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!

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