By Terence Mills
Voting is compulsory in Australia, right? Well, not quite. If you believe that it is your religious duty not to vote then you don’t have to. It’s one of the many privileges granted to those of a religious persuasion but if you or I decide not to vote because we conscientiously believe that those being put forward for election are a group of mongrel twits, we get fined twenty-dollars and the High Court will so find. Well not so quick, an enterprising man in New South Wales, who I have never met but with whom I have a great feeling of empathy, had a close look at the Commonwealth Electoral Act, section 245 (14) where it says:
Without limiting the circumstances that may constitute a valid and sufficient reason for not voting, the fact that an elector believes it to be part of his or her religious duty to abstain from voting constitutes a valid and sufficient reason for the failure of the elector to vote.
In an exercise is in logic reminiscent of the Life of Brian a magistrate in NSW has determined that:
Person: I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’
Woman: What’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Man: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
No, sorry that actually was Life of Brian but it will serve to illustrate the point, to which I will return. What actually happened was that the man has won a legal battle in a New South Wales court after being prosecuted for failing to vote in the 2016 federal election, saying that voting would have left him feeling “morally corrupt”. A powerful argument when you look at the quality of the candidates on offer in New South Wales at the last election. The man admitted that he didn’t vote in the July 2016 election but pleaded not guilty to failing to vote without valid and sufficient reason.
Relying on section 245 of the Electoral Act the self-described agnostic said he believed in “freedom” an ideology that forms the basis of his view of life and his moral framework. The magistrate said fair enough and dismissed the case against him, finding that the man had provided evidence of a valid and sufficient reason not to vote.
Now, this judgement has a massive potential impact on the enquiry that Philip Ruddock is chairing into Protections for Religions and Religious Beliefs. How so? Well it demonstrates the fact that a conscientious belief or an ideology such as “freedom” or agnostic or atheistic beliefs need to be protected equally as much as other beliefs provided that they are conscientiously held. So, as we know, in the national census a large number of people said that their religious belief system centred around Jedi Knights a belief closely aligned with Scientology but without Tom Cruise. An even bigger group said “none of the above” clearly indicating a more intellectually based belief system not relying on symbolism, funny hats, silly walks or omnipotent beings.
So, returning to the Life of Brian analogy, when the act says if an elector believes it to be part of his or her religious duty to abstain from voting, it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any belief system that is conscientiously held, and if you feel that voting for the candidates on offer will leave you feeling morally corrupt then you have every reason to abstain.
I have no doubt that Philip Ruddock will take this into account and extend such protections to all of us.
I rest my case!
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