps being net beneficiaries.

Does one need to look further to understand why Mr Howard and Senator Minchin are on the warpath?

But wouldn’t it be fairer and wiser to adopt a democratic solution, to have a referendum on compulsory voting if these Liberals should move for abolition of this settled practice; in other words a democratic way, not simply via pressure by a minority of MPs.

Unfortunately, Australian politicians won’t allow citizen-initiated referendums to be instituted, so a referendum is the least likely method that will resolve this Howard-Minchin stirring.

Australian MPs are determined to ensure we continue being ruled by a minority, even if an elected one, not the majority through referendums called by the people.


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