The old joke is that no matter whom you vote for, a politician wins. In the era of “me too” elections this is truer than ever.

Labor and the Coalition have tax policies that are 90% identical. Each has spent the last six weeks copying the other’s announcements in most major policy areas. Will it really matter whether Bib or Bub forms government after Saturday?

In a democracy, people should be free to decide that no party deserves their vote. If a citizen believes no great principle is at stake and that the contest is a mere partisan squabble over the “spoils of office”, choosing not to participate is a legitimate decision. Not voting is voting too, because this lets us signal to the politicians how bored or disgusted we are by the hollowness of politics.

However, the unique Australian system of compulsory voting compels all of us to vote regardless of how we feel about the election.

While this diminishes the political value of our vote, its dollar value is increasing all the time. This is because every eligible vote cast at the federal election will be worth $2.10 in public election funding to the party who receives your first preference.

That’s right – every vote is worth $2.10 of your money. At the 2004 federal election – when a vote was worth $1.94 – election funding totalled $42 million. The Coalition received $21 million, the Labor Party almost $17 million.

Little wonder the major parties show no interest in ending compulsory voting. The electoral law that drives Australians to the polls under threat of penalty lines both their coffers.

Yet there are those who still claim that compulsory voting is the ultimate in democratic practice. Because everybody has to vote, goes the familiar argument, everybody’s voice gets heard through the ballot box.

My sympathy for this argument has drained away. Compulsory voting combined with public election funding has turned the electoral system into a taxpayer-subsidised racket.

Compulsion forces those who have little interest in the election to vote anyway. Because, to their credit, the vast majority of unwilling voters take their civic duty seriously, most do not vote informally or for a minor party about whom they know next to nothing.

Most cast their ballot for the major parties because they at least know something about their policies. The main reason they do know something is that the major parties have the biggest advertising budgets. They can spend so much on advertising because they receive the largest share of the election funding.

Compulsory voting reinforces the major parties stranglehold over the political process. The electoral system, which defenders say makes the little voices of millions of ordinary Australians heard, in practice rewards those who have the loudest voices and ensures they stay the loudest.

At least the ballot remains secret. In the privacy of the booth, how you mark your ballot paper is up to you.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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