Forget Telstra and labour market deregulation. They’re mere policy baubles compared to the political uber-wish floated by Howard Government Finance Minister, Senator Nick Minchin, this week – voluntary voting.

Ending compulsory voting sounds innocent enough, and is easy to dismiss as the pinings of libertarians who, in the ultimate, calculate the civic obligations of citizens at close to zero. In fact, it’s the holy grail of conservative political activists who know that voluntary voting builds a powerful bias helpful to the Republican Party in the US – a bias Australia’s Liberal Party would love to build in here.

If you’re sick, poor or exhausted trying to cover a minimum-wage job, you’re more likely to skip voting if there’s no penalty for doing so. And it’s not thrashing the class stereotype too hard to suggest such voters tend to back the Democrats in the US and Labor in Australia.

Conversely, Ralph Lauren polo-shirt wearing Republicans (for Australia, read Liberals) keen on keeping tax cuts rolling are not going to miss out casting their vote, even if it means diverting the Beemer for five minutes on the way to the country club for a couple of Long Island Iced Teas. And while that may make only a couple of points difference to party support, that could be the difference between winning and losing.

Federal elections in Australia are usually incredibly close. Even in the extraordinary circumstances of the September 11 and Tampa-influenced 2001 election, Kim Beazley won 49.1% of the two party-preferred vote. Latham’s loss in 2004 with 47.3% of the vote was unusually large.

In the US, Bill Clinton wouldn’t have won in 1992 had Ross Perot not split the conservative vote to stymie President George Bush Snr’s re-election bid. Every US Democrat faces a formidable task every single election even getting supporters registered to vote, let alone getting them to polling booths.

Senator Minchin told ABC Radio PM’s Alexandra Kirk on Monday that last weekend’s New Zealand election, with an 80% turnout, was an advertisement for voluntary voting. “I’ll keep arguing the case for Australians to have the right to choose whether or not to vote, and I hope our Government will seek a mandate at the next election to be able to introduce voluntary voting if we’re successful at the next election,” he told Kirk.

Minchin said he hadn’t discussed it with the prime minister but that “his personal view, I know, and he’s expressed it publicly, is that he thinks you shouldn’t be guilty of an offence for not voting.” There are “many, many Liberals who share my view, from the Prime Minister down,” Minchin told PM, “so I hope we can build a consensus around what is a very liberal position on this issue, and that we can give Australians the right that New Zealanders have.”

Minchin and Howard are as close as lips and teeth, and cabinet ministers don’t float propositions like this one without the prime minister’s tacit approval.

Minchin and Howard can see voluntary voting glittering within their grasp.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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