I appreciate that our attention is elsewhere as we wait to see, to paraphrase Mal Farr, whether the Treasurer takes a Swan dive off the back of Kev’s ute. But as all of this was going on a report into the conduct of the last election was tabled in the parliament last night.

Nelson Mandela said there is no easy walk to freedom. Those in Iran, Iraq, Burma and Zimbabwe and any number of others striving to join the league of truly democratic nations would agree.

As one of the oldest democracies in the world, I wonder whether our passion for this most prized of personal freedoms is growing cold and whether what Richard Dreyfuss has to say in the video about democracy lost in the US (see video www.tinyurl.com/democracylost) reflects our own challenges.

A close review of turnout and enrollment statistics show that we may want to think about placing a new plaque at Circular Quay which says ‘bring me your complacent, your disinterested and all those who just couldn’t be bothered’, when it comes to how some feel about voting in this country.

The fact that as Australians we try not to take ourselves too seriously is one of our most admirable traits. It’s the reason why millions of visitors come here every year to hang out with us.
On most days it is fair enough that we would prefer to think about something other than politics. However, it is not too much to ask that we take the time to look after the one thing that, more than any other, is responsible for the peaceful lives we can enjoy in this country.

The heavy lifting for our democracy was done many years ago. The fact that more than 7 million women (more than the number of men) in this country and an unknown number of indigenous Australians were able to vote at the last election is the enduring and proud legacy of previous generations.

What do we ask in return?  Not much. Enrol to vote, keep your details up to date, show up to vote every three years and fill out your ballot properly.
Yet at the 2007 election more than 2.4 million Australians, one in seven eligible voters, found this all too hard. This included 1.138 million who didn’t enrol to vote, 715,000 who didn’t show up and 510,000 who failed to complete their ballot properly.

Now this actually represents an improvement on 2004 and Australia’s rate of voter turnout at around 87.5% of the eligible voting population is high by world standards. New Zealand comes in next at around 75.1%. However, the key difference is that in Australia voting is compulsory. In New Zealand, Canada, the United States, the UK and other jurisdictions, voting is a choice. In this country voting is an obligation of citizenship.

I have no problem with this requirement. There are very real risks with non-compulsory voting, most significantly relying on the extremes of both sides of politics to turn out the vote. My problem is how Labor wish to compromise the integrity of our electoral system by appeasing those who fail to comply with our electoral laws, for Labor’s own political advantage, under the guise of increasing participation.

If you believe Labor, they say in their majority report tabled last night, that the problem with participation is not apathy, but that we are placing too unreasonable a burden when it comes to voting. Please! you fill out a form, you change it when you move and you turn up at your local public school every 3 years and count to ten.  I have no doubt some administrative processes could be improved, particularly in the use of technology, by they are missing the point.

Labor have recommended removing proof of identity requirements, ignoring the need for citizens to update their enrolment details, removing sanctions for those who fail to enrol before an election is called and, amazingly, abandoning requirements for a voter to complete their ballot properly, no longer requiring them to number all squares in sequential order.

At the same time they have recommended against optional preferential voting that would halve the rate of informality, yet preserve the integrity of our system.

By contrast I would argue that there must be consequences, rather than appeasement, for those who fail to comply with the law and the extraordinarily reasonable requirements of our electoral system, i.e. they forfeit their vote.

The longer term answer rests with awakening a greater appreciation of civics in our schools and broader community.  You don’t honour what you don’t value.

It is clear that we, like many western nations, are failing to connect younger citizens with the relevance of our democratic institutions.  This will not be solved by rewarding apathy as Labor proposes, nor can Facebook and Twitter be relied on to do the job.

For starters, it requires giving younger people more reasons to respect and engage with our system, not just at election time.  It means all of us underscoring the importance of our democratic institutions through our own actions. And it means a real commitment to civics in our education system.

Like all MPs serious about this issue, I would welcome the thoughts of others about how we can encourage greater participation through better engagement rather than lower standards.

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7 comments

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    • Ben Payne says:

      02:52pm | 23/06/09

      I think you may be heading in the right direction when you say “more reasons to respect and engage with our system, not just at election time”.  Unfortunately, there is little to respect, and almost no engagement. Political point scoring, verbal bullying, humiliating persecutions – I could go on, but you’d have to be blind to not know what I am talking about.  If the last few days are what ‘democracy’ is about, then I want no part in it.

      Our ‘2 party’ system is not democratic – more often we are voting against someone, not for someone, and we have to try and figure out the lesser of 2 evils.  There are some things about Labor that I like, and some things about Liberal that I like, but they are so closely aligned on most issues that it makes no difference in the end.

      I personally don’t have a problem with the 300 gazillion dollars of debt we are headed for; it seemed like quick thinking and decisive action in a time of crisis.  I’m sure there are other who disagree with me, but at the end of the day, we weren’t asked, there was no ‘engagement’, and the opposition’s braying about whether or not he could say the word ‘billion’ was a fucking embarrassment, an insult to our intelligence.

      Has anyone done an estimate of how many tonnes of paper are used during an election?  After running the gauntlet of party people shoving brochures and ‘how to vote’ cards at you, you have to find your name in a paper printout of the electoral role, and then head to the voting booth with your metre wide ballot paper.

      Then you have to wait 3 years before you can do it all again.

      I don’t want to vote for parties, or even people.  I want to vote on issues, when they arise, not 2 years after they’ve been and gone.

      I think that the problems with democracy, as it is being played out in Australia (and elsewhere) today, are inherent in the system, and cannot be fixed from within it.

    • Matt says:

      05:26pm | 23/06/09

      Scott, this really hits home for young Australian’s like myself. The need to get more people involved in the democratic process is so important for up coming generations who will inherit this freedom.
      It needs to start (but not stop) in the schools. So many students have little idea of what the government does (the Senate or the HOR) apart from appear on news flash reports. Many students are unaware of who the governor general is, what she does or who the head of state is.
      This is not an issue that needs a scapegoat to point blame at (buzz word for that is Generation Y these days) but a growing need to acknowledge it is lacking and requires remedy.
      Teach us what sacrifices our forefathers made to create the constitution. Teach us and through this we will learn how valuable the right to cast our vote is, how we honour the memories of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice so we may choose to gather with family in a park, so we can gather in opposition to an issue, so we can choose what direction our nation will take. Teach us.

      It’s great to see someone putting the spot light on the issue finally. An issue that we at times, take for granted. Many view the struggle of oppressed people who take to the streets in protest and who are dying everyday to give themselves a future where they can stand and make their voice heard in a democratic society like ours.
      Australia is not a lazy country, we just (atm) lack individuals with the leadership to motivate and show the importance of our involvement in the democratic process.

    • Kieran says:

      06:05pm | 23/06/09

      I wonder how apathetic you will be, Mr Morrison, when you are rolled in your next pre-selection by that wonderful, old-fashioned, democratic practise called branch stacking. Should be fun to watch, although I do hope you hang on, if only to thwart the more lunatic elements in your party. The Liberal Party branch of Cook certainly knows all about how to “encourage greater participation”, doesn’t it?

    • Ben says:

      06:07pm | 23/06/09

      Scott, I agree wholeheartedly with you. There is a lot of ignorance out there regarding government. Many people I talk to don’t understand what they are doing come election time.

      I learnt about our political system from my parents, and then from reading newspapers. I don’t remember learning anything at school about civics.

      Civic education can only be a good thing.

    • Pete says:

      10:50pm | 23/06/09

      I’d love to see optional preference voting. Preferences are a rort which distort our primary voting intentions.  How many people that put in protest votes for minor parties know where their vote ends up?
      Of course Labor has the most to lose, so they won’t be changing in a hurry.

    • Ben Raue says:

      02:13am | 05/07/09

      Maybe politicians should ask themselves why, even when we coerce Australians into voting, so many don’t come out and vote? Instead of just blaming people for their disillusionment, maybe you could try and fix it?

      Why should most people bother voting, when most votes are cast in safe seats that have no impact on the result? When major parties can safely ignore their loyal voters, because they know compulsory voting means that they don’t have inspire or motivate their base to come out and vote.

      Most people’s votes really don’t matter in our system. So is it any wonder that people don’t really care about voting?

    • Hamish Wilson says:

      06:57pm | 05/07/09

      More power to you Scott. If we don’t take the issues you raise seriously it will only lead to things getting worse.

      In response to Ben Payne; Our two party system is democratic and the envy of many democracies around the world. It has provided wonderful political stability for our country over many years. If there is an improvement that could be made which would possibly lessen your discontent it would be to abolish the state-by-state representation in the Senate, leaving it a nationwide proportionally representative house. Such a move would give all minorities a seat at the table, even the ratbag elements, but they are voices that must be heard, and where their ideas are offensive and stupid they must be argued against. They will face judgement at the next election for their actions. Geographic diversity in the lower house would still form government and stability while political diversity in the upper house would provide a power balance where I don’t believe the government of the day would ever be able to form a majority ever again. 6 year terms should be dispensed with too, to make the whole of the senate fully accountable to the electorate every three years, or whenever the PM calls an election. Electoral hangovers such that the senate is currently suffering serve no one well.

      In response to Pete’s comments, optional preferential voting in NSW has seen the entrenchment of an unpopular Labor government well past its use-by date. Traditionally the Coalition has had the most to lose as fights were had over who would run where in place of three cornered contests, hence NSW Labor’s change to allow optional preferential voting around 12 years ago. Compulsory preferential voting gives every voter a say, right down to the last two candidates, providing the most representative outcome. I will be interested in years to come whether Labor rekindles it’s respect for compulsory preferential voting as the Greens become more of a threat to their inner city seats.

      In response to Ben Payne’s whinge about paper use, do you not think that it is a small price to pay for the stability and prosperity we enjoy? Do you think your desire for a say on every issue would lessen the demand for paper? Having to vote every month on referenda on a range of issues would require more paper, and more visits to the ballot box, something which you seem to regard as a chore when completed only once every 3 years. I don’t think you understood Scott when he asked, “What do we ask in return?” Turning out to make an informed vote once every three years is precisely summed up in his own answer, “Not much.”

      In response to Ben Raue, voluntary voting will make people more motivated to vote, but only to remove the more politically extreme governments that will result from it. Such a change and outcome will not improve the faith of the electorate in the system.

      Winston Churchill is oft quoted as saying something along the lines of democracy being the best of a lot of bad systems. We must improve it where we can. I think that the governing of the electoral system should be handed over to an independent body away from the hands of politicians whose conflict of interest in the matter is as plain as the nose on my face.

      Another way to improve our electoral system is to extend it into our political parties. Most of them have corrupted membership bases that all too often struggle to preselect the best candidates. Moving to a system of preselection relying on open community primaries will deliver better candidates in the eyes of the community and help to devolve power to the electorate, a move which can only improve their interest in and engagement with the system.

 

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