Australia is famous the world over for our compulsory voting system. We are one of a handful of countries that require our citizens to vote. Technically we only require voters to turn up and get their name marked off the roll, but compulsory Roll Call doesn’t sound as good as Compulsory Voting. Maybe we should extend the vote to teenagers on their Ls and Ps. Either way voting is a right, a privilege and for me, a dead set obligation we should all embrace.
But at the last federal election, more than 1.4 million Australians did not vote. Nearly 10 per cent of the voting population. Easily enough to change the government or to turn a close win into a landslide. Voter turnout in 2016 at just under 91 per cent, the lowest since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924. But no one talks about this. That’s a bit odd, isn’t it?
In the Wentworth by-election in 2018, which saw independent Kerryn Phelps take former PM Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat, only 75 per cent of voters showed up. That is remarkable. But also little discussed. By-elections usually attract lower turnouts but 75% is really low number for Australia. Phelps’ win was reported as voters sending a message to Canberra. But the message for many seems to have been: ‘Actually, I’ve got something else on’.
Of course those of us interested in politics find it hard to get our head around anyone choosing not to vote. It’s the one chance we get to shake our skinny fist at Canberra or barrack for our favourite team. Politics has long been a sport, with policies taking a back seat to a visceral tribal affinity with your ‘team’. There is a disconnect between these passionate affiliations and our focus on swing voters. The supporters of parties might be committed or jaundiced, but our major parties speak to voters who are not like that at all, people who can take or leave politics because they prefer to focus on their life and family, work or business.
Australia needs to understand why people are not voting. Right now we do not know and no one seems particularly interested. I think that it is because mainstream politics is so focused on the swing voter that the parties find hard to even think about the problem. There must some Non Voters who are like conscientious objectors, people who reject our political system or representative democracy or capitalism itself. A mixture of anarchists, libertarians and utopians, I guess.
But my deep suspicion is that most Non Voters have tuned out and think the system has nothing to offer them. Not voting is a reproach to the mainstream. It is a statement of rejection.
So the major parties do not speak to Non Voters because they have lost them and have no clues about how to win them back. I also suspect that many Non Voters feel shut out of our society. They are members of the precariat who struggle to find work, keep families together and maintain a home. We have a rising number of people in our society who have a diminishing stake in it. This is a serious problem. In my view it is a deep crisis, beginning with homelessness, an epidemic of underemployment (our jobless stats wildly underestimate the reality) and the sheer challenge to survive for so many living on government payments – offered through a system that controls and punishes rather than offering a decent basic standard of life as a human right.
I spend most of my week working in a community legal clinic called Barefoot Law. We do everything from drinking driving matters to parenting plans. Every week we see people affected by homelessness, domestic violence and mental health. My clients – the people in my neighbourhood – are being cut loose from our society. We are not providing enough social or community housing. We are not protecting survivors of domestic violence. We still do not invest enough in mental health support. But we a huge amount of money on mopping up the problems we create.
We do not exactly know why so many people are not voting and we need to do some proper research. But my hunch based on working in my community is that many Non Voters are the people who see our politics as having cut them loose. Canberra and everyone who loves politics has a duty to win them back.
Mark Swivel is a lawyer, comedian and author. He is running for the NSW Senate with The Together Party.