Padraic P. McGuinness, column titled “McGuinness”, The Weekend Australian, March 17-18, 1990, p. 2.

I am thinking of voting informal next Saturday. Indeed, I am thinking of not voting at all.

This is not because I am disillusioned with the major parties, nor because it does not matter that the democratic right to vote should be exercised.

But I am getting tired of the way in which the right to vote has become more than a right, but a requirement, and the fact that the Parliament through the Electoral Act has presumed to tell me not only that I must vote, but also that I must vote in a particular manner.

Moreover, I am prohibited from advising people how to vote informal, or in a way which avoids the necessity to give preferences to parties or candidates whom they disapprove of.

This is the current state of our electoral law. An anarchist candidate in Victoria has been actively threatened by the authorities for proposing to recommend that people who sympathise with his positions should not vote, or should vote informal.

Indeed, he has been told that if he shows people how to vote informal he can be subjected to a fine or a prison sentence.

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the donkey vote in elections. This is not the vote for the Democrats or the greens (not always, anyway) but the way in which many people forced to the polls under threat of a fine or other harassment simply number the boxes down the ballot paper, starting at the top and then voting 1, 2, 3 etc.

The top spot on a simple ballot paper is always worth a lot of votes of this kind. It is clear that these people have no especial interest in exercising their democratic right of choice.

Why should they be forced to? It seems that the compulsory vote is the result of politicians who felt slighted by the fact that, once upon a time, a lot of people stayed in the pub instead of going to vote.

The social workers do not like it when ordinary people simply want to be left alone — they have to be forced to participate. If there are any fundamental political and human rights, surely the right to be left alone to mind your own business is one of them.

(The great philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote that all the problems of the world derived from a man’s inability to stay at home and mind his own business.)

And surely the right to advise people how to vote informal, to vote for a single candidate of their own choice, or not vote at all, ought to be pretty basic. But not according to our electoral laws.

There are lots of things you can do with a ballot paper once you have had your name ruled off the electoral rolls. One of them is simply to tear it up. Another is to scribble insulting remarks about politicians and politics on it.

Another is to cross out all the names, and vote simply or preferentially for Mickey Mouse, Batman, or Blinky Bill according to your own taste.

Another is to vote 1 for a single candidate you happen to like, and number every other box 2 so that your preferences will not be able to be distributed — but, according to the existing law, your first preference will be valid.

Another is simply to put an x in every square. Another might be to do nothing whatsoever to the paper, but fold it and put it in the ballot box — but blank ballot papers are very tempting to some scrutineers.

In the case of the elections for the ACT Legislative Assembly, voters were presented with a metre-wide paper (or it might have been a yard wide, but for years we were not even allowed by law to use non-metric measures in publications).

The only sensible thing to do with that piece of paper was to pin it up in a lavatory, but many Canberrans were silly enough to write numbers on it.

I would never advise anyone to do anything but what they are told by law with a ballot paper.

Imagination is not permitted. The provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which allow a certain variation from the traditional numbering of a preferential vote are designed not to allow people more freedom, but to provide for those voters who are either dyslexic, or too stupid to fill out a ballot paper correctly.

I wonder which political party could have thought that it would benefit from such provisions?

Now if you put a clear 1 beside the name of your favourite candidate (with party name attached) in the House of Representatives election you can be sure that he or she will get your vote, no matter where your pencil or ability to count might wander afterwards.

The Senate paper is, of course, much more complex, and would tax the attention of most people trying to record a formal vote which does not follow a party ticket.

This is why you can now vote a simple party ticket by putting 1 in one of the boxes at the top of the paper as recommended by the party you happen to favour for the moment.

If you feel particularly happy about having a party tell you which of its candidates you should put first (do all Liberals prefer Bronwyn Bishop to Chris Puplick in NSW? Do all Labor voters really want to vote for Steve Loosey?) you can establish your own order of preferences, wandering all over the ballot paper.

With care this is a formal vote, though I have often wondered whether my preferences are fully distributed when I do something like this.

I am not going to tell you how I am going to vote, or even whether I am going to vote formally next Saturday. That is one of the glories of democracy, the secret ballot.

I happen to be enrolled in the electorate of Sydney, so there is no doubt at all that the person re-elected will be Peter Baldwin, one of the more intelligent Labor members of parliament though not noted for the courage of his public positions. (Yes, I know about the bashing.)

But I suspect that this electorate might be just about ripe to fall to an Independent candidate, if not to the informal vote.

If Nick Greiner goes ahead with the most popular of all his proposals, to reduce the number of politicians in NSW, Dawn Fraser, the Independent member for Balmain, might find herself unemployed and having developed a taste for politics, inclined to contest Sydney.

Since most of the traditional Laborites in the Sydney and Balmain electorates have been stolen from them by the left-wing, middle-class carpetbaggers, Dawn would probably have a pretty good chance.

But when it comes to voting informally or not voting at all it is a quite unacceptable state of affairs when peaceful philosophical anarchists are not allowed to put forward their views and their advice as to what qualified voters should do on election day.

Democracy and the democratic vote are too precious to allow them to be perverted by the number-crunchers and the Tammany Hall politicians.

Implicit in the right to vote is the right not to vote, and the right to spoil one’s vote.

Implicit in it also is the right to tell, advise, beg, persuade or nag other people about the way in which they vote — though occasionally most people would like a rest from this.

However, might I suggest, without advising, that if you are fed up with the major parties and are not really keen on wasting your vote on the irresponsible and fascistic Democrats or Greens, you might consider the alternatives?

Padraic P. McGuinness, “It’s time to stop dragging the unwilling to the polls,” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 30, 1994, p. 13.

Was it a mistake to lower the voting age to 18, and should we consider raising it again to 21? This question must be asked after The Reader’s Digest survey which reveals how few 17-year-olds have any grasp of the most basic information about current affairs and politics, even as they are on the threshold of registering, or being forced to register, to vote.

The voting age was lowered to 18 back in the days of the Whitlam Government — in those days, the cult of youth was at its peak and it seemed obviously desirable to everybody that the young, since they seemed to be achieving political consciousness early, clearly deserved the vote. The emotional slogan was that if you were old enough to die for your country you were old enough to vote. There is a certain lack of logic about this proposition. In any case, it would have been more sensible to raise the age for military service.

The move to lower the voting age was world-wide, since the cult of youth also was world-wide, and many of the young were caught up in the anti-Vietnam war movement (some never got over it). The United States subsequently amended its Constitution to entrench 18 as the voting age. One of the many dishonest features of the 1988 referendum propositions in Australia was that the one person-one vote question had, tucked away in the small print of the bill for which it asked approval, entrenchment of the 18-year-old franchise. But since the referendum questions were overwhelmingly defeated (as Paul Keating has yet to discover, not everybody likes buying a pig in a poke), the voting age still can be changed by simple legislation.

However, this would be unjust to the many young people who are well-informed when they turn 18, and who certainly are as well-equipped to vote as many of their elders. That they are not up on all the detail of domestic politics is often because they have more serious matters to think about, and dismiss Australian politics as insignificant. After all, when you are immersed in the serious study of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the origins and course of the Vietnam conflict, as many 17-year-olds studying history at school are, the homegrown article is a bit boring.

These students would have no difficulty in acquiring the information need for an informed vote when they need it, if they have not already acquired it in discussions with family and friends. More worrying are those people of all ages from 18 on who are not interested in politics, will never be interested, and do not want to know. So perhaps the real issue is not whether 18-year-olds in general should have the right to vote, or are able to use it sensibly, but whether anybody of any age who does not care about politics and does not want to vote should be compelled to do so.

Where is the sense in forcing the ignorant and the uninterested to the polls? Thus rather than forcing 18-year-olds to register, it would be better to let them decide when and if they want to vote. There is a fairly important democratic principle involved, namely the right to be left alone by the political system. To many people, the happiest and most peaceful democratic society is one in which there is no necessity to be involved in any kind of political action or participation. George Orwell understood this well, as in his essay on Henry Miller, “Inside the Whale,” where he expressed his admiration of Miller’s remoteness from political issues. A truly free society is one in which politics can be safely ignored. Unfortunately, not many people have lived in such societies but with all our problems we are nearer that kind of freedom than most. The important thing is to have the right to an effective vote when you want to use it.

But just as freedom of speech must entail the right to remain silent, so the right to vote is a genuine democratic right only if it is not compulsory to exercise it. And we stray very far from both freedom of speech and freedom not to vote when it is forbidden, as under the present electoral law, even to advocate refusal to vote or an informal vote.

The real issue with ignorant 17-year-olds as well as ignorant 40-year-olds is that they should not be obliged to vote. Their votes will not be sensibly cast. The reason, however, why both major political parties favour compulsory voting is that it saves them a lot of money and effort. In more democratic societies, it is necessary to persuade people to vote in the first place, to convince them that it is important. Happily, there is no-one in Australia who wants to prevent any group or class of people from voting. Our parties much prefer to herd the voters to the polls like sheep, and to try to persuade them to vote on the basis of empty promises or traditional loyalties. That is not very healthy.

Nor is there much to be gained from the various proposals for civic education in schools or citizenship ceremonies for those about to achieve the invaluable privilege, as well as right, of voting. Compulsory voting persuades no-one to do their civic duties. Teaching people about politics is fine so long as they want to learn but the schools are the worst place to do it.

First of all, few teachers are adequately equipped to do so and especially not those who feel most involved in political matters, since they are more likely to deliver political homilies than to give useful and unbiased instruction in the nature and workings of our political institutions. Second, to those who most need to know, schools are the worst places to deliver instruction, since they are not orientated to that form of learning. The Civics Experts Group which the Prime Minister has set up to tell him what kids ought to be taught at schools about politics will get nowhere unless it recommends, implicitly, that teachers should tell them they ought to be Labor-voting republicans and belong to trade unions.

But as an early school-leaver Keating knows that the real school of politics is real life.

A citizenship ceremony for those reaching 18 seems a good idea to many adults, since it seems the right occasion to deliver a few inspirational words about democratic rights and civic duties.

It is a common, and valid, complaint that all the rhetoric about rights these days is rarely matched with concern for the “republican virtues” of civic responsibility and obligation to the community. Instead, kids plied with naive descriptions of their supposed “rights”.

However, if you have to introduce people at the age of 18 to the notion that they are part of a community to which they have duties, it is too late anyway.

The only kids who will not make fun of such ceremonies are those who are already hopelessly middle-aged in their outlook.


Further reading:
Neville Kennard, “I Don’t Vote,” Economics.org.au, August 17, 2010.
And don’t forget to check out our Paddy McGuinness archive page.

(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Where Friedman is a pinko
  2. The Economic Guerrillas: A lecture in honour of Maxwell Newton
  3. The Kangaroo Population Bomb
  4. The Libertarian Alternative
  5. Libel laws block insider's revelations of Australia's industrial mess
  6. But perhaps the merchants of doom have a point
  7. The Origins of Paddy McGuinness
  8. The Itch for Influence
  9. LA safe from religious poverty
  10. Aunty should hang up her boots in face of premature senility
  11. Warning: health is a budget hazard
  12. New ABC Tory chief won't rock the boat
  13. Time to sell the ABC
  14. Youth victims of the welfare con
  15. Paddy McGuinness on class sizes (1991)
  16. More teachers won't solve the problems in our schools
  17. Paddy McGuinness on Catholics and wealth distribution
  18. Paddy McGuinness proposes inheritance tax equal to handouts received by deceased
  19. Let them swim nude
  20. Time to legalise heroin
  21. State-sponsored sports rorts
  22. The blight of the baby-boomers
  23. To reduce the problems of crime and corruption, legalise heroin
  24. We should ban Olympics
  25. Evidence shows heroin policy is not working
  26. Wowsers deny society while killing children
  27. New Paddy McGuinness slogan for ageing feminists and their ideological children
  28. The ABC and the self-evident
  29. Will Australia compete?
  30. Canberra's social revolution
  31. Paddy McGuinness in 1994 on the 2012 class size debate
  32. Why not pay for the ABC?
  33. Paddy McGuinness on David Stove
  34. Punemployment: people are neither numbers nor puzzle pieces; the platitude attitude
  35. Sometimes the truth hurts
  36. Native title, land-tax and Henry George
  37. Paddy McGuinness on compulsory, informal and donkey voting, and breaking electoral laws
  38. Only government-backed monopolies are monopolies, says Paddy McGuinness in 1983
  39. Thomas Sowell, McGuinness, Aborigines and other minorities
  40. Genocide with kindness
  41. Hyde, McGuinness and Sturgess on Chaining/Changing Australia
  42. Government intervention institutionalises bullying
  43. The wrong kind of help for those most needing the right kind of help
  44. Paddy McGuinness defends comparing IQ of races
  45. The Fringe Dwellers: an honest look at the Aboriginal culture of poverty
  46. Impotent priesthood of the global casino
  47. Can primitive black and white minds comprehend nuance?
  48. Class action may be smoking gun
  49. Extend compulsion of compulsory student unionism to voting, paying back student loans and more
  50. Do-gooders should glorify smokers
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