In this post-modern era, political debate
often prefers to ignore facts and detail, and no doubt the debate just
beginning on voluntary versus compulsory voting will be no different. So
perhaps it is worthwhile to set out a few facts and details, and a few
heretical opinions, before the whole debate becomes mired in political double
speak.

First, I am always intrigued about the
misconception that the Labor Party introduced compulsory voting in Australia.
This is a verifiably wrong statement. The list below shows when and under what
government compulsory voting was introduced.

Jurisdiction
First
Election Premier (Party)

Queensland
1915 Denham (Liberal)

Federal
1925 Bruce (Nationalist)

Victoria
1927 Allan (Country)

New South
Wales 1930 Bavin (Nationalist)

Tasmania
1931 McPhee (Nationalist)

Western
Australia 1939 Willcock (Labor)

South
Australia
1944 Playford (Liberal)

The introduction of compulsory voting in
Queensland in 1915 was the most overtly political in its intent. Concerned at
the ability of the union movement to get people out to vote for Labor on
polling day, compulsory voting was introduced to ensure middle class people
remembered to do their duty. If that was the true intent, it failed as Labor
under TJ Ryan swept into office.

Several of the later introductions of
compulsory voting came about with some support from Labor, often introduced to
parliament by a government backbencher in the form of a private member’s bill.
However, as the above table shows, six of the seven introductions took place
under non-Labor administrations, so compulsory voting can’t be blamed on the
Labor Party.

South Australia was late to introduce
compulsion, and famously delayed introducing it in the Legislative Council
until the 1970s, and even maintained ‘household’ rather than ‘manhood’ (excuse
the sexism) suffrage into the 1960s. Oddly, while South Australia has
compulsory enrolment like every other state, it is not compulsory to enrol for
the first time. It is only compulsory to enrol once you are on the roll. Oh, and
South Australia is the only state that puts instructions on the ballot paper
telling voters they don’t have to fill in the ballot paper.

So what would happen to turnout if
voluntary voting were introduced? Well, ignoring local government, the only
voluntary ballot conducted in the last half century was the 1997 Constitutional
Convention election. This was an odd ballot, conducted entirely by post and
centred on the single issue of the republic. However, the ballot did tell us
some interesting things about turnout.

Read more on the website.

Peter Fray

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