I was asked some months ago to write something about the US Presidential elections, coming in just a few weeks. This is the first instalment. For those who have lived in both countries, it is pretty basic stuff. But just as there are millions of Americans who simply don’t know that Australia exists, or think it is Austria, there are hundreds of thousands of Australians who think we are just like America. We’re not, and this essay gives some context. Yes, we have a common language, we borrowed their federal system from the US, and a few other things as well, but there are some pretty important differences. What follows is a rough clearing of the undergrowth.
We need to start with history. The USA begins in 1783, seven years after the start of the War of Independence from King George III, and five years before Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay. But there had been many English settlements before 1783, starting with the Puritan settlements in 1620. Each of these was privately financed and self-governed. The land was good arable, for the most part, and there was plenty of water. I’ll leave fighting with the Red Indians out. As time went on settlers pushed further west and discovered the wonderful Missouri/Mississippi river system, with its deep soil and abundant water. When the American colonies federated there was no doubt that local self-government would be key. The new federal government was to do those things that couldn’t be done locally, and to sort out differences between states. Education, police, municipal services, justice, transport, you name it, were either wholly locally administered or substantially so. In 1845 and thereafter a single election day was set for just about everything, the President, the House of Representatives, half the Senate, state governors and representatives and all local positions down to dog-catcher. It is a huge electoral endeavour.
When the colonial representatives met to decide on their Constitution the only model widely available to them was a form of monarchy, though Switzerland was a republic. So they opted for an elected king, with two houses of parliament, with the upper house representing the former colonies, now states, the lower house representing the citizens. It was an adaptation of what they were used to, and it has worked tolerably well for nearly 240 years.
The Australian experience was quite different. The settlement of New South Wales was from the beginning a piece of government action. There were no independent attempts at settlement for quite some time. Moreover, the environment around Port Jackson and Botany Bay was not encouraging for crops or pastures, and the new settlement nearly ran out of food on a couple of occasions. Just about everything was done or run by the military government, and democratic institutions took some time to arrive. When the settlers moved west they discovered no great river system that could sustain thousands of farmers, but a land of dry plains whose rivers could disappear or flood. The government owned all the land, and sold it or handed it out to suit whatever initiative was the go. It was not until the discovery of gold in the middle 19thcentury that elected assemblies and governments became the standard.
More, when the colonial representatives met to argue about the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia that would come into being, with the approval of the British Government — no war of independence was necessary — a monarch who really ruled was something of the past. The new model was of an elected government with a Prime Minister, as was now the case in Great Britain. So the Australians opted for that, borrowing the federal system and its names from the USA, which they had studied most carefully. Elections were held whenever the jurisdiction thought it to be appropriate, so we have a plethora of elections, federal, state and local. Local government is a creature of state government; no great feeling applies to local government in Australia, because it was never generated by settlement itself. The Colony of New South Wales did quite a lot of mapping of where they thought new towns might be. Some of them remain on maps but nowhere else.
More still, Australians became highly regulated in comparison to the Americans, and notably ‘national’ as well. In Australia government did a great deal, at every level, and Australians became used to saying ‘when will they fix this or do that?’ “They” was the government. In my experience, in an American college town of 100,000 people, Americans never looked to government, but to themselves. ‘Isn’t it about time we did this or fixed that?’ they would say to each other. And they would fix it or do it, too. I was deeply impressed. We Australians like to talk about how diverse a society we are, but we pale into insignificance against the USA. We have very largely a single Australian accent; the USA has dozens of accents. Local cultures and loyalties can be profound in the USA, but I can think of no comparable examples here. Even regionally, the North, the South, the Midwest and California present contrasts that have no real counterparts in Australia. ‘Come on, Australia!’ we yell at sporting events or are urged on television ads. There is no equivalent in the USA. And so on.
Finally, the USA is the most powerful nation on our planet, and about thirteen times bigger in most respects, than Australia, which is a middle power that may indeed punch above its weight. But Australia does not broker deals between Israel and Arab nations, and it has no nuclear armoury. So the issues in an American election are multitudinous, and range from strategic issues in world politics to the work of the local dog-catcher. Our issues are confined to the jurisdiction in question. Even when the election is national or federal, state and local issues rarely become truly important. They might in a single constituency, but as I showed sixty years ago in an article, state and local issues, even the work and standing of the local MP, were of minor importance most of the time. We vote nationally, most of us, most often.
And we are compelled to vote, well at least compelled to turn up and accept a voting slip. What we do with it then is indeed up to us. Turnout in Australia is above 90 per cent, while in the USA it does well to exceed 50 per cent. That is not just a legal difference. There is good evidence to support the view that Australians think we should turn out to vote, because we are then responsible in part for the outcome. We’re slack if we don’t. And, until the pandemic, voting day had its share of enjoyment, meeting friends, a sausage sizzle, seeing the local school again, a day off.
We are sophisticated users of voting technology, and the Americans are not. They have to actually go to the polling station and complete the forms . We can vote postally, and in the ACT even electronically (some American states do allow postal voting). Our electoral commission keeps everything squeaky clean. The Americans have nothing like that, and they really need it. But that gets me into the detail of an election, and that can wait until another of these essays before we get down to the nitty gritty, Trump or Biden, and how much does it matter?
And my apologies to any offended dog-catchers.