Sunday, 23 March 2014

Australiana 101: The Political Landscape

Landscape. Australia has a lot of it and, in recognition of this, is also known to Australians as the Big Country. Okay, it may look smallish on a world map but, in defence of this particular soubriquet, it is the only country to occupy an entire continent and it’s about the same size as the US mainland so we reckon it’s a fair enough description. It is a landscape that is geologically, geographically, historically and socially abundant – though, in terms of politics, it isn’t as richly dense as, say, the UK or US political scenery. However, it is rich in its own unique way.
The reasons for this lie in the fundamental differences between Australia and those afore-mentioned countries. Firstly, we have compulsory voting. Secondly, we have a devil-may-care attitude, summed up neatly in the popular sayings: “she’ll be right, mate” and “no worries” (or, if you really feel the need for passionate emphasis, “no wucking furries”). It’s an attitude of casual indifference that pervades our approach to politics, particularly when the system is working fairly well as was the case in the first half of 2011 in the lead up to a federal election.
To give them their due, the Australian news media did their best to whip up some interest in the election but they were pushing manure up hill, as the saying very nearly goes. Predictably, they commissioned various polls which, unlike those countries with voluntary voting, was guaranteed to at least canvass actual voters. The media were excited by the results which indicated that the election would be a close one and subsequently wheeled out various political pundits to warn of the dire consequences of a hung parliament (in which neither of the two major political parties win a sufficient majority of seats to claim victory).
This was possibly the only message that had any effect on the Australian voting public. In a year, indeed in a country, that lacked political excitement (we haven’t even had a halfway decent political scandal since the 1970s) a hung parliament looked just the thing to get the pollies (politicians) jumping and that’s exactly the result we gave them. It took nearly two weeks for them to sort out who would govern, during which time the handful of Independents and Green Party members who held the balance of power in their usually empty hands, had an absolute ball in the limelight. All (with the possible exception of the pollies) agreed that a hung parliament was well worth the entertainment value.
Now I doubt that this result would have happened if we hadn’t had compulsory voting because it owed so much to the heads-or-tails style of decision-making. It was statistics at its most sublime random indifference, producing the kind of 50-50 result that you’d expect from multiple tosses of a coin that occasionally lands on its edge (the ‘edge’ outcome representing that happy handful of Independents and Greens).
It also illustrates the need for compulsory voting in this country because, frankly, if it wasn’t compulsory, too many people just wouldn't bother. Our version of political founding fathers, that long-bearded and gravely serious group (I’m going by old photographs here), were obviously aware of this Australian attitude back in 1900 as they planned for federated independence which took place on the 1st January 1901. As a side note, they also included suffrage for women at the outset since women in various colonies had had the vote since the 1880s and weren’t about to be left out, thank you very much. Besides, in a domestic world devoid of white goods, who had the time to chain themselves to a fence?
The thinking that keeps compulsory voting in place falls roughly into two camps which, as you will see, philosophically converge. There’s the “beastly careless” camp, so redolent of our national attitude, best illustrated by the following. Every election, some lone voice in the media rants about the case for voluntary voting. Since it is evident that they have expended considerable energy in doing so, counter to the nonchalant apathy which we consider to be the only justifiable case for voluntary voting, they are summarily ignored.
The alternate argument is much stronger: no right exists independent of its accompanying responsibility which in this case translates as: “if you don’t exercise a right, you effectively surrender that right and we’re not about to give up any rights!” It’s an irony in our national psyche that, while we are generally very casual, we are also indefatigable in our determination never to surrender. It’s a battle-field attitude most obvious in the sporting arena – but that’s a whole other article.
Compulsory voting also protects our right to vote in that every effort is made to ensure that it’s not only possible for all but also easy (fitting in nicely with our national attitude). Voting is always on a Saturday, starts early and finishes late, with booths located in schools, church halls and other venues within easy reach of locals. There’s also early voting by mail or in person and absentee voting for those who happen to find themselves out of their electorate on the day. No ID is required and I cannot recall a single case of voter fraud during my lifetime (that’s not to say there hasn’t been, just that I can’t recall any and just one case would be big news here).
So that’s pretty much it. If you were expecting a dissertation on the differences between our various political parties and the pros and cons of policies, I hope you’re not too disappointed. I will say that we’ve had universal health care in place for some decades now and we like it – it's about "looking after your mates", as the Australian saying goes, and it just makes life that much easier and fairer - we’re all for that. It’s supported by both ends of the political spectrum and by the vast majority of us who are not about to relinquish any right, especially one that works so well and so conspicuously and positively represents the public good for all.
With a minimum of intervention on our behalf, it all works and works so well that we heartily recommend our political system to everyone; that is, we would if it didn’t involve a vigorous expenditure of passionate energy – we’re saving that for the sport this weekend. Go Australia!

Monday, 28 October 2013

A Letter to American Voters

Dear Voters,

The 2014 midterm Congressional elections will be the most critical of this century. The outcome will determine the direction of the country – moderate left or extreme right, that’s the choice.

It shouldn’t be.  But since the Tea Party insinuated themselves into the Republican Party, the GOP has been dragged further and further to the right, so much so that most of them would need a telescope to see moderate right, centrist or bipartisan positions which have become hopelessly isolated on their political map.

The Tea Party’s political provenance and motivations are discussed at length by everyone ranging from political scientists, historians and pundits to voters caught up in the maelstrom that is the Tea Party’s surge to political and media prominence.

It may be summarised as follows: Tea Party proponents see the USA as the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet and it is their objective to ensure that this perception is strengthened at every turn.

As with all such summaries, it’s superficial – there are much deeper and more complex reasons motivating them. However, for all its superficiality, it’s accurate enough – wealth and power are at the top of their agenda. What’s more, they are supported and funded by the corporate wealthy and powerful – to the tune of multi-billions of dollars.

Consider for a moment this as a possible future: a Tea Party majority in both chambers of Congress.

Worse-case scenario: legislation passed to repeal social security, Medicare, Medicaid and all affordable health care; environmental legislation relaxed to the point of impotency; a major boost in Defense spending; no tax for the top 4-5% of income earners and increased taxes on the lowest 60%, just to name a few.

Best-case scenario: you’re just imaging this for the moment; it isn’t reality in the present day.

Ok, now you’ve had time to consider this, what will you do to prevent it ever happening? I’ve been considering this over the past four weeks or so and come up with the following: brainstorm, get creative and get active!

First, of course, is to commit to turning up at the polling booth and voting. That’s one vote. Now, because there has to be as many votes as possible, how do we accrue more? There’s a trend in American politics for voters of the party of the current President not to bother too much with midterm voting. It’s a trend that has to be bucked in 2014.

“Boots on the ground” is a phrase I’ve seen often but it needs to be teased out into specifics. There has to be an action plan – actually, there has to be multiple action plans – and it shouldn’t be left entirely in the hands of the same few campaigners. Groundswell is all very well but a tidal wave is better.

1. Get a working action group together. Talk to friends and colleagues. Is there a college nearby with a Young Democrats group? Are there volunteer groups (who readily understand the plight of the impoverished), community groups, knitting circles, book clubs? Don’t limit your thinking and don’t stop until you have your group.

2. Survey your area. I suggest something like this:

Survey of [area]

I/We are surveying the local area on voting trends. Just a couple of questions to start with:


1. Are you a registered voter?              YES          NO

2. Do you lean towards

 Republicans     Tea Party     Democrats     independents     swing

If participants answer Republicans or Tea Party, thank them for their participation and move on.



The next part of the survey will require your group members to be deputized to register voters and have registration forms on hand.

If participant is not registered to vote:

1. Would you appreciate some assistance in registering to vote, because we can help with that?
          YES           NO

If participant answers NO, thank them for their participation and move on.
If participant answers YES, organize it on the spot.


Part C is all about how to get prospective voters to the polling booth:


1. Is there anything which might prevent you, or make it difficult for you, to vote in the 2014 
midterm elections?           YES           NO

2. If YES, would you need the following:

  a babysitter      transport to the nearest polling booth?      other

Note down any relevant details volunteered by participant.

3. May I note down your name and address so we can get back to you with ways to help

 you out with this?           YES           NO

4. Would it be more convenient for you to vote early or by postal vote?

  vote early       postal vote     vote on the day

How group members handle the fourth question will depend very much on state law governing early voting and postal votes. Some allow for ‘no excuse’ voting on one or both of these, some don’t.

The last part of the survey is aimed at giving them a reason to vote Democrat.


1. Do you qualify for affordable health care?           YES           NO

2. If YES, have you applied for affordable health care?           YES           NO

3. If NO, would you like us to help you enroll?           YES           NO

3. Recruit others along the way if there’s an opening to do so.

4. Get your group together to brainstorm solutions for those prospective voters who may have difficulty getting to the polling booth on the day. For example; organize volunteer babysitters, bus/car transport with book-in sheets etc (organizing a bus with signs on either side that read “Voting for a fairer America” would be a nice touch!).

5. Stay in contact with prospective voters in a hands-on way, particularly those who need assistance of some kind. Get them registered for affordable health care, get on the babysitting bandwagon in advance, help out with other tasks like shopping etc. Don’t lecture, teach or argue but do engage them some casual political discussion.

6. If possible, locate a film crew – amateur, volunteer, whatever. Invite them to film your group’s activities, especially those in which they are helping prospective voters. Offer these short documentaries to local, state and national media. It’s another very effective way of campaigning when you’re showing a positive image of the Democrat party working at a local level.

7. Stay in touch with your local Democrat campaign office so they can help you help others.

8. Stay within the law no matter what!

9. Be kind, be generous, be the most positive and compassionate face of the party that you can be.

10. Enjoy the experience! It’s a great thing you’ll be doing but don’t let it be too serious – let a lot of laughter in!

So there it is: my outline for an action plan. Should you want to use any part of this, please go right ahead!

As I said at the beginning: these are the most critical midterm elections of this century so mark the occasion with a record high turn-out of Democrat voters!