“There is a sting in the tail to compulsory voting and any serious discussion about populism in Australian politics has to confront it”.
It is almost two weeks since I’ve read this phrase, and I’m still troubled by the words of Professor Simon Jackman, chief executive of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. To be honest, I’m not at all familiar with Professor Jackman, nor am I in any position to assess his academic credentials. I have also no opinion on the US Studies Centre, though I found its website to be very interesting, filled with very insightful articles on issues such as what it means to impeach a US President. So, my aim is not to dismiss him, when I say that his views on compulsory voting are making no sense to me.
Of course, this is what makes a successful academic: the ability to raise questions, to challenge ideas, to present arguments and make people think. Professor Jackman has certainly succeeded in that, with his statements, which were featured in Fairfax media outlets such as The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
“I’ve spent most of my life advocating compulsory voting . . . but I’m starting to question that,” he said, explaining how his department’s modelling showed that compulsory voting “is enabling and delivering to the polls a bunch of mad as hell voters that [without compulsory voting] would probably have stayed at home”.
He supports his arguments with statistics, stating that almost 20 per cent of Australians might have not gone to the polls had it not been mandatory. This is definitely a worrying sign, proving that one in five citizens feel alienated by the political system, in which they are trapped, left with no other option than to demonstrate their frustration by a protest vote, by supporting one of the minor parties which are now holding the Senate hostage.
POPULISTS IN THE MAINSTREAM
And here lies the basis of the argument against compulsory voting: that it is responsible for the parliamentary gridlock, which makes it hard to pass legislation. If voting was optional, the alienated voters would stay home, leaving democracy safe in the hands of engaged citizens, and not the erratic supporters of the smaller parties.
“The Greens and strong grassroots parties would do well, but it would be devastating to the One Nations, the Xenophons and the Family Firsts of the world,” argued Professor Jackman, in a statement implying that ‘responsible’ voters would still support the sensible mainstream parties and not populist mavericks.
This, of course, is nothing but a fantasy. All over the world, in countries where voting is optional, populist mavericks manage to win elections, with major parties behind them.
Professor Jackman should look no further than the country which is the subject of the Centre he’s leading: the United States. President Trump, supported by the Republican party, won the presidential elections by speaking to the same disgruntled, alienated voters who are prone to populism. A few months later, in April, more than 40 per cent of the French people voted for (far-right leader) Marine Le Pen and (leftist) Jean Luc Melenchon (for the sake of argument, let’s agree that they are equally populist); on the second round of the French elections, 25 per cent of voters did not show up, apparently indifferent to the threat of a xenophobe, anti-Semite, far-right populist becoming president. Marine Le Pen still gathered 33.1 per cent of the votes, while Emmanuel Macron was elected President with 66.1 per cent. And here lies the other argument against repealing the compulsory vote. In countries where voting is optional, it is the parties which make sure that their voters go to the polls and not the law. Marine Le Pen managed to motivate one in three people who went to the ballots.
The Melenchon supporters, the alienated leftists who dismissed Macron as a status quo advocate, did not bother to vote. If they had, the landslide win of Macron would be – by all assumptions – larger. What’s more impotant, in both countries, the protest vote was not marginal, it was a mainstream choice and defined politics.
When the issue of compulsory vote was debated once again, in 1996, as the Fairfax media article reminded us, the recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was rejected because some MPs were worried that parties would buy out votes – Christopher Pyne even argued that parties would have to allocate 25 per cent of their budgets to campaigns persuading their voters to show up.
What if they fail? What if the ‘mainstream’ parties don’t persuade their voters to show up?
In Greece, for instance, this may become a reality in the next elections. Both major parties are practically on the same side, regarding the policy which is to be implemented in the country. Both are set to follow the orders of the country’s lenders and all debate between the ‘leftist’ government and the ‘centre-right’ opposition is limited to matters of esthetics and on which party is better qualified to implement the austerity measures that have all but crippled the country and destroyed its middle class. By the time the next elections come, the two major parties will campaign on the same mandate. So far, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of alternative policy to the terms of the bailout program – the ‘memorandum’. So far, everything is playing out according to the old Thatcherian doctrine of TINA (There Is No Alternative).
But what kind of democracy is that, when no alternatives are presented? The only parties saying something different who stand a chance of entering parliament are the Communist Party and Golden Dawn. They don’t say anything useful, of course. One is steadily accusing capitalism, globalisation and the EU and the other is steadily accusing migrants, refugees, foreigners and leftists.
Given this setting, it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that abstention will be particularly high in the next Greek elections. Moderate, centre-left voters appalled by the ways of Syriza, who are loath to vote for Nea Dimokratia, (a party which shares responsibility for bringing the country to its knees, which is infested with far-right elements, and which is led by a man who is a living embodiment of nepotism), will choose to abstain. Progressive, left-leaning voters who think that austerity has created more problems than those it tried to solve and who believed in Tsipras the first time around, hoping for an alternative policy (and for justice being served against those who led Greece to this state) and feel betrayed by him and his party will also choose to abstain.
You know who are not going to abstain? Those persuaded by the Nazi thugs of Golden Dawn, that the cause of all the countries’ problems lie in immigration and the ‘traitors who governed the country’.These are most prone to turning up to vote, turning their frustration and alienation into parliamentary representation. As far as gridlocks go, the next Greek parliament is bound to be a case study for academics, such as Professor Jackman.
MORE DEMOCRACY, NOT LESS
Yes, the current representative democracy model is seriously flawed and presents various problems at different times, regardless of whether the vote is compulsory or not. Still, it is the best model that people have come up with. As such, it is based upon the idea that legislation and governance complies with the will of the majority. The idea that any deficiency of democracy can be addressed by representing less people, is not only flawed, but very dangerous; it undermines democracy as a whole. If we need to fix democracy, we will do so by more democracy, not less. Ancient Greeks, of course, knew about this. Their democracy was also deeply flawed, restricted as it was among a small part of the population. But they knew how to stigmatise those who didn’t participate in public life, in democracy. The word ‘idiot’ was first used for those people.
So, basically, we have two options; either to be engaged citizens and take responsibility for political mess, or to be idiots. Optional voting is a regression to the latter condition. The problem here is not academics campaigning for it; it’s large media groups presenting this as a valid idea, a way to solve a bigger problem. And if the Australian government cannot turn its election promises into legislation because of the stubborn opposition of senators representing alienated voters, then maybe the government should back down and legislate by consensus and dialogue and yes, bargaining. And if mainstream, sensible, moderate parties are afraid of disgruntled, alienated, ‘mad as hell’ voters, maybe they should adjust their rhetoric and find a better way to present their arguments, to persuade them. Until that happens, we’re all at the mercy of the Trumps, the Le Pens, the Hansons and the Golden Dawns of the world. Not voting means only shutting our eyes in front of them.