On suffrage

I contemplate suffrage and voting rights after Jacinda Ardern's 'Happy Suffrage Day' video leads to an interesting debate on social media. I explore the danger of appealing to historical models and salute New Zealand for a job well done.


On the 19th of September, New Zealand marked 125 years of suffrage for women. They were the first self-governing nation state to extend voting rights to women. As an Australian citizen, I've often looked over the ditch with envy. While my adoptive country struggles to reconcile Indigenous rights, gender inequality, climate change policies and progressive social issues, New Zealand, with its breast-feeding Gen X socialist Prime Minister beats us every single time.

When Jacinda Ardern's 'Happy Suffrage Day' video found its way on my LinkedIN feed, I was rather surprised by some of the ill-conceived comments, like this one, for example:

Voting was an earned right. Men were Expected to take up arms for defense and to assist local law enforcement in apprehending criminals and fighting fires, all dangerous and life threatening jobs that women were not expected to do. It was also tied to land and business Ownership as without that society quickly stops in its tracks. People need to study history not just to know what has happened in the past but also to understand WHY things were done the way they were. Giving everyone the vote without the responsibility that goes with it IHMO was one of the most stupid things our ancestors could have done.

Yes, I agree that people need to study history -- not least the person who posted the above comment.

While it's interesting to understand how voting rights were first awarded, it's not relevant today. Today, most democracies extend voting rights to the entire adult citizenry. The only qualification is citizenship and age. Is that not enough? Surely responsibility lies with parents, teachers and society at large to instil the importance of voting. If people don't understand how important this right is, then the failure is ours as a democratic society, not theirs as individuals.

The commenter's stated argument that 'giving everyone the vote without the responsibility' is stupid concerns me deeply as an advocate of universal suffrage and democracy. Should we look at historical models where voting was the privilege of those who are landed or belonged to a certain class?

In Australia at least, restricting the vote to people who own houses would wipe out half the electorate and most people under 35.

What about class, or salary or education level? Clearly a slippery slope -- one that would disenfranchise many.

Then there's the notion of voting rights given in exchange for military service. I for one, don't relish the idea of a voting class solely made up of people who've been through the Industrial-Military complex. Not that I have a problem with people who've served their country's military, far from it. I simply believe society is best served by different experiences -- not monoculture.

I love history -- I studied it for years as an undergraduate. History teaches us gratitude, humility and more importantly, our mistakes. Universal voting rights was not a mistake, it was one of the modern world's most important achievements. Appealing to historical societies based on class, gender, patriarchy, religion and militarism have no merit as a model for our modern societies.

So, I salute you New Zealand, just as I salute all those who came before us that fought for the right to stand up and be counted.

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