HECKLER

<em>Illustration: Caroline Adaszynski</em>

Illustration: Caroline Adaszynski

AUSTRALIA can count itself among elite company when it comes to enforcing compulsory voting. We are one of only 10 countries worldwide (plus one Swiss canton - Schaffhausen) that dictates every adult must vote, and one of even fewer that strictly enforces this law down to local council elections.

As well as us, the group includes Argentina, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Nauru, Peru, Singapore and Uruguay. It hasn't always been compulsory to vote in Australia, only since the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1924. Before that, enrolment and voting in federal elections was voluntary, but by making it compulsory, the government reckoned it could keep better track of the adult population.

Legal experts in the US have said that to make voting compulsory is a violation of freedom of speech. It is also widely argued that the right to choose whether to vote is a function of a democratic society. Even rampaging Mark Latham, short-lived in the role of federal opposition leader, said governments should not force citizens to vote, nor fine them for not doing so. Recently, a poll by a Sydney newspaper found that 40 per cent of those surveyed did not know the name of the NSW Premier. Presumably, that 40 per cent also had no idea who they were voting for at the state election. Does this mean nearly half of those in federal or state parliament (and local councils) have no real right to be there? And if the system is so flawed, why is voting still compulsory in Australia when it is not in so many other civilised countries?

The answer, as always, is revenue. In the recent Queensland state and local council elections, more than 750,000 eligible voters failed to vote - nice little earner there, with a reported $37.5 million in fines headed for the Queensland Treasury. But wait, there's more. People who fail to register to vote can also be fined, providing they can be found, which is the whole point. Once you're on the roll, you're fair game for the fine police, and with the three-tiered rolling promotion of federal, state and local elections, (plus numerous byelections) there's a fat wad of cash to be extracted from the recalcitrant voter.

Since 1924, there has never been a plebiscite on the continuance or abolition of compulsory voting in Australia, nor, it seems, is there likely to be in the near future. Plebiscites cost money to conduct, and should the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1924 be repealed by referendum, a lucrative cash cow would be off to the slaughterhouse. It would be a brave government that dared raise that question.

Jim Scaysbrook