It’s good we’re forced to vote
Voting in Australia is compulsory – we can be fined up to $50 for not voting without a valid reason.
Some argue it is undemocratic to be forced to vote. In fact, around ten per cent of Australians of voting age aren’t on electoral roles. Maybe out of defiance, six per cent mess up their voting slips to have their vote ruled invalid.
So despite compulsory voting, only 81 per cent of Australians actually vote. Imagine if voting wasn’t compulsory. We’d probably be closer to the UK where 76 per cent vote, or the US where just 57 per cent bothered voting in the 2012 presidential election.
Maurie Stack, chairman of Stacks Law Firm, has seen the consequences for societies with a low voter turnout.
“People who don’t vote when it is optional tend to be the poor, the uneducated and the socially disadvantaged,” Mr Stack said.
“But if they don’t vote politicians can afford to ignore them. I have seen in the US – where voting is optional – whole families living on the street because social security cuts out after two years no matter what. After that you’re on your own.
“If they don’t vote they don’t count. Politicians don’t have to worry about their needs.”
“In Australia our governments can’t ignore the needs of the disadvantaged because these people vote. We have ended up with a strong support system of social welfare as a result.”
Amazingly this vital difference between our voting system and that of the USA occurred almost by accident.
In 1924 a private member’s bill introduced in the Senate by someone most of us have never heard of – Tasmanian grazier Senator Herbert Payne – shaped our future. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924 passed without debate or much consideration, introducing compulsory voting for people on the electoral roll, and penalties for not voting.
Professor Manning Clark in his History of Australia recorded: “The proposal roused little interest. The Senators and the Representatives treated it as the great yawn of the parliamentary year.”
Payne was concerned at the low voter turnout in the 1922 election – just 59 per cent. He thought unless Australians were forced to vote there would always be a low turnout.
States and territories soon followed his lead. Payne’s visionary private bill meant voting became both a right and a duty for all Australians.
“I think we should erect a huge statue in honour of Senator Herbert Payne who changed this country for the better in a way no political party could foresee,” Mr Stack said.