Observations of an Australian election

In case you are unawares, Australia had its general election last Saturday. As a non-citizen, I am ineligible to vote. However, for the citizens of Australia, voting is compulsory – one of only ten countries in the world that enforce it.

If you’d have asked me before I moved to Australia what I thought of compulsory voting, I would have said it was a good thing. I believe people should vote for those that form government; they should be elected by the majority. However, having now lived through an election where voting is compulsory, I have a different opinion.

A quick explanation of the Australian voting system

There are some other notable differences between voting in the UK and voting in Australia. One is that voting is held on a Saturday. Another is that people are allowed to stand at the polling booths and tell you how to vote. I find this bizarre because in the UK this is illegal. Each of the parties here hand out “voting cards” which tell people how they should vote. This is significant because rather than just voting for one person (or party), they have a preference system, which means the voter has to number all of the candidates listed on the ballot paper, with 1 being the highest preference. There are often several candidates on a ballot paper and have been as many as 22. These cards tell the voter what number to place against each candidate.

As well as electing the House of Representatives, Australians also have to vote for the Senate. On these ballot papers there may be 50 or 60 candidates so whilst the numbering system can be used to select preferred candidates (called below the line voting), it is also possible to just write “1” against the preferred party (called above the line voting). By doing this, the voter is accepting the “1, 2, 3, 4…” sequence that has been pre-nominated by that party in their State.

(If you want to understand this in more detail, Wikipedia explains it pretty well here.)

So what about compulsory voting?

The thing that should be great about democracy is the fact that citizens can vote for who they want to be in government. Of course, many people in countries where voting is voluntary feel disillusioned and choose not to vote. Making voting compulsory doesn’t make people any less disillusioned. It seems to me that if you take a group of people that don’t want to vote, aren’t engaged, maybe don’t understand the system, and ask them to vote, on a Saturday (which, if they work full-time, is the day that is usually free for them to do with as they please), and then stand party representatives at the entrance to the voting booths with cards telling the public how to vote, there will be people who just choose the simplest, no-thinking option. Isn’t that voting by proxy? To me, it seems to defeat the whole purpose of voting – asking citizens to choose whom they want in power. Compulsory voting may get numbers through the door but it is not making anyone more engaged, more informed or more inspired – and isn’t that another purpose of democracy? Also, reviewing the percentage of people who voted is a good indicator of how disillusioned people are – and if 100% of people vote there is no measure for this.

Why does it matter?

The reason I started thinking about this was after reading an article about some of the candidates who got voted in to the Australian Senate in the election. The article was entitled “Six people you won’t believe could be elected”. If you want to read it in full, click the link, but I’m just going to share a couple of the candidates with you.

The first is Victorian Senate Candidate Ricky Muir, of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. Yes, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. According to the article, he’s an unemployed father-of-five who like to drive four-wheel drives through the bush at weekends. There’s a heap of other, erm, interesting facts about him in the article. Read the article! Despite only getting 11,390 first preferences or 0.52 per cent of the vote (source here), he is expected to be elected because of preference deals in place between the minor parties.

The second is Western Australian Senate candidate Wayne Dropulich for the Australian Sports Party. He only registered as a candidate three months ago and he has one policy: “Our policy is about healthy living through sports – getting kids and young people involved in sports. We think there’s a big issue with obesity at the moment in Australian society,” he told the WA Today newspaper. He does not, however, have policies on any non-sporting issues. He received just 1900 primary votes, or 0.22% but is expected to be elected because of preference voting (you can read the whole article here).

If these two candidates are elected (it will be another couple of weeks until the elected Senate candidates are confirmed), it will be because of preference votes. That means people who couldn’t be bothered, couldn’t care less or didn’t understand how to vote below the line and choose their own preferences, and so allowed their party to effectively vote for them.

It could be argued that this is more of an issue with the voting system rather than the concept of compulsory voting, and possibly that’s partly true, but compulsory voting plays a part. If they’d had a choice, a lot of the uninformed, disengaged, uninterested people wouldn’t have bothered turning up. But they had to, so they voted the easiest way. If you did a poll, I wonder how many people are truly pleased that either of these candidates have been elected into the Senate?

Final thoughts

I’m just an outsider looking in, and this is just my own opinion. Not all voters are uninformed or disengaged of course, but there will always be a portion of the population that are. That is a separate issue. If governments want to get their citizens to participate in democracy, shouldn’t they be engaging with these citizens, forming policies that directly help them, that they can relate to and understand and feel like it’s something worth voting for? I think people should vote, but I think they should vote because they believe in the system, they believe in the candidates and they understand how their vote counts. If they don’t believe in it, why make them vote? Insisting on compulsory voting, and then allowing citizens to vote according to what is printed on a card they received at the door, is allowing them to hand their power over to someone else. Isn’t that exactly what voting isn’t meant to do?

3 Responses to Observations of an Australian election

  1. yup. after a few years of not thinking and not knowing, this year i took responsibility of my vote and researched as many parties as i could, and used a webpage to help me number all 62 preferences by party :) I at least know the my votes went where I wanted them to! Naturally greens were first though ;)

    • Wow that’s awesome! 62 preferences is a lot to number, I understand why so many people don’t/can’t…

      It’s so great that you took the time to do your research and chose who you actually wanted : )

  2. I used to think compulsory voting was pretty good, but more and more it seems it can just lead to politics degenerating (even further) into populist, lowest-common-denominator-type-policies, i.e. how can I win/buy votes with rebates and schemes etc. Having lived in the UK for a bit I agree that the advertising and how-to-vote cards and all that nonsense should be stopped, it’s ridiculous! Also, when I lived there I was allowed to vote, and I was just on a working holiday visa! I think people who are living here should be able to vote. It seems odd that we have people living here who are ‘permanent residents’ for many years but because they’re not citizens they can’t have a say in who runs the place, it doesn’t seem fair. Conversely we have Australian citizens living overseas who are still voting here even though they’ve been living away for many years. Seems backwards to me! Hmmph!

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