A Q&A between John Doyle and award-winning political historian Judith Brett about her latest book, From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, and her forthcoming Quarterly Essay on Australia’s addiction to coal, out in June.
In your Q&A with us last year about The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, you said the impetus for Democracy Sausage came from your publisher at Text, Michael Heyward, when he realised—while reflecting on the minority of electors who’d decided Brexit and Trump’s election—he didn’t know the story of Australian compulsory voting, and suggested you tell it. How did you decide that this was a book-worthy project?
Once I started to do the research I realised that Australia’s adoption of compulsory voting in 1924 was part of a larger story about Australia’s early enthusiastic embrace of electoral democracy. This began with the adoption of the secret ballot in the 1850s, after most men in the south-eastern mainland states were given the right to vote. The colony of South Australia was also the first, after New Zealand, to give women the right to vote. While these early achievements are relatively well known, less well-known is how flexible Australia’s early voting arrangements were compared with most other democracies. Postal voting was introduced early, and one could vote at any polling booth in one’s state, not just as the booth nearest one’s home. Australia’s non-partisan electoral administration was also a key part of the story.
You argue in Democracy Sausage that Australians need ‘stories about our political institutions and traditions’, as well as about Anzac, to understand ‘the success of our nation’. In You Daughters of Freedom, about Australia’s suffrage campaigners early last century, Clare Wright describes Australia as ‘a nation that had reverse-colonised the landscape of ideas [about] freedom, representation and democracy that were the cornerstones of the new twentieth-century democratic state.’ Could these books be considered companion volumes in the way they reframe how we might understand our country?
I guess so. Neither of us want to denigrate the stories of war, but rather to point out that there are other stories which also tell us a lot about who we are. The building of our political institutions has been largely a peaceful process, so the stories are not as dramatic as those of war. However, for most of its short European history, thankfully, Australia has been at peace and we need to understand the stories of the institutions that shape our peace-time lives.
Following on from this, there’s clearly a conflict between Australia’s early notions of egalitarianism and progressive policy and its disenfranchisement of indigenous Australians in the 1902 Franchise Act. You describe this as ‘one of the infamous stepping stones of cruelty and shame’ in Australia’s treatment of its indigenous people and point out that it was barely noticed at the time ‘as suffragists around the country celebrated the enfranchisement of women.’ Can we reconcile this contradiction? How can we fit in our national ‘success’ story?
We shouldn’t try to reconcile it or incorporate it into a success story. National histories are not smooth one-dimensional narratives. There are failures and dead ends, and there are terrible injustices and shameful actions—like what has been happening to many asylum seekers for the past decade. European Australia is the result of an invasion of an occupied land. This fact has shaped and continues to shape its history. It does not however explain everything about the society that was built here—and this does include some success stories—like the strength of our electoral democracy.
You point out in Democracy Sausage that Australia is one of the few countries in the world, and the only English-speaking one, with compulsory voting; and suggest that many in our ‘sister democracies’ in the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand might see such compulsion as ‘an affront to freedom’. Why do we have compulsory voting and others don’t? And how is it that Australia’s shift to compulsory voting wasn’t even especially controversial?
By 1924, when compulsory voting was adopted, it was supported across the political spectrum. The idea had been around since the mid-nineteenth century as a way of getting the moderate middle to the polling booths to balance the effects of radicals and zealots. When the idea was put forward, most objections were practical—too many people won’t vote, so how will compliance be enforced? What should the fine be? And if people are fined for not voting, they won’t register for the electoral roll. This last objection was overcome in 1911, when it was made compulsory to register for federal elections. The Chief Electoral Officer recommended this to shift some of the burden of maintaining the roll from electoral officers to the voters themselves. Once registration was compulsory, many argued that compulsory voting followed as a natural corollary.
What is striking in the debates about compulsory voting is the absence of sustained philosophical objections on the grounds of liberty or freedom of conscience. The US doesn’t have compulsory voting because it places high value on personal freedom, and because of its tradition of suspicion of state authority—which underpins the insistence of so many Americans on their right to carry guns. In the UK I think class explains its absence. Manhood suffrage came very late to the UK—after World War I—and there was no rush to make sure these newly enfranchised men actually voted.
Towards the end of the book, you discuss various attempts since the 1990s to shift back to voluntary voting. What is this about, and why haven’t these attempts succeeded?
These have been very marginal movements from the more libertarian right of the Liberal party. They didn’t succeed because opinion polls show that Australians generally support compulsory voting. They had most potential influence when John Howard was Prime Minister and Senators Nick Minchin and Eric Abetz were members of the Joint Selection committee on electoral matters. The committee recommended a move to voluntary voting—but it wasn’t something John Howard wanted to spend political capital on, even though he agreed with it. So political pragmatism trumped political philosophy.
You also argue that Australians ‘are good at elections’. What do you mean by this?
Our very high rates of voter registration and of turnouts on election day mean that our governments have much greater claims to have the support of the majority of the people than governments in other democracies. The administration of elections by impartial public servants means that our elections produce governments which are considered legitimate—even if we don’t like them. There is very little litigation over electoral outcomes, and little disquiet over the processes.
There has been lingering ‘we was robbed’ feelings about some elections, in particular the 1954 election which happened just after the defection of the Soviet diplomat Petrov, but even then the accusations of illegitimacy were against the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and the media, not the electoral processes themselves.
Shortly after Democracy Sausage was published, I saw a staff review in my local bookshop that described it as ‘a tightly written history [that] reads like a thriller.’ How does one write an unputdownable book about a topic like compulsory voting?
All those years lecturing to first year Australian politics students helped. It made me good at synthesising dry material in a lively manner and looking out for the memorable quirky detail that would help students remember. Writing short op ed pieces was another contributor. You have to write in ordinary language and with a clear argument or narrative and uncluttered sentences.
When writing the book, I looked for historical characters to centre key developments; people like Catherine Helen Spence, who was passionate about proportional representation, and William Boothby, the South Australian electoral officer who pioneered the public service administration of elections. And, as far as possible, I told a story. I always write with a spoken voice in my head.
And now to your forthcoming Quarterly Essay on Australia’s addiction to coal. How did this project come about, and what can we expect?
The project originated in my anger and frustration at the Coalition’s inadequate response to climate change since 2013 when it returned to power: Abbott’s denial, Turnbull’s impotence and now Morrison’s prevarication, although it must be said that this is a great improvement on Abbott’s belligerent denial.
The reason, it seemed to me, was that Australia earns so much of its export income from fossil fuels and that this was the latest manifestation of its historic reliance on the export of unprocessed primary commodities, beginning with wool. Coupled with a domestically focussed manufacturing sector, this has created a dual structure in the Australian economy where the industries and activities that create most of the jobs are disconnected from the industries which earn most of our export income. Geographically this is expressed as a divide between the city and the country, and its most obvious political expression is the National party.
The essay is an exercise in historical political economy. I wanted to get away from the focus on the personalities of the leaders and the intra-party tensions and machinations to think about the longer historical patterns behind the support for coal and gas. I think this helps to explain why climate politics has been so difficult here.