The Labour Party has floated the idea of withholding state support such as Working for Families tax credits from people who are not enrolled to vote. Its general secretary, Tim Barnett, has told a parliamentary select committee this would tackle "pretty compelling evidence that there is a continuing pattern of people not enrolling". To that most hollow of nuts he would take a sledgehammer. Labour is normally the last party to advocate withholding benefits for any purpose, let alone an electoral one.
The objections are many. First, it is fair to ask whether enrolment needs any enforcement, let alone a method so draconian. A total of 91.7 per cent of eligible voters enrolled for the last election. That is a reasonable proportion, given the absentees are likely to have included many with no interest in politics and no desire to make a voting decision. A high percentage of people enrolled and voting is the best way to produce a government that is as representative as possible. But the flipside of the right to vote is the right to choose not to vote.
Labour's proposal would certainly alienate the very people the party regards as its natural supporters. It believes the non-enrolled are mostly potential Labour voters. But that may not be so if those people find it is Labour that has compelled them to enrol to retain, say, a Working for Families allowance. A higher voter turnout there may be, but perhaps not with the result Labour would like.
Labour has often railed against plans to make state support conditional on compliance with other social programmes, such as requiring beneficiaries to take pre-employment drug tests or threatening to cut benefits if parents do not have children in early childhood education. Yet those sort of conditions address real and obvious problems. To use benefits as leverage for electoral enrolment is more like tilting at windmills.
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It becomes even more problematic when there is a less punitive alternative. Since 2012, Australians have been enrolled directly as they come of age, and their details updated in the same manner. It is done through the Electoral Commission's access to information collated by government agencies, which includes the likes of vehicle registration and attendance at a tertiary education institution.
The obvious concern with this approach is that of privacy. But this appears to have been answered fairly and effectively by notifying people when they are being put on an electoral roll for the first time and giving them 28 days to object. The biggest impact has been in the enrolment of young people, many of whom are transient.
Australia, of course, also makes voting compulsory. That is a path this country has no need to tread. As Mr Barnett suggests, high turnouts at elections do benefit the nation because it means more people are engaged in the democratic process. But in a free society, people should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to contribute to the country's democratic decision. If they are not interested it is in nobody's interest to coerce them, especially by putting their family's sustenance at risk.