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Posted on 30 Jul 2019 in Non-Fiction |

JUDITH BRETT From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia got Compulsory Voting. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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Australian politicians might rank low in public esteem but as this incisive book from Judith Brett reveals, our system of voting is admirable compared to the rest of the world’s democracies and certainly superior to those of the United Kingdom and the United States.

It must have been exciting to have studied politics under Professor Judith Brett at Latrobe University because I am sure she emphasised to her students (as she contends in her opening chapter) that ‘Australia was born not on the battlefield but at the ballot box’. And that while the ‘Anzac Legend is a core foundation myth’ it is only one story of the nation – ‘how we got compulsory voting is no less definitive of who we are’.

Statistics, carefully chosen, can focus the mind and thus it is important to learn in the opening paragraph that of 166 democracies on the planet, voting is compulsory in only 19, and only nine (including us) enforce that compulsion. Compulsory voting was not introduced in Australia federally until 1925 but another salutary statistic is that since that time support for it has never been less than 60 per cent.

Our preferential system of voting is distinctively Australian but this fairest of forms did not come about by chance and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Australia led the world in electoral reform. Brett traces the wider story to the present in 18 short chapters dealing with the invention of the Australian ballot, key colonial innovators, women’s suffrage, Aboriginal exclusion, a variety of voting systems, a long struggle for compulsory voting, the Saturday vote, and jockeying for political advantage by different parties.

In the mid-19th century many of the new immigrants – and especially those who were inspired to try their luck on the goldfields – were influenced by Chartism and its six demands for electoral reform: votes for all men, payment of members of parliament, no property qualifications for MPs, the secret ballot, equal electorates and annual elections.

‘All except the last of these we now take for granted in healthy democracies’, Brett notes, but it is worth being reminded that in the debate on the secret ballot opponents and supporters came from unexpected sources. Some opponents regarded the secret ballot as ‘un-English’:

These claims had a sectarian edge. The manly English character displayed in open voting was a decidedly Protestant construct, hostile to the secrecy of the Catholic confessional and the feminine dependence of Catholics on their priests.

Melbourne’s conservative newspaper, the Argus, regarded the secret ballot as ‘a protection against the excesses of democracy’.

Argument was one thing, implementation another, and the innovation of such mundane elements as the provision of voting stalls, paper and pencils had major effects around the world:

The official printed ballot paper and the compartments for voting became known as the Australian ballot, and attracted the interest of reformers in Britain and the United States. In Britain it was seen as a way to reduce the power of the landed gentry and to free elections from intimidation, riot and drunken disorder; in the United States it was hoped it would limit the control of party machines … The Australian ballot turned voting into a well-mannered civic ritual.

In the colonial era South Australia provided three important innovators: Catherine Spence as a proponent of Thomas Hare’s system of voting by proportional representation, William Boothby for developing the first permanent electoral administration in the world, and Mary Lee for her role in the women’s suffrage movement.

Boothby’s model was subsequently adopted at the national level and Australia’s centralised electoral roll and commitment to uniformity in federal elections contrasts with the sloppy electoral practices (often involving wilful disenfranchisement of voters) in the United States, and the inconvenience of being required to vote at the nearest polling booth to one’s home in Britain. Our practice of voting on Saturdays, which began in South Australia and Queensland in the 19th century, and federally since 1913, makes voting much simpler than on Tuesdays in the US, and Thursdays in Britain.

The Barton government’s first Electoral Bill in 1902 included preferential voting for the House of Representatives and a single transferable vote for the Senate. However, despite the passionate argument of government Senate leader Richard O’Connor, neither was achieved, and the 1902 Electoral Act established first-past-the-post voting for the House and block voting for the Senate.

‘The method of voting is only one of the factors determining the formation and survival of political parties, but it is a powerful one’, Brett writes. The Labor party favoured first-past-the-post and the Protectionists and Free Traders were slow off the mark in seeing the advantages of the preferential system, even when they combined as Liberals from 1910; it was not until 1919 that a Nationalist Government led by Billy Hughes introduced preferential voting. The peculiarity was the situation in the Senate which resulted in enormous unrepresentative majorities: the ALP won all 18 seats it contested in 1910 and 1934, and non-Labor won them all in 1919, 1925 and 1943. The move to introduce proportional representation for Senate voting came from the Chifley Government 47 years after it had failed in the Commonwealth’s first Electoral Bill.

Upper Houses (colonial and state) claimed to be houses of review and the Senate was supposed to be a protection for the interests of the smaller states. In fact, Brett argues:

The block-voting system only ever delivered unrepresentative Senates that were more often than not rubber stamps for the government of the day. When Chifley’s Labor government introduced proportional representation in 1949, however, nothing could have been further from its mind than to encourage new parties or to hand control of the Senate to independents. Yet this is what happened. Sometimes this is described as a revival of the Senate, but in fact it was a transformation.

Indeed, such a transformation that the government of the day has controlled the Senate (in three periods) for a total of only ten of the last 70 years.

Compulsory voting is the subject of chapters eight, 11 and 13, so that while Alfred Deakin first introduced it in a Victorian government bill in 1888, it was first enacted by the Liberal government of Digby Denham in Queensland in 1914, and federally by the Bruce-Page Nationalist-Country Party coalition government in 1925. Queensland’s adoption influenced the Commonwealth’s action but it also came against a background of low voter turnouts in Victorian, Tasmanian and federal elections in the early 1920s.

Within three years, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania all introduced compulsory voting into their lower houses and Western Australia followed in 1936, but it is instructive to learn that South Australia (so often a pioneer in electoral matters) was the laggard in 1942. Compulsory voting for the upper houses occurred at the same time in NSW and Tasmania, but followed nine years behind in Victoria, 28 years later in WA (1964), and an astonishing 43 years later when introduced by the Bannon Government in SA in 1985.

In an early chapter (as noted) our election days are described as a well-mannered civic ritual and that view is reinforced at the end of the book. As someone who has handed out how-to-vote material at several elections I can only agree. We may not get the politicians we deserve but the bonhomie often shared with rival party workers, as well as voters, represents the better part of our natures, and Brett is right to hope that the sausage sizzle will be the saviour of election days.

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is a small but important book that covers fascinating ground and (with one exception) explains the evolution of our electoral processes clearly and succinctly. The exception is the description of block voting for the Senate as ‘effectively first-past-the-post for multi-member electorates’ which (at least for this reader) confuses rather than elucidates. The other weakness for a reference book is the lack of an index. Aside from these criticisms Judith Brett should be congratulated for producing a work that restores many long-forgotten personalities to life. It deserves wide readership if only to ensure we value what we have.

Judith Brett From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia got Compulsory Voting Text Publishing 2019 PB 199pp $29.99

Bernard Whimpress usually writes on sport and his most recent book is a centenary history of a community football club, The Towns: 100 Years of Glory 1919-2018 (2019).

You can buy From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.