From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage 3

How Australia Got Compulsory Voting

by Judith Brett

Paperback / softback Publication Date: 05/03/2019

5/5 Rating 3 Reviews
RRP  $29.99 $23.35

Alone among English-speaking democracies, Australia compels its citizens to vote...

It forces politicians to consider the impact of their policies on all groups of Australians, especially the disadvantaged and marginalised, and so contributes to a more equal and just society.

It's compulsory to vote in Australia. We are one of a handful of countries in the world that enforce this rule at election time, and the only English-speaking country that makes its citizens vote. Not only that, we embrace it. We celebrate compulsory voting with barbeques and cake stalls at polling stations, and election parties that spill over into Sunday morning.

  • But how did this come to be?
  • When and why did we begin making Australians vote?
  • What effect has it had on our political parties, our voting systems, our participation in elections?
  • And how else is the way we vote different from other English-speaking democracies?

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is a brilliant essay-length book by the celebrated historian Judith Brett, the prize-winning biographer of Alfred Deakin. This is a landmark account of the character of Australian democracy.

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Judith Brett

Judith Brett is the author of Robert Menzies' Forgotten People and emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. The Enigmatic Mr Deakin won the 2018 National Biography Award, and was shortlisted in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, NSW Premier's History Awards and Queensland Literary Awards.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Great book!

    by on

    Such a fascinating account of how our democratic systems evolved and function! Highly recommended. I think this, plus a good book on our Constitution (and lack of rights framework) should be compulsory for all!!

  • a very topical read.

    by on

    “Our early federal politicians were proud of Australia’s reputation as a democratic laboratory. Determined to create a fair and accessible electoral system, they tinkered away until they got it right… As problems emerge and priorities change, Australian politicians have been willing to innovate.”

    From Secret Ballot To Democracy Sausage: how Australia got compulsory voting is a non-fiction book by Australian historian, Judith Brett. From the state governments before federation through to the present day, Brett explains how and why different aspects of voting evolved, and who pioneered the various innovations like the format of the ballot paper, voting booths, preferential voting, non-partisan electoral administration and Saturday polling day with its associated holiday vibe.

    It is apparent on every page that this book is thoroughly researched and meticulously referenced. As emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Brett certainly knows her stuff and gives the reader a wealth of information, all of which is presented in an easily digestible form, so the book is never dry or boring.

    Brett relates the process that led to the vote for women, one which, incidentally, also involved the (shameful) disenfranchisement of Australian Aboriginals along with native Asians, Africans and South Pacific islanders, although, bizarrely, not New Zealand Maoris living in Australia, who were permitted to vote as: “Maoris, with their villages, settled agriculture and capacity to organise war, were generally regarded as more civilised than Australia’s Aborigines.”

    On compulsory voting, Brett concludes: “This was not, as has sometimes been claimed, an accidental decision carelessly made by inattentive parliamentarians, but the result of Australia’s confidence in government, its commitment to majoritarian democracy and its willingness to experiment with electoral matters.”

    The title is witty and readers familiar with his work will immediately recognise this cleverly designed cover as one by the talented W.H. Chong.

    Brett wraps up: “There are many reasons to be frustrated with Australian politics in the second decade of the twenty-first century, as we suffer our sixth prime minister in eight years, but our electoral system is not one of them. What the story of compulsory voting tells us is how very good we are at elections. We should celebrate it.”

    If you learn nothing else from this book (highly unlikely), you will understand why countries like Australia and New Zealand quickly and effectively change their gun laws to protect the people while the Americans (probably) never will. Especially for those living in the state of NSW and facing two elections in 2019, but really for everyone in Australia who has, can or will one day vote, this is a very topical read.

  • Review by Robert at Angus and Robertson

    by on

    Most Australians tend to take our voting system for granted, expecting that it is pretty much the standard for other democracies. This splendid and timely book shows how our system is actually quite unique, and rather wonderful for being so. Australia is the only English-speaking country that legally compels its citizens to vote. Our system is a preferential one that was carefully crafted through 24 acts of parliament, and citizens must be listed on the electoral roll. We even invented individual polling booths for our secret ballot. We have turned the voting day (legally only on a Saturday) into a celebratory fair day with sausage sizzles and cake stalls, and kept the populace engaged at a level which is the envy of the world.

    There’s a wealth of detail in "From Secret Ballot.." about everything voting, from the pencils up. Award-winning author Professor Judith Brett encourages us to celebrate compulsory voting, despite our growing disenchantment with the major political parties. She points to recent upsets like the Wentworth by-election as examples of how a short campaign by an independent (with minimal funding and no backing of a major party) can be mounted at short notice and still win. This is possible mainly due to the fairly streamlined nature of the electoral system, which has resulted in some unlikely political parties and candidates; some figures of fun, and some not so.

    This entertaining history is full of trivia, but also some harder truths concerning the rights of women and indigenous Australians. There are triumphs here too. It is heartening to see how our country once led the world in electoral reform, and how our system generally works better than we think (e.g. prompting an 80% participation rate in the non-compulsory marriage equality vote). This book will make you proud, angry and surprised. A thought-provoking and vital book - read it before the forthcoming elections!