Illustration: Andrew Dyson
I remember clearly the first time I voted in a federal election. Nineteen years old and full of idealism, it was a genuine thrill to take part in the democratic process. Walking the gauntlet, I cheerfully accepted the how-to-vote card from my chosen party while smugly rejecting the others. I had followed the campaign with great interest and it was empowering and gratifying to finally have my voice heard as I placed my ballot in the box. As an academic, I spend the majority of my time with young people and it seems my reaction is far from the norm.
A huge number of my current students are going to vote for the first time at the upcoming election but rather than excitement, the overwhelming attitude is one of apathy and annoyance. Discussing compulsory voting, many indicated they would prefer optional voting so that they would never have to vote. The 2010 election saw a spike in the number of informal votes, up to 5.6 per cent from 3.95 per cent in 2007. This is the highest since 1984 when changes to the group voting ticket may have confused some voters.
More than 600,000 Australians cast an informal vote in 2010. Even if most of these were mistakes, it would seem Mark Latham's call to protest against the two major parties by not voting properly found at least some sympathetic listeners. Perhaps more worrying than informal votes is the logic behind some of the formal ones.
Donkey votes (numbering the candidates in the order they appear on the ballot) have been estimated at between half to 1 per cent of the national total. It seems extraordinary to me that any intelligent, enfranchised Australian citizen would allow their vote to be randomly allotted to the first name on the ballot. Then again, speaking with my students, there seemed very little interest in the campaign. Few were aware what electorate they were in or who their local member was and many indicated they would decide on the day. And these are only the ones who bothered to enrol.
The Australian Electoral Commission has revealed that one in five young Australians (aged 18-24) have not registered to vote. The political commentariat have thrown out a variety of explanations for this disengagement. It has been suggested the politicians themselves are to blame. A recent Age/Nielsen poll suggested just 36 per cent of Australians trust Kevin Rudd, with Tony Abbott faring only slightly better at 43 per cent. Beyond this lack of trust, Daniel Stacey has argued recently that neither of the major parties have policies that appeal to young voters or recognise their needs.
While the current cohort of politicians has done little to endear respect, I would argue that the present political apathy reveals a broader societal failure to foster an attitude of civic duty. In most Western democracies, voting is a right. In Australia it is a responsibility also. In ancient Athens, citizens who did not turn up to vote were chased by a private police force and branded with red dye. This humiliation tactic served to remind citizens that they were not simply individuals but members of a community also.
In recent years, we have seen thousands of people risk their lives in places like Egypt and Tunisia to secure their right to have a say in how their country is governed. In many countries, such as Syria, the fight against brutal dictatorships continue. Australia is one of the world's oldest democracies and has been a leader in championing the right to vote. In the wake of the Eureka Stockade and the Chartist movement, Australia was quick to grant manhood suffrage in the mid-19th century and by 1902 Australian women were the first in the world to win full political rights (the right to vote and stand for Parliament). These national achievements were hard-fought and should be celebrated.
Australia has always placed a high value on political participation and federal elections are the ultimate reminder that our politicians in Canberra are the servants and not the masters in our democracy. As Australians we have a duty to our fellow citizens to cast an informed vote. We must promote a culture that looks beyond the narrow prism of everyday living and considers the national interest. In particular, this message must be stressed to young Australians.
When you enter the voting booth on election day, you are joining millions of fellow citizens in actively determining the future course of our great Commonwealth. It is the responsibility of every citizen to consider the policies of the various parties and to make their vote count. After all, only a donkey would throw away their vote.
Dr Benjamin Jones teaches history at the University of Western Sydney.