Professor of politics Judith Brett offers many reasons to be cheerful about Australia.
Despite there being much despondency about contemporary Australian politics, Judith Brett finds plenty to be cheerful about. In From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, Brett argues that the politicians, bureaucrats and citizens who developed our voting system deserve as much recognition in the popular imagination as the soldiers who fought at Gallipoli. A big claim, but worth paying attention to.
The story begins with the first parliamentary elections in 1843, held at Port Jackson (now Sydney). Elections in those days were rowdy affairs, with bribery and bullying the order of the day. An early innovation was the secret ballot, leading to a more orderly and secure vote. When concerns that first-past-the-post voting could lead to a candidate winning with a minority vote, a system of preferential voting was introduced. It was a woman, Catherine Helen Spence, who was at the forefront of this reform. By 1924, with the introduction of compulsory voting, Australia's modern voting system was pretty much in place.
Compulsory voting is the jewel in the crown of Australia's electoral culture, rare among modern democracies, one that tempers extremism as politicians must pitch policies to all voters – whether poor or rich, migrant or native born. Brett also argues that without compulsory voting, the disaffected would drop out of the process altogether. Compulsion makes them park their vote somewhere, allowing new voices to appear – Cliver Palmer, One Nation, the Greens. None perfect, by any means, but at least offering a way for the disenfranchised to let off steam.
The record is not perfect, however. There are dark stains on our voting history, namely the treatment of our first peoples. The aboriginal vote was by and large suppressed; rights were legislated away. Some aborigines, in some states, could vote, but it was always made difficult. Many worried about giving the vote to aboriginal people due to their dominant numbers. Shamefully it took until 1983, under the Hawke government, for full equality to be achieved when voting was made compulsory for indigenous Australians.
The last few chapters examine recent votes, with special attention paid to the same sex marriage survey. Brett is quite critical of this survey (it wasn't technically a vote) and its unusual process. The eight week voting period was far too long, the process wasn't secret, the postal surveys were easily tampered with and the method of announcement, by the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics who conducted the survey, unorthodox.
This is a terrific read. A pithy and engaging history of how Australia developed a first class voting system that has saved us from much division and extremism. A celebration of what Australia does best: fair, progressive, inclusive elections.
From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, by Judith Brett. Text $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books