The Sydney Morning Herald

By David Wroe

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has accused the Liberal Party of trying to make democracy ''the plaything of cashed-up interest groups'' after the Queensland government opened the door to the abolition of compulsory voting.

Senior Labor figures attacked Queensland's Liberal-National Premier, Campbell Newman, on Thursday after his government released a discussion paper on planned electoral reforms that included a section on whether the state should end nearly a century of mandatory voting.

Ms Gillard tweeted: ''Fight @theqldpremier's plan to end compulsory voting. Don't let the Liberals make our democracy the plaything of cashed-up interest groups.''

The federal Treasurer, Wayne Swan, also lashed out at the paper, comparing the move to the corruption-plagued Joh Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland, and to the US Tea Party movement.

He said the move was aimed at dampening voter dissent over deep public service cuts in Queensland, in which 14,000 jobs have been shed.

But the Queensland Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, who released the discussion paper on Thursday, said the state government had not reached any position on compulsory voting.

The paper itself does not make a recommendation but asks, as an issue for consultation with the public, ''Should compulsory voting remain for Queensland State elections?'' It notes that a Coalition-dominated federal parliamentary inquiry into the 1996 federal election called for a repeal of compulsory voting, arguing that Australia could not otherwise ''consider itself a mature democracy''.

The Coalition MPs on the committee included Eric Abetz, now the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Mr Abetz said on Thursday that he favoured an end to compulsory voting because of ''personal liberty issues'' but that federal Coalition policy was to keep it.

''I'm not making a cause celebre out of it,'' he said. ''It's a personal point of view.''

The opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, has also written recently in support of voluntary voting, as has the parliamentary secretary for families, Jamie Briggs.

Mr Abetz said it was hypocritical of Ms Gillard to talk about democracy becoming a toy of well-funded interest groups, given she attended ''a slush fund fund-raiser that raised over $250,000 for the Australian Workers Union'' in 2008.

It is compulsory for Australians aged 18 and over to vote, though the fine for not doing so is only $20. Most comparable countries, including the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, have voluntary voting.

The acting leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, said compulsory voting forced people to think about who should govern them.

''We shouldn't make our electoral system more like America's, where big money is spent simply trying to convince people to vote, and conservative religious groups with big followings have extraordinary electoral power,'' he said.

David Weisbrot, a law professor at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre who has studied voting systems closely, said abolishing compulsory voting would likely advantage the Coalition.

People more likely to drop out of the electoral system if voting were voluntary — the poor, students and people who moved frequently — were more likely to vote Labor or Greens, he said. ''I don't think you'll ever see a Labor Party … calling for non-compulsory voting.''

This article was originally published by the The Sydney Morning Herald