The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Why Your Vote is Meaningless

Okay – I admit it: cheap attempt to grab attention. Don’t worry – what follows here is not an attack on representative democracy, an aimless whinge about party politics or that mainstay of the intellectually moribund – a hand-wringing apologia for the benevolent dictatorship.

No. All of us can tell, intuitively, that something is not quite right about the way government works. We feel alienated from it and irrelevant to it because something has broken the link between ourselves and the operation of the state. Of course, to have any hope of fixing it, we need to find out exactly what is wrong.

My intention is to fly in the face of precedent and tradition laid down by generations of political commentators before me and attempt to identify these problems using a little something I like to call ‘Reason’.

My plan is to take a simple observation, being, in this case:

Observation No. 1

Ordinary Australians, on the whole, feel alienated from the processes and activities of  OUR government.

I will then attempt to find, or possibly even prove, a ‘Statement’, thus identifying one or more key aspects of the problem. I will then conclude with an answering ‘Proposition’, containing more or less sensible suggestions for solutions.

If you are interested in keeping up with this conversation, but, like me, have a limited time allocation for the wafflings of total strangers, please feel free to just read the Statements and Propositions.

So, with reference to Observation No. 1, the obvious first question is: Are we still participating in our government in any meaningful way at all? Well, yes – the most universal and relevant participation has to be periodically showing up at a school hall, buying a sausage and failing, yet again, to understand the long method of filling out the upper house ballot.

Wait a minute – universal and relevant, you say? Then what about the vulgar controversialist title you chose, where you said voting was meaningless?

Good point. Well made. I can see that I’m going to have to explain myself. When I say it’s meaningless, what I mean is that, for the vast majority of Australians, the level to which they are politically engaged and the way in which they form their decisions, renders their vote basically meaningless for the purposes of choosing effective representative government. Big call? Well, let’s go through the heads of my one point argument.

  • The way in which most Australians exercise their franchise bears little or no relation to the system within which it exists.

In this country, as I’m sure you’re all aware, we do not directly elect the PM. Back in primary school or in year 7 commerce, someone would have briefly told you about the Westminster System and representative democracy. Now, if you can cast your mind back to what was probably one of the most boring days of your life, you may be able to recall why representative democracy exists.

Put simply, our nation is a very big place, with a number of variously populous areas, all of which have more or less different modes of life, critical industries,  local concerns, etc. Ideally, a representative of good character, being currently in residence and/or possession of a property in the electorate in question (and therefore committed to the community) is chosen by direct election to represent the specific interests of his or her electorate in parliament.

This, when you think about it, is a brilliant way of doing things. Very few of us are on speaking terms with our Head of State, or even with her Viceregal representatives. Some of us might be lucky enough to rub shoulders with senior civil servants, Ministers or even the PM, but, for the vast majority of us, raising a concern with any of these mighty and inaccessible beings is not really an option. Therefore, we pick one of our own – a solid citizen from our own neck of the woods, to get our view across in the big house.

Problem 1.

Party politics. In a lot of cases, especially in key electorates, party politics, not standing in the community, will largely govern the selection of candidates made available to us. In the case of politicians who are key players within one of the major parties, it is not at all uncommon to simply parachute the most strategically appropriate candidate in. So, we see immediately the potential for party politics to at least partially compromise one of the most important pillars of our political system.

Problem 2.

Geography. How many of us know or have ever engaged with our Member of Parliament? In some of the lower profile electorates, how many of us even know their names? The reality of the modern state (and this has been the case for some time) is that electorates are so large that it is simply not feasible for an MP, try as they might, to be engaged across the entirety of the community they represent.

So, for most of us, come election time – our local representative is a matter of profound indifference. Which leaves us with what? The exact same shambles we get every election. People voting along party lines or in accordance with their preference for the media persona of one or another of the party leaders. Stupid? Maybe not – in reality, the average voter will have seen much more of the two candidates for PM (albeit on TV) then they will of their MP.

The consequence of this behaviour, however, is a near total negation of the operation of representative democracy. If the majority of an electorate are making their decision based on factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with their electorate, then we have:

  • A vote that is cast without reference to what it was designed to achieve
  • A process that cannot effectively ensure that we are represented in government.

Additionally, regardless of how cleverly you may cast your own vote, if an actual majority of people are voting in a way that ignores the system, they have not only diddled themselves, but they have rendered your ballot virtually meaningless as well.

Now, it occurs to me that someone might say: “Representative democracy is not our only means of communication with government. What about the media? It alerts the government to public opinion.”

Right. ‘Public Opinion’. This is usually identifiable as the headline of the Daily Telegraph and represents a position on an issue. Firstly, the Australian people never have just one position on any issue. Secondly- by the time ‘Public Opinion’ is in general circulation, the only constants governing which position will be put forward are: Loudest, Stupidest, Least Syllables. Furthermore, the arbiters of public opinion (i.e. the primary sources of information and opinion that help to form it) can be counted on a blind butcher’s left hand. If you think that your interests are adequately represented by talk radio loonies, amoral, fanatic-for-hire lobbyists and the tiny group of merchant emperors we’re pleased to call ‘Industry’, then I envy you your optimism.

So, having said all that, I believe we can justly make the following statement:

Statement No. 1

An actual majority of the people of Australia no longer have direct and effective representation in government.

 

Now, the ordinary political commentator would stop at this point, possibly breaking off to wax lyrical about the good old days and how everything worked so much better under Gough, or when every street corner had a general store, or something equally maudlin and futile. I, however, object to the practice of whingeing endlessly to no good purpose. So, let’s have a look at what I came up with for:

Proposition No. 1

  • Improve the frequency and relevance of education with regard to the way our nation actually works. Government, types of government and our government specifically deserve to form a subject all their own. In the US, this subject is called ‘Civics’. The maintenance of a population that understands the nature and operation of their state is usually a key priority. At least, it is according to Plato and Sir Thomas More.
  • Change voter behaviour or change the system. If the people all vote in a way that bypasses a key pillar of the system, then perhaps we could ensure that, instead of rows of crazy-eyed leaflet people at polling stations, we could have dead-eyed civil servants, handing out educational literature. Yes, I know – that has as much chance of being effective as Belgium has of being a superpower. So, what’s wrong with this idea: if voters insist on voting as if we practise direct election, why not take that as a vote for direct election? One ballot each for the lower and upper house and then one for PM. 
  • Enact legislation that requires news reporting agencies and their associated publications to tell the truth. What I’m proposing here is not the setting of an impossible standard of fact checking, but rather, some way of gagging the divisive, ill-informed, irrational and, in some cases, functionally illiterate ‘opinion’ writers who seem to have so much control of our political dialogue. The simplest way I could think of was to make it illegal to talk shit in a publication that purports to engage in factual reporting. This way, you’d buy a paper for the cut and pasted articles from Associated Press and then, if you felt you had to, you could buy a copy of Jugs, or FHM, to read an opinion column in its natural and appropriate habitat.

 

Category: Politics

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