Australia: Compulsory voting is our last line of defence against right-wing populism

Compulsory voting would have seen Clinton voted into office instead of Trump, and stopped Brexit from going ahead. Australian politics is not in a good place, but it could certainly be worse.

There are two theories about what stands between Australia and the resurgent rightwing populism currently enveloping the world's formerly sane democracies. The first is that Australia is protected by our latent common sense, the understated wisdom of the bush cocky and the netball mum. That we see bullshit before it comes around the corner, and we discard the fools who spout it.

The other, less romantic theory is that our last line of defence is the compulsory vote. It's also the correct one.

So why are we one of the only countries with compulsory voting, and what difference does it really make?

Alternative history

Trump won the 2016 presidential election with 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The voter turnout was 61% nationwide. There were, however, enormous demographic differences in that statistic. For older people, the turnout rate was around 70%, compared to 62% for gen X and 51% for millennials. 65% of white voters turned out, but 60% of black, 49% of Asian and 47% of Hispanic voters did. The simple mathematical reality is that voting turnout was materially lower among groups who would be considered more likely to vote against Trump, if they voted at all.

As for Brexit, which succeeded by a margin of 52% to 48%, the age-based gulf was enormous. The youngest cohort, aged 18-24, voted 73% to Remain; however, only 43% of them voted. The oldest group, 65 years plus, voted 60% to Leave, with a 78% turnout rate. In fact there was a direct opposite correlation through all age groups such that, the older voters were, the more likely they were to vote, and the more likely to vote for Leave.

The point is clear enough: the two most seismic global victories for right-wing populism in recent history would have been reversed if voting had been compulsory.

How did we get here?

It was in 1924 that a bill was presented to Parliament to introduce compulsory voting to Australia, passing with bipartisan support. The states followed suit subsequently. The background was that voters had been rapidly losing their will to vote, with the turnout dropping below 60% at the 1922 federal election. Senator Herbert Payne was appalled and put up his private member's bill to prevent what he called "a travesty on democratic government".

The senator put the case for compulsory voting in terms on which it would be difficult to improve:

Parliament is supposed to be a reflex of the mind of the people. If the people exhibit no interest in the selection of their representatives, it must necessarily follow, in the course of time, that there must be considerable deterioration in the nature of the laws governing the social and economic development of this country.

In other words, you get what you vote for; and, if you don't vote at all, you can expect a pretty crap result.

Much of the debate at the time and since has centred around the nature of privilege and rights: whether voting is an optional privilege or a civic duty; whether the rights which our democratic system guarantees imply a concomitant duty to participate in that system.

These are interesting questions of abstract philosophy. There is a more urgent practicality however, which Payne nailed, regarding what really happens when people do or don't vote.

In a system of voluntary voting, the key question is not how people vote but whether they vote at all. A passing familiarity with US democracy is enough to know that, over there, most of the effort that the Republicans and Democrats expend is on "getting out the vote". Meaning, their vote. Every election in America is essentially determined by the raw statistic of which side was more successful in motivating their "base" to vote. There are lots of complicating factors including voter suppression and outrageous gerrymandering of districts (almost all in favour of the Republican Party), but the central proposition holds.

Australian politics is hardly in a good place, and the current election campaign is just embarrassing. Most voters haven't tuned in and don't want to. The broad exceptions to this are older conservative voters, younger progressive (and vengeful) voters, and all the variants of the lunatic fringe including our adorably revivified white supremacists. They'll all be marking their ballot papers with angry pencils.

If that mythical Aussie common sense lives anywhere, then it is among the masses of the politically disengaged, who would nevertheless rather not be governed by anyone who froths at the mouth. If not forced to vote, a lot of them won't. We are protected by the rule that they must.

We do not disclaim anything about this article. We're quite proud of it really.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Stacks Law Firm
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Stacks Law Firm
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions