So next Saturday, Australia goes to the polls. All of it. Not just those bits of it that are really motivated, or happen to feel like it, or have nothing else to do. Australia. All Australians over eighteen, men and women, black and white, will be voting to elect their next leader on Saturday.
Because they have to. Because here in Australia…
That picture (which says “voting is compulsory”, just in case it didn’t load), was taken from a guide entitled “Your Official Guide to the 2010 federal election”, which came through my door last week. Given that the actual Australians in my house may want it to actually find out about voting, I maybe shouldn’t have run away with it to do research for a blog…but I did anyway. And this is how come I know that Australia has an Alternative Vote system, that people living more than 8km from a polling place may apply for a postal vote, and that prisoners serving sentences less than three years long are entitled to vote. What it noticeably fails to mention is exactly what happens to anyone who fails to turn up to vote – I’ve heard elsewhere mention of either a $55 or an $80 dollar fine.
Anyway, on with the show. What I thought I’d do here is run a little thought experiment, drawing on the Australian election paraphernalia and the recent UK general election for examples. Basically, what I’m asking is – should the UK follow Australia, and introduce compulsory voting? I’ll try and figure out what my own opinion is over the course of the next few paragraphs, but like a BBC newscast that can’t be bothered to go and get its own news reports, I’m inviting you to participate. What do you think – the solution to voter apathy, or a desertion of our freedoms? If you’re not British, but from some other optional-voting democracy, substitute your home country in and see what you reckon. If you’re an Australian, meanwhile, it’d be fascinating to hear your perspective. I’ve broken my own response down into what seem the most obvious points to consider.
Point one: voter apathy.
Essentially, under the Australian system this can no longer exist. Sort of. The system is, naturally, still a secret ballot – so the voting public could quite easily turn up to the polls en masse and simply refuse to put numbers against the names. Still, that’s not really apathy in the same way as lying in bed watching The Flintstones while everyone else goes and chooses a leader. Incidentally, I saw The Flintstones on telly the other day. It hasn’t aged well.
But putting Barney Rubble aside, I think this is where the Aussie system scores high. Never forget, the seats won by the BNP at the last European Parliament elections weren’t actually the result of a higher BNP vote – they were the result of a higher proportion of votes going to the BNP as a result of fewer voters turning out. By making sure that the lunatic fringe gets no higher a proportion of votes than it actually represents, compulsory voting neatly nips all this sort of thing in the bud.
Point two: the issues on the table.
There’s a flipside to this, though – it adds the bored demographic. Those people who wouldn’t vote in a different country are made to in Australia. The sort of person who is completely apathetic towards politics can be safely ignored by the big parties in other countries – here, they’re another demographic to be wooed. This means that the issues which the parties’ advertising campaigns highlight do tend towards the trivial. A copy of “B-mag, Brisbane’s Leading Lifestyle Magazine” which I have in front of me boasts a Q&A with Labor PM Julia Gillard and Liberal-National leader of the opposition Tony Abbott. The questions which readers have sent in follow a pretty strict theme; self-interest. A pensioner asks what the leaders will do for pensioners. A father of four asks about the rising cost of living. The person asking about financial assistance for stay-at-home mums is female, but it’s pure presumption on my part to conclude that she’s a stay-at-home mother herself. But she is.
So; good thing or bad? Like most things, it’s a little of both. The good is that it reduces the number of big glossy adverts pushing soundbite policies – instead, issues which actually affect people’s lives are addressed.
However, the downside here is my least favourite thing about compulsory voting. It reduces the scale of the debate. The only ideological, rather than pragmatic, issue addressed in the B-Mag Q&A is the refugee debate I mentioned last week – and both major parties take an anti-refugee stance. The movie Persepolis offered us the line that “the age of grand ideals is dead”. If, like me, you regard this as a lament rather than a practical step forward, compulsory voting seems likely to help nail the coffin shut. It’s logical really – those who take a passionate stance on ideological or humanitarian issues are the sort who are going to be voting anyway, so if you add people who would otherwise stay at home to the mix, that obviously decreases the proportion of the voting public which the idealists make up. It’s not just the nasty little fascist parties who find their influence diminished, it’s all minority views. Sad, but true.
Point three: the campaigns.
I mentioned in the point above that there were less big glossy adverts. In the UK General Election, we had Cameron, Clegg, or whichever member of the Labour Party was feeling closest to photogenic that day gazing sincerely out of billboards next to PR-perfect slogans all over the country. While some of the campaigns got a little bitchy around the edges, most campaigning focused at least vaguely on the party making the advert.
Not so here. There’s the odd shiny-faced billboard, but mostly the campaigning is down and dirty, negative publicity stuff. Every political advert on the telly box except for the occasional Green Party broadcast mentions only the name of the party which it attacks. Adverts are dedicated mostly to either lambasting the incumbent Government’s lack of achievements in this area or the other, or to loudly pointing up inconsistencies in Tony Abbott’s statements in various fields, especially his opposition to a recession-fighting economic stimulus, and his apparent refusal to rule out a return to “WorkChoices”, an unpopular former scheme regarding workplace relations rights.
So, good thing or bad? Frankly, my dear, it makes no odds. Well, except that there’s none of those amusingly vandalised Conservative Party billboards – this is, however, thoroughly made up for by a TV ad attacking the Labor Party which ends with a black-and-white clip of two trains crashing into each other head on for no apparent reason other than it’s really funny. Which it is. We’ll call this a draw.
Point four: what doesn’t change.
Like the UK and America, Australia has essentially a two-party duopoly. Like the UK, the coming election could well end up with a third, more progressive party controlling the balance of power (Australia is ahead of Britain already in this respect, with it’s vaguely proportional voting system. That’s a different topic, though). Like the UK, anti-immigration policy seems depressingly successful as an electoral tactic. Like the recent UK election, it’s a battle between an incumbent centrist Labour/Labor party and an opposition based slightly further to the right – although here, those are confusingly called the Liberals.
All in all, it looks like this is what elections in Westernised countries in the current era come down to – centre-ish versus centre-right, with a few little progressive alternatives bobbing around hoping to secure enough seats to be a nuisance.
So, now that I’ve had a skim through the most obvious issues, what do I endorse? The enforced suffrage of the Australians or the voluntary but apathy-inducing British method? The answer, of course, is that I don’t know, and that the ideal solution would be a country where everyone wanted to vote anyway so it didn‘t make any difference. On balance, I think I’m inclined to be nervous about the extent to which compulsory voting shunts any sort of idealism to one side and leads to an over-focus on self-interested, broadly financial matters. But I’m projecting wildly without having seen the results, so anything I write now really only reflects half of the story. It’ll be fascinating to see what kind of results this Australian electorate – every man and woman of it – give their country in one week’s time.
Obligatory disclaimers to finish off! I’m an interested observer, nothing more; no particularly in-depth research went into this article (unless you count reading a whole three pages of B-Mag), and if I’ve missed out on some massively important aspect of the difference between compulsory and non-compulsory voting, I won’t be in the slightest bit surprised. Let me know!