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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 26 April, 2019
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We can learn a thing or two from the Australians when it comes to elections

Australia’s mandatory voting laws ensure everyone’s voices are heard argues Barry Dunning

Barry Dunning Writer

I WILL CAST my first vote as an Australian citizen in Saturday’s Federal election.

Given that I work for a trade union I won’t be spending too much time deciding how to cast my ballot – voting Labor is almost part of my job description. But as a political tragic, I am looking forward to the theatre of Election Day, the counts and the coverage.

In Australia, the process of voting is different. For a start there is the time-honoured tradition of the election day sausage sizzle. At thousands of voting booths across the country, local charities will fundraise by selling BBQ sausages on Election Day. There are websites and apps where you can check out if your voting booth has a sausage sizzle and even lodge a review.

Australia Election Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott at a sizzle in Sydney Source: Rob Griffith/Press Association

Political parties are also allowed to canvas right up to the doors of the polling place. This means voters run a gauntlet of volunteers handing out how-to-vote cards (full disclosure: I will be one of said volunteers).

There are also the booths in places like Bondi and Surfers Paradise, where you can bring your surfboard in with you.

Getting involved

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is said to have coined the phrase “history is made by those who show up”. When it comes to time to elect the Australian Government, almost everyone shows up.

Australia is one of only 22 countries where voting is mandatory. If you are on the register and don’t vote, you will cop a fine.

While there are plenty of grumblings about this, it has the desired effect. Almost 94% of adults voted at the last Federal Election in 2013, compared to 65% at the recent Irish election.

 

Australia Election Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Source: Rob Griffith/Press Association

Young Australians vote in almost the same numbers as pensioners and the well-off. This means that their issues are on the agenda and their voice is heard.

Contrast this with the recent Brexit vote. Polls in the UK had consistently shown young voters’ enthusiasm to stay in the European Union and older voters’ desire to leave. But in the absence of mandatory voting not enough young voters showed up. Analysis of the Brexit result by the Guardian found that “the higher the median age in an area the higher the turnout – meaning larger numbers of older, ‘leave’ voters got their way”.

Easier

Voting in Australia is also made very easy. Votes take place on Saturdays to maximise turnout. Unlike in Ireland you do not have to turn up to the exact room in the exact school to cast your vote. (Room six in St Corban’s National School in Naas was my stomping ground for many an election and referendum).

Travelling to another part of Australia? No problem, turn up to an out of state polling booth and cast your vote. Postal votes are far easier to obtain than in Ireland. You can even vote at the airport.

In fact, polling day itself is no longer the be-all and end all. Polling stations are open for almost three weeks, and an estimated four million Australians will have cast their vote before July 2nd.

Australia Election Opposition leader Bill Shorten and deputy Labour leader Tanya Plibersek Source: Rick Rycroft/Press Association

Emigrants

But as an Irish emigrant, the most fundamental difference is the right of overseas citizens to have their voice heard. While an Australian citizen can vote for up to six years after they have left the country, Irish emigrants have no say.

There were plenty of kind words from the Minister for the Diaspora and trips for Irish government ministers to the Sydney St Patrick’s Day Parade, but little else. The Government claims it want to keep the diaspora engaged in Ireland but they refuse to legislate for the simplest way to keep emigrants engaged in Irish life – allowing us to vote.

As public support for emigrant voting rights grows at home, more and more Irish emigrants are speaking up about how we want to contribute more to Irish society. We can do more than just spend money while we’re home for Christmas or keep An Post in business by shipping Tayto and Barry’s Tea across the world.

Improving our voting process

While I look forward to one day casting a vote for Australia to become a republic, it is ironic that a Commonwealth nation under the domain of a foreign monarch is more successful at keeping all citizens engaged in politics and the process of democracy. Of course it is not just Australia; more than 120 countries have provisions for their citizens abroad to cast a ballot.

While there are plenty of things Australia could learn from Ireland, last year’s Marriage Equality vote being the obvious example, Ireland could learn a lot from Australia about the process of voting: Make voting mandatory. Give people plenty of time and opportunities to cast their vote.  Give them a sausage once they’ve voted.  Allow emigrants to vote. Not just a vote in Presidential or Seaned elections like has been mooted, but the full vote.

Whether we are in Sydney or Shanghai, Bogota or Boston, as citizens of Ireland our democratic right shouldn’t be extinguished once we pass through the departure gates of Dublin airport.

Surely the extension of the right to vote to all Ireland’s citizens would be a fitting legacy in the centenary year of the 1916 rising?

Barry Dunn is a Kildare man who recently became an Australian citizen.

 Read: Brexit’s even affecting the Australian elections this Sunday

Read: Strict lockout laws mean no late-night pints and kebabs for us Irish in Sydney

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Barry Dunning  / Writer

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