Bill and I went to the theatre through the week. Every year we look forward to seeing The Wharf Revue, an all-singing, all-slinging group of political satirists. Every political personality and event is fair game for this mob, and they keep it up to date, even writing new sketches as fresh stories come to light over the course of their theatre season. There is always material to be mined in the Australian political landscape, and this year, they were obliged even further by our going to the polls on September 7th.
We met many people in our recent travels who are intrigued to know that voting is compulsory in Australia for any person aged 18 or older. You have to have a very good reason for failing to vote, otherwise you risk a penalty of A$170 plus court costs. So this post, a short political essay, is really aimed at my readers from outside Australia.
Most Australians accept compulsory voting without much question (although apparently this time there was a higher than usual number of dissenters), which seems to confuse those who are in countries that do not demand participation. I am happy with the idea. The way I figure it, there are millions around the world who are fighting – with their lives in some cases – to have just this right. Our system hands it to us on a platter – so get up and have an opinion – that’s how I look at it. Besides which, you can hardly complain about the outcome if you didn’t bother to have a say in the first place.
Of course, there are times when it is difficult to know which opinion to have. It is a truism that people don’t vote “in” a government. A swing to an alternative party is more likely a protest against the current government. In other words, the outgoing government “loses” the people’s confidence, rather than the incoming government winning a mandate. Sometimes, it comes down to a choice of the best of a bad lot. Of course, if you are really, really cranky with all the runners, then you can vote for “the donkey”. That is to say, deliberately (or accidentally sometimes) spoil your voting paper so that the vote cannot be reliably counted. The problem is, that there is no seat reserved in the parliament for a donkey, the politicians on the floor can do enough braying without calling in any four legged animals.
Australia follows the Westminster system. We have a lower and upper house: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then we also have elements similar to the US, in that we are a federation of individual states and territories. There is an argument to say we are way over-governed: we have local government, state government and federal government. So you can’t be a state politician and federal politician at the same time, for example.
The election we had at the beginning of September was a federal election. For the last three years, we have had a ‘hung’ parliament. In essence, we are a two-party country:
1. Liberal (conservatives like the Tories or Republicans), who are in a coalition with the Nationals, who were formerly called the Country Party (self-explanatory?).
2. Labor (for the workers like the UK Labour or US Democrats).
In the 2010 election, almost equal numbers of each party were elected to the House of Representatives. It stymied government and inflated the influence of the three independent members of parliament. So it was important that this time around there could be a clear majority. In the end, Labor lost out to the Liberal coalition.
I could go on and on about the pros and cons of each party, but that would be another 5000 words. Suffice to say, that as I lined up outside the local community hall to cast my vote, I noticed a sign on the door “Please turn the lights out”. Of course, it is a reminder to all the hobby groups who use the hall, but to my warped sense of humour, it was equivalent to Dante’s: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
There are 150 members of the House of Representatives and each one of them represents an electorate that should contain approximately equal numbers of electors. Because of the huge discrepancies in population density in Australia, this means that some members have a tiny electorate in terms of square kilometres, while others have a huge area to cover. The division of Kalgoorlie takes up most of the state of Western Australia, covering an area approximately – according to Wikipedia – of 2,295,354 square kilometres (886,241 square miles), which is like combining France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Poland and Great Britain. On the other hand, Wentworth covers only 30 square kilometres in inner Sydney, and scoops in some of the wealthiest suburbs.
Voting for the House of Representatives is fairly straightforward. You can only choose amongst the candidates that are running in your electorate. Their names can fit on a B5 slip of paper, and you simply number them in order of your preference. There were seven candidates in our area. Apart from Liberal, Labor and the Greens (who struggle to make an impression in government) most of them were fringe parties such as the ‘Non-Custodial Parents’.
Voting for the Senate is a different matter entirely. For a start, the sheet looks like a table runner. It was over a metre long (three feet). The voter has two options. Place a ‘1’ against the party they wish to vote for; or go through and number every candidate in your order of preference. I did it one year just for the experience. You need to be able to count up to one hundred or more, and I already demonstrated in my previous post: ‘my ten good reasons for blogging’ – which was really eleven – that I struggle to count past ten. The thing is, if you don’t itemise your preference, then the political parties exchange preference votes with each other, so you might inadvertently put someone into power that you didn’t mean to. This is a contentious point at the moment; we have a new senator who gained a seat with less than 1400 primary votes. His party is called the Australian Sports Party, and their policy is to improve the health of Australia’s young people through playing sports.
Around forty parties contested a Senate seat this election. A number are single issue parties. Some of these provide a snapshot of social issues of the moment. Some examples, with explanations sourced from their websites:
- Stable Population Policy. “To stabilise Australia’s population as soon as practicably possible, aiming for a population of around 23-26 million through to 2050” (and a secondary objective to help stabilise global population).
- Non-Custodial Parents Party (Equal Parenting). “Minimise government interference in decisions that affect separated families”.
- The Animal Justice Party. “To promote and protect the interests and capabilities of animals by providing a dedicated voice for them”.
- The Sex Party. Actually I couldn’t find a website for this party. However a couple of newspaper reports suggests that they are actually a civil liberties group “about personal responsibility, freedom of choice, and the right to be individual”.
- The Bullet Train for Australia Party. You guessed it, they want a “better Australia for our children by improving our rail network” with a fast train.
Well, this is just altogether too serious a post. Not my usual style at all. So I would just like to leave you with a few famous quotes from our politicians of yore:
- “I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die”. Sir Robert Menzies, (quoting a poet), 1963, then Prime Minister. In reference to the Queen of England. No prizes for guessing he was a monarchist.
- “Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General!” Gough Whitlam, 1975, then Prime Minister. On having just been sacked by the Governor General (GG = Queen’s representative in Australia).
- “Keep the bastards honest.” Don Chipp, 1980, leader of the now defunct Democrat Party, outlining his party’s aim. The “bastards” being the major parties and/or politicians in general.
- “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up to work today is a bum!” Robert “Bob” Hawke, 1983, then Prime Minister. On Australia having just won the Americas Cup yachting race.
- “We’re not interested in the views of painted, perfumed gigolos.” Paul Keating, then Prime Minister, referring to the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Peacock.
Sadly, our recent politics have given rise to much negative back-chatting, mostly devoid of humour, wit or larrikinism. Still, our newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, recently graced us with this linguistic gaffe. He was referring to his political opponent, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It is assumed he meant to say, “repository” – but who can be sure?
“No one, however smart, however well-educated, however experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom.”
Sunday 22nd September 2013, Garrulous Gwendoline, Wollongong
- The Preference Deals behind the Strange Election of Ricky Muir and Wayne Dropulich (blogs.abc.net.au)
- Preferencing Statement for Federal Election 2013 (pirateparty.org.au)