Australia’s Compulsory Voting Laws: No Room for Dissent

N Sands, Kamilaroi and Wailwan

“You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my rights here at home” Muhammad Ali

Ali made it clear he was not going to fight other coloured people merely to help preserve the imperial domination of the white man. And at the same time Ali brilliantly conveys how an imperial or colonial government audaciously expects servitude and civic participation, from the very same people it violently colonised or enslaved hundreds of years prior.

The Australian government, like North Korea, enforces compulsory voting laws meaning that the federal government expects us Aboriginal people to vote in its elections. Australia expects us to help choose the next leader of the government which invaded our ancestors only 228 years ago. We are required to vote for a person to represent the very same government who refuses, to this day, to sign a treaty and formally acknowledge Aboriginal sovereignty and title. We are expected to participate in this colonial structure and perform the civic duties of a good citizen while the federal government mines and pollutes our land, deregisters, desecrates and builds over our artefacts and sacred sites.

The Australian government expects us to subscribe to its identity, to vote in its elections, and to line up to fight in their wars while at the same time the federal australian government has historically offered us little in return. We never have, and still don’t have justice or equality before the law, the Australian government doesn’t stand up for our rights here at home. Our lives and issues are not a federal priority. They literally are our biggest opposer, the paternalistic power governing the parameters of our lives. The federal government has taken our land, taken our children, and taken our wages. We are the target of neglectful federal policies continuing down to this day, take for instance the 2007 Intervention. It was based entirely upon lies and increased Aboriginal suicide phenomenally, but was supported and implemented by both major parties, demonstrating the federal lack of regard for our basic human rights and the continued the dehumanisation of us.

So why are we expected to participate in the political system which serves nothing but colonial interests? Why are we expected to vote for a government which has a poor track record regarding our human rights? Does voting reduce suicide rates? Does voting ‘close the gap?’ What does it directly offer us Indigenous people? Do any of the candidates advocate exclusively for our issues like the protection of lands from the mining industry? Highly unlikely considering the federal government wholeheartedly supports the mining industry to the detriment of Aboriginal land rights and land related concerns.

As a group, Aboriginal people possess very little political power. We make up less than 3% of the Australian population but according to the Australian Electoral Commissions (AEC) only 58% of Aboriginal people are actually enrolled to vote. This highlights that the voting process may be seen as highly irellevant to most Indigenous people, otherwise our enrolment rate would be much higher. Maybe Aboriginal people can see that their vote means little to nothing.

Why should we participate in a system where we are simply amalgamated into the mainstream? Maori people living in New Zealand have dedicated seats in parliament plus the Māori Electoral Option, giving them not only a space for their voice within the imposed colonial government, but also the agency to decide their political identity and the ability to vote for people who actually represent them, their values and interests.

In Australia there are alternatives to voting or participating in a political system which was not designed to suit us. For example we could choose to exercise our right to not vote according to section 245 (14) of the Electoral Act which states “the fact that the elector believes it to be part of their religious duty to abstain from voting does constitute a valid and sufficient reason for not voting”.

As a group Jehovah’s Witnesses do not vote in any form of election, sing the national anthem, salute the flag, or serve in the military, they would not lobby for a political candidate, run for government, or participate in actions endeavouring to change a government. They believe that they have been instructed by Jesus to remain politically neutral. They will respect the authority of the government and follow all laws until these contradict their religious commands or beliefs, and significantly, the federal government accommodates this display of religious autonomy.  

Once the Jehovah’s Witness has received their fine in the mail for failing to vote, the individual would simply respond in writing, notifying the AEC of the specific scriptural grounds or reasons for their refusal to vote as permitted by section 245 of the Electoral Act, then the fine is waived. In the 2015 elections 1,379 Australian electors successfully exercised their right to not vote according to the Electoral Act, no doubt including many Jehovah’s Witnesses but also included Anaiwan man who stated that “I did not vote in the Queensland State General Election held 31 January 2015 because it is my religious obligation as a member of the Anaiwan Aboriginal tribe not to participate in Australian elections”.

“One of the most important obligations as an indigenous community members is that we are not supposed to speak on behalf of other people or countries. If I had voted in that election, or in the federal election that did not involve my country, then I would be speaking on behalf of that tribe.”  

Essentially it would be disrespectful for me and it would breach my customary obligation as an Anaiwan man to participate in elections on someone else’s country and to vote for a non-Aboriginal person to speak on behalf of that country. It is something that a lot of blackfellas know. I (we) don’t have the right to speak on behalf of someone else’s’ mob.”

As we can see from this example, it demonstrates that the voting procedure directly violates the cultural principles of most Indigenous people, therefore we need to collectively exercise our rights according to section 245 of the Electoral Act, forcing the recognition of our status as a distinct people with distinct political rights.

Palawa man, Michael Mansell has not participated in the Australian election process since his youth, when he began seriously thinking about and working toward Indigenous sovereignty and Aboriginal nationalism. In 1992 Mansell was prosecuted by the commonwealth of australia for failing to vote in an election and ordered to pay the fine or face two days in prison. Mansell maintained that he was not going to vote, or pay the fine as “he is a member of the aboriginal nation and not the australian one”. Aboriginal voting abstention should be interpreted as a form of political protest regarding white control over Aboriginal affairs.

In conclusion, Australia’s compulsory voting law is incompatible with democracy because it stifles the expression of political dissent, especially for us Aboriginal people. Like everybody else on this planet, we Aboriginal people have the right to determine our political status, including what nationality/identity we do or do not subscribe to, or what political system we will participate in. Being forced to vote for people who do not represent us or care about us is not fair.

So despite the threat of fine and convictions, some Aboriginal people refuse to participate in Australian elections dominated by two parties whose policies are one and the same in the oppression of Aboriginal people. We chose to fight for the elevation of our people, not the forced amalgamation of ourselves. We should look to the future and endeavour to secure for ourselves the power, equality, freedom and justice Ali spoke of, instead of waiting for a colonial system to determine our destiny or dole out our rights or liberties.

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