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Federal

Sep 30, 2010

Greater compulsion isn't the answer to voter disengagement

There are calls for automatic voter enrolment to address the alarming decline in voter participation in the 2010 election. But that doesn't address the real problem of disengagement.

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The next debate on electoral reform may well be around automatic enrolment, in light of what was clearly a significant increase in the level of voter non-participation on August 21. Brian Costar and Peter Browne last week provided an excellent piece on the total number of eligible voters who did not cast a formal vote; Tim Colebatch also did a good piece looking at how the levels of informal voting differed across electorates and parties.

Costar and Browne suggest automatic enrolment of voters would be a good start in getting 1.4 million people currently not on the rolls onto them. It’s a view supported by GetUp and, one can surmise, by the Australian Electoral Commission, which says “decisive action is required to arrest the evident decline in enrolment participation”. Labor MP Michael Danby has also called for automatic enrolment.

I’ve previously argued that automatic enrolment is an encroachment on basic rights, and an extension of what is already the draconian imposition of compulsory voting. And that’s before you get to actual mechanisms for transferring your private data, without your consent, to a government authority with the power to fine you (Peter Timmins outlined a number of the privacy problems of the NSW government’s establishment of automatic enrolment on his FOI and privacy blog, although he supports automatic enrolment with appropriate safeguards). Automatic enrolment necessitates higher levels of surveillance by the state of the private activities of voters.

The broader context for this debate is that non-participation by voters costs the major parties money. Costar and Browne calculated that the total of people who aren’t enrolled, who didn’t vote, who voted informally or whose provisional vote was not accepted totals over 3.2 million Australians. On the current electoral funding formula, that translates into over $7 million of funding that the major political parties won’t receive. If voter non-participation continues to rise, it will cost Labor and the Coalition — and also the Greens, who are now also receiving serious money as a result of their election performance — more and more money.

The media has a direct stake in this as well, because they directly benefit from public funding of political parties, most of which ends up in their pockets via election advertising, particularly on television.

It’s typical of the Australian electoral system that it responds to voter disengagement with an ever-greater reliance on compulsion. This is the system, after all, that jailed a man for advocating a way of voting that the major parties objected to, because it enabled voters to evade the compulsion of preferential voting. In the face of what is clearly widespread voter disengagement with traditional politics, manifested in a record level vote for a third party and high levels of informal voting, non-enrolment and non-attendance, the reflexive response appears to be to try to strengthen the systems of control so that voters can be more effectively policed.

One of the underpinnings of this approach is the idea that some voters, or eligible voters, are being disadvantaged by the current enrolment processes. And it’s true the Howard government went out of its way to make enrolment and provisional voting more difficult, until the High Court intervened to strike down some of its measures. But one of the most common claims advanced by advocates of automatic enrolment is that young people turning 18 would like to enrol and vote but either assume they’re automatically enrolled or find the whole business of filling out a form and mailing it so tediously 20th century as to be not worth the effort.

Little evidence is ever produced to back this claim up. I’d suggest it’s just as likely that many young people actively wish not to enrol and have no interest in voting. They’re like the friends of a hairdresser at St Mary’s to whom I spoke while visiting the seat of Lindsay during the election campaign, who said she was the only one in her circle of friends who had bothered to enrol. No one she knew had the slightest interest in voting, she said.

The challenge the major parties need to respond to is voter disengagement (which, to be fair, some advocates of automatic enrolment also suggest). This isn’t done by establishing ever more complex bureaucratic structures to monitor the private activities of voters or ramping up the command-and-control reflex embedded in the Australian political system. Indeed, if anything, that’s the very opposite of the process of engagement that parties need to get the attention of disillusioned voters again. But then automatic enrolment will deliver millions more to the major parties via election funding.

Reckon they can resist?

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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