Ricky Muir: lotto winner, anti-politician, forlorn hope

In Philip K. Dick’s sixty-year-old first novel Solar Lottery, a computerised lotto system is used to randomly fill employment positions worldwide, including that of “the Quizmaster”, the head of world government.

solar-lottery-cover

Besides being a silly idea, this is also a ruthlessly democratic, egalitarian idea: the prospect of a world where anyone, anywhere regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation or any other form of categorisation you can think of is equally eligible to serve is a seductive one, particularly if you lean left. “Election by lot” may seem a bit of a “sci-fi” thought-bubble to the uninitiated, but it is far from a futuristic concept: for a time in ancient Athens over 2000 years ago, boule council members were elected by lot, with the aim of ensuring that not only the most rich, powerful and well-connected citizens were given the opportunity to participate in the business of government.

You don’t really have to think too hard to realise that this ancient idea has a peculiar sort of relevance for modern day politics in Australia. At the 2013 election, Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party managed to reel in 4.91% of the first preference vote in the Senate, and with it, three Senators. Since then, it has been revealed that the only tangible things binding the members of this so-called party together may have been personal ambition and a recognition that using Palmer’s prestige and wealth as a platform for a few years of work in Canberra wasn’t a bad idea. Old mate Clive himself would most likely not have been given a guernsey in ancient Athens, unless of course he “got lucky”.

Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (who?), on the other hand, did actually manage to “get lucky”. At the 2013 election, Muir’s party secured itself a Senate seat representing Victoria with a record low 17,122 votes, just 0.51% of all first preference votes in that state. It is a great irony that the really quite undemocratic vagaries of Senate preference flows in Victoria have resulted in an outcome that is about as virtuously random as any outcome that you could hope for in our political system. Even more ironically, Ricky Muir has turned out to be the apocryphal Athenian Homer Simpson that election by lot was always supposed to deliver: a really quite ordinary guy of the type not well represented by our current crop of predominantly yuppie parliamentarians, thrust into a position of considerable power within our political system. He has the air of the incredulous lottery winner from Struggle Street often featured on commercial news network bulletins; yes, he might buy his Mum a new house. Yes, he will still troop into work the next day.

Needless to say, in our modern political culture of highly scripted exchanges, spin and sound-bites, it has been far from smooth sailing for “our hero”. In June 2014, Muir gave an exclusive and excruciating interview to Seven’s Sunday Night program in which he laboured to explain his purpose for being in parliament and the meaning of basic concepts such as the “balance of power” in the Senate.

Conditioned as we are to watching snake oil salesmen run the country, it is hard not to watch the interview without forming the opinion that this is a man far from his element who has no place being within cooee of the levers of power. His six month dalliance in a voting bloc with the Palmer United Party was also ill-advised and served to only temporarily increase Clive Palmer’s personal influence over the affairs of the country.

And yet, and yet. Senator Muir has stood firm in his support for a Renewable Energy Target (RET). He has opposed the Abbott Government’s radical plan to deregulate universities and hike student fees. He wisely decided to renege on a previous agreement forged by the PUP voting bloc with the Coalition to vote against the government’s Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) regulatory changes. A few weeks back he finally delivered his maiden speech in the Senate.

Ricky

The video of the speech is worth watching, and provides an interesting contrast with the slick, smarmy eyeballs to camera performance art that we come to expect from the likes of Malcolm Turnbull and similarly moulded products of the professional political machinery of this country. There is something refreshing about seeing a humble, ordinary guy nervously reading a really rather good speech, his suit slightly ill-fitting, his eyes only occasionally daring to look up from his script to scan the chamber. Sometime a rare, unexpected workmanlike performance can mean more than yet another star turn.

These passages and how little we have heard such sentiments in public life speak to how far our parliaments have moved from being truly representative of the Australian people:

I have a long history of living at the receiving end of legislative changes, of feeling the squeeze of new or higher taxes, feeling the pressure and even losing sleep when you realise that the general cost of living just went up a tiny $20. To everyone sitting in this chamber, if you think $20 a week is nothing, or just a pack of cigarettes or a few beers, you have never lived in the real world.

I can tell you, as somebody who was not born into wealth, who has had to work my way up with absolute honesty, that working-class Australia is absolutely sick to death of working our lives away just to pay the bills and having to struggle to spend the very money we work hard to earn on actually enjoying our existence rather than feeling like a slave to the dollar.

It is possible to simultaneously believe that Ricky Muir does not deserve to be taking a place in the Senate and that it is marvellous that he has somehow found himself there. Democracy and anti-democracy have collided and the result looks set to be an interesting watch for the duration of Senator Muir’s six-year term of office in the Senate. One of the biggest crises facing modern Australian democracy is that ordinary, battling people don’t see anyone who can really relate to their everyday concerns in our nation’s parliaments. This lack of “relatability” translates to a lack of faith in parliamentary democracy as we know it now for a lot of Australians, and before long solidifies in the form of contempt or in many cases sheer hate for politicians of all persuasions.

Sadly, we will have to rely on dodgy Senate preference flow deals for our “Quizmasters”; election by lot is not coming to a parliament near you anytime soon. It is a bitter irony of the so-called information age that we have the capacity to ignore the elegant hints to the solutions to our problems that were laid out for us over two-thousand years ago.

The accidental senators

The first sitting day of the new Senate on Monday 7th July heralded the start of a new era in Australian federal politics; an era that looks set to be shaped by arguably the least democratic Senate in modern political history.

As recent negotiations between the Abbott Government and the Palmer United Party on the carbon tax and the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) legislation have shown, Clive Palmer and his team of political novices have effectively been gifted carte blanche by our electoral system to pass and block legislation as they please. In practical terms, this means of course that legislation will be passed as Clive pleases. Under 5% of the national Senate vote was enough to deliver the mining magnate and former Queensland LNP life member three crucial cross-bench Senators and considerable sway over the balance of power.

The Palmer United Party is hardly the only beneficiary of the manipulation or “gaming” of the electoral system that has occurred in recent elections. The Liberal Democratic Party’s David Leyonhjelm, bolstered by his party’s first position on the Senate ticket in NSW and some confusion about the name of his party, was elected to the Senate despite his party receiving only 3.91% of the first preference vote nationally. Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party was elected in Victoria despite his party only receiving 0.5% of the national first preference vote. Similarly, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP)’s Senator John Madigan was elected to the Senate in Victoria in 2010 despite his party receiving only 1.06% of the national first preference vote.

There is a catalogue of injustices here: consider the conflict of interest concerns that Clive Palmer somehow magically by-passes by not being a Senator, the simple dumb luck and trickery that has seen David Leyonhjelm elected, or the dark arts exploited by preference whisperer Glenn Druery that resulted in Ricky Muir’s election. This is a collection of representatives whose political agendas and ideals were not endorsed by or likely even vaguely considered by the Australian electorate, but who have been given a greater say than they deserve by statistical circumstance and in Palmer’s case, mega-bucks. The Greens have a known agenda to those who vote for them. Labor and the Coalition (when leaders don’t change their agenda after an election) have a known agenda and ideology to those who vote for them. These Senators will arguably exercise more control over the political agenda of the country for the next couple of years than those from parties who received 10 or 20 times the number of votes as them. How can this possibly be fair?

There is still a reasonable counter-argument to be made: it is fairly widely considered by voters that the major party duopoly that Labor and the Coalition have enjoyed in modern Australian political history is bad for democracy and bad for government in Australia. One could argue that the injustices that our electoral system has allowed to occur actually have the effect of enlivening the Senate and giving voices outside the political mainstream more of a say in Australian public life. This is a worthy goal, but statistical anomalies and the “Clive Palmer effect” clearly do not represent worthy means. If we are going to encourage diversity in our electoral system, it should be less by accident than by design. Power should not be accidentally given to Australians who have the personal wherewithal to pump millions of dollars into their election campaign, creating what is effectively a shell party in support of their own personal interests and ego. Power should not be accidentally given to Australians whose only serious claim to it is that their party has a name cunningly similar to another party. Power should not accidentally be given to Australians who use statistics and dodgy deals to cheat their way to a Senate quota rather than contest an election in the spirit the AEC intends.

The Senate plays a vital role in our democracy as a house of legislative review but daftly, the Abbott Government has recently flagged that it intends to dump intended reforms to how the Senate is elected. If key positions are to be stacked with individuals and entities that have no legitimate moral claim to be there, our democracy stands to be seriously diminished.

Whither dignity in an age of political hate

It has been a torrid couple of weeks: for Julia Gillard, for the honour of representative democracy and for all of us who kidded ourselves into believing that misogyny wasn’t rife in Australia. It goes without saying that a male Prime Minister would never have received the treatment that Gillard has endured in the last couple of weeks. The meat-headed mate-o-plex that dominates the Australian suburbs and the media establishment does not piss on its own, and when primary school-level intelligence meets visceral hatred, the results are guaranteed only to disgust.

How did we get to this place, where we have so much hate for the people we collectively chose to represent us in the nation’s parliament? I am not Howard Sattler; indeed I would prefer Julia Gillard to lead the country more than any politician from any other political party. But then, I’m not so blinkered that I don’t see the flipside: during the long Howard years it was hard to couch my dislike for John Howard or even more shallowly – his wife – in purely intellectual terms. We are talking about something more than pure politics or policy here. We are talking about hate, across a broad gradient of increasingly inappropriate shades, from braindead chit-chat about “rangas” to a high profile radio announcer asking the Prime Minister if her long-term partner is gay. If there ever was a modicum of dignity associated with representing your local community in Canberra, it feels a lot to me like it has been bar stooled, tabloid headlined, vox-popped and tweeted into extinction.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Helen Mirren star in Peter Morgan’s play The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre in London. The central conceit of the play is the magisterial ordinariness, almost, of The Queen, in her relationships with various British Prime Ministers over the last sixty years. The Prime Ministers are depicted as troubled souls; figures of jest for our amusement. Mirren plays the role of amateur psychiatrist with aplomb, and the audience is made to feel as though they can relate more to their monarch than the people actually chosen for high office to whom she offers potted advice and polite conversation. The dignity of the role of the Queen is clearly sacrosanct; beyond question. What dignity each Prime Minister enjoys as they appear on stage is swiftly destroyed as we delight in their foibles, chuckling at the general patheticness of these neurotic (mostly) men in suits passing briefly through the revolving door of government.

For a republican, the contrast between how people still view the ancestors of jumped up dukes and duchesses from Hanover and how they view today’s politicians is pretty troubling. It represents nothing short of a crisis of democracy. The bile that Julia Gillard has been exposed to since taking office is a clear representation of that: how many Australians, I idly wonder, would if given the opportunity take joy in spitting in the face of their Prime Minister? Or indeed, for that matter, Tony Abbott? A flotsamy question to be sure, but by way of comparison, there is little doubt that the vast majority of the same collections of people would be reduced to quavering child-like excitement in the presence of Her Royal Highness. Of course what she personally has ever tried to do for us or indeed been institutionally capable of doing for us in her role, nobody can really tell us.

It is tempting to whisk together the issues raised here into some prescription for Julia Gillard, but the reality is that this is a much bigger problem. It transcends in its own way “the patriarchy” and the problems confronting women in politics. It is of more fundamental concern than even – clenches teeth – whether Tony Abbott takes up residence in The Lodge in September or not. It is a problem stretching far beyond our land girt by sea, asking serious questions of so-called advanced parliamentary democracies across the globe. Without some dignity in public life, without some appreciation for the role governments can play in shaping the future of the nation and indeed the human race, this will only end in profound public disenchantment in democratic government. This spells doom for leftist social democracy as we know it, unless we start making the case for a new strain of democracy to supercede it.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Borgen and the third party fantasy/fallacy

These days the English, believe it or not, are looking east and a bit north for their quality television; to Denmark, præcis. Fresh on the footsteps of the noir crime drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen), come The Bridge, and Borgen, a political drama that might well feel tantalisingly utopian for viewers living in staid Western democracies around the world. The first season of Borgen tells the story of a charismatic, principled female leader of the minority Moderate Party who manages to break the big party stranglehold in Denmark to lead a coalition of parties as Prime Minister. It is, simply put, The West Wing for the post-noughties generation. Who wants to watch the humdrum story of a principled Democrat and his team fighting for and gaining office when a lot of the real action, inspiration and colour in modern politics sprouts from the backblocks of community organising in much smaller parties?

With all the water that has passed under the bridge in recent decades, from the centre-left’s embrace of economic liberalism & New Labour’s “principled” invasion of Iraq, to the seeming predilection of conservative parties for high defence spending, “big government” and politicised social welfare, what normal, rational person doesn’t occasionally dream of a democracy where the major parties get a taste of their just desserts?

The “third party” or outsider fantasy that Borgen depicts is not so much of a stretch for Danish politics, where the government is regularly lead by coalitions of smaller parties; but it does remain a stretch for most of the rest of us. The Westminster breed of government and certainly a fair proportion of the adversarial electoral systems that are prominent internationally are structurally configured to encourage big, powerful parties at the expense of smaller ones. The United States remains the textbook case; an ironclad bastion of major parties, albeit with a Republican Party wracked with internal division courtesy of the evangelical Right and the Tea Party movements. Will we see a President of the United States who is not either a Democrat or a Republican in our lifetimes? Almost certainly not.

In the United Kingdom, of course, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are two years into their warm embrace of the Conservatives in government; they are finding that the embrace is slowly suffocating them. In local elections this week, the Lib Dems lost 329 of their 767 councillors. Since the 2010 election, support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen from 22% to 11% in a recent YouGov poll, behind even the somewhat barmy UK Independence Party (Ukip). Everyone with a bit of conscience who cared about democracy “agreed with Nick” in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who do so now. It was inordinately fashionable to agree with Nick back then – even The Guardian editorialised in support of the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Now the Lib Dems have the look of a party sleepwalking towards disaster when the next national election swings around, unless some drastic changes can be made to the way they are doing business with their Tory masters.

In Australia, we’ve had our momentary dalliances with minor parties in the last couple of decades, but only impressionable students, members of the Greens, or the pharmaceutically inspired could argue that Labor and the Liberal Party are significantly waning in terms of support at elections more than they are waxing. Tony Abbott is leading the Liberals with a civilisation-crushing 51% of the primary vote, according to Newspoll; Labor may be in the doldrums at the moment on 27%, but then they have been doing a bit of foot-shooting of late and Julia Gillard is well and truly on the nose in suburbia. The Greens have showed quite an admirable level of staying power over the course of the last decade, consistently sitting at 10% or thereabouts, but arguably, Australia’s close relationship with George Bush’s Republican administration in the first half of the noughties and Bob Brown’s recent resignation may have seen their political high watermark come and go. Bob Brown was always a fairly dignified, relatively likable figure, enjoying a not inconsiderable media profile. Christine Milne, and/or whoever follows her is going to find it desperately difficult to “maintain the rage” whilst maintaining and growing their current fledgling level of support nationally. The fate of the Democrats, another worthy minor party, hangs heavily on the shoulders of would-be innovators in the Australian political scene.

For us, the Brits and the Americans, Borgen is just a twinkling of utopia; it tells the story of a place that our own countries, at least without a drastic and unlikely overhaul of our respective political systems, simply cannot be. There is more than a dash of “grass is always greener” about this, of course. Danish viewers of Borgen would – let’s not kid ourselves – probably snort derisively at any suggestion that their decidedly multilateral incarnation of parliamentary democracy is necessarily something to covet. The often brutal level of compromise and imperfection that modern democracy delivers in spades, regardless of which political party is in office, is not something that anybody yet really has the answer to. Canberra, Westminster and Washington, for many, feel so distant and so alien that they may as well orbit Alpha Centauri, for all the good they do and all the meaning they have in people’s everyday lives.

But yet, through the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and yes, the British National Party, our collective “third party” fantasy lives on. Unless this fantasy transforms itself into an organised movement for electoral reform however, it will remain a fallacious mirage: a distraction from the far more profound structural problems that so bedevil democracy in the 21st century.

Major parties and minor parties at the end of the day are playing the same game by the same rules, and sadly, it’s a damn sight easier and sexier to make a few more little, largely ignorable chips off the old block than to think about fashioning a whole new block.

Violence, democracy and the mass media

It can hardly be denied that violence has a peculiarly vicarious allure in the modern mass media environment, regardless of whether we are talking ratings, book sales, ticket sales, clicks, or good old-fashioned circulation. Think James Patterson, the “world’s best-selling author”. Consider the amazing proliferation of “acronymy” crime dramas (CSI, NYPD, SVU, …) showing in primetime across the globe, the drooly critical praise for programs like The Sopranos and The Wire, and of course the Underbelly phenomenon in Australia. We might not “like” violence; indeed many or most of us despise it, but it sure does tend to get our attention. As notionally interesting as the latest deliberations of parliamentary sub-committee D31 are, we can’t expect our [yawn] elected representatives to seriously compete for our time and interest with this week’s fictional serial killer, can we?

The supremacy of violence (perhaps rivalled only by sex) as an attention magnet in today’s information-saturated world poses some serious questions of old-fashioned peaceful protest in the democratic tradition. Arundhati Roy, speaking to Stephen Moss in The Guardian about her ties to Maoist guerrillas in India, sums things up quite succinctly:

Does she condemn that violence? “I don’t condemn it anymore,” she says, “If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience?”

Violence attracts audiences. When up to 500,000 people marched peacefully through the streets of London in opposition to the Conservative Government’s cuts agenda in March this year, most people outside the UK only heard about it because of the violent actions of a tiny minority of self-styled anarchists and thugs. And whilst peaceful protest has underpinned most of the populist movements of the so-called Arab Spring, violence has clearly had a role to play, from Mohamed Bouazizi’s defining act of self-immolation in Tunisia, through to the mortar attack on President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s compound which looks likely to prove decisive in Yemen. The magnetism of violence has arguably even created a perverse imperative for protest movements to “bait” governments into responding disproportionately, in order to attract the attention of the “great and the good” and the global mass media. Only escalating violence forced the global community’s clumsy fist to swing in Libya, and sadly it appears that only comparatively violent escalations in places such as Bahrain and Syria are likely to provoke serious, co-ordinated global responses there.

It is a paradox that in the largely peaceful, meticulously ordered societies most of us live in today, individual acts of violence are proving to be as effective a tool for attracting attention as they have ever been. Perhaps in retrospect, following 9/11 and the culmination of a decade-long international obsession with Osama bin Laden, this really shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

The alternative vote (AV) referendum

Here in the United Kingdom the nation is waking up on Thursday May 5th, the day of the alternate vote (AV) referendum and some would say, judgment day for the political career of the Liberal Democrat Deputy PM Nick Clegg. The referendum was arguably the most politically important concession extracted by the Lib Dems from David Cameron’s Conservatives as part of their coalition agreement. Victory for “Yes” case proponents will deliver meaningful and overdue electoral reform, together with a substantive apologia to the British people for the oft craven capitulation of the Lib Dems to the Tory policy agenda. Victory for “No” case proponents will leave many Liberal Democrat supporters baffled as to just how their party has profited from their “deal with the devil”, and progressives more pessimistic than ever about serious democratic reform in the United Kingdom.

Recent polling strongly suggests that the latter scenario will come to pass, with likely serious implications for the health of the coalition agreement and Nick Clegg’s already comatose leadership. The “No” campaign has been heavily backed politically by the Conservative Party and financially by regular Tory donors, and the Labour Party is offering only partial support. The Labour leadership under Ed Miliband supports the “Yes” case, but many influential “Old Labour” figures have sided with the Tories and are urging a “No” vote. In short, the lack of broad, bi-partisan support for change which arguably killed off the majority of referenda put to the Australian people since Federation looks set to do the same for the alternative vote in the United Kingdom today.

For me, the AV campaign was summed up by a single image yesterday. The Conservative Party’s headquarters is located at Millbank Tower at 30 Millbank, a short, languorous stroll south from the House of Parliament in Westminster. Walking past it on my way home from work yesterday, I was a little surprised to observe outside a bright purple open-top double-decker bus, emblazoned with “No 2 AV” slogans. The open top of the bus was filled with a rabble of young Tories (presumably supplied by party HQ), waving signs emblazoned with checked boxes in support of FPTP, and making a cacophonous and indistinct noise. The bus proceeded to drive slowly up Millbank towards the Houses of Parliament, as the Tories onboard desperately tried to attract attention, cheering when the occasional passing motorist sounded their horn, whether in support or opposition.

Passers-by seemed to be scratching their heads. It was a classic case of sound and fury signifying nothing, wholly representative of the sort of meaningless froth and colour that looks set to seal victory for the “No” campaign, which lest we forget, has been orchestrated from go to whoa by the Conservative Party.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

David Cameron hearts archaic voting systems

Over here in the United Kingdom, the creaking FPTP (First-Past-The-Post) system of voting still operates; voters in general elections are forced to nominate only their most-preferred candidate, a solitary smudge in a box. It’s easy to see how such a system can result in fairly undemocratic results in tussles between more than two serious candidates: as the number of serious candidates in a ballot increases, FPTP forces a serious division of the vote, ultimately delivering victory to candidates with potentially only a minority proportion of overall electoral support. It is a system that decisively favours larger, more-established parties at the expense of smaller ones, and it is not surprising in this context that the Liberal Democrats made electoral reform one of the cornerstones of their campaign in the May 2010 UK general election.

The begrudging promise of a referendum on the alternative vote or “AV” system of preferential voting reportedly sealed the Coalition deal for David Cameron’s Conservatives with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the election aftermath. The referendum, which is to be held on Thursday 5th May 2011 as a kind of royal wedding after-party for psephologists, will cast the two Coalition partners decisively against each other in what looks set to be an intriguing political tussle. From an Australian perspective it is particularly intriguing, because as the anointed international standard-bearers for preferential voting, Westminster-style, it looks like we will be stuck in the crossfire for the duration of the debate!

The first serious volleys were fired late last week, when Nick Clegg and David Cameron set out their opening arguments for voting for and against AV, respectively. David Cameron made special mention of the Australian example several times in his speech launching the “No” campaign. His approach? Never let a good argument get in the way of a good slur:

When it comes to our democracy, Britain shouldn’t have to settle for anyone’s second choice.

And this argument that no one really wants it, it’s as true abroad as it is at home.

Only three countries use AV for national elections: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

In Australia, six in ten voters want to return to the system we have – first past the post.

This is both sleight of hand and an egregious slight; playing on the relative size and remoteness of all three countries mentioned, and slimily “hiding” Australia in passing between Fiji and PNG. What really are you saying about Fiji and Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister, by being so careful to mention them first, and last? They are the countries you want people to remember and associate with AV, aren’t they? I’d also be interested in hearing the basis for the “six in ten” figure mentioned. Does anybody seriously believe that there is any realistic popular support whatsoever for a regression back to FPTP in Australia?

The British Prime Minister also takes the time to explain why preferential voting is the reason for the relatively high number of safe seats in Australia (?) and furthermore, why it is to blame for “obliterating minor parties” down under. Evidently nobody told him about the rise and rise of the Greens, or the notable success of independents and minor parties in recent years, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

He goes on to trash Australia’s electoral system, calling out the fact that it took seventeen days for a government to be formed at the last federal poll, and noting that on voting day ”voters are lectured at polling stations by party apparatchiks with ‘How to Vote’ cards.”. I’m not necessarily a fan of “how-to-vote” shenanigans outside polling booths, but it is a nonsense to describe the process as “lecturing”; in practice, it is little more than froth and colour. It is also disingenuous of Cameron to spin the speed of confirming the last federal election result as indicative of what happens in preferential voting systems generally. September 2010 was hardly exemplary of recent federal election results in Australia – practically all of which were decided with brutal speed and on the night (indeed, called by Antony Green a few hours after the close of polls, quite frequently).

I’d like to think that the Prime Minister isn’t going to take this rubbishing of Australia’s electoral system lying down. She might start by making gentle mention of that most thoroughly democratic of British institutions, the House of Lords.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

In defence of compulsory voting in Australia

Compulsory voting is one of the more idiosyncratic features of democracy in Australia, enforced as it is at state and federal levels of government, as well as at local elections for all states and territories except South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. In “coercing” citizens to participate in the democratic process, Australia is somewhat unique; as a research paper published by the UK Electoral Commission in June 2006 [PDF] notes (p.21):

Australia is widely considered to be, and is often identified as, the leading example of an effectively functioning compulsory voting system with compulsory registration.

By far the most common criticism of Australia’s compulsory voting system relates to the coercive element; the fact that the state is forcing individual citizens to do something. In a twisted philosophical sense, one could even argue (as many hardline libertarians, cynics, and just plain lazy folks do) that Australian governments impinge the human rights of citizens by forcing them to participate in the democratic process. It is an ironic commentary on the bodypolitik down under. In the developing world during the last century, thousands or perhaps even millions of activists gave up their lives or livelihoods for democracy and the right to vote, to select the people who govern them. In contrast, in first world Australia, we are probably more likely to get organised and fight for the right not to vote; to not have a say. Or perhaps more realistically, to just switch off, tune out, and coalesce with the couch.

Peter Brent, the author of the excellent Mumble blog (now resident at The Australian) recently posted an alternative critique of compulsory voting, focusing on the negative implications our current system has for participation. Brent observes:

… fewer young people are enrolling. Many assume it’s something that’s done automatically by “the government” and are surprised to find they can’t vote.

At last month’s election some 370 thousand people tried to vote but couldn’t, mainly because they weren’t on the roll. And more (we don’t know how many) simply turned around and left the polling place upon finding they weren’t on the roll.

The argument goes, in essence, if both enrolment and voting were voluntary, young people and other slightly addle-brained, unenrolled folk who rocked up at a polling place on the day of the election could have their vote counted. Furthermore, the coercive element so distasteful to libertarians would be removed from the picture, and potentially a greater proportion of people who wanted to have their say, could do so.

It is a fair point to make, but let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of the reality of compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting in modern Australia. One would have to think that it is in the interests of a functioning democracy to maximise the number of people who involve themselves in the democratic process. A democracy where less people participate is, almost by definition, less legitimate then one where a greater proportion of people participate. Even considering the additional 370,000 people who theoretically could have cast their vote at the August 2010 election if enrolment was simplified and voluntary, it seems certain that this figure would be dwarfed by the likely millions of people who just wouldn’t bother turning up if they didn’t think they had to. Voter turnout in the UK at the 2010 general election was around 65%, and in the United States presidential election of 2008, around 61%. Contrast this to the 93% of enrolled voters who turned out for the August 2010 federal election in Australia. That’s not a reflection of the Australia’s fervour for democracy, sadly, that frankly laudable figure is a product of compulsory voting.

Secondly, squarely blaming compulsory voting and enrolment for our electoral system’s failings seems a bit wrong-footed. If there are indeed thousands of electors out there who were unaware that they had to be enrolled at their current address in order to vote, surely this is suggestive of a failure in electoral education or “ease of use”, as much as anything else. Technology-wise, clearly the AEC needs to allow people to directly update their enrolment online; this need has been underscored by GetUp’s legal victory just prior to the election. The bottom line is that the AEC should be granted the wherewithal by government to ensure that people know their democratic responsibilities. Where feasible, interdepartmental information (e.g. records of address changes) could be leveraged to assist this process, and to prompt people to ensure that their enrolment information is up to date.

Finally, let’s reconsider the “coercive” line of argument. Really, when it comes to the crunch, our system of compulsory enrolment and voting is not really very coercive at all. We’re not talking carrot and stick here; we’re talking carrot and wet noodle. One could even successfully argue that both enrolment and voting are effectively voluntary in Australia already. The fine for not voting federally is a not particularly catastrophic $20. People who decide to vote on the day but who do not want to support a particular candidate as a “protest” can vote informal if they so choose. For those who find it logistically difficult to vote on the actual election day, there are a myriad of excuses one can provide to the AEC in order to vote early or via the post. That are quite literally a barrel of ways to skin the coercion cat for those self-absorbed voters who are really interested in doing so.

Do we want a political system where more people have a say in who forms government, or one where less people have a say? Obviously its a rhetorical question, and to the extent that we can greater empower the AEC and government departments to help people exercise their democratic responsibilities, compulsory voting is not something we should be whinging about. The right not to participate in keeping democracy healthy in Australia is not a right people should be wasting valuable intellectual energy fighting for.

When “being good” means cluttering your lapel

Late last month, I gave some serious consideration to participating in Movember. I eventually decided against it, in part because my current residence in Melbourne meant that my circle of friends probably would not get as much humour (and perhaps by association, generate quite as many donations) out of my moustache-growing efforts. Perhaps next year. There can be little doubt that the organisers have done a terrific job in raising the public profile of men’s health in aid of beyondblue and the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia. If you move within any social circles at all, you’re practically certain of knowing someone who is growing a mo this month, in aid of these two very worthy organisations.

Apart from the questionable implications for GMA (Gross Male Attractiveness), it’s hard to see how one can find fault with events like Movember, but Tim Soutphommasane presents an interesting critique in today’s Australian. The average modern charity event seems generally to revolve around a symbolic token of some sort, whether it be a pink (or white, or…) ribbon, a poppy, a red nose, a pair of jeans or indeed a ragged patch of hair on one’s upper lip. One generally wears these symbols with just a touch of conspicuous pride; I’ve done my little bit, see look at this symbol right here.

Soutphommasane does probably get a bit too broad in scope with his column for my liking, but the snippet below captures the essence of what I think is quite an important observation:

Support women’s health? Sport a pink ribbon. Support action on climate change? Turn off your lights at home for an hour. Support recycling? You were in luck last week, which just happened to be National Recycling Week.

For all that moral grandstanding makes us feel virtuous, it in fact makes civic virtue rather more elusive. If only good citizenship were as easy as growing a moustache or wearing a pink ribbon.

We are all aware today that public identification with our democracy, as measured by involvement with political parties and our level of respect for politicians, is perhaps at an all-time low. On the other hand, it does appear that token-oriented charitable “days” or events could well be at an all-time high today, at least in terms of frequency. Given the current situation with our democracy, shouldn’t we be concerned that we may be tricking ourselves into feeling that we are “doing our little bit” for society by growing facial hair, and buying ribbons and poppies and red noses, instead of involving ourselves in more seriously in public/civic life, or making more substantive sacrifices for the occasional good cause?

I’m not trying to be a killjoy. These causes all do a great job in terms of raising awareness and money for important causes: this cannot be denied. I think we probably all need to be reminded, however, that being a truly good citizen – a good Australian – should require that we do much more than cover our lapel with conspicuous (but cheap, and labour unintensive) tokens of our virtue. On the scale of worthy patriotic acts, buying a token in aid of charity is, let’s face it, a worthy, but modest, tick in a box. Contrastingly, some of our forebears and a sprinkling of modern champions have moved or are moving mountains for this country, or at the very least, trying to make a real difference. Whilst not forgetting for a moment our current servicemen and women, millions of our forebears bore arms in defence of and in solidarity with our country last century. In the 21st century, we tend to buy trinkets for our country; oh, and rock up to vote periodically.

So, why aren’t we all striving to do better?

Electoral Reform Green Paper – Strengthening Australia’s Democracy

As previously mentioned, the government has released a second Electoral Reform Green Paper for public comment. Chapter 15 of the document lists out a series of eighty issues in the form of questions that the government is inviting responses to in particular from the republic. The state of our democracy is a particular bugbear topic for me, so I have this evening managed to finally get my act together and complete my submission, focusing on 19 of the questions raised.

Public submissions are open for just over three more weeks until Friday 27th November 2009. An online discussion on the document will be held from next Monday 9th November 2009 until Friday 13th November 2009.

My submission in all its unadulterated prolixity is over the fold.

Continue reading