Changing Australia’s Voting System, Part II: Compulsory Or Not?

Following my post earlier in the week on a switch to first-past-the-post voting (FPTP), I wanted to put another idea on the table tonight — the abolition of compulsory voting. After all, the idea of forcing people to vote is ridiculous.

As much as I would like to see the long-overdue reinstatement of FPTP voting in Australia, something I’m far more passionate about is removing the compulsion people in this country have imposed upon them to vote in the first place.

I’ve only ever heard three arguments in favour of compulsory voting, and to my mind all three are worthless.

1. Compulsory voting ensures all citizens are empowered.

Rubbish. It does nothing of the sort.

Having spent dozens of election nights over the past 20 years scrutinising votes, the informal pile (and the donkey vote) are two simple illustrations of just how empowered some people feel.

Indeed, I’ve seen some very interesting messages written on ballot papers (mostly unsuitable to print here) with no vote cast on the paper alongside the message at all.

I have, however, seen lots of “votes” for Superman, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, etc…

People ensure people feel empowered, not the law; and certainly not a legislative requirement that they’re forced to vote.

2. Compulsory voting makes Australia the most democratic country in the world.

I take my readers to be very articulate and intelligent, but for the sake of the rhetoric, if anyone’s silly enough to believe that statement I’ll spell it out.

Removing the choice of an individual to vote in a democracy or to abstain is by its very nature an utterly undemocratic act.

Every citizen of this country has the right to vote; correspondingly, every citizen of this country ought to have the right not to vote.

And forcing people to vote hardly promotes choice.

3. If voting were optional, turnout would collapse.

Now we’re near the money; the great fear that 60% of registered voters wouldn’t bother to show up.

As a democrat in the true sense of the word — I’m not talking about the left-wing liberals in the US, or “social democracy,” but a genuine belief in democracy itself — I say that whoever wants to turn up to exercise their vote should do so, and those who do not wish to do so ought not be forced.

If anyone has any other reasons as to why voting should be compulsory, please comment and give your reasoning; but to me, the arguments for it don’t stack up.

And fining people however much it is these days for not voting seems to me to be unfair, unwarranted, unjust, and completely unacceptable.

I confess I don’t know what the going rate for a fine for not voting is: I’ve voted at every election since I turned 18 in 1990, and voted Liberal in all of them except one Queensland state election at which I voted informally (long story, but it makes sense).

That leads to another myth about compulsory voting: that people are compelled only to go and get their name crossed off the electoral roll.

After that, as the story goes, they can lodge a formal vote; lodge an informal vote; write a message or draw a pretty picture on their ballot paper; or pocket the paper and do God-alone-knows what with it afterwards.

If the compulsion is simply to get one’s name crossed off the roll, what’s the point?

I believe, and I have always believed, that voting in Australia should be optional.

If people don’t want to vote, there’s no reason (or justification) for compelling them.

Forcing people to vote means that people who don’t care less about politics, government, or what come of the process are pushed into polling booths to record votes that distort the result those who actually give a damn might otherwise deliver.

Forcing some people to vote probably reinforces the resentment and anger some people feel towards the governance of this country: far from engendering a feeling of empowerment, it likely engenders feelings of entrapment.

And why in hell — someone, please tell me — why in hell someone who wishes to democratically choose not to exercise their democratic right to vote should be slugged with a fine?

When I explain that point to friends of mine in the UK and Canada and the US, they treat me as if I’m insane; the concept of a fine for not voting is beyond comprehension to them.

And so it should be; the whole idea of it is contemptible.

But returning to the point about falling turnout, it could be more of a blessing than a curse.

In my earlier post on voting in Australia, I spoke (in the context of FPTP) of the incentive for individual candidates and parties to muster as many votes as they could in individual constituencies to ensure they won.

The principle is identical here: the incentive for candidates and parties to get people out to vote is such that their offerings to the electorate may improve beyond sight.

There will always be those who couldn’t care less, and whilst society cannot and must not take the reciprocal view of these people, freed from the obligation (under monetary penalty) they simply won’t vote.

There is an argument that such people would cease to be entitled to criticise government — and it’s not a tangent I propose to follow here.

I think this group accounts for more, but not too much more, than the combined non-turnout and informal totals are today; perhaps 15% of the eligible electorate.

As for the rest, however, a move to voluntary voting would create competition for electoral support which might breathe new life into our democratic processes.

Clearly, legal safeguards would need to be tightened to stamp out any increase in inducements, coercion and so forth, but to create a market of democracy?

Where candidates and parties have to compete to get people to vote in the first place, and then to vote for them specifically?

It could reinvigorate politics in this country.

It could re-engage, or engage at all, many thousands of people in the business of running the country.

It would make our wonderfully democratic country truly democratic in every sense.

And it would almost certainly put an end to the plasticine, saccharine, stage-managed farces that pass for “modern” Australian election campaigns.

The type of campaigns that turn so many people off.

“Moving forward” anyone? Just an example.

I’m a passionate advocate for choice in the right to vote; I’d prefer to see it coupled with FPTP as an electoral system, but even Optional Preferential Voting (OPV) combined with voluntary voting would be a big improvement on what we have now.

As ever, this is a big subject and I have barely scratched its surface.

Tell me…what do you think?

Time To Change The Voting System in Australia?

I read a very interesting article in The Age today; apparently The Communist Party of Australia The Greens commissioned Galaxy to poll Adam Bandt’s lower house seat of Melbourne. The results showed him close to winning the seat outright.

Before anyone accuses me of wanting to rig votes (remember, I’m originally from Queensland and detested Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen), let’s go through the proposition I am putting here tonight.

The issue of preferences is ridiculous; every election features a sideshow about who is going to allocate preferences to whom.

The issue of preferences has been a constant instrument for manipulation ever since it was introduced prior to the 1922 federal election: introduced by then-PM Billy Hughes (an ALP defector to the conservatives), and frightened that the emergence of the Country Party would split the conservative vote under first-past-the-post and deliver government to Labor in 1922.

He was probably correct in that assessment.

Preferential voting has been manipulated ever since: the DLP did it between the 1950s and the 1970s after the great ALP split; the DLP wanted to call itself a Labor Party, but refused to do anything that might elect a Labor government.

The conservatives were the beneficiaries of that.

The Australian Democrats did it in the 1980s and 1990s; they saw themselves as “kingmakers” with their “Keep The Bastards Honest” slogan.

The ALP, in more recent times, has benefited from preferences too: indeed, Democrat preferences delivered them a win at the election of 1990, at which they trailed the Liberal/National Coalition led by Andrew Peacock by 4% on the primary vote.

At the time, the idea of anyone winning an election with 39% of the primary vote was viewed as laughable.

Yet Labor did it, thanks to a “preferential vote campaign” masterminded by former Senator Graham Richardson, in which Labor directly appealed for second preference votes from those planning to vote against it as a protest measure.

Julia Gillard’s “win” at last year’s election — with 37% of the primary vote to the Coalition’s 44% — is another example of what I’m talking about.

And the polling out of the federal seat of Melbourne shows the Greens on 44% of the primary vote compared to 29% for Labor and 23% for the Liberals.

There’s another myth exploded: minor parties only able to win lower house seats on preferences.

Yet there are precedents everywhere; Independents, minor parties and freak candidates have traditionally been elected to the House of Commons in Britain; the same phenomenon has occurred in Canada.

Indeed, in both countries, members have been elected from the Greens — with nary a preferential or proportional voting system in sight.

There is no constitutional provision for preferential voting in Australia (or for any other system of voting either): the method of electing parliamentarians is subject to Acts of Parliament.

Some states have introduced Optional Preferential Voting (OPV) whereby the elector has the option of voting first-past-the-post, or to distribute preferences if they choose to do so.

This, too, was a deliberate distortion: the Wran Labor government in NSW introduced OPV in 1980, and the Goss Labor government in Queensland did so prior to the 1992 election there.

The objective was to capitalise on three-cornered contests involving the ALP and both the Liberals and the Nationals to dilute preference exchanges between the conservative parties and consequently entrench the ALP in power.

This strategy has backfired on the ALP — as it ultimately did on Hughes, decades after he introduced any type of preferential voting in the first place — because the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland have now merged, and those parties elsewhere in the country only run three-cornered contests in vacant seats or where there is a strategic advantage in doing so.

It has also backfired because firstly the Democrats, and more recently — to a far greater degree, the Greens — have leached so much of Labor’s core support away that the ALP is now incapable of winning elections anywhere without picking up at least 10-15% of the total vote on preferences.

And that’s an indictment.

For those readers who aren’t so much interested in the processes I’m talking about, here’s a practical scenario for you: how many of you like going to vote on election day, only to be accosted by a representative from everyone on the ballot paper trying to stuff a how-to-vote card into your hand?

Well, I’ve been stuffing Liberal Party how-to-vote cards into people’s hands for the last 25 years, and I know that aside from the devout Liberal supporters who take them (and refuse everyone else) most voters take everything, or nothing, or the one card from one other candidate depending on their intent.

How-to-vote cards are primarily a function of preferential voting.

How happy would people be to see the back of them?

I actually think we’ve come full-circle; it’s time to return to first-past-the-post voting — which is what we originally had in all states, and federally, until politicians started screwing around with the system for their own advantage.

First-past-the-post (FPTP) is the same system used in Britain and Canada; many other smaller democracies use it as well; as discussed, it is what Australia initially had; it is even used in the USA, although the results of the USA’s elections are weighted to a college system based on population which is a slightly different mechanism.

FPTP is a system criticised for producing lopsided election results…well…

In the UK in 1974, two elections (in February and October) produced hung parliaments; the country didn’t collapse, although the Labour government formed with the support of the-then Liberal Party was a disaster.

In the UK in 2010, a massive swing against the three-term Labour government failed to produce a majority for the Conservative Party; nonetheless, the Conservatives govern Britain in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

And in Canada, where the Conservative Party formed minority governments under Stephen Harper following national elections in 2006 and 2008, Harper’s party won a majority in a landslide at a further election earlier this year.

These are just examples; the fact is that FPTP works very well in reflecting the will of the people.

And where minority parliaments occur, so much is vested in the outcome that the combatants tend to take it much, much more seriously.

FPTP allows anyone to be elected to Parliament so long as they do the hard yards and the groundwork to ensure they get the most votes.

And it alleviates the skullduggery that goes along with having to allocate preferences — even if you don’t want to do so.

I like FPTP because, very simply, it means the candidate who is able to rustle up the most votes is elected.

Full stop.

I’ve heard arguments about 8 candidates standing in the same electorate and one of them winning with 13% of the vote; far from that being a bad thing, I’d heartily endorse it.

Because — and this is part of the wider merit of FPTP — every candidate would need to compete for every vote; using the example, if there’s a bruising and brutal eight-horse race and someone comes out on top, they might have actually earned their win.

And this holds good in the wider sense too: with none of the Liberals, Nationals, ALP or Greens guaranteed any secondary preference flow to get their candidates elected, the quality of the campaigns fought by these organisations might improve, and voters might actually get something meaningful from their candidates and their parties.

They might even get a reason to vote for them, in these times of public cynicism toward politicians, political parties, and politics in general.

I think it’s time to seriously canvass this change, and in my opinion, get rid of preferential voting forever.

What do you think?