Australia has a proud electoral history. The first Commonwealth Electoral Act was passed by the Parliament in 1902, appointing the first Chief Electoral Officer. By 1908 continuous electoral rolls were established. In 1911 it was established that elections would be held on a Saturday.
Our electoral history has been influential. The 1856 introduction of the secret ballot paved the way for reforms in Britain and the United States, who both introduced the ‘Australian Ballot’ as a feature of their elections. In 1902 we were the second country in the world to extend the franchise to women.
But this proud history has not prevented us from testing and developing our electoral processes in order to ensure our democracy remains modern and strong.
The Greens’ Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering Voting Age and Increasing Voter Participation) Bill 2018 is one such test of our electoral processes.
Whilst there are many aspects of this Bill that Government committee members found to be either counter-intuitive or potentially damaging to the health of our electoral system, aspects of this Bill relating to voluntary voting hold some merit.
Compulsory voting has ensconced a mentality in political parties and Members of Parliament that they must offend the least number of voters, or special interest groups, as possible. This has had a chilling effect on in-depth, insightful, debates around public policy. The result is that political contests are now often seen as a battle of who is the ‘least worst’ option.
However, as currently proposed, the sections in this Bill that relate to voluntary voting would only serve to create two tiers of electors–an outcome that would neither benefit the Australian electoral system, or the young people this Bill purports to elevate. Ultimately, in this test of our electoral processes, this Bill was found wanting.
It is always worth noting that there is no higher cause within civil society than for citizens to be engaged in and support the political process. This Bill serves as a timely reminder of the importance of political parties. There is no comparable avenue which allows for direct participation and influence over Australia’s political system. Of relevance, many political parties have youth movements that those aged 16 years old and above can join.
Special notice should be taken of young Australians who participated with this inquiry. It takes a lot of courage and effort to give evidence before, or to make a submission to, a parliamentary committee.
Thank you to all who participated in this inquiry. I would like to acknowledge the work of the previous Committee Chair, Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds CSC, as well as that of the Deputy Chair, Mr Andrew Giles MP, Committee Members, and participating members.
On behalf of the Committee, my sincere thanks to the Committee Secretariat; Lynley Ducker, Siobhán Leyne, Emma Vines and Kelly Burt for their professionalism and engagement during this inquiry.
Senator the Hon James McGrath