Australia's Democratic Innovations

Plenary Sessions

Australia was the first nation to invent itself through the ballot box. In the 1890s there was popular election of delegates to frame a federal constitution and the result was ratified by referenda. Australia had already become renowned for inventing an effective form of the secret ballot and adult suffrage and Saturday elections were soon to come. Many of Australia's historic reforms have become democratic benchmarks. This plenary will introduce two of Australia's longstanding practices, preferential electoral systems, and compulsory voting, and argue their importance for democracy.

Speaker: Antony Green

Presentation: Counting All Opinions: Australian Experience with Preferential Voting

For more than a century, Australian elections have been conducted using preferential methods of voting. Rather than selecting a single candidate or party, voters complete their ballot papers with a rank ordering of candidates. Preferential voting, in both single and multi-member forms, is used to elect representatives for all levels of Australian government.

Single-member preferential voting was advocated as allowing greater choice of candidate while also ensuring elected members had majority support. Its later implementation by conservative parties was in response to the emergence of the trade union aligned Labor Party, whose strong candidate selection procedures gave it an advantage under simple majority voting. A century of elections under preferential voting has shaped the party system by allowing local electoral contests without endangering broader party co-operation, creating more stable coalition arrangements than under simple majority voting. Voters can also reveal their real preferences for new and existing parties without concerns over vote splitting.

In its multi-member form (PR-STV), Australian preferential voting evolved as a method of ensuring broader representation of interests while also encouraging competition between candidates of the same party. Within Australia’s strongly bicameral parliamentary system, PR-STV has also evolved away from its candidate-based origins into a novel form of party-based proportional representation.

Speaker: Lisa Hill

Compulsory Voting in Australia: Effects, Public Acceptance and Democratic Justification

Compulsory voting has been a major feature of Australian electoral arrangements for almost a century and it has proved to be a very effective and well-tolerated mechanism for maintaining high voter turnout. What explains the relatively high public acceptance of the practice in this country? And what conditions need to hold in other settings for compulsory voting to be an appropriate solution to the problem of low and declining turnout?

There are also normative issues to consider, particularly whether compulsory voting is an unacceptable violation of democratic values, as is often claimed. It is argued that this objection is fatal only if it is agreed that the choice about whether or not to attend a polling place is more important than a range of other fundamental democratic values that compulsory voting can serve, among them: representativeness, democratic legitimacy, political equality, minimisation of elite power, popular sovereignty and inclusiveness. In order to discredit compulsory voting, it needs to be shown that representative democracy is worse off when people are required to vote. Yet, under the right conditions, the reverse seems to be the case.