Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 11:40 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 11:40 | SYDNEY

Democracy: Australia has a right to be proud

Image Caption: 
At the polling booth, 1940. (Flickr/WA Library)


Rory Medcalf


24 November 2007 18:59

Voting in today’s Australian Federal election is finishing. Something that sets Australia apart from its US ally — far more than most Americans realise — is that  Australians are typically far from boastful about the merits of democracy or the special qualities of their own.

Yet we have reason to be. A few features of the Australian democratic experience deserve wider acclaim. The secret ballot is an Australian invention (from the then colony of Victoria, dating to 1856).  The then colony of South Australia fairly much led the world with women’s suffrage in 1861.  So to the extent that there is a democracy-defending agenda to contemporary Australian foreign policy and military deployments, we should see it as a natural fit with some of the more honourable elements of our history.

And Australia is one of the relatively few countries where voting is compulsory. The rarity of this practice really struck me when I joined a group of Western diplomats informally monitoring the historic 2002 election in Jammu and Kashmir. My American and European colleagues responded with incredulity to my comment that the voter turnout of around 54 percent was disappointing and would give succour to the adversaries of Indian democracy. I then realised that what was extraordinary, of course, was that despite terrorist violence and boycotts by some parties, Kashmiris had chosen to turn out to vote (and thus endorse some form of Indian rule) in greater proportions than the citizens of most Western democracies. If I had been representing one of those countries, it would be the state of my own democracy I’d have been worried about, not India’s.

Yes, libertarians argue nobody should be compelled to vote. But in a world where much of the globalised middle class (including, sad to say, India’s) is tempted to opt out of political processes entirely, compulsory voting is one way to ensure that a government represents most of its citizens, and the moderate views they are likely to hold, rather than just the interests of a mobilised bloc.