Federal Politics

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Changing how we vote might not go to plan

On one matter, ideology goes out the window. Principle is of no moment. Political foes become expedient friends.

That matter is the electoral process. As a rule, political parties will ask only one question about changes to the electoral law: will this benefit or hurt my party. Nothing else matters.

Changes to the electoral law will be put forward with pious assertions about them being fairer, easier for voters and so on, but the underlying aim is to help your side win. But political parties often do not foresee all the ramifications of their proposals and they end up shooting themselves in the foot.

 This month the Queensland government put up a ‘‘discussion paper’’ about ending compulsory voting. And the ACT Expert Reference Group will begin receiving public submissions on whether the size of the ACT Legislative Assembly should be increased.

The voluntary voting possibility united federal foes. Both Labor and Liberal frontbenchers, including the Prime Minister on Twitter, condemned the idea.

Australia is one of fewer than half a dozen countries that have compulsory voting – or, to be more accurate, compulsory attendance at the polling booth.


The arguments each way are obvious: full participation makes the democracy more legitimate. On the other hand, people should have the right to decide whether they want to attend a polling booth and whether to vote. 

Those in favour of compulsory voting cite civic responsibility and duty. Fine sentiment. But this is a rare civic responsibility and duty. Most  of our civic duties and responsibilities   take the form: if you want to do this, then you must do that. If you want to drive you must keep left. If you have children you must send them to school. If you want to get the dole you must seek work. If you want to go to sea in your boat you must have a radio and lifejackets, and so on.

Rarely are our civic duties and responsibilities couched in an absolute way: you, turn up and do this. You register to vote, and you turn up to a polling booth and get your name ticked off. Indeed, I can think of only one other civic duty that worked this way,  an odious one: register for military service, turn up at the barracks.

Are there any other unconditional civic duties and responsibilities like attendance at the polling booth and military service? No.

So, I am against compulsory voting. The people create the state. The state regulates behaviour in the interests of all: if you do this you must do these other things in the interests of not harming others. That is why we have a state.

Otherwise the state should leave you alone and not conscript you to military service or to vote.

But that is not the way political parties think. They just ask, will this advantage us? The LNP obviously thinks voluntary voting will help it, which is surprising given  the Queensland Liberal National government won so handsomely under compulsory voting last election.

The theory is that Labor benefits from compulsory voting because the stupid lower socio-economic groups who support Labor need to be herded to the polling booth otherwise they would stay apathetically at the pub.

But since John Howard invented the battlers, it may well be that the conservatives need the apathetic apolitical to be cajoled to the polling booth more than the committed latte-drinking leftie Laborites.

 So conservative support for voluntary voting may backfire. In the past, questions of optional preferential voting and increasing the size of the Senate have returned to bite those that proposed them – Labor.

Now to the more mundane matter of the ACT Legislative Assembly. But let me digress a moment.

Some charities working overseas proudly state  only 10 or 15 per cent of your donation goes to administration. The implication is  85 to 90 per cent  actually goes into the mouths of the starving children. Not so. Because so little has been spent on administration, the wrong grain goes on to the wrong trucks that  cannot traverse the tracks to the starving and all the grain gets purloined by the richly undeserving on the way.

In the ACT, we have had just 17 members of the Legislative Assembly since 1989. They are struggling to get the right grain on the right trucks on the right roads to deliver what is needed in the ACT’s representative democracy.

It is plain we need a larger assembly. We need a cabinet of five or six, a committee system and some backbenchers to ask questions and for members of Parliament to be able to listen to electors and take up their causes with the bureaucracy.

The ACT is the most under-represented jurisdiction in Australia. And it  covers local government matters as well.

All major parties and independents will support a larger assembly. But the critical question is how will it be configured.

The size of the assembly is determined by federal law: the ACT Self-Government Act, which sets the size at 17. But of great importance is the Proportional Representation (Hare-Clark) Entrenchment Act 1994 that  says each electorate must have at least five  members and  it must be an odd number of members.

  These entrenched principles can only be changed by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly or by referendum.  My guess is  the Liberal-Green majorities in the present Assembly and after the next federal election in the House of Representatives and Senate will result in a bigger Assembly  in a configuration that suits the Greens and the Liberals: three seven-seat electorates.

The Greens know getting one of seven is easy; one of five is an aberration. The Liberals know getting three of five can only happen in Tuggeranong. Getting four of seven in two electorates – and therefore government – is a much better basis to achieve electoral excess.

Ideology and principle aside, it will be a great temporary expedient alliance.

>> Crispin Hull is a commentator, author and former editor of The Canberra Times. crispinhull.com.au