Do as you’re told

Even before the Prime Minister formally scotched the idea, it was clear that Liberal Party advocates for voluntary voting should not have been holding their breath. The implacable opposition of the non-government parties would have required united Coalition support to get it through the Senate, but the Nationals (not to mention many Liberals) are no more keen on the idea than Labor. No doubt the National Party knows its own business, but I am puzzled by their apparent conviction that voluntary voting would damage them. It is true that much of their support comes from rural and small-town areas where incomes are no higher than in urban Labor seats, but it’s also true that voluntary council elections attract far higher turnouts on the National Party’s turf than in the cities. Why would federal elections be any different?

The Australian Election Study has been asking respondents if they would have voted if not compelled to since the survey after 1996 election, providing a one-to-five ranking from "definitely would have voted" (chosen by about 70 per cent of respondents) to "definitely not". Combining results from the four surveys from 1996 to 2004 allows us to cross-tabulate these responses with voting intention for nearly 7000 respondents, including 2976 who voted for the Liberal Party, 2607 for Labor, 333 for the Nationals, 332 for the Democrats and 305 for the Greens. The following table combines responses of "probably would have voted" and "might, might not" into a "maybe" category, and "probably not" and "definitely not" (the latter accounting for only 2.6 per cent in 2004) into "unlikely". The Democrats and Greens vote has also been combined because patterns for the two were very similar.

This makes it clear enough why Labor is united in opposition to voluntary voting, and bolsters Liberals who support it on the basis of realpolitik. But it doesn’t explain why the Nationals are less keen, since their own pattern is no different from the Liberals?. It’s also interesting to note that the Democrats and Greens appear to do well out of reluctant voters. This doesn’t surprise me, since minor parties have traditionally absorbed protest votes from the politically disengaged. However, it runs contrary to Bob Brown’s argument that his support for compulsory voting must be founded purely on principle since his party has "the highest proportion of tertiary-educated voters who are most likely to vote without compulsion". I might have marked that down as self-serving spin, but Antony Green also reckons that "the only party certain to benefit from voluntary voting would be the Greens, who have by far the highest ratio of members to voters of any Australian political party". I hesitate to say that an argument of Antony’s does not persuade me, but I still need to be sold on this one. While it is true that the party has a large activist support base, this does not preclude the possibility that just as many of its voters are alienated and disengaged, and that it receives relatively little support from those who fall in between.

One thing past experience makes clear is that electoral reform is governed by the law of unintended consequences, as demonstrated by the parties’ repeated failures to skew the system in their favour. Malcolm Mackerras notes in Crikey that the last two substantial changes to the system – the expansion of Parliament in 1984 and the introduction of semi-proportional representation to the Senate in 1948 (note the eerie Orwellian inversion of those two dates) – were introduced by Labor governments acting out of perceived self-interest, but they have resulted in fairly regular Senate majorities for the Coalition and none for Labor. By the same token, the conventional wisdom that Labor would suffer under voluntary voting might well be misplaced. Antony Green observes that turnout at this year’s British election was especially low in Labour strongholds, suggesting compulsory voting would have boosted their share of the national vote without having much effect on seat totals. By extension, voluntary voting in Australia could cut margins in safe Labor seats without having a substantial impact in marginals.

There are countless other imponderables, such as the impact it would have on the way parties operate. The need to mobilise voters might even compel Labor to re-engage with the world beyond its internal culture and the attendant bastardry and skulduggery that we’ve been hearing so much about lately.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

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