October 23, 2012

Horse 1386 - Why Compulsory Voting is Necessary

Peter Lewis in the Opinion section of the Daily Telegraph writes an interesting piece in favour of voluntary voting, as opposed to the compulsory requirement to vote which currently exists in Australia.
He argues that giving people the right to choose to vote or not, forces political parties to engage with voters and that it makes the public feel that their vote matters more because they have chosen to cast it. I personally think that this is fundamentally flawed logic; moreover that this appears in the newspaper because an agenda is being pushed.

That Article can be found here:

To look at the American system as Mr Lewis had done and then overlook the large portion of the American public who do not vote, is not a thorough examination of said system. When people choose not to vote, it is usually an indication that they either do not care or more importantly, feel that they are not represented at all by the field of candidates. Arguably the people who feel the least attached to politics are the people whose voices need to be heard the loudest because they represent a failure of the system. If those voices are never heard because the option was given not to speak, then the lessons are never learned at all. Politics tends to follow the first law of thermodynamics, that is, that objects and politicians are lazy, they like to keep in doing what they're already doing unless something forces them to change.
Remove the impetus for change and the exascerbation of non engagement by politicians only accelerates, which is precisely what you get in America.

Mr Lewis goes onto assert that the Australian system has produced a "sausage machine" whereby student hacks become regular political hacks and wait their turn to become MPs. Whilst this may be true that the political machines in Australia have to some degree produced career politicians, he asks us to compare and make a contrast to the American system as though this somehow magically does not.
Perhaps Mr Lewis needs to be reminded of the last 11 months. We've had both the RNC and the DNC lay on extravaganzas to elect their respective candidates and by the end, nearly $7bn will be spent on advertising during the 2012 election campaign collectively. What does this represent if it is not the product of at least two highly organised machines? The other thing to note with so so very very much money being fed into the parties by corporations, businesses, individuals and weird conglomerate super PACs, those parties are going to want something to show for it. Is it by accident that John Kerry in 2004 happened to be the husband to the heir of the Heinz empire, or that the Bush's were tied up in Haliburton, or even Romney being a founder of Bain Capital? A local candidate in Australia might have come from their local political party mechanics but as at 2012 they're still more likely to have engaged with the community by actually being in it than an American equivalent.
As for the suggestion that the American system requires candidates to not as strongly rely on "rusted on" voters, has he spoken to people in the United States? Arguably the amount of rusted-on-Ness reaches levels which would make Australians cringe. You even get churches and charities declaring their rusted-on-ness, which given the level of yelling about the separation of church and state in America seems strange.
This also seems to ignore the long history which some families have in sending members to the Town Hall, the State Capitol and the Congress.

There is a strange sort of assertion that in Australia our politicians lack a dynamism because the public compulsorily votes. Personally I don't see this at all. You can walk into any of the state parliaments in Australia when they are sitting and even at Federal level and see people argue very vitriolically and vociferously. I don't know if it is true for all of them but certainly the NSW Legislative Assembly has the nickname of the "bear pit". At Federal level, you try and tell me that it is not a dynamic and at times fiery place. Mr Lewis appears to deny fact itself.

Mr Lewis though does accidentally give the game away and hides his aims in plain view. He openly admits that there might be a correlation between lower incomes and non voting. Perhaps secondarily as he says that Labor would suffer from voluntary voting but let's be more honest shall we?
Peter Lewis is director of the political consultancy firm EMC. His primary interest is to retain his job and sell his services (he needs to eat and pay the bills too). Being in political consultancy, he's going to suggest ways that parties can either cut costs or retain his services (no business person ever suggested to fire themselves). The easiest way to cut costs is to cut loose entirely that portion of expenses which are the most troublesome. In this case by advocating voluntary voting, he more or less like Mitt Romney did that a portion on the electorate isn't worth bothering about.
The truth is that with a less motivated poorer section of the electorate, that also provides easy benefits when it comes to governments abrogating responsibility to them.
The truth is that even an apathetic public who is forced by law to vote, still wields more effective power at the ballot box than a public who has the choice not to. As a consultant to political parties, his work dovetails nicely into every political party's aim - to retain power if they do so, to claim government if they're in opposition and to climb into power if they do neither of those things.

The really scary and almost forgotten thing about compulsory voting isn't so much that it is like a civic duty (because although jury duty and military service on occasion are both civic duties, it's just that they don't really hold power) burr rather that it introduces more uncertainty into parliaments. More specialist groups, smaller interest parties, more voices; more different sorts of political dialogue and different items are placed on the political agenda. To a greater degree power is placed into the ballot box, which is precisely the opposite argument which Mr Lewis is trying to make.
If you want proof of this in the real world, compare Canberra to the mother of all Westminster Parliaments, Westminster herself. London during 2011 suffered a series of riots because young people in particular felt disenfranchised, and Nick Clegg has made a formal apology because he couldn't keep promises that he made before the election; this is supposedly the leader of a party who was supposed to drive a political wedge between the two majors.
In Australia, we've seen just a few independents swing the entire character of the parliament. The dialogue between the two majors might be as toxic as it ever has been but between them, the independents and the Greens have still changed the direction of two parties who without reason would have continued on their own merry way and on that way, continued to ignore the electorate which put them there.
Compulsory voting provides a voice of protest against inadequate and unrepresentative swill. It provides a voice for the apathetic and the disenfranchised but most importantly, it provides a check against the power of parliament itself. Peter Lewis might say that for purer politics, we need voluntary voting but for more representative politics we really need everyone voting and how do you get everyone to vote unless some of them are forced to by law?

No comments: