7 Apr 2017

Former PMs support compulsory voting in NZ

2:51 pm on 7 April 2017

Three former Prime Ministers want New Zealand to follow Australia's lead and introduce compulsory voting.

Ex-Prime Ministers Jim Bolger, Mike Moore and Geoffrey Palmer

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

They shared their views with RNZ as part of The 9th Floor, a series of interviews with all the living Prime Ministers before John Key.

Watch the first interview in The 9th Floor series with former PM Sir Geoffrey Palmer here:

The idea could struggle to gain traction in Parliament, with both National and Labour rejecting the suggestion.

Former National prime minister Jim Bolger said countries with falling voter turnout had to "ask some hard questions".

"Why do a sizeable proportion think it's not worthwhile? That's a hard question that most political parties want to avoid."

Mr Bolger said he used to oppose compulsory voting, but now wondered whether it should be "a requirement of citizenship".

"You can deface your vote if you like, but you have at least come up there and said - I don't like any of them."

The idea also found favour across the aisle with former Labour prime ministers Mike Moore and Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

Sir Geoffrey said democracy in the Western world 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?"

He said it should be against the law to stay home from the voting booth.

"If you are going to live in a democracy - which is supposed to be conducted by the people, for the people - then the people should have some duties. They should participate and they should vote."

In New Zealand, it is compulsory to register to vote, but voting itself is optional. Those who fail to register face a penalty of up to $200, but no one has been fined in recent elections.

In 2014, 76.77 percent of the 3.1 million New Zealanders enrolled cast a ballot.

That compares to about 91 percent in Australia last year, where non-voters face a $20 fine.

But Prime Minister Bill English hasn't been swayed by his predecessors' pleas, saying "no one's made the case for it".

"Part of the job of politicians is to persuade people it's worth voting - get out the vote," he said.

Labour last year suggested it worth considering making voting compulsory in local body elections.

But deputy leader Jacinda Ardern has now poured cold water on the idea.

"You want your voters to be inclined to vote because they're engaged and... it's a part of citizenship. Compulsion doesn't achieve those aims."

She said many people don't vote because they don't believe it makes a difference or don't understand the differences between different parties.

"That puts the onus on us... I don't think compulsion fixes those problems. It certainly doesn't make voters feel more engaged."

ACT leader David Seymour said compulsory voting resulted in "all sorts of weirdos" being voted in.

"Compulsory voting gave Australia the Australian Sex Party, the Motoring Enthusiast Party. Frankly Australia would be better off if those people just stayed home."

He said the act of not voting is a statement in itself.

"You can lead a voter to the ballot booth, but you can't make them think."

New Zealand First's leader Winston Peters remained open to the idea, saying maybe it was "a subject for public discussion".

Voters have until 22 September to enrol, the day before the 2017 general election.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs