It's rather ironic that two former prime ministers, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore, who were part of the government dedicated to getting nanny state out of our faces, are now calling for compulsory voting.

In Radio New Zealand's series of interviews with past PMs, Palmer, who had to clean up the mess after the David Lange-Roger Douglas partnership imploded, was as close to animated as I can recall. Western democracy was in "some sort of crisis ... hardly anyone votes ... why would they not vote? It's quite hard to understand, are they turned off by it? Do they think it doesn't matter?"

Voting was a duty of those living in a democracy, he said, and should be made compulsory. His brief successor, Mike Moore, and former National PM, Jim Bolger, both agree. Bolger said it should be "a requirement of citizenship".

As one raised during the peak years of the cradle-to-grave nanny state, this belief in one's duty to vote is similarly ingrained within me. But I can also understand why young people, saddled with large student loans and little prospects of buying a home, are, to use Sir Geoffrey's words, "turned off by it".


He and I grew of age in a very different country to the one the young and poor non-voters of today are citizens of. Society was so different. We were like the sheep that kept the country afloat.

When the recently departed John Clarke/Fred Dagg popped up on our screens in the 70s, there was only one channel, and, as a result, only one topic over tea the next morning.

Similarly there was one religion and it was rugby. As a schoolboy I remember being herded inside the white picket fences at Eden Park to sit on the wet sideline grass to watch the Springboks - and avoid the missiles being fired by the oil-skin clad army of drunks on the terraces behind.

Every three years, like sheep - or good democrats - we traipsed off to cast a vote. In the highly regulated society which Sir Geoffrey's fourth Labour Government did so much to dismantle, that's what you did. It was part of the deal, I guess, along with free school milk, state houses, 6 o'clock closing and no weekend shopping.

Now that central government has taken a major step back from interfering in citizens' lives, it should have been no surprise that those most disadvantaged have begun to decide there's nothing here for them either and drifted off.

Australian-style compulsory voting will certainly make the figures look better. But forcing the unwilling to participate under threat of a fine is hardly democracy of the willing. Even the Labour Party, who look likeliest to gain in low-voting South Auckland seats, have been quick to reject the proposal. Deputy leader Jacinda Ardern declared "you want voters to be inclined to vote because they're engaged".

For New Zealand, the most relevant aspect of the action plan was providing political parties with extra funds to pay for information initiatives during election campaigns.

Turnout at the 2014 election was 77.9 per cent, which was actually 3.7 per cent better than in 2011, but that was against a trend of steady decline since July 1984, when a record 93.7 per cent turned out to dump Rob Muldoon and bring in the Lange Labour Government.

Instead of compulsion, perhaps we should check out what Sweden did when faced with a similar problem. Since 1944, this Scandinavian welfare state had experienced average turnouts in national elections of 85 per cent, peaking at 91.8 per cent in 1976. By 2002 turnout had dropped to 80.1 per cent and the Swedes were concerned.


New Zealand's turnout record is actually better, hovering in the high 80s or early 90s between 1922 and 1987 - apart from a temporary dip in 1978 due to an outdated roll.

Instead of considering compulsory voting, Sweden came up with a positive action plan which reversed the decline. In 2014, turnout was up to 85.8 per cent.

For New Zealand, the most relevant aspect of the action plan was providing political parties with extra funds to pay for information initiatives during election campaigns. In addition, the local electoral commissions which administer the elections got involved in civic education between elections, pushing the idea that citizens were participants in the process of government, rather than just bystanders.

For the health of our democracy, this seems a better path than dragging non-voters before a judge.