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Right or Duty? Compulsory Voting in Australia

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Photo of Sally Warhaft, Kim Rubenstein and Judith Brett

Sally Warhaft, Kim Rubenstein and Judith Brett

In a democracy, should voting be a citizen’s right or a citizen’s duty?

Australia is one of a small number of countries – including Argentina and Egypt – with mandatory voting. Australia is rare, within this small group of nations, in imposing penalties on citizens who fail to turn up to vote. Compulsory voting has been in place here since 1924 and it sets us apart from other advanced democracies. Less than 60% of the US voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election.

For this conversation, we bring together citizenship law expert Kim Rubenstein and the eminent historian Judith Brett, author of From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting. They trace the history of our voting system and examine how it’s shaped the tenor of our debates and our sense of ourselves and our representatives – plus, how the system may yet change. With Sally Warhaft, they discuss donkey votes, ballot boxes, barbeques and the wide-ranging implications of compulsory participation.


Portrait of Sally Warhaft

Sally Warhaft

Sally Warhaft is a Melbourne broadcaster, anthropologist and writer. She hosts the Fifth Estate, the Wheeler Centre’s live series focusing on journalism, politics, media, and international relations, now in its ninth year. She is a former editor of the Monthly magazine and the author of the bestselling book Well May We Say: The Speeches that Made Australia.

Sally is a regular host and commentator on ABC radio and has a PhD in anthropology. She did her fieldwork in Mumbai, India, living by the seashore with the local fishing community.

Portrait of Kim Rubenstein

Kim Rubenstein

Kim Rubenstein is a Professor in the Law School, a former Director of its Centre for International and Public law (2006-2015) and a Public Policy fellow at the Australian National University. A graduate of Melbourne and Harvard law schools, her many publications include her landmark book Australian Citizenship Law in Context (2002) with a new updated 2nd edition in 2017. 

Portrait of Judith Brett

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is the award-winning author of From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting (2019), The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (2017), Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (1993) and Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class (2003). She is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. She contributes regularly to the Monthly, and has written three Quarterly Essays.

The Fifth Estate

The important stories of the day – off the front pages.

Sally Warhaft hosts a dizzying array of guests from the worlds of politics, culture, international relations and beyond, in a witty and revealing analysis of current affairs.