March 2006

Comment

Comment

By Gideon Haigh

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

This month, Australia celebrates the sesquicentenary of its system of the secret ballot, the so-called ‘Australian ballot’, which swept and revolutionised the democratic world. Actually, ‘celebrates’ is the wrong word.

Nobody seems too bothered. The components of democracy, for which other countries endure revolutions and suffer wars, rank here in importance with sound plumbing and tidy median strips. Perhaps this is only fitting. As remarkable as the Australian ballot’s transformative nature is the ease with which – once initial protestations were overcome – it was incorporated into the mechanics of our politics.

The idea of a secret ballot is not, strictly speaking, Australian: evidence exists of private voting methods as far back as Greek and Roman times, and of experimentation with same in France and the American colonies. That public voting was susceptible to corruption and coercion became an article of Chartist faith: a source of drama in Felix Holt, the Radical, where voters in Treby Magna must run the abusive and violent gauntlet of the ‘Sproxton men’; of comedy in The Pickwick Papers, where the Buffs at the Eatanswill election set about the Blues, whose band is deliberately drowning out their speaker; not to mention art in Hogarth’s wonderful sequence Four Prints of an Election, inspired by the notoriously crooked Oxfordshire election of 1754.

Let’s not, though, be too modest. It was Australia that made the secret ballot work – that is, secret. And it was the secret ballot that, in its time, made Australia a locus of democratic striving. Visiting the US in 1893, where the first ‘Australian ballot’ polls had just elected Grover Cleveland to the presidency, Catherine Spence reported that her reception had nothing to do with gold or kangaroos: “‘You come from Australia, the home of the secret ballot?’ was the greeting I often received, and that really was my passport to the hearts of reformers all over America.”

The Australian ballot did not arise without challenge or resistance. The abiding fear was that removing voting from the public eye would make milquetoasts of us all; voters, it was felt, should be prepared to defend their political choices before their peers. “We should … be willing to give our votes like men,” stated John Plunkett in New South Wales’ Legislative Council – a point naturally more potent for the fact that only men voted. Former Melbourne Lord Mayor William Nicholson, member for North Bourke in Victoria’s first Legislative Council, then caused brief disarray when he moved successfully during debates over the colony’s constitution in December 1855 that “any new Electoral Act should provide for electors recording votes by secret ballot.” The administration of William Haines, an avowed opponent of the move, promptly resigned; Nicholson failed to form a replacement. The death of Sir Charles Hotham then left Victoria with neither government nor governor.

Haines, however, was induced to return, and design of Victoria’s Electoral Act devolved to a respected member: Henry Samuel Chapman, a London-born barrister and bankrupt doubling as a protean political reformer. A friend of the radical philosopher John Stuart Mill, founder of Montreal’s first daily newspaper, compiler of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entries on wool and woollen manufactures, and Melbourne correspondent for The Times, Chapman was author of several texts on responsible government. His inspiration was to insist that, rather than the voter making his mark on any old bit of paper, the government provide a special slip, to be filled out in a private booth and folded for deposit in the ballot box.

Victoria’s Electoral Act 1856 beat South Australia’s parallel legislation by a couple of weeks, although the latter colony made the system more robust still, rendering ballots completely untraceable by eliminating their numbering, and having the voter mark whom he supported rather than striking out whom he did not.

It was an idea whose time had come: within twenty years, every Australian colony, New Zealand, Canada and finally Great Britain itself were voting the Australian way. And the Australian ballot is an artefact of antipodean aspiration; of the possibilities with which the colonies seemed to teem; of the pride that it and other progressive initiatives like manhood suffrage, the eight-hour day and the extension of the franchise to women gave Australasian patriots. As the socialist William Pember Reeves crowed a century ago: “[W]hen face to face with a demand for reforms from which well-read but dawdling pedants in other countries shrink, [Australasian legislators] have the boldness to go forward and the knack of doing work that will serve its purpose.”

Yet it also provokes reflection on the degree to which such hopes remain. Imagine seeking impetus for such a scheme today, in an era when transparency (or the appearance thereof) is next to godliness, the status quo is so resolutely defended, and Australia moves in such disciplined arrears of trends overseas. Political beneficiaries of an existing system would scarcely propose its replacement. Corporate interests would hardly favour a move that limited scope for manipulation of the electorate. Reactionaries would denounce the ballot as an elite scheme grounded in little popular support, and warn against departing from hundreds of years of tradition before ideas were thoroughly tested abroad; progressives would counter-claim that democracy is merely an illusion anyway, and that someone is always being oppressed. Focus groups would incubate the same ‘if-it-ain’t-broke’ attitudes as developed during the debate over the republic. The media would revel in the short-term political turmoil, churning out analysis of polls, amplifications of spin, profiles of personalities and unsourced stories of party-room intrigue.

Voters would finally conclude with a shrug that whatever the system, it’s always a politician who gets elected. The Australian ballot, then, is a symbol of the democratic achievements of our past, and a reminder of the political exhaustion of our present.

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