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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Australian Election: Is compulsory voting to blame for the focus on marginal seats?

    Posted by Reena Ganga

With just a handful days until Australia's October 9 Federal Election and most of the campaign policies on the table, many Australians have been left wondering, "what's in it for me?". Key issues such as National Security seem to be playing only a minor role in campaigning. While the Iraq War threatens to quash US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australia's PM, John Howard has escaped, by and large, unscathed. Interestingly, the election is being played out in key marginal seats... those swinging electorates with swinging voters who will decide the election.

Sydney Morning Herald commentator Alan Anderson puts forward the idea that federal election campaigning in Australia is focused primarily on marginal seats as a result of Australia's compulsory voting system.

In comparing Australia's voting system with that of the United States, he highlights the fact that Australians' legal obligation to show up on polling day coupled with the major parties' large, traditionally loyal constituencies has allowed politicians to cater their election policies towards the select few in key marginal seats:
"The US candidates have adopted [their] positions not to appeal to apathetic swinging voters, but to appeal to their heartlands. Because voting in the US is voluntary, they must entice even core supporters to come to the polling booth on election day.

In Australia, the two candidates give little consideration to their heartlands. The relative stability of voting patterns under Australia's compulsory voting system has left our politicians vying for a few swinging voters in a few swinging electorates."

Marginal seats have become crucial in this election - the loss of eight seats would see the Government lose its outright majority in the Lower House. For the Labor Party to win a majority it needs to obtain 13 seats.

And it's for this reason, that groups who are fortunate enough to live disproportionately in marginal Government seats, for example the elderly, are the ones who have the most election carrots dangled before them.

Analysis of 2001 census data shows that three of the eight seats in Australia with the highest proportion of people aged 65 and over are marginal Coalition seats. And almost half the Coalition's marginal seats are in the third of electorates with the most elderly voters.

So even a small swing from this group would boost Labor's chances of winning the October 9 election.

Hence Labor's $3.7 billion dollar set of measures targeting the grey vote - Medicare Gold. The package includes a plan to provide free hospital care for people aged 75 and over, as well as proposals aimed at increasing the aged pension and providing an allowance to grandparents who care for their dependent grandchildren.

Similarly, Prime Minister John Howard is vying for the support of his core constituency with his announcement of an annual payment for self-funded retirees, utility supplements and financial support for carers of the elderly.

So far, Howard has retained the lead amongst this core group. The latest Newspoll places the Coalition well ahead when it comes to over 65 voters, with 52 % of the primary vote as opposed to Labor's 38% and at 56% on a two party preferred basis.

As Anderson's examples illustrate, policies that would turn off voters within a voluntary voting environment don't seem to have the same effect under Australia's compulsory system since there is no need to appease everyone:

"Howard's spending extravaganza had small-government conservatives choking on their single malts. But who cares? They still have to vote and their votes have nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, the spending initiatives might sway a few critical undecided punters.

Latham decided single income families on $35,000 could take a financial hit; they probably live in safe Labor seats anyway. That left more cash for the small band of middle class voters who will decide this election."

His case for voluntary voting in Australia goes on to argue that while voluntary voting disenfranchises the politically apathetic, compulsory voting disenfranchises the politically engaged:

"Given a choice between disenfranchising people who can't be bothered voting or making them the final arbiters of national policy, shouldn't we opt for the former? As a single vote is unlikely to affect an election, pork-barrelling bribes will draw few voters to the polling booth. Why bother to show up? It's not like one vote makes any difference. Those who take the trouble to vote voluntarily will be more likely to do so on principle. It is this group whom candidates will have to convince."

But even if compulsory voting is here to stay, perhaps there are other ways to get the campaign focus off the marginals and onto the heartland. One Herald reader suggests this novel approach:

"A solution to the different values of votes in safe, versus marginal, seats would be to replace geographic electorates with alphabetical ones. For example, John Howard might become the member for voters with surnames between, say, Latham and Lewis, instead for those living in Bennelong. While marginal electorates might still exist, it would be impossible to actually visit one, and electorates could all be made exactly the same size. No more door-knocking, no more pork-barrelling and no possibility of special local deals in the allocation of government resources. And best of all, if you don't like your 20-year incumbent member, you can get rid of him or her simply by changing your name."

Now there's an idea.

For more information on Australia's voting system:

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