At 8pm today the electoral roll will close for voters who are first-timers or are reenrolling, unbeknownst to many of those its closure will exclude. Despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud, hundreds of thousands of Australians will not get a say in this year’s landmark federal election thanks to the Howard Government’s Orwellian-named Electoral Integrity Act.
GetUp has tried everything to maximise the number of people enrolled to vote in this election, to counter the insidious changes that close the rolls early, with enrolment drives at unis, fairs and shopping centres; TV ads; radio ads; polls; blogs; letterboxing; articles; even SMS reminders. But there’s one thing we never thought of: wood chopping, sheep shearing and sheep dog trials.
Those quaint and quintessential activities of another era, however, will mean potentially thousands more Aussies will get a say at this year’s election and possibly contribute to the end of another traditional Australian’s era. Thanks to the little-known, but much appreciated, Flinders Island Agricultural Show (and the public holiday it spawns) the electoral roll will be open for another full day for everyone other than first-timers and re-enrollers, thwarting John Howard’s efforts to swing shut the doors of democracy sooner. Again, it seems, local Tasmanian concerns will have a disproportionate influence on the course of the federal election.
But while the Flinders Island show day may bring joy to winning livestock owners, axemen, bakers and potentially thousands of 11th-hour voters, we shouldn’t let the fact that the democracy gods of Bass Strait have fortuitously smiled on us cloud the bigger picture that hundreds of thousands of eligible voters may be denied their say in this election because of the early and unnecessary closure of the electoral roll.
When the election writs are issued today, new voters and those who have been taken off the roll (many of whom will only learn this when they turn up to vote on election day only to be denied their say) will only have until 8pm to enrol. Everyone else needing to update their enrolments will have three business days meaning, thanks to the Flinders show, 8pm on Tuesday 23rd. John Howard, evidently no fan of the regional agricultural circuit in those parts, erroneously declared the rolls will shut the day before - no such luck for him.
Worse than this, Howard created the impression that next Monday (or Tuesday as he was later corrected) was the cut-off date for all. In failing to mention the earlier deadline for first-time voters when failing to state the correct date for everyone else, he has beguiled the young and the unenrolled into thinking they have days more to enrol. The result? More disenfranchisement and disappointment for those having their first interaction with our system of democracy.
First-time voters deserve more help than any other group to enrol and there should be as few barriers to their voting as possible. They look to the Prime Minister for leadership, but have found only confusion. What confidence is instilled in them in our democratic systems, parliamentary processes or political leaders if their first experience is to be excluded from them?
The understandable frustration and disconnection young people experience with the political process is often mistakenly interpreted as apathy, and in turn used as a weapon against them to justify their preclusion from the decisions that affect them.
We know that, despite a valiant effort by the AEC to inform people of these changes, only 16 per cent of Australians are aware of the early closure of the rolls. Now the Prime Minister, who introduced the laws last year, has kicked off the election campaign by adding to the confusion and misdirecting many over the different deadlines for enrolment.
His changes to this process mean the 400,000 people (of which 80,000 were new enrolments) who sent in enrolment cards in the week before last election’s cut-off date won’t get the same chance this time around. Even more worryingly, Special Minister for State Gary Nairn, recently admitted 410,000 young Australians were missing from the electoral roll as of March 31 this year, and a whopping 35 per cent of eligible 18-year-olds were known to be unenrolled.
It’s no coincidence that those groups most affected by the changes are statistically more likely to vote against the Government than for it. I don’t know what rules the Flinders Island Show Society apply to their judging of jam and jumbuck, but few acts in their history will have been as influential on the nation’s history as the choosing of this year’s show date. To have to rely on a regional agricultural coincidence to allow the fundamentals of democracy to flourish, however, would surely win the ribbon for prize bull.
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