Frank Bongiorno reviews 'From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia got compulsory voting' by Judith Brett

Frank Bongiorno reviews 'From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia got compulsory voting' by Judith Brett

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia got compulsory voting

by Judith Brett

Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 199 pp, 9781925603842

In July 1924, a Tasmanian senator from the conservative Nationalist Party, Herbert Payne, introduced a bill to bring about compulsory voting in Australian national elections. His proposal aroused little discussion. Debate in both the Senate and the House of Representatives – where another forgotten politician, Edward Mann, saw the measure through – was brief. Few spoke in opposition. The House debated the matter for less than an hour and passed Payne’s bill without amendment. Its implementation at the 1925 election caused barely a ripple. It has never been controversial since, although a few Liberal politicians have made its abolition another of their hopeless causes.

Apart from marvelling that the nation’s politicians could have agreed so readily to a measure now widely regarded as the Australian political system’s most distinctive feature, you might be wondering how Judith Brett has managed to spin such an undramatic event into a book of almost two hundred pages. The answer is that she hasn’t. This book is a great deal more than an account of how Australia got compulsory voting. It is a meditation on Australian democracy and society.

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Published in May 2019, no. 411
Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno teaches at the Australian National University, where he is Head of the School of History. His most recent book is The Eighties: The decade that transformed Australia (Black Inc., 2015) and he is co-editor, with Benjamin T. Jones and John Uhr, of Elections Matter: Ten federal elections that shaped Australia (Monash University Publishing, 2018).