25 August 2010

Post election post

You have to love parliamentary democracy. Even better, you have to love the comments on this article in the Herald-Sun that proves my point that I made several weeks ago about Australians: We all know bugger all about our own system.

The article itself begs some pretty powerful questions.

Firstly, how illiterate actually is the Herald-Sun's readership?

Secondly, is our system actually broken?

There is a subtext in a lot of this that suggests that the electorate is not happy unless one of the major parties has an absolute majority. It possibly should be borne in mind that of the parties in what we term the Coalition (now 4 parties and counting), none of them has had a majority in the lower house in their own right individually for many years.

Are there people actually freaking out now that we have a hung parliament? Clearly there are and it goes to the nub of what I indicated in my first post in this series: You don't vote for the government. You vote for your local member. It is then, really, up to them as to who governs.

The fact that there is going to have to be deals done as to whom ends up getting power is largely irrelevant to the Australian people, much as they might hate it. I'd really love to say, "If you don't like this, then move somewhere else," but I loathe that phrase as it suggests that people should not even attempt to make a difference. It basically says that trying to make a difference is "un-Australian".

Let's look at some of the events of the last couple of years:

1. Tony Abbott becomes Opposition Leader. Not a squeak from the media. No one writes outraged comments to the Herald-Sun saying, "I didn't vote for him." Compare this to:

2. Julia Gillard becomes Prime Minister. Media goes crazy. Cue deluge of irate writers to the tabloids about how she wasn't elected by the Australian people.

The fact is that we don't elect our leaders. End of discussion. Hence my disgust at Australians who seem to be happy with one and not the other.

But it's actually more than that: We actually have no say in which parties form our government ends up being. This is pretty important.

We now have a hung parliament. Both major parties could end up doing a deal with, at last count, four independents, one member of the Greens and just to throw a spanner in the works, a member of the Nationals who points out that the WA branch is not actually a part of the Coalition. In fact, they're another party altogether.

Personally, I love this. I think that this is how the Westminster parliamentary system is supposed to work.

So did you blindly vote for a party member on the basis of who you would have liked to govern?

Not I. I voted according to whom best to represent my electorate. This is how our system is structured, and this is how things are intended to happen. Mind you, I should point out that going into the election, I didn't really have a clear preference for which party should run the country.

So how do we resolve this? Does it need resolving? Should partisan party politics always be the basis for governments in Australia?

Let's look at some of the other issues.

3. Three independents clearly are going to be instrumental in getting a potential future government across the line. Cue more irate texting, commenting on blogs, letters etc.

These independents were elected by their constituents. If their constituents wanted a member of the major parties in office, they would have voted for them. They didn't, they voted for independents.

After election night, Tony Abbott carried on like a bit of a tool. In a moment of frustration, he pretty much told the independents to side with him. The message was clear: The Labor Party don't have a majority, therefore, we (the Coalition) are the rightful rulers.

The only problem with this was that the view of the electorate is far from convincing on this – Abbott's crew was also not granted a majority.

The fact is, that the independents can do whatever they like. They're independent. If they side with the ALP, then good on them. If they side with the Coalition, then good on them as well. It's probably now important to mention that Tony Crook, the new member for O'Connor has indicated that he will sit on the crossbenches, despite the fact that his party has 'National Party' in its name.

This may now mean that there are six crossbenchers. What happens if three of them side with the ALP and three of them side with the Coalition, assuming that the majors get 72 seats apiece – not counting Crook as part of the Coalition count?

The Herald-Sun readership appears to think that, "Oh we didn't elect the independents. Why should they have this much clout?"

The reality is that if we had never had a two party environment in our parliament, this would probably not be an issue. If more independents were elected, I personally think that Australians would have a much better idea about how Westminster works.

You see, this is essentially it. You vote for your member on the basis of who should represent your electorate. Should you consider the "bigger picture"? Absolutely, but consider this:

4. The voters of Bennelong didn't elect previous member Maxine McKew for a second term. McKew almost does a 'Kernot' by dumping on the party campaign on national TV. It turns out that the reason she was dumped by Bennelong was because she was never there.

That's right. McKew was only interested in the bigger picture. McKew completely forgot her primary responsibility, which was to represent Bennelong to the federal parliament. How could McKew be expected to do this if she never even bothered to turn up in her actual electorate? Talk about taking your electorate for granted.

Fortunately, McKew was punished for her arrogance when her electorate turned on her. Which, by the way, was the only seat that Labor lost in New South Wales.

5. Adam Bandt, the new Greens member for Melbourne, has indicated that he will support Labor. Yet more outrage.

I almost feel sorry for the voters in the electorate of Melbourne who voted for Brandt on the strength of his non-affiliation with the major parties. But Bandt can do whatever he likes now that he is in parliament. He probably won't be re-elected by the voters in Melbourne. And you know, if he keeps up this act and doesn't learn when to keep his mouth shut, he might find himself disaffiliated by his own party, although I expect that he might find preselection tougher next time round if the Greens don't disaffiliate him.

6. Fact: If voting informal was a vote for a political party, then the 'Informal Party' would have been the fifth highest polling party on primary votes.

This is a nationwide stat. It probably beats the Werriwa by-election after Mark Latham vacated parliament which was the previous record-holding election for informal votes cast, although I couldn't say for certain. And because it's a nationwide stat, the informal vote count in some electorates is probably enormously high – I know that in this election, Werriwa recorded a 10.59% informal vote as at 22 August.

Compulsory voter registration is the core reason for this. You can bang on and on about voter apathy, disengagement, jadedness or whathaveyou but really, compulsory voter registration needs to be seriously looked at. How many trees went into the paper voted on? How much petrol was burnt by voters coming and going from polling booths for this little wasted exercise? How many person hours could the Productivity Commission add on for this?

I do get grumpy about this topic. And when I do, I get a chorus of the same old lame excuses about why compulsory voter registration is a great idea.

"It's your civic duty," says one. Congratulations, Einstein – you've just justified conscription.

"You can't opt-out of paying taxes," says another. Apart from indirectly linking tax evaders with people who don't vote, this person has also managed to suggest that some people manage to magically avoid roads, schools and a defence force that's there for them. Which still has to be paid for.

"You have a moral obligation to vote," says yet another. That's great, I say. How does removing the legal requirement impact this? No answer was what I got, but the correct answer is, "It doesn't. You would still have a moral obligation to vote regardless." It's only the very lazy who would cough up this tired 'reason'.

"Our forefathers fought and died for the right to vote." This is one of the silliest ones I've heard yet. A legal imperative to vote is not a goddamn right, it's a legal requirement. A right is something you can opt-out of, it is not an obligation, despite what another correspondent thinks may or may not be in the Magna Carta. In any event, here's a few other things our and other forefathers fought and died for: The Inquisition, Jerusalem in the Crusades, ruling royal families, the right to keep slaves, a golden stool, someone's ear, the list goes on and on. It's probably fair to say that voting is one of the less idiotic reasons for a battle.

7. Rob Oakeshott, independent member for Lyne has the nerve to suggest that the ALP and the Coalition begin discussions about forming a coalition. Much mirth and ridicule ensues from the press gallery. Voters who know nothing about the Australian parliamentary system start muttering the words 'dictatorship', 'communism' and 'no one voted for that'.

This has got to be the a high water mark in press idiocy. For one thing, Oakeshott is right when he says that this is a good idea. What if a party got the magical 76 seat count in the House and then lost that majority in a by-election? This has worked in other democracies - I can think of Norway and Israel being two - and would merely require parliamentarians to work together to sort their problems out.

Which is precisely the job that we pay them to do! We don't elect governments, really, as I mentioned before. We elect local members to do that for us.

So how does our newly elected House of Representatives stack up?

Currently, it appears that the ALP and the Coalition have 71 almost certain seats each. I say 'almost certain' because I'm going by Antony Green's excellent coverage on the ABC's website, and he still has three seats in doubt.

The Coalition actually consists of four parties - the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Liberal National Party of Queensland and the Country Liberal Party.

Green has not subtracted Tony Crook of the WA Nationals and newly elected member for O'Connor, who believes that the Nationals of the rest of Australia doesn't include the WA Nationals. So really, that's 70 seats to the Coalition.

The members for Kennedy, Lyne, New England and Denison are independents, and the member for Melbourne is a member of the Australian Greens. The members for Kennedy, Lyne and New England are ex-National Party members who are completely unpredictable (especially the certifiable Bob Katter) and may end up not siding with either the ALP or the Coalition. Adam Bandt appears to think that he'll side with Labor, which just leaves Andrew Wilkie, newly elected independent for Denison.

Wilkie is an ex-Greens member and former spy who was shafted by the Coalition when they were in power, however he has no love for the Labor Party either.

There are three seats that still appear to be in doubt - Brisbane, Hasluck and Corangamite.

Where this goes is really anyone's guess. In any event, I expect any government that forms to not last very long before the Governor-General tells all involved to call fresh elections.

Ironically, in sorting this out, this could make our much loved Governor-General, Ms Quentin Bryce, a very disliked individual indeed.


Paul said...

Some points I disagree with:

Bandt siding with the ALP? I don't think there was ever any doubt about this. Everyone knows where the Greens stand on the political spectrum, and I daresay the Greens would have far more to lose if they were responsible for putting an Abbott-led conservative government into power than they do by agreeing to give supply to an ALP government.

They might have slightly more luck with a Turnbull government, or a Baillieu government in Victoria, but still, I wouldn't put any money on it happening.

Compulsory voting: I see it as a good way to prevent disenfranchisement. Eg, overbearing husband can't force wife to stay at home for fear she might vote for the wrong mob, and get away with it.

And even so, the level of informal voting this time is miniscule when compared to other countries who have similarly uninterested electorates and struggle to get 50%. At least this result still looks legitimate.

Stability: the Victorian 1999 election threw up a similar result, with two independents that were from the conservative side of politics, and one ex-Labor independent. That government went full term. Frankly, I think the ALP have the advantage here. With the Greens having the balance of power in the Senate after July, a left of centre government in both houses will be a far more stable proposition than a right-wing one in the lower house only.

Dikkii said...

G'day Paul,

Agree with you on the Adam Bandt point. My point was not really so much about the Greens' tendency to side with Labor, it was more about the way that Bandt has effectively put himself out in the media as a Labor stooge. The Greens go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from the majors and Bandt's comments have the potential to undermine their work in this area.

I liked your point about disenfranchisement and your example. I thought about this initially and thought, well that's a better reason than some of the ones that I get. Although, I did think initially that it's analogous (in a good way, Paul, please don't get me wrong here!) to a reason for mandatory detention for asylum seekers being to screen potential individuals likely to engage in terror-related activity for the following reasons:

* It's effective, that is, it works.
* It's compliant with the precautionary principle.
* You walk away from both problems thinking, "is there a better way that this problem could be fixed?"

It's after this third point where the two analogies diverge and become less similar. You see, after a while, it becomes incredibly obvious that your example of a husband forbidding his wife to vote as being more symptomatic of a far broader problem for which compulsory voting is an incredibly narrow fix.

I'm actually reminded of a photo that occasionally does the email rounds. It has a bloke with what appears to be a gaping shark bite putting a band-aid on. Helpfully inserted as a caption at the bottom of the photo in large, bold capitals is the word "Epic Fail."

And much like the third dot point above, I walk away thinking that there has to be a better fix than what is definitely a band-aid on a shark bite problem.

I do have to pull you up on this statement:

And even so, the level of informal voting this time is miniscule when compared to other countries who have similarly uninterested electorates and struggle to get 50%. At least this result still looks legitimate.

The informal vote count in Werriwa this election is NOT miniscule. I'm not even sure that this was the worst electorate, and even the nationwide stats showing informal votes cast as a percentage of the primary vote are friggin embarrassing.

Nevertheless, it is a better result than the less than 50% engagement figure you've quoted, although I think that it is beneath all of us to compare Australia to the disgraceful 'benchmark' (I use this term advisedly) you have referenced.

Agree with your sentiments in the last paragraph except for one point, which is pretty minor. The press has been guilty of suggesting that there was a change of government mid-term. There wasn't, only the leader changed. Therefore, it went the full term, albeit a shortened one for an election.

Matt said...

I agree with you that the list of excuses for compulsory voting that you describe in the post are very suspect. My main concern with non-compulsory voting - at least in our country - is that we may be likely to see certain demographics disproportionately represented to the detriment of the people in others.

Of course, it's quite simple for people to overcome this. They just have to turn up and vote.

Whether that reality would eventuate or not, I don't know. However, upon reading Janet Albrechtsen's highly bigoted and elitist recent Twitter comments, I feel the potential risks from non-compulsory voting are quite alarming.

Dikkii said...

Hi Matt, and welcome. I would like to see some stats on this, really I would. One of the things that has been hammered home to me is that if voter registration was made non-compulsory, we'd see some disproportionate demographics represented, voter-wise.

If we could find out something concrete on this, it would be an excellent argument for compulsory voting, I agree.

Of course, this argument might be weakened if it also turned out to be the case that demographic groups who weren't represented were the same groups submitting informal or intentional donkey votes. Sadly, I suspect that we won't see a survey of this nature using the same sample, which would be ideal.

I have to say that I tend to run a million miles from anything that Janet Albrechtsen is associated with, so I don't know what she's written. If I find that I'm in agreement with her, then I'll probably immediately change my mind!

Plonka said...

Boo :)

Plonka said...

"Apart from indirectly linking tax evaders with people who don't vote,"

Well, the brethren spring to mind...:)

"Our forefathers fought and died for the right to vote."

Fallacious. No one fought and died for the right to vote in this country. Yes, the miners fought for representation at Eureka, but that's an entirely different kettle of coconuts.

And it isn't really a right either, but... There are many laws that protect rights and make them compulsory, the UN specialises in them and you don't have the right to object. We, on the other hand, can "conscientiously object" to voting, but you'd better have a well prepared argument and be prepared to spend some time presenting it.

And I don't think it's a question of morality either. It's simply a legal obligation born out of a desire to ensure a majority representation at the polls. The choice is simple, vote, object or be fined, and I really don't have an issue with it. Democracy is not a right and never has been, it's a privilege protected by law.

Anyway, good to see you're still at it Dikkii...

Dikkii said...

Thanks Plonka, and it's lovely to hear from you. I hope that this means that you're up and about and blogging again.

You're right in that voting is a privilege protected by law, however the privilege is abused now by so many Australians that we are potentially getting meaningless results. We have to protect the quality of results in some way or other.

Plonka said...

Well yes... Is it abuse though? The system allows it and the result has made for interesting reading, not to mention made some people angry, which I find quite amusing. That's the thing about a democracy though, the right people don't always win, the popular ones do. But then sometimes we protest and who knows who'll win...;)

As always though, I had to agree with the gist of your argument. I too can never understand why it is people say they didn't vote for this Prime Minister...DUH! No kidding!!

Well actually, I did. But then I live in her electorate which made my choice doubly difficult. No, I don't think she's going to be good for my electorate necessarily, but do think she's the best they've got. And yes, for the second time in my life I voted for a Prime Minister (I used to live in Wills, way back when)...

But Dikkii, it isn't voting that's the privilege, it's Democracy itself that needs protection. You and I only become offended by being coerced because we'd do it anyway. We take our country's governance seriously, even if we don't get it right every time. Like I said though, that's the glory of it. We feel the pain of our mistakes as well as the gory of our triumphs.

Dikkii said...

Well, Plonka, I guess that you do get to vote for the PM.

I suppose that abuse was a bit strong a term. Nonetheless, I suppose that I'm concerned about the contamination of electoral results by impure votes cast. It skews the results and, in the case of certain seats in this election could potentially lead to misleading results.

The other question I have is with the rise of informal votes. At what point do we concede that, if we count informal votes as we do, that a candidate might potentially get elected on a minority of votes cast? Our constitution doesn't allow for this scenario, I believe.