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Electing members of parliament

Compulsory voting in Australia

In 1924, the Australian Parliament passed a bill (proposed law) to make voting in federal elections compulsory. Before this voting was voluntary, although from 1911 it was compulsory for Australians to enrol to vote. In 1924, Senator Herbert Payne, concerned by low voter turnout, introduced a private senator's bill in the Senate to make voting compulsory. The bill amended, or changed, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, which sets out how elections are conducted in Australia.

Voter turnout had dropped from over 71 per cent at the 1919 election to less than 60 per cent at the 1922 election. In fact, voter participation in federal elections had been steadily dropping since federation in 1901. Senator Payne believed steps should be taken to stop this decline.

Australians prided themselves on having a democratic Parliament in which decisions were made by a majority of members elected by a majority of voters, the Senator said. However, a Parliament elected by only about half of all voters was making laws for all Australians. This 'surely is a travesty on democratic government,' he declared.

If voter participation rates continued to drop, Senator Payne thought the Parliament would not truly represent the will of the Australian people or make laws in the interest of all Australians. He told the Senate:

Parliament is supposed to be a reflex of the mind of the people. If the people exhibit no interest in the selection of their representatives, it must necessarily follow, in the course of time, that there must be considerable deterioration in the nature of the laws governing the social and economic development of this country.

Supporters of the bill described voting as a right and a duty. They argued that just as citizens in a democracy are expected to pay tax or do jury duty, they also had a responsibility to vote. Mr Edward Mann MP told the House of Representatives:

The people should be jealous of their democratic privileges; and we have the right to ask of them that they should regard those privileges, not only as something which they ought to prize, but as involving a duty which they should perform.

Senator Edward Findley saw the right to vote as very important because it gave everyone an equal say in who should represent them. He observed 'Every citizen of adult age, irrespective of poverty or wealth, enjoys equality of voting power.'

The Commonwealth Electoral Bill was the third private member's or senator's bill to become law since federation in 1901 (when the federal Parliament first met). The bill was supported by both the government and the opposition. However, not everyone agreed with it. Some members of parliament opposed the bill because they believed it was undemocratic to force people to vote. They felt people should have a choice.

Mr John Duncan-Hughes MP argued some people may not want to vote because they didn't know much about politics. He told the House of Representatives:

It is certain that a man cannot be compelled to take an interest in political affairs if he does not want to do so. If electors have to vote, whether they like it or not, on a subject in regard to which they are indifferent, or on a subject which they say they do not understand, they will depend upon the opinions of others, so that their, votes, in the main, will not represent their own definite views.

Senator Albert Gardiner agreed with this argument, saying 'the opinions of the negligent and apathetic section of the electors are not worth obtaining.' And what, he wondered, if an elector didn't want to vote for any of the candidates? The Senator concluded:

Compulsory voting involves a further trespass on the liberty of the people. How often do electors find themselves in the position of having to vote for candidates whom they do not desire to support?

Despite these objections, the bill was passed by the Parliament and compulsory voting began at the 1925 federal election. It immediately increased the participation rate, with about 91 per cent of enrolled voters taking part in the election. Since then, Australia has had one of the highest voter turnouts in the world. It has never fallen below 90 per cent. However, Australia is just one of 32 countries with compulsory voting.