What Are Elections About, Anyway?

By August 9, 2012Politics, Society

This essay is a second ground-clearing exercise, and has been prompted by the first round of offers, pledges and promises from parties and politicians in the ACT. The mainstream media tend to portray elections as a race for power, in which parties and candidates have handicaps and advantages of various kinds, with voters being won or lost along the way, the progress of the race itself being measured by polls. Since I used to think like this myself, I ought not be too toffee-nosed about it now, but I think it is no longer a good analogy. And what follows, while it is only my opinion, is founded on a working lifetime of studying Australian politics and teaching about it to my students. I could still be wrong, too.

Australia has had around 150 years of experience of representative and responsible government, and more than 100 years of party politics of the kind we have today. We are used to it and, in my opinion, rather bored with it. More, we take a great deal of it for granted. Very few for example, think that the world will come to an end even if the other side gets in. There is a high level of trust that politicians, while they will tweak the system to their advantage, will not overthrow it simply because they could do so. It isn’t a life-or-death thing, an Australian election. Most of those interested in politics are best described as ‘single-issue’ people. They have a cause, and want things done for that cause.

While political scientists, journalists and commentators will lament the decline of effective democracy in the number of informal votes (or in whatever else is troubling them) most Australians know what is coming, make their minds up reasonably easily and vote on polling day without any feeling that they are part of a great democracy in action. Indeed, I would say that most Australian know that politics is important, and that good government is important, and that elections are important — but they have other things on their mind most of the time. Gough Whitlam asked everybody in 1975 to maintain their rage, but comparatively few were enraged at his dismissal, and the Coalition had an easy victory in the subsequent elections. We do not live politics — only the aficionados do that.

People are looking for a better job, or worried about their mortgage,  or spending a lot of time with small children, or caring for an ageing rellie, or planning to go overseas. Voting in our regular elections has to be fitted in around these much more pressing concerns. And politicians know this, because the promises they throw out are aimed at people who have pressing concerns of one kind or another. So we can expect more pledges and promises: the campaign has not really begun yet.

Henry Mayer, the sharpest observer of Australian politics I have known, told the citizens of the New England region in 1967 that they should, to a man and woman, vote ‘YES’ in the New State referendum, even if they fundamentally thought the New State proposal was bonkers. Why? Because they had a golden opportunity to tell the Government of New South Wales that much more should be done in their area. There was no chance at all that a new state of New England would come into being, but decent roads, a better railway service, better hospitals and the like were all achievable if there were a 90 per cent Yes vote. His advice was not followed: 54 per cent voted NO, with no subsequent sign of gratitude on the part of the Government.

In the same way, those in marginal seats should always throw out the incumbent MP, to demonstrate that more should be done there. The safer the seat, the less likely any government is to invest discretionary money there. In the ACT, however, the proportional representation system means that throwing out a particular local MP is hard to do. In fact, PR makes it easier for  MLAs, as well as independents and minor parties, to retain or gain some kind of place in a parliament, and the Greens demonstrated this well in 2008.

At the same time, there is more of a lottery in PR than in single-member seats. In Molonglo, for example, with seven MLAs to be elected, a candidate needs 1/8 of the vote plus one vote to gain a seat, or 12.5 per cent. A lot depends on who is running, and how many people will vote a ticket. My guess is that most voters will vote for the MLAs they think well of, and cast about for others to vote for, while giving the thumbs down to anyone they dislike. We probably won’t know the outcome for a week or two.

I received an email after my last post on the ACT elections arguing (against me) that it was unlikely that Labor would lose any seats. Maybe so. I’m not conducting focus groups or private polls. But I think this will be a tepid election, with voters unlikely to get aroused by anything much, but with a government that has been there for quite a time, and lacking the shiny new lustre of reform. Oppositions don’t win elections — it is governments that lose them, and I think that is likely in the ACT. How much of the anti-Labor sentiment there is plainly about in Australia will flow against Katy Gallagher and her team?

Zed Selselja has told us that if elected his government will remove the ban on free plastic shopping bags. If that pledge is typical of what is to come from the Liberals it suggests that they are simply waiting for the blow to fall.

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