Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Living in Greece

November 2016

Here in the Peloponnese, autumn is drawing to a close with wet and dreary weather. The occasional storm is also on the agenda. British journalist India Knight says she loves this sort of weather, as it gives her the excuse to loll around the house and wear enormous socks. I like big socks and admire India Knight, but cannot share her enthusiasm for this coolness: I eventually find the grey clouds depressing.

OXI Day, the 28thof October, which commemorates the Greek refusal to allow Italians to enter the country in 1940, has come and gone, and the seaside tavernas and coffee shops are now battening down for the winter. This is also depressing. But I have just watched the Melbourne Cup per courtesy of the Internet, and am feeling not so glum and detribalised, after all. And in this day and age of globalisation we cannot really ignore other times, seasons, and events in other parts of this very messy world. This time next week I will be watching my TV set with dread as I await, along with countless millions, the result of the American election.

Come any election time, I squabble with my British and American friends. Not about actual politics, you understand, but about the thorny matter of compulsory voting. As a good though displaced Aussie Sheila, I am all for it, while many of my friends are firmly agin it. Throughout our arguments, I never veer from my view that my friends/opponents have a wonky view of liberty. They contend that voting should be a matter of choice, while I maintain that it is an obligation. Freedom and responsibility go together. Or they should.

Voting became compulsory in Australia in 1924, after a low turn-out in 1922, so the whole concept is probably hard-wired into the average Australian DNA or outlook by now: after all, the fine for failure to vote is usually seen as merely a token gesture. Meanwhile the British and Americans moan and groan about voter apathy, but seem strangely reluctant to do anything about it, except spend enormous sums of money, and expend much valuable time and energy on persuading the reluctant members of the electorate to make the effort to vote; said members often refuse to be persuaded at the crucial time.

We cannot safely predict what will happen in the USA on November 8th, but an example of voter apathy was seen there in 2014, when only 36% of eligible voters went to the polls in the vital mid-term elections. In the recent British referendum on membership of the EU, 72% of the possible electors voted; this was a higher turnout than expected, and was seen as being high in general. Australia, in contrast, records voter turnouts of 93% to 94% as a matter of course.

You’d think the Brits, at least, would know better about compulsory voting, and would acknowledge the sheer struggle for suffrage: the hardship, bravery, and instances of bloodshed and death. I’ve little idea about present curricula in British schools and universities, but my generation was taught about the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, during which sabre-wielding cavalry charged the record crowd, and killed 15 of the estimated 60,000 plus people; hundreds were injured. The crowd’s purpose was to demand the reform of parliamentary representation: we learned quite a lot about rotten and pocket boroughs, and about the Great Reform Act of 1832. The 1867 and 1884 acts followed: all these measures extended representation, but progress was painfully slow.

Then there was the Chartist movement of 1838-58, with its six demands all related to the ideal of universal male suffrage. (The women’s suffrage movement is a well-known and even more dramatic story.) Many Chartists were charged, tried and punished by prison terms or transportation: unsurprisingly, Chartism had an influence on the Eureka Stockade rebellion.

There is a slight numerical variation in Google’s lists of countries that have compulsory voting, but the most common number seems to be 22. Some countries have compulsory voting on the statute books, but failure to comply with the law is not punished: Greece is one of these. Here people often assert that there is no one to vote for, but voting can be viewed as a preventative action: last year, people should have gone to the polls and voted for virtually any party except Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party that is still the third most powerful parliamentary group in the country, despite the fact that some of its leaders have served time in jail, and that some members have taken guns into Parliament. It is clear that their supporters positively flocked to the polls.

President Obama has commented favourably on Australia’s system of mandatory voting, saying that the introduction of such a system would be ‘transformative’, and would help reduce inequality in American society. He has been predictably reprimanded in consequence, with critics asserting that such a system is an invasion of individual liberty. And my friends continue to be intransigent in their views.

It is recorded that in 1773, genius Dr Johnson and sidekick Boswell were wandering along an Edinburgh alley. Hearing from above the sounds of an altercation, they looked up and saw two women arguing across the alley, while brandishing their brooms from their respective windows. ‘Those women will never agree,’ Johnson famously remarked, ‘because they are arguing from different premises.’ How well I understand.

But no doubt the women kept on arguing. And so will I.

Gillian Bouras


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Gillian Bouras 2018