2019, 183 plus notes
When she was a lecturer in politics at LaTrobe University, Judith Brett tells us, she used to ask her first-year students to talk about their first political memories as an ice-breaker activity in their first tutorial (p157). Many mentioned going with their parents to their local school while their parents voted. I must confess that my only memory of going with my parents when they voted was the election before I turned 18. It was 1972, and the Labor Party was about to be elected after 23 years of successive Coalition governments. I knew whom I would have voted for, had I been allowed, and to this day I wonder if my father voted Labor, just that once. I had a strong sense of “this will be me, next time” and I felt quite excited about it. But other elections? I just can’t remember. My family (including me) all played tennis on Saturdays: I assume that they nicked in to vote either before or after the tennis court.
I am proud of Australia’s electoral system, despite grizzling about the politicians it throws up, and fearful of the effects of lobbyists and deep pockets. Judith Brett, in From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is too, and as we head into one of our more important elections, it’s good to read this book from one of Australia’s foremost political historians that affirms and celebrates the process. Sometimes we forget just how distinctive our system is. We have compulsory voting (as do Belgium, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Cyrus, Greece, two regions of Austria and one Swiss canon; Central and South America, Egypt, Fiji and Singapore) (fn1. p. 185). And more importantly, compulsory voting is popular, with 77% support in 2007 (p.151). We vote on Saturdays (not Mondays, Tuesdays or Fridays). We have preferential voting in the House of Representatives (in itself a rarity) and proportional representation in the Senate. Our elections are conducted by the Electoral Commission, who are public servants at arm’s length from government. We don’t have to queue for hours. And there are sausages and a cake stall.
[Back in 2010 at my local school]
This book is quite current, taking us right up to 2018, but two-thirds of the book is a historical analysis of how we ended up with the electoral system that we have today. Unlike America, which was first settled during the 17th century constitutional struggles between monarch and parliament and steeped in the ideas of John Locke, Australia’s first political institutions were established when the British Parliament was supreme, and beginning to expand its own franchise. Our philosophical roots lay in Jeremy Bentham who believed in government first, rights second (p6). As historian W.K. Hancock wrote:
The Australian democracy has come to look upon the State as a vast public utility, whose duty is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number…To the Australian, the State means collective power at the service of individualistic ‘rights’ and therefore he sees no opposition between his individualism and his reliance on governments (Hancock Australia, 1930 cited on p.7)
Newly expanding colonies needed infrastructure, and the government provided it. In fact, for the first 100 years or so, Australian taxpayers didn’t have to pay much for it: the British government did. We didn’t have income tax until 1915, and Britain paid for our defence. Why would people want to limit government expenditure on services that benefited them? (p.8)
Our first elections, starting in the 1840s on a limited franchise, followed the English model of public voting. They were held in a carnival-like atmosphere, ‘treating’ supporters with alcohol, and keeping up a running tally. It was the desire to largely circumscribe the abuses of this system that led to the development of the secret ballot, complete with separate cubicles and a pre-printed ballot paper issued only at the booth, which came to be known as “the Australian ballot”. Brett highlights three South Australian electoral innovators whose contributions are often overlooked : Catherine Helen Spence who devoted years to her campaign for proportional representation, William Boothby who as Provincial Returning Officer bureaucratized and regularized electoral administration, and Mary Lee who campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage in South Australia. (I had always wondered why South Australia had an electoral district called ‘Boothby’ when Justice Boothby caused as much trouble as my own Judge Willis did. But it’s the son William, not the father Benjamin). Ironically, her table showing state-based changes to Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council franchises now shows South Australia as the laggard, with compulsory voting for Legislative Council elections in South Australia introduced only in 1985! (p. 138)
It was because South Australian women had had the vote since 1895 -and thus, should not be disadvantaged by losing their suffrage under Federation- that the new Commonwealth Australian constitution allowed anyone enfranchised to vote at a state level to also vote in Commonwealth elections. A similar arrangement was made for Aboriginal voters. Disturbingly, right up until 1962 Aboriginal people could not vote in federal elections unless they were on the state roll or had served in the armed forces, thus leaving Western Australian, Queensland and Northern Territory Aborigines unable to vote. There’s a grubby little secret in her chapter “Women In Aborigines Out” where the Commonwealth had a ‘preponderant blood’ rule whereby “all persons in whom the aboriginal blood preponderates are disqualified”. It was left up to electoral officers to decide largely on the basis of skin colour and their own judgements about individual Aboriginal people’s capacities (p.68). It wasn’t at the 1967 referendum that the right to vote was extended to all ATSI subjects: it was the 1962 act. Aboriginal people were not subject to exactly the same voting laws as other Australians until 1983 (p.72).
In fact, one of the most contested features of Australia’s electoral system was the postal vote, which was allowed, disallowed and allowed again according to the vicissitudes of the different political parties. The Labor Party opposed postal voting because it removed the act of voting from the public booth into the private realm, where domestic power dynamics could lead to voters being pressured to vote against their wishes. Conservative parties supported postal voting, citing women’s interests, arguing that women were confined to their homes before and after the birth of children, and were not comfortable attending a polling booth alone.
One of the things that comes through clearly is that neither party acted from high principle in tweaking the system. Parties supported changes that they thought would have some advantage in it for them, although sometimes the consequences were unforeseen. And as her chapter ‘Liberals push back’ shows, hard right Liberals and libertarians have tried (and probably continue to try) to repeal compulsory voting. Likewise suggestions from the Liberal party that voter ID be introduced, and Howard’s attempts to reduce the time after the writs are issued for enrolment or change of details, are threats to our system of compulsory voting. As far as undermining our system is concerned (especially from the Right), we need to be alert, and then alarmed.
The book has a light touch on what could otherwise be pretty turgid material. There are enough ‘jump-forwards’ to keep the currency of her endeavour in mind, and particularly in the latter chapters, Brett herself comes forward more. Just as with Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (which I reviewed here), sometimes we need to be reminded, as Brett does in her final sentence, that
What the story of compulsory voting tells us is how very good we are at elections. We should celebrate it. (p. 183)
I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019.