As Australians have watched the crisis of democracy in the United States, we have begun to appreciate more fully our system of compulsory voting. Following Judith Brett’s excellent study From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage  (see our interview with the author here), Matteo Bonotti and Paul Strangio have produced a new collection of essays about compulsory voting. Benjamin Jones reviews A Century of Compulsory Voting in Australia: Genesis, Impact and Future (Palgrave, 2021).

 

In Russel Ward’s famous treatise on national character, Australians (of the white male variety) are distinguished by their relaxed nature, larrikinism, mateship, and anti-authoritarianism.[i] An enthusiasm for voting is not a trait that sits easily with this list and yet, as Jill Sheppard demonstrates in this new edited collection, “Australians overwhelmingly support compulsory voting” (p.85). An Antipodean variant of the Marxist dictum could claim that negotiating an obstacle course of party volunteers armed with how to vote cards in order to cast a ballot and enjoy a democracy sausage is the real opiate of the people.

Compulsory voting is a rarity in modern democracies but not unique to Australia. It is the popular support for this impingement on liberty that stands out as idiosyncratic. There is even a degree of national pride in what other democracies might dismiss as government coercion. Speaking in New York in 1960, Prime Minister Robert Menzies joked that the United States was “backwards” for not having compulsory voting.[ii] When Queensland Premier Campbell Newman suggested a discussion paper on switching to voluntary voting in 2013, he was roundly condemned and quickly abandoned the idea.[iii]  

It was Newman’s home state that introduced compulsory voting in 1915 with the other states soon following, along with the Commonwealth in 1925. Matteo Bonotti and Paul Strangio’s valuable new edited collection considers the history and the future of compulsory voting in the lead up to the centenary of its federal introduction. In 2019 I reviewed Judith Brett’s engaging history, From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, which will be the authoritative work for some time.[iv] To the editors’ credit, they have produced a book that asks different questions and complements rather than competes with it.

Brett is one of the authors in this work and offers the first substantive chapter. It is the ideal starting point, particularly for those who have not read her book. Even those who have will find something fresh in it. Significantly, Brett points out that the introduction of compulsory voting was the result of lengthy philosophical debate in parliament, pubs, and the press. The 1924 Electoral Act to make voting compulsory sailed quickly through the House and Senate precisely because the issue had been so “thoroughly aired” in the previous decade (p.15).

Sheppard’s chapter – the stand out for this reviewer – makes the salient point that compulsory voting has been thoroughly absorbed into Australian political culture. She recalls her surprise as a young adult when she learned that this distinctive Australian feature was the exception rather than rule among democracies (surely a common experience for many). Importantly, her chapter demonstrates that while support for politicians has eroded, support for compulsory voting has not (p.96). As Graeme Orr notes in his chapter on the courts, the public support is matched by judicial support. Combined with wide political support, with the important exception of libertarians within the Liberal Party, the impressive way in which compulsory voting has been entrenched in Australian culture is revealed.   

The chapters by Strangio, Lachlan Montgomery Umbers, and Nicholas Economou focus, in various ways, on opposition to compulsory voting. As one of the few authors who is not a political scientist, the philosophical lens that Umbers applies is particularly welcome. Weighing the arguments of the substantial minority of dissenters, he concludes that they have not “come anywhere close to offering a decisive rationale for abolishing the institution in Australia.” (p.59).     

Zareh Ghazarian and Jacqueline Laughland-Booÿ’s chapter – also a stand out – challenges the orthodoxy that compulsory voting necessarily increases political knowledge. This is a common argument for compulsory voting, so there is real value in testing it. They conclude that compulsory voting does not, in itself, raise political knowledge. Rather, it is the combination of an informed electorate and compulsory voting that makes government more representative (p.134). This chapter holds the most important policy lesson in the volume: there is little point compelling citizens to vote without an active and ongoing program of civics education.  

The final two chapters offer an international perspective. Anthoula Malkopoulou looks at Europe, while Shane P. Singh and Neil S. Williams focus on Canada and the United States. In Europe, only Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece have compulsory voting, though many other nations have either contemplated or implemented it previously. In Canada polls have produced mixed results but there is no strong opposition to compulsory voting (p. 245). In the United States, however, support for compulsory voting is only around 25 per cent (p. 245). What can explain the sharp contrast? The authors surely offer an understatement when they write “political culture may play a role” (emphasis mine, p. 245).       

Throughout the book, the Australian political culture that produced such vivacity for voting is largely assumed rather than explained. Brett’s chapter is a notable exception and it perhaps reveals my own bias that I would have liked to see a chapter from an intellectual historian. Locke and Bentham, so influential on political culture in the US and Australia respectively, only manage one appearance in a footnote (p. 196).

Although the opponents of compulsory voting are written about, it would have been a gracious gesture to include one as an author. The chapters by Lisa Hill and Matteo Bonotti in in particular, are apologiae for compulsory voting. Although I was persuaded by both, the editors could have improved the book by offering a right of reply to someone in the libertarian tradition. Given the number of times she is cited, Annabelle Lever would have been a sound choice.         

Nevertheless, the editors should be congratulated for putting together a diverse and fascinating work on what is arguably the defining feature of Australian democracy. This will be an important book for academics and required reading for many political science students.


[i] Russel Ward, The Australian legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958).

[ii] Andrew Carr & Benjamin T. Jones, “Civic republicanism and Sir Robert Menzies: the non-liberal side of the Liberal leader,” Journal of Australian Studies, 37:4 (2013): 492.

[iii] Benjamin T. Jones, “Elections: Aren’t They All the Same?” in Benjamin T. Jones, Frank Bongiorno, and John Uhr (eds), Elections Matter: Ten Federal Elections that Helped Shape Australia (Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2018), 1.

[iv] “Benjamin T. Jones reviews Judith Brett’s From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia got Compulsory Voting,” Honest History, 13 March 2019. http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/jones-benjamin-t-australias-national-heroes-of-the-electoral-system-again-show-there-is-more-to-us-than-anzac/

 

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Benjamin T. Jones
Benjamin T. Jones

Dr Benjamin T. Jones is a historian at Central Queensland University, a member of the Royal Historical Society, and a Foundation Fellow of the Australian Studies Institute. His recent books include: History in a Post-Truth World (Routledge, 2020), Elections Matter (Monash, 2018), and This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future (Redback, 2018).