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

Text Publishing, 2019, 208pp., ISBN: 9781925603842, p/bk. AUS$29.99

I don’t normally do book reviews, but I’ve just recently finished From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage by Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, which ticks the boxes of being a new book about topics central to the theme of my website, The Tally Room, and it was an excellent read.

There is a lot out there for a dedicated reader of Australian electoral history, but not much of it is written for a broader audience. I have learned a lot in particular from Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition, which focuses on the development of democratic institutions in New South Wales from the 1840s until the 1860s, and The Australian Electoral System by David Farrell and Ian McAllister, which covers the history of the Australian electoral system along with more contemporary content, in a format closer to that of a textbook. I also found Peter Brent’s PhD 2008 thesis The rise of the returning officer : how colonial Australia developed advanced electoral institutions interesting in exploring how the structure of Australian electoral administration evolved.

I’m sure there’s a lot more in the political and historical journals yet to be read.

So many of the topics in Brett’s book weren’t new to me, but they were told in a very engaging and interesting way, telling the story about the origins of each major development in Australia’s voting system and giving more atmosphere to the motivations and actions of key players in these developments.

The book’s blurb focuses on compulsory voting, as does the subtitle. Compulsory voting is definitely an important theme that appears a number of times in the book, but this story isn’t just about compulsory voting. It also covers a bunch of other distinctive Australian electoral innovations that don’t have much to do with compulsory voting.

The book covers:

  • the invention of the Australian ballot, including the provision of a standardised government-issued ballot paper and the provision of a private space to mark that ballot;
  • the development of independent electoral administration including the role of William Boothby;
  • the direct election of the Senate, as set down in the Constitution;
  • the Franchise Act of 1902, which enfranchised women while disenfranchising Indigenous Australians and other people of colour;
  • the first attempts to introduce preferential and proportional voting systems in 1902 and the subsequent adoption of these voting systems in 1919 and 1948;
  • early unsuccessful attempts to introduce compulsory voting, the successful introduction of compulsory enrolment followed by the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924;
  • voting on Saturdays;
  • the rise of the Country Party in sync with the introduction of preferential voting in 1919, and how the introduction of proportional representation in the Senate helped encourage more minor parties;

and more recent events including the evolution of the experience at the local polling booth on election days (hence ‘Democracy Sausage’ in the name) and the 2017 marriage postal survey.

There’s so much there to learn about how successive generations of Australians have experimented with our electoral system, over a period of 160 years.

Brett makes some claims in the final chapter about the centrality of compulsory voting to the Australian political system which I think can be contested, but the historical work is engaging and informative and well worth a read for anyone interested in where our modern electoral institutions came from.

Reviewed by Ben Raue, April 2019

Visit the publisher’s website here to purchase and preview the book.


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