Making democracy safe for students

Marian Sawer, Australian National University

John Hirst, Australia’s Democracy: A Short History Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2002 (360 pp). ISBN 1-86508 845-5 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Today it is accepted wisdom that good governance requires democracy. Democracy assessment is a new industry and democratisation is monitored as a condition of international economic assistance. Can democracy flourish, however, in the face of the widespread citizen apathy? Is ‘rational ignorance’ of politics and political institutions a sound basis for securing democratic accountability?

In the English-speaking democracies, much concern has been expressed about the lack of civic knowledge among the general public and about the relationship between this lack of civic knowledge and citizen disengagement. The Keating government set up the Civics Expert Group chaired by Stuart Macintyre to look into the matter. The Group reported in 1994 that only 41 per cent of Australians knew how the Constitution could be changed, although most had voted in Constitutional referendums.

One response to citizen disengagement, both in Australia and in the United Kingdom, has been to reintroduce some form of civics curriculum. John Hirst has chaired the Howard government’s Civics Education Group and this volume was the idea of former education minister, David Kemp. Its production has been funded under the Discovering Democracy program that will send 3,000 copies to schools as a library resource for Year 11 and 12 students.

The story of Australia’s democracy is intrinsically interesting, because Australia was so far ahead that it was making it up as it went along for much of the nineteenth century. The bringing of Chartism, along with its democratic agenda and its techniques of political action, was part of that history. The Chartists who came to Australia were a diverse group of political veterans. They included the four-foot high black Chartist, William Cuffay, son of a West Indian slave. Cuffay had become a journeyman tailor and Chartist organiser in London, collecting signatures for the great petitions calling for manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, and the secret ballot. Cuffay was sentenced to transportation for life in 1848 for ‘conspiring to levy war’ against Queen Victoria, after a government spy told the court tales of gunpowder secreted in bottles of ginger beer.

On arriving in Van Diemen’s Land in 1849, Cuffay was allowed to work at his trade. He immediately resumed his political activity and successfully campaigned for the reform of the Masters’ and Servants’ Act. He was an orator and agitator, who referred to the working class as ‘fellow slaves’. His story is well told by Paul Pickering in my edited book on Australian democracy (Sawer 2001).

While the rest of the world was still contesting Chartist demands for manhood suffrage and the secret ballot, Australia was granting suffrage, at least for lower houses, and devising the practicalities of printed ballot papers and the anonymity of the voting booth. While candidates in the United Kingdom were being pelted with dead cats and rotten fish, and voters went to the polling place accompanied by a protective phalanx of prize fighters, in Australia the election process had been converted into a civic ritual.

Can democracy flourish in the face of the widespread citizen apathy?

By the 1890s, electoral Acts were specifying that elections should take place on Saturdays, so voters could take advantage of their half holiday to turn up to their local primary school or temperance hall. On their way in they would encounter booth workers who would thrust flyers supporting the different candidates into their hands, but not the violence and intimidation that was common when voters had to call out their vote and everyone knew how they had voted. Having made elections respectable, other innovations could be introduced, like women’s suffrage.

Although many Chartist veterans of mass political action arrived in Victoria in the early 1850s, Chartist demands were not accepted all at once, nor without a struggle. The Chartists linked their political demands with popular local issues from gold licenses to the eight-hour day. One Chartist stonemason, Charles Jardine Don, became the first ‘working man’ elected to parliament in 1859. Unfortunately Victoria (or rather the Legislative Council) had yet to accede to the Chartist demand for payment of MPs and so Don had to work as a stonemason by day and member for Collingwood by night, a punishing regime.

It wasn’t just on things like the secret ballot, written nominations, postal voting, and Saturday elections that Australia was ahead. It was also in the whole professionalising of arms-length electoral administration and what flowed from it. The efforts made to ensure that the population was on the roll and able to vote (symbolised by the half-moon ballot boxes designed to be taken by horseback to remote areas) were greatly reinforced by the introduction of compulsory registration and compulsory voting. The whittling away of Aboriginal voting rights through perverse interpretations of s. 41 of the Constitution and other means was finally compensated for in the 1980s when mobile polling booths were taken to the outback and voting education programs resulted in a high formal vote in remote communities.

Australia was also experimenting with electoral systems, using proportional representation for parliamentary elections before Belgium, and developing all the main forms of preferential voting. The single transferable vote—particularly in its evolved Hare-Clark form—results both in a close relationship between votes and seats, and in voters rather than parties retaining control. Under the count-back mechanism for casual vacancies first used in 1922, the same minority who voted for the previous member decides who is to fill the vacancy, through the re-examination of the ballot papers and counting of the next preferences.

The Robson Rotation, first used with Hare-Clark in 1976, means that candidate names appear on ballot papers in rotating order, so that political parties do not determine the order of their party list. How-to-vote cards become irrelevant and have been banned in the vicinity of polling booths in the two jurisdictions (Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory) where Hare-Clark is used. The Proportional Representation Society of Australia argues that Hare-Clark is the most democratic electoral system in the world because it is proportional without handing over power to political parties. Instead of voters having to choose between party lists, they can order their preferences as they like, choosing between the candidates presented by one party or moving between parties.

Hirst's book is a beautifully written account of Australia's democratic innovations.

Hirst’s book is a beautifully written and presented account of Australia’s democratic innovation as well as of the less edifying moments in this history. Well-chosen and well-reproduced photographs and pictures together with boxed primary material complement the text and make for reading pleasure. It is easy to be seduced by it. Hirst has a fine eye for illustrative anecdotes. One of the best is Billy Hughes’ account of his pre-selection as a Labor candidate in East Sydney in 1894. After a couple of hours of voting, with many attempting to vote more than once, the ballot finally closed. After an unnatural quiet there was a sudden roar and Hughes asked what it was: ‘Run for it’ said a friend, ‘you have been selected’.

The book has elegant thematic organisation, encompassing social aspects of democracy such as welfare and schools, as well as chronological organisation of the main political story. It is always clear—and nearly always conservative. For Hirst the first requirement of democracy is social cohesion. Political mobilisation of difference, whether based on religion, class or ethnicity, must be overcome as quickly as possible through reintegration from below. Even rebellious women, the sisterhood of women’s liberation, can be reintegrated through a gender-neutral use of the term ‘mate’. Immigration from non-English speaking countries rates only a page of text, and does little to problematise the popular suspicion of diversity that is its theme. There is nothing on diasporas or the new transnational forms of citizenship identity.

Another silence, odd in the year after the centenary, relates to the impact of federalism on democracy. What do principles of popular sovereignty and democratic accountability really mean when so much decision-making (for example, the competition policy agreements) takes place behind the closed doors of intergovernmental councils? And how can citizens hold governments accountable when they have no idea which government to blame for the pain?

While Hirst’s narrative is nuanced and careful to acknowledge alternative positions, conservatism pervades the discussion of current issues. It influences, for example, his treatment of compulsory voting, to which he devotes considerable attention. He views popular support for compulsory voting as paradoxical in light of opposition to military conscription. While he laments the weakness of citizen identity in Australia, he does not endorse the collective civic experience provided by compulsory voting—surely a more important shared experience for democracy than the beach.

Apart from the benefits of the solidary participation of election day, the political carnival and P&C sausage sizzle at the local primary school, there are significant welfare effects of compulsory voting, the need for governments to be attentive to those who might otherwise be safely ignored.

Immigration from non-English speaking countries rates only a page

Hirst believes that it is double-speak to talk of voluntary voting ‘disenfranchising’ the poor—but this is exactly what happens in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom where politicians know who their customers are. In voluntary systems, turnout is lowest among those with a low sense of political efficacy: the economically and socially marginalised. Lisa Hill has recently published a fine defence of ‘the reasonableness of compulsion’ along these lines, querying why the choice not to turn up to a polling booth should be privileged over safeguarding equal opportunity. She also discusses the legitimacy effects of ensuring relatively complete information about the wishes of the electorate (Hill 2002).

Today over twenty countries have compulsory voting and a stream of international visitors to the Australian Electoral Commission examines the possibility for their own countries. Compulsory voting is seen in some countries, such as Thailand, as an answer to corruption, because it becomes too expensive to bribe voters. Elsewhere it is seen as an answer to citizen disengagement.

Conservative suspicions of the proactive role of government extend to continuous roll maintenance, long the jewel in the crown of Australia’s electoral governance. Here its history is presented in terms of electoral office ‘spies’, rather than in terms of a globally remarkable comprehensiveness and accuracy of the roll. Recently there has been a range of threats to such comprehensiveness emanating from within the federal Liberal government. They relate to early closing of rolls and other measures that would disproportionately impact on specific classes of voters, including the young and disadvantaged.

Related to conservative suspicions of roll maintenance and compulsory voting is a silence on the whole question of the comprehensiveness of the political nation. Australia has about one million adult permanent residents who pay taxes and obey laws they have no say in. We have not followed the path of New Zealand in giving all permanent residents the right to vote for parliament as well as for local government.

We also disenfranchise prisoners to a greater or lesser extent, except in South Australia, and this has a disproportionate effect on Aboriginal men. We do not go as far as the United States, where those with felony convictions are disenfranchised for life in many states, resulting in perhaps one in eight black men across the country being disqualified from voting.

We disenfranchise prisoners to a greater or lesser extent, except in South Australia.

In Canada, the Supreme Court has held that disenfranchising prisoners is contrary to the charter of rights and freedoms, hindering rehabilitation into the duties of citizenship and reintegration into the community. Hirst sees interest in such rights guarantees as a sign of Australia losing touch with its British political heritage and switching allegiance to American constitutional models. He overlooks the fact that neither Canada, India, New Zealand, nor the United Kingdom rely any longer just on parliament and the common law to protect human rights—it is Australia that is the exception among the Westminster countries.

At the beginning of the 21st century, can anyone have democracy in one country? Australia’s Democracy nowhere grapples with the bugbear of ‘globalisation’ or its ramifications. Globalised financial markets, with their lack of respect for elected governments and instantaneous judgements on policy choices, have serious implications for popular sovereignty. They are part of the ‘civic mega trends’ that form the backdrop to domestic politics.

Populist Pauline Hanson is not the only one concerned that much decision-making is in the hands of multinational corporations and multilateral financial institutions rather than in the hands of elected governments. Under free-trade agreements such as NAFTA, foreign corporations have brought challenges to democratic governments that provide health insurance or other benefits to their citizens. Shouldn’t a book that seeks to re-engage young Australians in democracy grapple with some of these hard issues? And shouldn’t a book that takes the story of democracy up to the year 2000 have at least one reference to the internet and its effects on how we do democracy? Perhaps it is time for political scientists to stake their claim to civics curriculum, if only we could learn to write as well as the historians!


Civics Expert Group 1994, Whereas the People … Civics and Citizenship Education, Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service.

Hill, L. 2002, ‘On the reasonableness of Compelling Citizens to “Vote”: The Australian Case’, Political Studies, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 80–101.

Sawer, M. (ed) 2001, Elections Full, Free and Fair, Sydney, Federation Press.

Dr Marian Sawer is Head of the Political Science Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. She is currently leading the ANU’s Democratic Audit of Australia.

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