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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON ELECTORAL MATTERS
25/07/2005
Conduct of the 2004 federal election and matters related thereto

CHAIR —Mr Doyle, welcome. We have received your submission and it has been numbered 13. Are there any corrections or amendments you would like to make to that submission?

Mr Doyle —No, I do not have any changes.

CHAIR —I invite you to make a brief opening statement for four or five minutes and then we will open it up for questions.

Mr Doyle —Thank you for the opportunity to attend here today. I would like to talk on a couple of issues. I know that it is unlikely that you will decide to recommend voluntary voting. Nevertheless, I sense a growing number of politicians are feeling uneasy about compulsory voting. I sense they know, as I do, that the arguments against voluntary voting tend to verge from the illogical to the ludicrous, whilst spending some time in between with the ridiculous. One argument is that the Labor Party, the Liberal Party or both would use their resources to bus their supporters to the polling booths so that the party that spent the most effort in getting voters to the booth would gain a huge advantage. Simplistic nonsense, of course. If you imagine that offering a lift to take someone to the polling booth is going to sway their vote or having your dwindling party resources arrange appointments, to give car rides to potential—and I mean potential—voters to take them to and from the booth will win you the election, then I may as well go home now.

Then we have the old, ‘If we had voluntary voting, it would be like the United States, where there are such low numbers voting.’ Now, this is an embarrassing argument for any supporter of compulsory voting with a modicum of intelligence. It is as daft as my saying that because the vast majority of democratic nations have voluntary voting, we should have it as well. Our culture, our system, our federation may have similarities to the United States: similar, yes, in the same way that chalk and cheese can both be white. We are far more like the UK and New Zealand, both of which have voter turnouts of 70 per cent, often more. I would remind the non-government members of this committee that, unlike here in Australia, those nations have had Labour in government for the last decade or so. Voluntary voting in the UK and New Zealand does not seem to swing the balance much to the Tories.

Then there is the ‘voluntary voting would increase the chance of electoral fraud’ argument. The logic is that, unlike in other nations, our political parties are corrupt and would fall to the temptation of using impersonation, where the same person uses the votes of people opting not to vote. How on earth could anybody be certain as to who is going to vote under a voluntary system? The implied corollary is that, under our compulsory system, we have no opportunities for electoral fraud. At first glance, the old ‘compulsory voting means that everyone has played a part in the electoral process’ argument makes sense. The logic is that ‘people feel that they are part of the loop and matter’. That is a quote from previous members of this committee. I mean, seriously, how do they know? Presumably, as in the film, The Castle, we are talking about ‘feeling the vibes.’

CHAIR —Mr Doyle—

Mr Doyle —I do not have much more.

CHAIR —You have not?

Mr Doyle —No.

CHAIR —I was just going to say that we want to leave time for questions, that is all.

Mr Doyle —Okay; I am two-thirds through. I know when I last ‘felt the vibes’—that was when handing out how-to-vote cards. I have seen people who attend polling booths looking decidedly undemocratic; they are furious that they have to queue, grab the cards and vote without any real consideration. I have no idea of how much consideration, but under a voluntary system, I think we can be 100 per cent certain that people vote with consideration.

Then we have the ‘It’s not actually compulsory to vote’ argument. I address this in the submission, but I do want to say how sad it is that some politicians in all parties parrot this idiocy. It is sad because the community relies on our politicians to create legislation—legislation which citizens are expected to respect and obey, yet we have senior politicians telling us that, although the law says one thing, it is okay to do another.

I have two more quick points: it has been said by previous and current members of this committee that there is a misunderstanding among the community as to whether we have compulsory voting. I agree, there is. So is it of concern that some people misunderstand the voting process? I think so. If you do too, I respectfully suggest that there is a requirement for this committee to make recommendations that would reduce it. Lastly, I sympathise with this committee: you have a very difficult task. You are required to travel all over Australia, often listening to fanatics such as me, and it must be very hard. But I think the hardest thing that you will have to do is not to choose to stay with compulsory voting; it will be to write your report, in which you will have to defend the illogical, the ridiculous and, yes, the indefensible. I wish you luck.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Doyle. Thank you for that statement, and we have your submission. You may or may not be aware that, in a private capacity and not as chair of this committee, I have publicised my view in favour of voluntary voting. So whether you were or were not aware of that—

Mr Doyle —I was, yes.

CHAIR —That is for a range of reasons that are on the public record. The committee is always looking at longer term issues. We are happy to hear submissions on this subject, but from a government point of view—and I am a member of the government as well as chair of the committee—we have also said we will not be altering it before the next election because we did not go to the last election saying that we would do so. So it is in that long-term context. I am happy to see a debate on it, philosophically, but my longstanding view has been in favour of voluntary voting, and that is on the public record. I respect other members and senators from both parties who have different views on a range of topics. I will let some of those ask you some questions, and I might ask a couple at the end.

Mr MELHAM —I am on the record as supporting compulsory voting. You made reference in your opening remarks to former members of this committee. I know that Senator Robert Ray, as a former member of this committee, is one who is always on the record as saying it is not compulsory voting, it is compulsory attendance, and then it is up to you as to whether you actually register your vote. What is required under the Commonwealth Electoral Act is that you go along and get your name marked off; whether you register a vote that counts then becomes a matter for you. The statistics show that since the introduction of compulsory voting, it has hovered at around 90 to 95 per cent attendance, with around a 95 per cent formal vote, depending on the nature of the electorate et cetera. It seems to me that that is a pretty good acceptance of the system and that people have within that system the discretion if they do not want to register a preference for a candidate. It is still a small price to pay for our democracy, which is one of the few—I think there are only three in the Western world—that for the whole of the last century had its parliament elected by the people and did not have its election suspended.

Mr Doyle —That is where we differ.

Mr MELHAM —I respect where you are coming from.

Mr Doyle —You have hit on the crux of the argument. You say that the only requirement is to attend the polling booth and have your name crossed off.

Mr MELHAM —That is what the Electoral Act requires, and if you do not, you are eligible for a penalty.

Mr Doyle —No, I beg to differ.

Mr MELHAM —You then have in most instances—although we have just had submissions from people representing the visually impaired—the opportunity, in the privacy of the polling place, to register or not register a vote, and then drop that ballot paper in the ballot box.

Mr Doyle —The Australian Electoral Commission puts out a frequently asked questions sheet, and the first question is: is it compulsory to vote?

Mr MELHAM —The answer is yes.

Mr Doyle —Yes.

Mr MELHAM —What I am doing is—

Mr Doyle —It is really clear-cut.

Mr MELHAM —I am just using Senator Ray’s terminology that he has argued previously, which you picked up in your opening remarks, that it is not really a compulsory vote. When you look at it, it is a compulsory attendance where you get your name marked off, and whether your vote counts is then a matter for you. So those who have the philosophical objection to voting can exercise that in the privacy of the polling place by, for instance, dropping in a blank ballot paper, of which we get many. Indeed, the Electoral Commission has had a number of studies of the informality of a vote, and a good percentage of that is blank ballot papers; some is ticks and crosses; some—

Mr Doyle —Yes, but isn’t there a penalty for failing to vote?

CHAIR —Mr Melham and I come from different sides on this, and we have been on AM and I have been arguing your case and he has been arguing against it, but he is right in as much as once you get your ballot paper—

Mr MELHAM —And your name ticked off.

CHAIR —and you get your name crossed off, what you are required to do is put it in the ballot box, and that is it. I concede that as someone who is in favour of voluntary voting.

Mr DANBY —You have to put it in the ballot box, do you?

CHAIR —You are not meant to walk out with it, no. But it is very hard—

Senator FORSHAW —Almost 100 per cent of people do that. You might find one or two—

CHAIR —Once they have got there, yes.

Mr MELHAM —Given your philosophical objections, what I am saying is that a lot of the objections you mount can be dealt with in the privacy of the polling place where you can make a personal choice as to whether you actually want to have an informed vote in a particular way, or whether you want to then not exercise a vote by putting in a blank paper. So what I am arguing is that, frankly, the current system allows you your conscientious objection, because no-one is standing over you making sure that you vote in a particular way or that you actually register a proper vote.

Mr Doyle —I do have a philosophical and conscientious objection. However, leaving that to one side, I think—

Mr MELHAM —You do not think you should be required to attend?

Mr Doyle —I agree with you in that there is a misunderstanding in the community on this point. Whether it is a huge misunderstanding or whether it has any significance is for you to decide.

Mr MELHAM —I think 98 per cent of people have that perception. The reason I have just clarified it for you is that, in your opening statement, you pointed to it, and I know it has been a catchcry of Senator Ray in past hearings where we have had people like Dr Amy McGrath submit to us and—

Mr Doyle —I am sorry, you have not clarified it for me. I believe that I understand it with clarity, and I still believe that the situation is that we have compulsory voting.

Mr MELHAM —Let me say this to you: we have compulsory attendance; whether you actually register a proper vote—

Mr Doyle —Well, the—

Mr MELHAM —Electoral figures—

Mr Doyle —The Electoral Act has wording, a subheading, ‘Compulsory Voting’.

Mr MELHAM —Yes, I understand that.

Senator FORSHAW —Mr Doyle, do you believe that compulsory voting means that you actually have to fill out a ballot paper?

Mr Doyle —Yes.

Senator FORSHAW —Well, that is the argument here.

Mr Doyle —Yes, it is.

Senator FORSHAW —It is not. Compulsory voting means turning up at the polling place, having your name ticked off and being given a ballot paper; that is what it means.

CHAIR —As I have said to you, I have written about and spoken in favour of voluntary voting, and I do so for philosophical reasons, but let me put these two points: would you acknowledge that one of the features peculiar to compulsory voting is the donkey vote?

Mr Doyle —Yes.

CHAIR —Inasmuch as when someone effectively just runs straight down the ballot paper?

Mr Doyle —Yes, certainly.

CHAIR —That does not happen in voluntary voting—it may well happen, but it certainly would not happen to the same extent because, by virtue of the fact that someone registers a donkey vote, they are registering really their lack of care and the fact that they would rather not be voting. In certain House of Representatives elections throughout our history, we have had seats decided by, I think, 14 votes once, and certainly by less than 60 votes—whichever candidate happened to be from the major party highest on the ticket. Compulsory voting could well have decided the election.

Mr Doyle —Very likely, and this has impacted on the type of government we have sometimes. I believe it is unfortunate that the votes of people who blindly follow a how-to-vote card that is stuck in their hand without any real consideration outweighs the votes of other people who have taken a long time to consider their vote, whether they be Labor supporters, Liberal supporters, Democrats or Nationals supporters.

CHAIR —You mentioned the United States. I would contend that the US system is not the ideal comparison at all. It is very difficult to register; you have to register a long time ahead; their elections are held on a Tuesday; and their elections are for everything, which makes it a fairly cumbersome process, depending on where you live. New Zealand has voluntary voting but compulsory enrolment. That is something I have been attracted to, fully acknowledging that compulsory enrolment itself is still an infringement of liberty but, in my view, a pedantic one.

I will give one example from the last election, without trying to be controversial. In the US system you could have a group of potential voters who were not interested in the political process; they might not like the candidates or for whatever reason had decided not to register. If an issue had arisen in the last week of that election campaign that motivated them to vote, they would have been unable to vote because they had not registered at an earlier date. Under the New Zealand system, because of compulsory enrolment, right up until 6 pm on election day they could say, ‘I’ve decided to vote,’ and they would be able to vote. The best example is an issue that arose at the last minute in the last election campaign concerning the Tasmanian forest industry. Under a voluntary system there might have been a group of people who might not necessarily have voted in the previous election but, for special reasons because the issue was directly related to them, would have determined to vote, which they did. How do you feel about that New Zealand process?

Mr Doyle —I think I understand what you are saying. Compulsory registration and voluntary voting seems to me to be the ideal.

CHAIR —I was interested in that because there are as many people in favour of voluntary voting who do not like that New Zealand position, which I think carries it to extremes.

Mr Doyle —It seems to be the democratic way. There are some people who have argued that there should be a little box at the bottom of every ballot paper saying ‘none of the above’. It would be an improvement on the present system if you could say that.

Mr MELHAM —You could put in a blank ballot paper.

CHAIR —Well, the ballot eventually elects somebody, and you cannot elect somebody who does not exist.

Mr Doyle —It still takes a conscious decision to put a cross in the ‘none of the above’ box.

Senator FORSHAW —Are you saying it is not a conscious decision by a voter who puts a blank ballot paper in the ballot box, or who writes a message across it which I will not repeat?

Mr Doyle —That is a conscious decision, yes. They are saying that they do not want to be part of the process; that is a conscious decision.

Senator FORSHAW —Or they may not want to cast a preference for any of those people?

Mr Doyle —But they failed to vote, as far as I am concerned.

Senator FORSHAW —That is where I differ with your interpretation of the law, but we will leave that for another day. One could take your argument to a logical—you might say it is an illogical—extent, and that is to say: why have voting at all? You would probably say that that is inconsistent with the concept of a democracy where the people are obliged to participate in a process of electing their representatives. From a philosophical point of view, because your arguments are, as you say, philosophical, why have voting?

Mr Doyle —Because we are part of a democratic parliament.

Senator FORSHAW —Yes, and what does a democratic system mean? Doesn’t it mean reflecting the will of the people?

Mr Doyle —It does, indeed. But I believe if you are compelling people to attend polling booths then it is not by their free will.

Senator FORSHAW —This is where I differ from you, and my position is clear. I obviously support compulsory voting. The issue then becomes how you best reflect the will of the people, because you must have some system to end up with representation in a democracy. Under your model, it is conceivable—it might be totally ridiculous but it is conceivable; and you have classed some of the arguments in favour of compulsory voting as ridiculous—that nobody might actually turn up to vote. In a local government area or in a polling booth, no-one might actually turn up to vote.

CHAIR —It might be lack of interest.

Mr Doyle —Yes, I know. Taking it to the other extreme, being just as ridiculous, you could have the situation where 99 per cent of the people who attend polling booths vote illogically, could not care less and have no interest whatsoever.

Senator FORSHAW —You said earlier that in the UK it is something like 70 per cent who vote?

Mr Doyle —Yes.

Senator FORSHAW —I think you are wrong. I think you have actually doubled the figure. I think the last election had one of the lowest turnouts ever—

Mr MELHAM —Sixty per cent at the last election.

Mr Doyle —Sixty per cent; that is interesting, I am glad you brought that up, actually. In the 1950s when the Tories won power—

Senator FORSHAW —Sorry, the previous one, I meant.

Mr Doyle —the electoral turnout was of the order of 80 per cent. Over the years it has decreased, and as it has decreased, the Labour Party has won government. You can draw your own conclusions.

Senator FORSHAW —My apologies, it did go up, but it reached one of the lowest votes in recent elections. But it is a first-past-the-post system, so that is a different argument again.

Mr Doyle —Yes, a different situation.

Senator FORSHAW —But in many instances, one can demonstrate that voting can be as low as 30 to 40 per cent. My question then is: how do you respond to the argument that, if that is what voluntary voting could possibly produce, it does not reflect the will of the people? It does not give a mandate, if you like, to a government compared with the system we have where, at the end of the day, despite arguments at the margins, people say that the system effectively results in a government that is reflecting the will of the people who have voted?

Mr Doyle —The figure I have is that 61.5 per cent turned out in the UK, and I think we can be absolutely certain that those 61.5 per cent of people voted with a deep consideration—

Senator FORSHAW —But in the US it was 40 per cent or thereabouts.

Mr Doyle —Well, we do not know.

CHAIR —I might ask you what the New Zealand figure is, just in fairness, because he is advocating the compulsory enrolment model.

Mr Doyle —I have 83 per cent here.

CHAIR —It does lift it significantly.

Senator FORSHAW —That may be the case, but a lot of the argument is not about compulsory enrolment either.

CHAIR —No, that depends on—

Mr Doyle —The problem with compulsory—

CHAIR —He said that is the model that—

Mr Doyle —With compulsory voting, we do not know how many people give consideration to their votes.

Senator FORSHAW —To my mind that is the hypocrisy of the argument—that you could argue for compulsory registration but non-compulsory voting, but that is my philosophical view.

CHAIR —There being no further questions, thank you, Mr Doyle, for making a submission and taking the time to come along. If those figures that you were quoting are not in your submission, feel free to make a supplementary submission, and you can do that either today or with the secretariat staff over the coming days, just so that your side of the argument is put.

Mr Doyle —Okay, thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 2.59 pm to 3.17 pm