Turnout down under

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Next weekend's election in Australia should see 95% participation by voters: is there a lesson for Gordon Brown here?
Mon 19 Nov 2007 11.30 EST

By the security gates at Sydney airport stands a surprising sight for British eyes: a row of polling booths. Australia's general election takes place this Saturday, but advance voting is already under way - and taking part is compulsory, even if it has to be done after check-in.

Here - unlike Britain - there is no national debate about falling turnout and voter apathy. In the 24 general elections since 1946, participation has averaged 95% - and it will do so again this week.

Travellers leaving Sydney can choose in advance between John Howard's 11-year-old conservative government and Kevin Rudd, the Labor challenger widely expected to remove him from power. They can also reject both parties of course - but they have to do so in person by spoiling their ballot paper. Abstention, of the sort indulged in by almost half Britain's voters at the 2005 general election, is illegal.

And this is more than a token threat. When Australia last went to the polls, around 500,000 people were sent an official non-voter notice through the post. Most were let off after explaining their absence, but 52,000 people were made to pay a token $20 fine and around 30 were prosecuted and convicted.

Australians find Britain's low levels of participation extraordinary. They are also puzzled that we hold elections on a working day. Voting here is a weekend habit carried out almost without question by both young and old: like jury service, there is no exemption.

It is surprising that Gordon Brown, the sort of politician who likes to emphasise responsibilities as well as rights and who is looking for ways of embodying civic duties in law, has not suggested compulsory voting for Britain in his package of constitutional reforms. Perhaps he looks too much to America, where participation is even lower.

The Australian system would be a direct response to poor turnout, rather than the gimmicks and fixes the electoral commission has tried, which have done more to reduce trust in the ballot. It would also help Labour win elections, since under the current British system its voters are much less likely than Tories to show up.

But there are good objections. For a start, though three-quarters of Australians support compulsory voting, it works because it has been in place almost as long as Australian democracy, introduced in the 1920s. Imposing it on the country now would be hugely controversial.

Nor is it clear that the system makes for better politics rather than busier elections. It is true that if Australian voters dislike a government, they know they share responsibility for having chosen it and can choose another. (And they do so with great frequency: Australia holds a national election of some sort every two years. Voting for frequent council and state elections are compulsory, too, and turnout just as high.)

But the outcome is much the same: a two-party system where minority voices are even more excluded from parliament than in Britain. The stale level of debate, negative attacks and bland, cautious promises are much like Britain's, too. Freed from having to persuade supporters to vote, Australian politicians can spend even more of their time attacking each other.

Distrust of politics is also common to both countries, and in both party membership is in steep decline. Compelling people take part in elections is a way of disguising this, not a solution.

And there is something illiberal about forcing people to be free. The right not to elect a government, however stubborn it seems to politicians, matters. In Britain, when people vote, it is because they want to.

Even so, the queues on Saturday morning, when an entire nation will make its choice, will be a small rebuke from down under to stay-at-home Britain.

For more comment on the Australian elections click here.

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