Vote or Don’t - Qld's electoral drama explained

Yesterday, Queensland’s Attorney General released a discussion paper dealing with electoral reform. Usually when Queensland’s Attorney General releases a discussion paper dealing with election reform, it does not create a stir. The paper is rarely released to a crowd of hysterical, screaming teenage girls, who’ve camped outside parliament wearing t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like ‘Team Bleijie’, or obsessives who have lined up all night to be the first to get their copy, dressed as their favourite proposed electoral reform.


It was odd when the press jumped to cover this paper, to the extent that the PM and Treasurer were forced to lean out of their holiday hammocks to issue a statement, and social media had a minor conniption. So what was all the fuss about?


Turns out, that of 43 pages in the discussion paper, there are two that float the idea of scrapping compulsory voting for state elections in QLD. Why were people losing it over this? After all, who doesn’t love a good old vote? Is this something that could actually be serious?


Possibly. There’s nothing about the LNP’s behaviour in the past 12 months that suggests it’s not the loose-cannon maverick of the state parliaments we all feared it would be. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that they announced they’d be making water fluoridation a matter for local councils, effectively ending the compulsory fluoridation policy. It’s also where Bob Katter lives. So there’s that.


But as I mentioned above, the discussion of compulsory voting in the paper is little more than an aside - the meat of the paper is actually about campaign donation reform, which is interesting in its own way, insofar as campaign donation reform can be interesting. Also the paper is pretty non-committal on the whole voting issue, it’s just raising it as something that people can make submissions on.


But that’s not the say that the LNP wouldn’t want to scrap compulsory voting…


The Coalition has a bit of a history with things like this. In 1994, the South Australian state legislature actually passed a bill to make voting in state elections voluntary, and it was only defeated in the senate by a single vote. Liberal Senator Nick Minchin doesn’t believe in compulsory voting, but then again, the senator also doesn’t believe in climate change or passive smoke so is he on his own in the party here? Nope. Opposition to compulsory voting in the Coalition is significant. In a candidate survey released in 1996, only 40% of Coalition candidates responded in support of the current voting system. 97% of Labor candidates were in favour.


So why the disparity? There are two reasons – one ideological and one electoral. Ideologically, it fits with the Coalition’s libertarian sensibility to support a voluntary system of voting. It is viewed as an infringement on the rights of citizens to force them to vote under threat of fines or imprisonment. It’s kind of surreal to imagine a bunch of libertarians atop the barricade fighting for their God-given right to stay home of a Saturday morning once every four years, but it’s more of the principal of the thing.


The second reason is much easier to understand – the abolition of compulsory voting would help the Coalition come election time. It’s all entirely hypothetical, of course, given that we’ve been forced to the polls since the 1920s, but the accepted wisdom is that compulsory voting favours left wing parties. That is to say, more potential Labor voters would stay at home if given the option than Coalition voters.


Why? The answer to that is better left to Antony Green, but it’s reasonably clear that it’s a view held by many in the Coalition and Labor Party, who haven’t been fighting over this issue for decades as an academic exercise.


Given all of the above, it’s pretty tempting to assume that if the Newman Government did, down the track, throw its support behind scrapping the compulsory vote, then it would be a cynical exercise in electoral math, and the actions of a party that is beginning to lose its nerve. I would say that it would be a tempting assumption because it would also be correct.


Does this mean there aren’t any decent arguments for non-compulsory voting? Of course it doesn’t, I do think that people ought to be wary of any piece of legislation that has central to its political appeal people not showing up to the polls. You only need to look at the Republican’s entirely disingenuous voter-ID laws in the 2012 election to see just how sinister this kind of strategy can become.


So is this going to happen in Queensland? It seems unlikely unless the LNP start to actively commit to the idea. The PM has said she’ll fight it if it’s seriously tabled, and the state government in the sunshine state has a bit more to worry about right now without a public stoush with the Federal Government. Right now all we have to go on is a couple of lines in a discussion paper, and if nothing else happens next week, I’d say there’s a pretty good chance that all Queenslanders will be fronting up for their compulsory-democracy-bonanza-and-sausage-sizzle between now and 2015.

Ben Jenkins is a Sydney-based writer. He blogs at and tweets at @bencjenkins

Lead image via Shutterstock

profile of bencjenkins

1 comments so far..

  • Yilgahn's avatar
    Date and time
    Saturday 05 Jan 2013 - 11:07 AM
    Team Bleijie or Team Bjelke?

    The one thing that Queensland does have that I would like to see rolled out nationally is the "optional preferential voting".
    For those who don't know this means on a ballot with four candidates you can do any of the following:
    * number all candidates one to four
    * choose only one candidate (with a number one)
    * or choose your top two or top three.

    Not sure if this really effects the final result (another Anthony Green question), but it just feels a better representation of the voters choice.

    Would also be interesting when it comes to the Federal Senatorial ballot. A much better method than the current one or one to 300 system.
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.