From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting by Judith Brett

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage by Judith Brett was a surprise bestseller at work in the week leading up to the recent NSW state elections. I’ll be curious to see if it has the same surge during the weeks leading up to our Federal elections in May.

Brett has written a fascinating and informative book about the history of voting in Australia. It’s a bit dry in places, but the slimness of the book made it a quick, easy read. 
I loved all the facts and stats that Brett listed in the her introduction. Which I will include below because I want to have them to hand. The rest of the book basically expanded on and explored in detail, the points below.

Voting is compulsory in 19 of the world’s 166 electoral democracies and only 9 strictly enforce it.

People from our sister democracies are often astonished that Austraians are compelled to turn up to vote: it seems an affront to freedom. We in reply are appalled at their low turnouts and the election of leaders and governments by a minority of voters.

In Australia registration has been compulsory since 1911. Turnout in Australian elections is always above 90 percent of registered voters, and in the high eighties of those eligible to enrol.

Australians wanted their governments to have the support of the majority of electors, they preferred their elections to be orderly and they were happy for them to be run by government officials.

The US and Australia were both settled by people from the British isles, who brought with them political traditions and ideas of their home country, but they were settled in different centuries. 

Where the US favours liberty and rights over democracy and majorities, we favour democracy and majorities over liberty and rights.

The early settlers to America left Britain when parliament was still struggling to wrest control of government from the monarch and when individuals were persecuted for their religious beliefs. America’s informing spirit is the seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke.

By the time the Australian colonies were establishing their political institutions, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British parliament had well and truly defeated the autocratic monarchs…the foundational thinker…for Australians…was the philosopher and political reformer Jeremy Bentham. 

He argued that rights are created by law; that without government and law there are no rights. 

The federal government did not tax income until 1915, when it needed to raise money to fight the Great War. By then settler Australians’ view of government as a major source of benefit rather than a circumscriber of freedom was entrenched.

Preferential voting is as distinctively Australian as compulsory voting. Both ensure that the governments we elect have the support of the majority of voters.


I knew most of this stuff in a very general sort of way. What was useful was having it all in one place and written in such a readable, quotable style.
But the one fact that really got me thinking and wondering was the name of our foundational thinker – Jeremy Bentham – who?
I’ve heard of John Locke, America’s political ‘informing spirit‘. Why haven’t I heard about the guy who inspired our political system before? 
What did he believe? Who was he? Why did he matter to Australia?

Brett covers off a lot of this in her book, but I wanted more.
So I googled.

Jeremy Bentham was born 15 February 1748 in London to a wealthy Tory family. He was considered to be a child prodigy – reading as a toddler, learnt Latin at three and played the violin at seven.

According to wikipedia he was,

sent by his father to The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in 1763 and his master’s degree in 1766. He trained as a lawyer and, though he never practised, was called to the bar in 1769. He became deeply frustrated with the complexity of the English legal code, which he termed the “Demon of Chicane”.

He wrote a Short Review of the Declaration that was published with John Lind’s rebuttal to the American Declaration of Independence. He was a firm critic of the revolutionary idea of ‘natural rights’ independent of law, calling them “nonsense on stilts“. He claimed that it described how things ought to be rather than how things actually were; about wishes and beliefs rather than facts and reality.

Bentham believed that rights were created by laws, and that all laws and rights require government. If and individuals rights cannot be interfered with, it then implies that rights must also be enforceable.

He argues that the concept of the individual pursuing his or her own happiness cannot be necessarily declared “right”, because often these individual pursuits can lead to greater pain and less pleasure for a society as a whole. Therefore, the legislation of a society is vital to maintain the maximum pleasure and the minimum degree of pain for the greatest number of people. (wikipedia)

The trick of course, for all governments, is to legislate “good laws“.

Bentham was very concerned about the idea of “sinister interest” or how the vested interests of the powerful conspire against the wider public interest.

He was a firm atheist and an advocate of secular positivism, which has been described on wikipedia as,

information derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive source of all certain knowledge. Positivism also holds that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws. Introspective and intuitive knowledge is rejected, as are metaphysics and theology because metaphysical and theological claims cannot be verified by sense experience.

His most famous idea though was the “greatest-happiness principle“. Where one must always act to produce the ‘greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason‘ (wikipedia). The philosophy of Utilitarianism evaluates actions based on their consequences and whether or not these actions cause pleasure or pain. The moral status of these actions is classified by the “happiness factor” of 12 pains and 14 pleasures.

Bentham’s political position included arguments in favour of individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the abolition of slavery and of physical punishment (including that against children), the recognition of animal rights, the right to divorce, the promotion of free trade and usury and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Bentham died on the 6th June 1832 in London. He left his body to science for dissection and preservation as an auto-icon (a word that Bentham coined to describe the process of dead body being “preserved, clothed, and displayed as though still living, as a memorial to the deceased“). (OED)

Who knew?

2 thoughts on “From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting by Judith Brett

  1. The AEC has just released the latest enrolment stats – \”A record 96.8% of eligible Australians are enrolled for the 2019 federal election. This is the most complete electoral roll in history with youth enrolment also an all-time high of 88.8% (18-24 YO's).\”No apathy in those figures!

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