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Greene: Parrots at the Polls

We’ve been hosting an Australian heavy metal band, King Parrot, off and on, for a few weeks. And it’s been quite an adventure.

In Aussie slang, Parrot is an obnoxious and loud person. King Parrot, therefore, is the most obnoxious. But offstage, our guests have been anything but. They’re thoughtful, kind, funny, wildly grateful for any meal I happen to pull together, hard working, intelligent and very charming guests. So we’ve been quizzing them about Australia.

There are obvious parallels between our two countries. We’re both young as countries go, with a fondness for macho icons. We have Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, they have Crocodile Dundee and Chopper.

We’re both predominantly Caucasian populations that have dominated indigenous people to the edge of extinction. Immigration is a hotly debated issue in both countries.

But there’s something, besides kangaroos and koalas, that is startlingly different. In Australia, Oz for short, voting is compulsory and has been so for over a century.

It’s one of 23 countries worldwide that requires its citizens to vote in elections, and one of ten countries that actually enforce those laws. Other enforcers are Argentina, Brazil, Lichtenstein, Luxemburg and Singapore. A few countries that do not enforce their voting requirements are France, Mexico, Belgium, Greece and Gabon.

In Oz, if you don’t register at 18 and vote in a general election, you’re fined. The amount is slight: 20 Australian dollars, but that’s enough to get 94% of the eligible voters to the polls, according to BBC Asia.

There are people who fall between the cracks, and the percentage of spoilt or “donkey” ballots can be quite high - 6%. But even taking those numbers into account, turnout is still well over 80%, a figure that would have our civics teachers weeping with joy.

Libertarians in Oz question whether a compulsory vote isn’t a contradiction to democracy itself. They contend that voting should be a privilege and not a duty. But King Parrot’s drummer, Todd Hansen, thinks compulsory voting does result in a more engaged electorate. “I familiarize myself with the candidates before I vote. So do my mates,” he says.

Incidentally, in ancient Athens, cradle of democracy, voting was considered a civic duty. In a nod to human nature, however, attendance at the assembly was voluntary.

Ari White, King Parrot’s guitarist, was shocked when he encountered an American at a local bar who said he wasn’t going to bother voting until he found a candidate he liked. After all, voter apathy cedes power to the status quo without a struggle.

According to Rohan Wenn of Get Up! - the Australian non-partisan political advocacy group - compulsory participation protects the rights of marginalized groups, ensuring that their voices are heard.

Both major parties in Oz have considered campaigns to abolish compulsory voting, but they can’t seem to determine which party would benefit the most. And until they do, voters will continue to flock to the polls in droves.