Compulsory voting – Australia’s shame

When I came to Australia in 1976, fed up with a Britain that appeared committed to its own decline, there were few things I missed about the old country. A good tomato was impossible to find – we had to make do with a vast, tasteless variety concocted by the CSIRO for its fecundity and resilience, not its flavour, and known as a ‘beef tomato’. It was possible, if you were a glass-half-empty type, to pine for the Canary Islands’ tomatoes, with their tender, succulent flesh, and seeds cossetted in deep green mucilage.

Then there were – or rather there weren’t – curries. Not the standardised Indo-British type, ordered from a menu that varied little from Land’s End to John O’Groats – vindaloo at one end, korma at the other, endless poppadoms and ‘accompaniments’ served without further charge, and a thing for dessert called gulab jamun, which nobody ever saw, let alone ordered. There might have been a box, entitled ‘Speciality of the House’, describing an unrecognised dish in terms in which words like ‘fragrant’ and ‘authentic’ were gushingly employed, but in general such rebellious departures from the catechism were disdained by dedicated curry consumers, who typically decided, early in life, what they were going to order, and thereafter consulted the menu for purely ritualistic purposes.

There was no equivalent to the British High Street curry restaurant in Sydney in 1976. In recent years, a close approximation has evolved, but has yet to achieve the degree of uniformity (or the endless mango chutney and tomato and onion salad) that remain such an agreeable feature of the British curry house. What there were, however, in 1976 Sydney, were superb Lebanese restaurants, a Chinatown crammed with excellent eateries, and a generally excellent standard of ‘international cuisine’ that put British restaurants to shame. So there was much to console the homesick tummy.

Gastronomy aside, Australia felt vigorous and optimistic, where Britain felt listless and exhausted. I loved my new country, and, in my pride, was inclined to overlook its faults. Elections, for instance, come around infrequently enough that I didn’t have to confront one of Australia’s singular features until I had been here some time, and it came as something of a shock to me to learn that my vote was not the voluntary privilege granted to the citizens of practically every other democracy on earth, but an obligation, to be performed on pain of a fine. Admittedly, the twenty-dollar penalty then in force was all but nugatory, but it still rankled.

Why, I wondered, would such a confident, open country so distrust its citizens that it believed it necessary to compel them to vote? Why should those of its voters who were naturally inclined to participate in its democracy have to see their vote devalued by the votes of those who were only voting to avoid a penalty? And in any case, surely ‘none of the above’ is a valid voting choice, and should not be effectively proscribed.

Compulsory voting is one of the few truly shameful aspects of being an Australian. It condemns the genuinely engaged voter to living with the ill-considered voting choice of the donkey vote. It contributes to the bipartisan mediocrity of Australian politics, giving little incentive to the governing parties to inflict upon the electorate short-term pain in the interests of long-term gain. It is illiberal and counter-democratic, as well as being cravenly paternalistic. But since neither of its chief beneficiaries – the Labor and Coalition parties – have the slightest interest in its abandonment, does anyone have a practical proposal for bringing that about?

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