Joe Ludwig’s electoral reform discussion paper is worth a read, at least in parts. It’s rare you can ever say that about a government paper, but this government does actually seem to make an effort to elicit actual discussion in these things.

The comparable process under the previous government was to issue a paper saying “this is how it’s gonna be, tell us what you think and we’ll file and forget it”. There is much to be said for that process, but not from the point of view of actual consultation.

The Green Paper advances no particular positions, and carefully weighs up arguments for and against on most issues. But it is best where it flatly, neutrally and carefully explains that our current command-and-control voting system is disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of people.

Despite falling rates of informal voting, nearly 250,000 Australians voted informally in House of Reps elections in 2007 due to only using a “1” on their ballot sheets or failing to number candidates sequentially, out of a total of half a million informal votes. Another approximately 50,000 votes were informal because of the use of ticks and crosses.

So 300,000 people were disenfranchised because, while they clearly indicated which candidate they supported, they failed to comply with the absurdly restrictive formality criteria and our obsession with enforcing voting preferences when a clear minority of voters wish only to vote for one candidate.

Our obsession with preferential voting reached lunatic heights when Albert Langer was put in jail in 1996 for breaching an injunction against advocating an entirely legitimate means of avoiding preferencing candidates. The section specifically prohibiting what Langer did has now been removed, but the sentiment lives on in every ballot paper marked informal despite clear evidence of the voter’s wishes.

The Green Paper discusses optional preferential voting and, judging by the dearth of arguments it musters against it (basically, no one might preference, thereby creating a de facto first-past-the-post system), it is clear where the authors’ preferences lie.

Compulsory preferential voting is only a subset of a larger command-and-control approach to voting imposed by Australian governments. The paper discusses the arguments advanced for and against compulsory voting, before bravely concluding that much community debate is needed. Compulsory voting — I’ll ignore the spurious argument that it’s only compulsory attendance at a polling booth on election day — is a joyful tradition we share with such vibrant democracies as Fiji and the Congo. To hear its advocates, you’d think compulsion was a panacea for all democratic ills, but most of the world’s democracies seem to cope just fine without it, and there’s no evidence the bulk of Australians pay any more attention to politics because they know they’ll occasionally be compelled to vote than otherwise.

There’s also a strong view among some Labor supporters that compulsory voting amounts to a right-wing plot to undermine the ALP’s electoral support, clearly oblivious to the fact that the ALP with its trade union base is far better equipped than any other party to establish an apparatus to turn out the vote, particularly given the dependence of the Coalition on older, less-mobile voters and voters in regional and rural areas.

However, supporters of the freedom not to have to vote have got Buckley’s of seeing this imposition ended. It’s too convenient for the major political parties, which find life much easier if they can use the threat of fines and jail to herd voters into the ballot box rather than giving them a reason to go. There’ll be a genuine discussion of all sorts of electoral reforms, but don’t expect those opposed by Labor and the Coalition to get very far.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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