A letter to my daughter, who will vote for the first time


'Young Voter' by Chris JohnstonDear Julia,

I hope you don't mind my making a private discussion public. The idea of writing this letter came to me after talking to you and your friend Carmen, who will also be a first-time voter on 7 September. Both of you expressed the same perplexity: excitement at the prospect of voting combined with dismay at the choices you're going to find on the ballot papers. Since I am sure that you're not the only young Australians who feel that way, I have decided to continue our conversation in this way.

Disillusion with politics and politicians is nothing new, nor is it unique to democracy. But long-established democratic systems of government seem especially susceptible to it, and there is evidence that a new round of disillusionment has taken hold in Australia. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, nearly one in five eligible voters aged between 18 and 24 had not bothered to enrol to vote when the rolls for this election were closed last week. That's more than double the number of unenrolled people in the wider adult population.

In other words, many of your contemporaries — whose votes might conceivably have determined the outcome in some seats — have declined to participate in the democratic process altogether.

Many observations might be made about this decision to opt out. Some people I know attribute it to compulsory voting, which Australia has but most democracies do not. In this country if you are enrolled to vote and want to express your contempt or despair at the choices available, the only legal way of doing so is to spoil the ballot paper in some way. Why put yourself in the position of having to resort to such a farcical solution?

I happen to agree with the critics of compulsory voting. Voting is a duty as well as a right, but it is a duty that should be freely recognised and accepted. Compulsion encourages an unreflective, almost mechanical form of participation, and it is one of the reasons why Australian elections are too often decided by people who have no interest in politics whatever the choices might be. Such voters are easily susceptible to slogans and distortions, and politicians know it. We would have a more vigorous democracy if political parties and candidates had to work at 'turning out the vote' as it is called elsewhere — at persuading people that their vote can make a difference.

But gripes about the effects of compulsory voting do not really explain why many people, especially younger people, are opting out of participation altogether. If voting were not obligatory, the question would simply reappear as 'why aren't young people turning out to vote?' Whichever way the problem arises, it points to a deeper question: why don't people trust democratic process to change the things they think should be changed?

Again there is no shortage of people who think they know the answer to this question. I don't find any of these answers entirely convincing but some are more plausible than others. I have some sympathy for one in particular: that the kind of politics we have now is devoid of any great moral clash of ideas.

People who take this line usually point to the fact that the major political parties — the only ones that can really aspire to govern — resemble each other more than they are willing to admit. Despite all the arguments about government spending and debt that you will hear in this campaign, the philosophical gulf that once separated Labor and the Coalition on economic policy has vanished. Both sides bow to the free market, or what they like to pretend is a free market.

Nor is the economy the only issue on which the two sides have converged. Their rival policies on asylum seekers, for example, amount to a competition to see which of them can be more conspicuously punitive, and thereby more astutely exploit unfounded fears about boat arrivals.

But there have been times of convergence and realignment before. And democratic politics, which is about building majorities, has always required compromise and negotiation. If that were not so minor parties like the Greens, who in the last parliament exercised greater sway than they can usually expect to do, would wield no influence at all. I suspect that the deepest reason for disillusionment comes from unease about this process of compromise. People think it is tainted and wish to shun it.

The temptation to see democracy, and its inevitable choices between less than perfect alternatives, as tainted is one that we should resist. In a lecture he gave earlier this year, the Coalition frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull noted that 'so often the best political objectives, the most important goals, are frustrated because people lose sight of the need for compromise and allow their idea of the perfect to be, indeed, the enemy of the good.'

Think about that, Julia: the perfect can be the enemy of the good. It is wise counsel in many aspects of life, but especially, I think, in politics. If we did not implicitly follow this maxim, we would not have democratic politics at all but something much worse. We would be on a slide towards totalitarianism.

So when I suggested to you and Carmen that if you don't like any of the choices on offer it is still important to choose the least worst, I was not ignoring, and certainly not trying to excuse, the all-too-real imperfections and sometimes tawdry compromises of politics as we know it. I was just saying that that's what you have to start with if something good is to be achieved. Getting there may be a longer process than any of us would wish, but that is hardly a reason not to start.

If you want our politics to be better than we now experience it to be, I can only offer you this advice: vote!


Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, election 2013, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Labor, Coalition, democracy, voting



submit a comment

Existing comments

Great article... yes, compulsory voting means political parties do not need to motivate their base. That is why it is so hard to tell the difference between the major parties. If voting were voluntary and political parties needed to inspire us to vote, we'd see a clear alternative. And in time, more people would participate. Really engage rather than just going through the motions. This is why many countries where voting is democratic (voluntary) have higher voter turnouts than we do. All Australian eligible voters should have the same free and equal right to vote, free from government coercion. Our decision to vote should be democratic.
Jason | 26 August 2013

I assume from your words Ray that you would encourage your daughter to support human rights abuses, war crimes and other serious crimes by indicating a preference for one of the two major parties/criminal organizations and "choose the least worst". How would you decide between one group of child abusers and another group? Can you give any advice on that? Instead you discourage your daughter from taking a moral stand against such criminal behavior claiming that is futile and that it is their "duty" to indicate a preference for one of these parties. Would you recommend the same thing to people who organize boycotts of unfair elections in other countries, like the Noble Peace Prize winner Aug Sang Soo Khee?
Why do you even consider Australia a democracy when it censors the political views of 1 in 5 Australians from encouraging people to follow their example not to participate or spoil their ballot? In a democracy minority views are tolerated but in Australia they are censored unless they support (giving a preference to) one of the two factions that alternatively run the country. You talk about people being "disillusioned" with politics but why do support the "illusion" of a democracy by "voting"?
Mark Holsworth | 26 August 2013

SOLUTION: Create a Dump Compulsory Voting Party and get a member in parliament to introduce a bill to do so. Or have a referendum - compel people to vote that they shouldn't be forced to vote. Or just don't vote - get a fine in the mail, refuse to pay the fine, get a reminder notice, ignore it, get a court summons warning, ignore it, get a court summons, ignore it - get a knock on the door from the police and get three nights' free bed and meals at the local lock-up. It's been done before.
Name | 26 August 2013

I have to agree with you completely Ray. I am in complete dispair at both the way we are incouraged to discuss the most significant aspects relating to the future of this fantastic nation and the options we are being offered to consider. To some extent it is a battle between our leaders who just want to lead (because they know what is best) and we the voting public who want a say in the things that affect our lives and our wellbeing. For me not voting is a concession to what they want. My son is voting for the first time too and we to have had many discussions about his decision not to mark the papers. He cannot allow his conviction to bend so much as to vote for parties who have policies which wantonly persecute the persecuted.
Carmine | 28 August 2013

There are deep and serious social characteristics at play in the issues which Mr Cassin is canvassing. We have become a materialist and selfish society: note how many electoral matters are expressed in terms of "What's in it for me?" Even sporting clubs are privately-owned, commercial businesses. ly In such a society there is little inducement for the selfless public service which people seem to demand from their politicians. So, the young ought to be encouraged to participate in politics; meaningfully participate. It depresses me to observe such detachment from the franchise when, elsewhere in the world, people are dying to achieve democracy. Unlike Mr Cassin, I see no problem with compulsory voting [actually the only "compulsion" is to have our name crossed off the polling officer's list: lodging a blank paper isn't illegal.]: many things [such as the unarguable "good" of education] are rightly compulsory in our free society -- that doesn't make us less free. And -- unlike "Jason" I know of no other country with optional voting where the voter"turnout" is greater than ours: he should be specific about his implausible assertion. The truth about electoral compromise is that life is full of odious choices, yet we manage to cope with them. "Utopia" means "nowhere" -- yet we all live somewhere and want to make that life as worthwhile as we can manage -- compromise, occasional distaste and all. The result can be marvellous.
John CARMODY | 28 August 2013

I don't mind having to vote. I do object to having to nominate a preference for every person on the ballot paper. This year I refuse to make a choice between Labor and coalition, so I won't vote.
Gavan | 28 August 2013

Simplistic deduction, Mark (Holsworth). Unworthy of Ray
Peacenik | 29 August 2013

Similar Articles

Neoliberalism in the swinging outer suburbs

  • Luke Williams
  • 03 September 2013

The outer suburban marginal seats will almost certainly swing to the Coalition on Saturday. I'm sure many of the Left intelligentsia think they have the reasons for this all worked out: voters in the outer suburbs are uneducated, 'aspirational', cashed-up bogans who only care about their mortgages, negating their working-class origins and keeping out asylum seekers. As a swinging voter from one such electorate, I can tell you the reality is not that simple.


Credibility at stake for restrained religious media

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 05 September 2013

In Australia, September is the month of religious media conferences. This year church media, particularly Catholic media, face a growing challenge: how to deal with bad news about the Church, especially stories regarding sexual abuse and failures of governance. Pope Francis' own style of communication suggests an alternative purpose and approach that such media might adopt.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up