“Our elections are free — it’s in the results where eventually we pay” – Bill Stern

20 September 2008

Last Saturday I did something I’ve never done before – I voted in an election in Australia (New South Wales council elections). 

Some of you out of the country may not know that in Australia voting is compulsory for all citizens (and I became a citizen in May).  Well, that’s not quite true.  Turning up at the polling station and having your name crossed off the list is the compulsory bit.  If you want to leave the ballot paper blank or write obscenities on it, that’s your affair.

I think Australia is  the only democracy in the world where this is the case  –  and I’m sure I can rely on someone to correct me on that if I’m wrong!.  I’ve mixed views on this but my gut reaction is that I don’t really want to be governed by people who were elected by citizens who have no interest, no knowledge and are just going to stick a pin in a piece of paper to save themselves a fine.

However, my real gripe is with the system.  I’ve been a proponent of Proportional Representation for a long time but why do the Aussies have to make it so complicated?  I won’t explain the system to you, mainly because I don’t think I could and am still getting my head around it.  But about 10% of all votes are classed as ‘informal’ (ie invalid) and those that are left blank or have rude words on them only make up a small proportion.  The others are invalidated because they weren’t completed properly. 

I heard David say to an Electoral Officer at the polling station “I think I’m a reasonably intelligent person but I don’t really understand what I’m supposed to do here”.  I took the alternative and spent about 10 minutes reading the instructions (David doesn’t ‘do’ written instructions very well). 

And because it’s complicated, it takes days or weeks to get the results.  The basic count was done after the polls closed, at the polling stations.  Then the papers go to the Electoral Commission where all the distribution of votes takes place.  This won’t take place on my Ward’s papers until Monday (ie 10 days after the election).  So there’s none of the excitement of election night that we get in England.  On the night of the Federal Election here in November, it looked very likely that Maxine McKew had won the seat, but it was THREE WEEKS before it was confirmed.    

And the Senate elections are world beaters in the art of complication.  You can read the instructions here (and then explain them to me, please).  The Senate voting form can contain 100 or more names and is a long scroll.  If you vote “below the line” (don’t ask!), you have to put all the names in order of preference, and if you make a mistake (ie put the number 86 twice) your vote is invalidated. 

This all makes for totally different elections from the ones I’m used to.  The main thrust of English election campaigns is to identify your voters and make sure they vote, so there’s a mad scramble about 2 hours before the polls close to knock on doors of known supporters, run a shuttle service to the polling station and even babysit if necessary.  And unless numerous recounts are necessary and you can face sitting up half the night, you’ll have the results by breakfast.  Here the focus is at the polling station.  You know the voters are going to turn up – you just have to make sure they vote for YOU.   So to get in to vote, you have to negotiate your way through all the people thrusting pieces of paper into your hands.

This system or the UK system?  Whatever system you use to elect them, it doesn’t really make them any less crappy.  There are few Members of Parliament, here or in the UK (or in the USA for that matter),  I’d put in charge of running a tombola, never mind the country.  I found a great quote from Jay Leno,  “If God had wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates”.

But for the next 4 weeks I’m going to try not to think about politics, here, there or anywhere.  I’m flying to India, which I think is the largest democracy in the world, for 3 days and on to London (with 24 hours in Helsinki).  Three weeks in England then a couple of days in Tokyo on the return trip.  A holiday.  Can’t wait.


  1. I can’t remember who said it, but it was referring to universal suffrage in the UK:-

    “Why is it considered that a greater quantity of ignorance at the polling booths will result in better government?”

    You could argue that the Oz system doesn’t lead to that, either, by the sound of it…

  2. Having been an Aussie all my life, I’d never thought about how complicated our voting system was until I tried to explain it to new citizens in my class two days before the Council elections! Whew!!

    Again, have a great trip. It sounds very exciting.

  3. Have a great time on holiday, I hope you get to relax between chores!

  4. Coming from a country where a lot of people fought for a significantly long time just to get the right to vote at all, i think ensuring that people exercise their right to vote, or pay a fine in order not to, is a fantastic idea. If you’re going to have Tyranny of the Majority (ie. Democracy), you may as well ensure that the Majority are actually bothered.

    It also means the politicians have to work hard to ensure that EVERYONE understands what they stand for, rather than simply talking to the politically active. And no-one has the excuse of “i don’t have to comply with the government / rules / laws/ etc because i didn’t vote, so they’re not my government.

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