In all the upheaval of an interstate move I missed the roll by five minutes for my new address, so this time around my vote will be registered in the ACT. The rules are that in the lower house I have to vote for all 5 candidates, weighing those votes numerically. I am not allowed to give any candidate a zero. If I do my vote will not be counted. In the senate election I have to vote for at least 6 parties. If I reckon that fewer than six of these parties will actually represent me and my constituency, then my vote will not be counted.
What does it say that I am forced to vote even if not one of the candidates has earned even my interest let alone my electoral support. Not one local candidate or canvasser has put literature in my letter box to let me know their platform or principles. Not one as knocked on my door. Even those who have my email on their systems have neglected to make any approach. The lack of engagement with voters in this way is all I have experienced in Australia.
Does it say something about the level of voluntary engagement – i.e. the electoral viability of the parties – that I am actually forced to vote for at least 6 of them?
At one level the answer may be purely mathematical. Australian constituencies are too large for candidates or their supporters to engage with individual households. A single transferable vote means that seats are filled from party lists. Consequently the member’s accountability is to the party not to the voter. A single transferable vote requires lower preferences to be recorded for a voter, voting with the majority to be guaranteed representation in the outcomes. So it goes.
It also may be that this is the mathematical system needed in an electoral environment where the pulling power of parties and individual electoral candidates is very poor. If there was a way to vote for the interests of ordinary Australians to shape future policy such a vote would draw voters without the need to threaten a fine for not voting. If there was a way to vote for Australian industry to be favoured and strengthened in our domestic policies and international trade deals, I believe that too would draw voters without the threat of a fine.
If there was a a way to vote for Australia to be free to shape policies around the national interest rather than make our policies subject to a veto by foreign corporations, I happen to think Australians would not need forcing to vote for that. Just informing. (After all why, in a democracy, are the terms of these trade deals not made public? Why are the threats made to our country in these secret trade deals not regarded as crises or even acts of war?) To mention nothing of the widespread desire to reform the rorting of public money built into the normal conditions of party and parliamentary life. At present there is no mechanism whereby Australians can vote for such reforms – not even a “re-open nominations” option on our ballot papers.
Received wisdom is that compulsory voting avoids the problem of highly motivated, sectional parties proliferating; that it further avoids parties drifting to extreme positions, which again excite the ardour of extremists. Policy and party choices confronting the Australian voter today would surely challenge the received wisdom.
It seems to me that if Australia – and the same could be said for some other Western democracies – is to see genuine democratization and the level of nation-building the country so desperately needs – then means outside of the ballot box will have to emerge. How much distress do ordinary Australians need to endure before enough democratic energy emerges to fuel the emergence of other means?
If we in the churches are to fulfill our prophetic duty we must not make of ourselves an opiate to numb the discontent that precedes genuine reform. If we accept our prophetic call in the arena of public we will not always get it right. But, if the prelude and holocaust of the Second World War have taught us anything, it is surely that when we remain silent we side with the powerful, and reinforce the status quo and all the injustices of it.
So, yes, I think we must vote. But in Australia right now, it seems to me that far, far more is called for, if we are to have any confidence of a better future.