There are three issues that affect or will affect the authority and therefore the accountability of Local Councils, namely Compulsory Voting, Political Party representation at Local Council level and now the initiative to force 'Corporations' to vote in Local Council elections. All these issues as they currently stand reduce the power of Councils and entrench authority in the hands of the State Government and State Party hierarchies.
Three Australian States, namely Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania do not insist on compulsory voting in Local Council elections. This certainly reduces the participation rate amongst voters. In the last Local Council elections Tasmania recorded a 55% participation rate, South Australia 33% and Western Australia a low 27%. This obviously reflects the interest in local politics in those territories.
I became involved in local issues a few years ago because of the development mess that the current NSW State Government was making and continues to make in our electorate. At the last Council election I ran the pre-poll for some Independent candidates as well as doing some hours of house to house canvassing. This activity as well as attendance on polling day enabled me to talk to hundreds of people. Prior to this experience I had no strong feeling about compulsory voting.
Based on the conversations I had with electors, I am now wholly opposed to compulsory voting at Local Council level. Many people merely see it as a chore; they have no interest or knowledge of the issues involved and know nothing of the candidates. The only reason they vote is to comply with the law and to avoid a fine. The mythology that compulsory voting ensures that people take an interest in the political process, is just that, mythology. Forcing people to vote is merely an irritant; people either take an interest or they don't. Forcing people to vote is not democratic; it's actually just the opposite and smacks of totalitarianism. Compulsory voting merely reinforces the perception of excessive interference in people's lives by those in power. If people don't want to vote then that should be their prerogative.
There are thirteen countries in the world that enforce compulsory voting, including such paragons of democracy as The Democratic Republic of Congo and North Korea; Australia is included in this select little group. It is notable that Australia is the only member of the OECD (i.e. the developed world) that enforces compulsory voting. There are another seventeen countries who have compulsory voting legislation on the books but do not enforce it, including Belgium and France. There are a few countries who have had compulsory voting in the past but have since legislated to abandon the practice. Ref: Wikipedia/ compulsory voting.
Currently this requirement wastes money and time and achieves nothing, except perhaps to reinforce the current hold the major parties have on the political process. This brings me to the next point.
(Note: This discussion relates to Local Council elections, although some of the arguments against compulsory voting apply to State and Federal politics as well.)
Should organised political parties be able to represent themselves at local elections?
The second point is: Should organised Political Parties be prohibited from standing at Local Council elections? In my electorate the Liberal party controls the Council; as a result the main interest of the Liberal Councillors is to do the bidding of the Liberal party hierarchy in William Street, Sydney. Inevitably, as a result the needs and wishes of the community take a back seat or are ignored altogether. Why, you may ask? The only reason for this behaviour on the part of Liberal Party Councillors is to maintain the Liberal Party endorsement, which virtually ensures their election and in some cases their elevation into State politics. So their focus is completely inappropriate.
The issues of compulsory voting and Major Party participation in Local issues feed into one another. The electorate in which I live is overwhelmingly Liberal, so while voting is compulsory many people will merely vote Liberal without putting any thought into the issue. Maybe Councils consisting of Independents committed to community issues, would better represent those issues as well as being more willing to deliver on them. Also where necessary they will be better able to represent the views of the community to State and Federal Governments, without upsetting the party hierarchy. A pain for State and Federal Governments, but then that's democracy.
I have used my local electorate as an example of the abuse that compulsory voting and Major Political Party dominance has generated here since I am familiar with the situation. I have no doubt the criticism applies equally to many and possibly most other electorates in New South Wales, regardless of their political hue. This brings me to the next point.
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