100 years of compulsory voting

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Today is the centenary of Australia's first election with compulsory voting — 1 June 1915, in Queensland. Introduced by Liberal Premier Digby Denham, it was instrumental in him becoming the first of only two premiers to lose both government and their own seat. History editor Dr Glenn Davies looks back.

AUSTRALIA HAS been the world’s democratic laboratory. We pioneered the secret ballot (known elsewhere as the Australian ballot), universal adult suffrage, popularly elected upper houses and compulsory voting.

Just over 100 years ago, on 27 March 1912, Australia introduced compulsory enrolment and, on 1 June 1915, Queensland had its first election outcome decided with compulsory voting. On 16 July 1924, compulsory voting was introduced for Federal elections on the private initiative of Tasmanian Senator, Herbert Payne. Since then, participation in the voting process has become an accepted and entrenched activity in Australian society.

It was in July 1910, that the then Labor Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher (a Queenslander) moved elections to Saturdays. This was of great assistance to Australian workers, who could then participate in elections. Soon after, in 1911, compulsory registration was introduced.

During the Federal Parliament debate for the bill on compulsory enrolment in 1911, Senator George Pearce stated:

“Too often, [voting] is looked upon merely as a privilege, because people throughout the world have had to fight for it — in some instances under distressing conditions … but I venture to say that in a country like Australia, where we recognise that every man and woman should have the right to vote, that right becomes more than a privilege — it becomes a duty.”

When Queensland introduced compulsory voting in 1914, it became the first jurisdiction in the then British Empire to do so. In 1912, the Denham Liberal government had been elected in Queensland at a time of industrial unrest. The 1912 Brisbane General Strike led to a period of labour movement solidarity.

In 1914, the uniformly disliked Denham legislated compulsory voting in an attempt to gain middle-class non-unionised vote for the 1915 election. Apparently, the State Government was concerned that ALP shop stewards were more effective in “getting out the vote” and that compulsory voting would restore a level playing ground. The result was quite different. The first compulsory poll saw an electoral swing to Labor all over Queensland, with the election of the second Queensland Labor Government, led by TJ Ryan, and the loss of Deham’s own seat.

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For the past 104 years, it has been mandatory for Australian citizens to enrol to vote and for 100 years for Queenslanders to vote. It is interesting the initial effect of this on the people in Queensland, who got used to voting, causing the turnout in voluntary Federal elections in Queensland to increase above the national average.

While compulsory voting was first advocated by Alfred Deakin at the turn of the twentieth century, Australia’s first nine Federal elections were held under voluntary voting. At the Federal level, voluntary voting had produced between 55 per cent and 78 per cent turnout of voters. The significant impetus for compulsory voting at Federal elections appears to have been a decline in turnout, from more than 71 per cent at the 1919 election to less than 60 per cent at the 1922 election. However, the Bruce-Page Federal Government – a conservative coalition of the Nationalist and Country parties – was reluctant to be too closely identified to such a proposal.

On 16 July 1924, Senator Herbert Payne introduced the Commonwealth Electoral Bill 1924 as a private member’s bill to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to make voting compulsory in Federal elections. He felt some action was required following the record low voter turnout (59.38 per cent) at the 1922 federal election. However, neither the Government nor the Opposition had compulsory voting on their platforms.

Intriguingly, the law to make voting compulsory apparently passed through the Parliament in only 15 minutes and in neither house was a division required — therefore, no votes were recorded against the bill. This was only the third private member’s bill to be passed into law since 1901.

Senator Payne explained the principle behind his Bill:

“The presumption is that our laws are enacted by a majority of the electors represented by a majority of the members in this Parliament.”

The impact of the new Bill was immediate, with turnout at the 1925 election rising to over 91%. After this, other states quickly followed: Victoria in 1926, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1928 and Western Australia in 1936. South Australia added compulsory voting for its House Assembly in 1942.

Since the Federal election of 1925, voter turnout has never been below 90 per cent and, while the number of informal votes can vary, there is little evidence about what extent this represents acts of error, apathy or protest.

Australia has the oldest, and probably the most efficient, system of compulsory voting of any of the advanced democracies. There is also strong evidence of popular support for compulsory voting. Every opinion poll taken since 1943 has found that three in every four Australians support compulsory voting. This has always crossed party lines.

The first Australian Election Study, after the 1996 election, showed 74 per cent of respondents supported compulsory voting at Federal elections; after the 2004 election, the study was still showing 74 per cent in support. A Morgan poll in 2005 showed 71 per cent support; and an Ipsos-Mackay Study, also in 2005, showed 74 per cent.

Adelaide University’s Lisa Hill suggests:

‘…this is probably a function of the fact that their relationship to the state has normally been a friendly one.’

Certainly, Australians have not looked upon the compulsion to vote as particularly objectionable or onerous. Most Australians regard voting not so much as a right but as a fairly undemanding civic duty. It is seen as a normal part of Australian political culture and has wide support in the Australian electorate.

Compulsory enrolment and voting are the fundamental underpinnings of Australia’s democracy and Australians have readily accepted this with their enthusiastic participation in the electoral process. Since 1924, all Australians have had to turn up at a polling place on election day, have their names registered against the electoral roll and receive a ballot paper. However, because of the secrecy of the ballot, it is not possible to determine whether a person has completed their ballot paper prior to placing it in the ballot box. It is, therefore, not possible to determine whether all electors have met their legislated duty to vote.

Seen in this light, compulsory voting is better understood as a legal obligation to participate in the common civic activity of turning up, rather than as the need to cast a valid vote. The requirement to turn up is, quite clearly, a restriction on the liberty of citizens, as the option of choosing to go to the beach for the whole of the day has been removed. However, voting is far less onerous than other compulsory civic duties — such as paying taxes, sending your children to school and jury duty.

Participating in democracy should not be optional. Even if you despise politicians and the political process, turning out a couple of times every three or four years to vote for your local, state or national government is not burdensome for anyone. It forces even the most cynical individual to at least cast a fleeting glance at the political process — and that is a desirable outcome.

Digby Denham (pictured above) was the only Queensland premier to have lost his seat in a general election until Campbell Newman in the 2015 Queensland state election.

The LNP review into who was to blame for the 2015 state election defeat has singled out Campbell Newman as the key catalyst of the LNP’s dramatic fall from grace. The scathing post-election analysis, just released by respected party elders Rob Borbidge and Joan Sheldon found Newman’s administration acted with hubris and alienated almost every key interest group across the state before the election in January 2015.

The post-election review stated that

'... the 2012 election victory … led to hubris and a false sense of security.'

They also stated that the overwhelming election win of 2012 gave rise to a perception of arrogance, particularly from Nemwan arising from not listening.

The defeat of the twenty-first century LNP government after one term echoes the defeat one hundred years ago of the Digby Denham Liberal Government on 1 June 1915. “Can't Do” Campbell should have listened more to the people of Queensland and looked more carefully to the history of Queensland. The unique compulsory voting electoral experiment begun in Queensland 100 years ago today gave voice to the people.

Looking back over the last 100 years, what has emerged from the electoral petri dish is that any politician or government who wishes to stay in power must avoid any perception of hubris or arrogance. Otherwise the people will speak.

This is, perhaps, a message that needs to be carefully considered by the current prime minister.  

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