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Voting is Now Voluntary in Australia

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Courier Mail on Thursday 28 January 2017*)

A spectacularly innovative** decision by a magistrate in a New South Wales Local Court has made voting at Federal Elections in Australia essentially voluntary.

Magistrate David Heilpern’s decision was in the prosecution of Adam Easton who had failed to vote at the 2016 Federal Election.  It is apparently the first time s.245(14) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act has ever been considered by a Court – and Magistrate Heilpern found Easton’s alleged belief in freedom, and alleged belief that all politicians cannot be trusted (the factual or rational nature of this belief was unsubstantiated in evidence in the Court) meant he had a sort-of religious duty to not vote.

In making his ground-breaking decision the Magistrate specifically repudiated and rejected many precedents and findings of other Courts, including Australia’s High Court, amongst them this:

 “…there is no force whatever in the contention that a valid and sufficient reason exists for non-compliance with the primary duty of voting, merely because no one of the ultimate candidates meets with the approval of the given elector. If that were admitted as a valid and sufficient reason, compulsory voting would be practically impossible”.

Isaacs J in Judd v McKeon (1926) 38 CLR 380 at 386

The section in question provides a religious exemption, Magistrate Heilpern explicitly finds Easton’s beliefs are not religious, yet says his refusal to vote is allowed via the religious exemption, thus:

“Having carefully considered the evidence of the defendant, I am satisfied that his evidence shows an honestly held belief, a moral code that requires him not to vote. To vote would be to breach a truly held conscientious life viewpoint. Thus the defendant in this case has a devout (but not religious) objection to voting. It would be simply nonsensical that were his deeply held moral objection subjectively connected to a recognised religion or a belief in god, that this would, of itself, be a valid and sufficient reason, but that a conscious agnostic well-developed moral faith as described by the defendant would not. The provision allows for a form of conscientious objection in my view, and that is what has been evidenced here.”

This decision will be applauded by the organised far right of Australian politics, who have long mounted a disingenuous demand for the freedom to not vote … which they expect will, incidentally and coincidentally of course, reduce the Labor vote.  It will be opposed by everyone who recognises, inter alia:

  • compulsory voting tends to build a relationship of mutual obligation between the governed and Parliaments, which is a positive contributor to social cohesion, and
  • the ugliness and vapidity of US election campaigns is in part caused by the need to make voters angry enough to bother to vote in a voluntary system – and that’s where we will head if this decision is allowed to stand.

Will the decision be appealed, or will anti-compulsory-voting forces in the Liberal Party block both an appeal and amendments to the legislation before the next Federal Election?

 

 

* You can access the Courier Mail version here http://bit.ly/2BLBTg4
** possibly in this instance actually meaning “stupid”