In Mark Latham’s latest book, The Political Bubble, he calls for Australia to abolish compulsory voting. When promoting the book last week, Mr Latham suggested that Australia adopt voluntary voting because then "parties would have to come up with genuine policies that matter to people to encourage them to go out and vote" and it would "make parties more courageous and genuine".
But the political science research strongly shows the opposite, with the United States the classic case of a voluntary voting system where the parties are anything but responsive or courageous. They pander to sectional interests because in voluntary voting systems turnout is heavily skewed in favour of the well-off and politicians are keenly aware of their constituency.
No US president has ever been elected by a majority of eligible voters and, in the last US presidential election in 2012, only 54 per cent of the voting age population voted. As in other voluntary systems, people with high incomes, education and occupation dominate voting.
American politics only makes sense when viewed through this prism of politicians who can disregard the needs of non-voters — including the poor, the working poor and the marginalised — without fear of strong electoral consequences.
The abominable US healthcare system, their deregulated, expensive university education system and their harsh and leaky welfare safety net that contributes to high crime rates and entrenched poverty are all the result of politicians knowing they can pretty safely ignore the needs of all but those who vote — and who donate.
Money can end up playing a big role in voluntary voting systems because when there is a large proportion of non-voters, governments are more likely to be influenced by moneyed interests and intense issue activists. The powerful gun lobby in the US is an example of the latter, while defence lobbyists, the pharmaceutical industries and now the tech industries lobby are examples of the former.
In the UK, a higher 61 per cent of the voting age population voted in the 2010 general election. But, as is occurring in other voluntary voting systems, turnout seems to be becoming lower and even more uneven. Emily Keaney and Ben Rogers in A Citizen’s Duty, a report for the British Institute for Public Policy Research, showed that voter turnout in the UK is falling most steeply among low-income earners.
In an excellent new book, Compulsory Voting: For and Against, Australian academic Lisa Hill debates American Jason Brennan on the merits of compulsory voting. Professor Hill shows how, in voluntary voting systems, during periods of economic crisis, the "worse off people become, the less likely they are to vote" as they focus instead on "getting by". This means incumbent governments get to escape "retribution from those most affected by any mismanagement on their part" — the opposite of what should happen in a democracy where politicians are supposed to be held accountable at the ballot box.
Australia actually has a system of compulsory voter attendance rather than "compulsory voting" because the secret ballot means it is neither desirable nor possible to compel voters to mark the ballot paper. Under our system, 93 per cent of registered voters usually turn out at federal elections in Australia. As a proportion of the voting age population, that is around 82 per cent. Political participation can be defined in many different ways but if you count voting as a crucial means of political participation, Australians are already highly engaged by international standards.
Our turnout is not only high but far more representative. This has meant, historically, that our system has produced a more even distribution of government attention and less income inequality than voluntary voting systems. (A good test of these features will be the future electoral consequences of the Abbott government’s budget — if its most unfair and unpopular measures are indeed passed.)
According to the research, countries with compulsory voting also produce governments that have less corruption and more citizens who feel positive about their democracy. On Mr Latham’s point about engagement, American academic Victoria Shineman found that compulsory voting laws can cause citizens to become more interested in politics and pay greater attention to political news.
This is not to say that we don’t have problems to address. Achieving 82 per cent of the voting age population is very healthy by international standards but it isn’t as universal as the law requires and shows that more needs to be done to encourage young people in particular to register to vote. About a third of those missing from the electoral roll are in the 18 to 24 age group. Internationally — and Australia is no exception — age has become a very significant factor in determining whether an individual will vote or not.
This is all part of what Mr Latham is rightly concerned about — the increasing disconnection between citizens and formal, parliamentary politics. I agree that current political practice isn’t engaging or inclusive enough and it doesn’t lead to the best public policy outcomes possible. But voluntary voting isn’t the answer. Not only would it fail to solve any of those problems, it would also create new, much bigger problems.
In principle, compulsory voting seems no more objectionable than "forcing" citizens to pay taxes or perform jury duty. And, in practice, it has proved the only effective way to achieve high turnout and the many good outcomes that come with it. As a result, compulsory voting is one of the best features of Australia’s political system and leads to some of the best rates of political participation in the world. To throw that away on a vain hope of creating more "genuine" politicians would be a terrible mistake.
Sally Young is associate professor of political science at The University of Melbourne and a regular Age columnist.