Australia’s most repressive government is at it again.

On Wednesday, via a press release called “Stronger democracy on it’s [sic] way for NSW”, Nathan Rees announced that NSW government agencies would be collating the private data of NSW citizens and providing it to the NSW Electoral Commission to automatically update the electoral roll.

Citizens wouldn’t be given any say in this use of their confidential data. There’ll be no opting out. You may think you’re just paying your car rego but in fact you’ll be handing information to the Electoral Commission. You will have no choice.

Voting is, of course, compulsory in NSW as it is in the rest of Australia.

The arguments for forcing people to vote via threat of fines or imprisonment (those who argue it is only compulsory to attend a polling booth might go and read the Commonwealth Electoral Act and relevant case law) are weak indeed, and Australia is one of only a handful of countries — several of the rest are third world dictatorships —  that compel voting. But at least under current arrangements those who object to compulsion have a de facto option to not enrol. Enrolment is compulsory in the Commonwealth, NSW, Victoria and WA, but needless to say considerably more difficult to enforce than compulsory voting, given electoral authorities need enrolment data to identify who has failed to vote.

Automatic enrolment removes the one remaining justification of any kind for compulsory voting. In NSW, those who genuinely object to being compelled to vote will have no alternative but to be punished for exercising their basic right not to vote, as they will have no choice but to be enrolled.

That this has come from the NSW government — with no warning or consultation — is no surprise. This government has a now-lengthy track record of casually breaching basic rights. It introduced draconian — that’s a word that gets used a lot about the NSW government’s law-and-order policies — laws empowering police to stop and search people in response to the Cronulla riots in 2005, including the power to board buses and search the mobile phones of those aboard, with the promise that they’d only be in place for two years. They were then made permanent and extended in late 2007. By then, the NSW government had used an ever more savage raft of laws to turn Sydney into an open-air prison for the 2007 APEC meeting — until it was humiliated by the Chaser guys being waved through by police, demonstrating that the primary impact of the laws was to inconvenience Sydneysiders rather than enhance security.

Last year similar laws were used to look after the Catholic Church for World Youth Day, including laws criminalising protest against the Catholic Church, which enabled police to arrest anyone “annoying” or “inconveniencing” the so-called pilgrims attending the event.

“These changes will ensure people with busy lives, young people and those who move to NSW are not disenfranchised by the current rules,” Rees said in his press release. In fact, this is about finding new ways to enforce a law that can’t be enforced effectively at the moment. But if you listen to Rees, you’d think it was for The Kids. Rees pointedly referred to the Board of Studies as one of the agencies that would be compulsorily providing personal information to the Electoral Commission. It’s characteristic of this shabby government that it would use an educational body as a means of law enforcement.

It’s disappointing to see the allegedly progressive GetUp mob not merely endorsing this shameful encroachment on basic rights but calling for it to be universal. Director Simon Sheik wants it to be applied at the Commonwealth level. “Australia has a proud tradition of compulsory voting and citizens have a responsibility as well as a right to vote to make sure that our parliaments are truly representative.”

Rubbish. Compulsory voting is a blatant encroachment on basic rights and the Rees government is now using its citizens’ private information, never intended for the purpose, to enforce it.

Where’s the NSW Opposition in all this? Surely the party that purports to support individual freedom will oppose this? Well, no. Barry O’Farrell supports automatic enrolment. That figures. Do the NSW Liberals stand for anything at all?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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