Three things you didn't know about elections Down Under

Three things you didn't know about elections Down Under
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Next week Australians go to the polls. Like American elections, a few swing districts probably will decide the outcome. The campaign trail might look familiar, too, with feisty debates and a flashy billionaire hogging the local headlines.

But in other ways, Australian elections are different. Three things in particular will surprise you: who votes, when they do it, and what happens the week after.


First, nearly everyone in Australia votes. This year 97 percent of eligible Australians are enrolled, including 89 percent of young people. Voter turnout at the last federal election was 91 percent. That compares to 60 percent of eligible Americans who cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election.

It’s not that Australians are obsessed with politics — far from it. Aussie politicians are about as popular as a snake in a sleeping bag. Instead, Australians show up on Election Day because they have to.

Voting in federal elections has been compulsory for almost a century. Failure to vote attracts a fine, but most Australians see voting as a civic responsibility, like paying taxes or jury duty. Compulsory voting lends legitimacy to elected governments. It means marginalized voices are more likely to be heard. And it forces leaders to address the broader community rather than a narrow base, which has a moderating effect on our politics.

There’s little appetite for change when it comes to Australia’s voting rules. If anything, Australia should focus on increasing turnout. Indigenous people are still underrepresented at elections, which is not surprising given that the franchise came far too late for First Australians. Until that gap is closed, there’s more work to be done.

A second quirk of Australian elections is that the prime minister gets to decide when the vote is held. Australia’s constitution calls for a lower-house ballot at least every three years. Beyond that, though, the prime minister picks the date. An incumbent can call a snap poll early in the term, or wait until the very last moment.

This is a problem. Unfixed terms give too much power to the prime minister, resulting in elections timed for personal and partisan advantage. Absence of fixed terms also creates uncertainty for the economy, with too much energy dedicated to election timing and too little reserved for governing.

Australia’s opposition party wants fixed four-year terms. Not only would this promote stability and fair competition, it would encourage long-term thinking. Four years gives a government the space to tackle hard issues and embed real reform. While plenty of Americans in the Trump era might like the sound of shorter cycles, the truth is that four-year terms produce better policy.

Finally, what happens the week after an Australian election would baffle most Americans. Before getting down to work, a new government must be formally appointed by someone exercising powers of the Crown. In other words, the people’s vote needs sign-off from an unelected official representing the Queen.

The Queen of England, that is.

Australia is still a constitutional monarchy, which means Australia’s head of state is still the Queen of England. Every government, every election, and every law must be approved by the Governor-General, who acts as the monarch’s local representative.

This style of government has passed its use-by date. Australia is not a “Little Britain,” stuck in the wrong hemisphere. The country’s future lies as much in its Asian geography as it does in its European history. And with a proudly egalitarian spirit, Australia’s system of government should not be marked by inherited privilege. It’s surely time, in 2019, for Australia’s head of state to be an Australian.

The Labor opposition is committed to an Australian republic. Labor would schedule a national vote on the issue within three years, although it may prioritize a separate push for constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. Either way, only by rejecting the conservative government will Australia see reform.

If Australians vote for change next week, the new government will have a strong mandate for its agenda. That includes modernizing an aging constitution to foster the type of bold, independent leadership Australia needs.

Daniel Allman is Australian and a lawyer in the New York office of Covington & Burling LLP, where he specializes in cross-border dispute resolution. He has worked as a lawyer in Australia and on business and human rights issues in Southeast Asia. The views expressed here are solely his own.