Be Cynical About the Timing of Electoral Law Changes, Not What They Seek to Ensure

New electoral laws passed under the Gillard Government may well have a not insignificant impact on election results according to an examination of Newspoll surveys. Under the legislation, people who are not currently enrolled, but are, or become eligible to vote will automatically be placed on the electoral roll.

The new laws which would see approximately 1.5 million people, mostly new voters, added to the Australian Electoral Commission roll could change election results by up to 1.5%.

While 1.5% may not actually seem like a particularly large percentage, in politics it can mean the difference between a term or two, perhaps three in power. In close contests such a margin could easily mean the difference between seizing government and languishing on the opposition benches for three years.

Under these laws, those with the most to lose are the Liberal and National Party’s. It is a long-observed trend that young people generally vote for Labor, even the Greens. So of course, Liberal Party MP’s were yesterday quite concerned about the possible effects to their vote from automatic and compulsory electoral enrolment.

But is that discontent and anger justified in terms of the way the franchise is conducted in Australia?

In Australia, whether you believe in it or not, we have compulsory voting.

Every three years those of voting age are required to vote in the national poll. Most do vote, with a percentage casting informal votes. But all in all, most people vote and do so correctly. There is also a relatively small number of people who fail to turn up to their local polling place at all and a fine is imposed on them.

So, with this compulsory voting system there should be an understanding that you are automatically enrolled to vote.

Although in conflict with my generally liberal beliefs, I believe that everyone of adult age should be required to head to polling booths on election day to vote. I believe this because I see it as the best chance of electing a government that is generally representative of the people.

But of course I am firmly in favour of a secret ballot and if you are silly enough to use your opportunity to vote just to doodle all over the ballot paper or write silly names or words next to candidates, well, then, feel free to go ahead and act like child. In fact, bugger off.

Anyway, back to the crux of the issue at hand.

While the new AEC laws are not that dramatic in terms of enfranchising all that should be voting, there is an argument that could be sensibly made about the timing of the amendment.

The new clause comes in at a time when the ALP is struggling electorally. The Labor Party have been behind in the polls for a prolonged period of time and still, despite some narrowing in the margin, look set to lose.

So of course, there is scope, in that sense, for some cynicism.

The law should have been the same way from the beginning of the commonwealth, or at the very least, if Labor were so worried about people missing out on the vote, from the start of their administration which began in late 2007.  But no, full voter enrolment is apparently a newfound thing for the ALP.

Anger about the laws themselves is misguided unless the Liberal Party supports changing the electoral rules to allow for voluntary voting. It’s not “rorting” the system when the system is compulsory voting, it’s ensuring that all people of voting age will have the opportunity to vote.

Feel free, however, to be cynical about the timing. Ask yourself the following questions: Why now? Why not from the beginning of the federation? Why not from the beginning of this Labor Government?

About Tom Bridge

A perennial student of politics, providing commentary for money and for free. Email me at tbridgey@gmail.com or contact me on 0435 035 095 for engagements.

Posted on December 11, 2012, in Federal Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Good, they should be automatically placed on the rolls. We have a process here where voting is mandatory. Why should people avoid their responsibility in such circumstances by not registering?

  2. And I’m just agreeing with you. Reiterating the reiterations perhaps? 😉

  3. Is this allowed under the Constitution?

    • Changes to the electoral law are not forbidden under the constitution.

      The Coalition changed the electoral laws at one stage during their previous government from having a week to enrol to vote after election writs issued to the day they are issued. But that was ruled invalid by the High Court because of compulsory franchise.

      Personally, I don’t believe electoral law should be subjected to change on a political whim.

  4. What other legislation could have waited to enable this sooner. You’re suggesting everything be done they day after they are elected.

    • That is quite an inaccurate comment.

      How long have Labor been in power? 5 years.

      What were they experiencing at the time of the law change? Poor poll numbers.

      Didn’t seem to worry Kevin Rudd PM.

  5. Wouldn’t automatically enrolling people be “compulsory franchise”?

  6. You were talking about the previous judgement. Who or what has to happen to stop this if a precedence has already been set?

  7. Compulsory voting drives voter turnouts down because political parties don’t need to motivate the vote. This is why many nations with voluntary voting have higher turnouts than we do. Only 9 other nations in the world enforce compulsory voting and none are great bastions of democratic freedom, far from it. Our decision to vote should be purely democratic, free from any government coercion. That’s the only way to ensure that the electoral sample is an accurate reflection of the people – when 100% are free to choose.

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