Reviewed by Robert at Angus & Robertson:
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!