From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: a review

By Amilee Myson
Australian Electoral Commission


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

Judith Brett

Text Publishing


The outcome of the 2019 Australian Federal election transgressed the predictions of many an astute pollster and left more than a few pundits scratching their heads. Politically charged vitriol and multi-platformed campaign fodder dominated media and social feeds for months on end. In March 2019, in the eye of the electoral storm, Text Publishing released Judith Brett’s book From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, on the evolution of compulsory voting in Australia. Brett’s book provides the reader with a comparatively apolitical commentary on the creation of Australia’s electoral system.

Brett commences by exploring the differences between the politico-philosophical viewpoints of John Locke, a prominent 17th Century English philosopher, and Jeremy Bentham, a political reformer of the late 18th/early 19th Century. While Locke is renowned for his “social contract” theory limiting the power of government, Bentham argued that rights are created by laws. Bentham held a much more ample view of the possibilities of government action than the “founding fathers” of America, contemporaries of John Locke. Brett theorises that these thinkers, respectively, influenced the developing colonies and compels the reader to consider the philosophical underpinnings of one of the fundamental elements of our system.

Compulsory voting is a relatively unique fixture of Australia’s electoral system. Voters are obliged to turn up in only nine of the world’s 166 electoral democracies. In 2016, Obama praised Australia’s compulsory voting system, speculating that it could have a transformative impact on American politics. This speculation is bolstered by statistics that in the 2018 US mid-term elections, only 49.2 percent of voting-aged adults turned out to vote (the last time voter turnout topped 50 percent was in 1914).

American commentators, however, opine that the view would not be endorsed by American voters who would consider it a severe violation of individual liberty (an enduring Lockean opposition). Conversely, Brett posits that participation rates, even if compelled by law, in Australian elections are cause for celebration.

Brett canvases political figureheads who championed preferential voting – a facet of the system designed to give each vote meaning. From Catherine Spence, an early champion of the preferential voting system (and, incidentally, the determined face staring back at you from your crisp, pink $5 note); to Mary Lee, the leader of the campaign for women’s democratic participation in South Australia; to Thomas Hare and Andrew Inglis Clark, responsible for Tasmania’s somewhat befuddling “Hare-Clarke system”.

Brett’s detailed chronology also covers balloting watersheds starting from intoxicated electioneering and “treating” by candidates in the mid-19th Century; to the enfranchisement of women in the Franchise Act 1902; Menzies’ crucial amendments to the Electoral Act in 1962 enabling First Nations Peoples to enrol to vote in Federal elections; and the recent plebiscite on same sex marriage. Although much of the book is about the evolution and inclusivity of Australia’s democratic system, it also partially acknowledges the failures of the system. Particularly its discrimination against First Nations peoples.

Each page turned reveals dense historical information about the chronology (which was not always linear, nor progressive) of Australia’s electoral system. From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is an informative foundation for considering this part of Australia’s history. Brett has authored an objective and academic narrative and calls for a celebration of its subject. However, the book inescapably (albeit indirectly) catechises questions of democratic legitimacy, systemic discrimination and the nebulous philosophy of rights and freedom.