Paul Hunt reports from Australia where electors face a stiff fine if they fail to turn out.

HIP readers of a certain age may remember the character nicknamed Toadie in the Australian soap opera Neighbours. His home town was Colac and, as a youngster, the threat of being sent back there from Melbourne’s Ramsey Street was enough to guarantee good behaviour.

Paul Hunt (left) with the Polwarth candidates

I was working in Colac recently on the elections for the Victorian State Parliament. West of Melbourne, it is the main town of about 12,000 residents in the constituency of Polwarth which is about half the size of Belgium. Toadie clearly viewed it as a ‘one kangaroo town’ although interestingly it was here in 1914 that the Australian Prime Minister declared war on Germany in support of the Empire.

Elections here are very different from those in Hastings and Rye. Voting for the Lower House is by the Alternative Vote method in which voters number candidates in order of preference. The person with the fewest votes is eliminated and the voters  second preference votes given to another candidate until one person has an overall majority. A fully proportional system is used for the Upper House.  The biggest difference is that voting is compulsory and non-voters are fined.  I wonder what the result would have been in Hastings and Rye in 2017 if everyone had voted, instead of the 70% who did?  In British elections the political parties canvass frantically for votes up until the polls open. But election day is a much quieter affair in Australia. Indeed, polling booths are open for two weeks before the official election day (which is always on a Saturday) for what is called, rather quaintly, “pre-voting”. The votes are counted from 6 pm on election night at each polling booth – not all in one place as happens in the UK – and there is nothing of the drama of British Election nights. Indeed, I was the only party scrutineer at my polling booth and the realty began to sink in that I ought to get a life. Our wonderfully efficient election officials at Muriel Matters House might be interested to know that, after the ballots had been sorted manually into the piles for each candidate, the votes were counted by machines and not by hand as we do. This seemed to be one-up for Australian efficiency but one machine malfunctioned and Elizabeth Reeves, the official in charge, had to resort to a manual count.

Thinking of Muriel Matters House, did you know that Muriel Matters, the suffragette and Hastings Labour candidate after whom our council offices are named, was Australian? Born in Adelaide, she was one of several Australian suffragettes and I met an eighty-eight year old whose aunt had campaigned with her. She seems much better known in Australia than in the UK. 

Muriel Matters clearly thought that voting matters. So should it be compulsory? I canvassed the views of various Aussie party workers. Justice Party activist Kim Barwise (who, as befits her surname, once worked as a teetotal barmaid) told me that she didn’t like compulsory voting when she was younger and used to spoil her ballot paper in an act of defiance. Although she is now politically engaged, she says she still prefers the UK system of voluntary voting because “those who care will vote.” The Green candidate Courtney Gardner told me that she was undecided about compulsory voting, although she thought the result of the Brexit Referendum and the election of Trump might have been different if everyone had voted. On the other hand, the Labour candidate Doug Johnston supports compulsory voting and Roslyn Scanlon, a Green activist, said that the value of compulsory voting is that “everyone’s opinion is considered and everyone has the right but also the responsibility to take part.” “Don’t complain unless you vote!” added Trevor Mildenhall, a Labour activist. My take on the question is that voters generally took more interest in the election and there was little hostility to the compulsory system judging by the small number of spoilt ballot papers I observed.

Polwarth was won by the popular sitting Liberal MP Richard Riordan who received more than half of the first preference votes despite a big overall defeat for the Liberals in Victoria State. (Note to the reader: The Australian Liberal Party is much closer to the British Conservative Party than to our Liberal Democrats.)

The fine for not voting is just under £50. If you were amongst the 30% who didn’t vote in Hastings and Rye at the last General Election or the 62% who didn’t vote in the Hastings Borough election last May, would you be prepared to pay £50 each time? Muriel Matters and others devoted much of their lives to ensure that every adult had the right to vote. Perhaps we ought to consider that right more seriously than we do.

• Paul Hunt was the Liberal Democrat Election Agent in Castle Ward in May 2018.

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