(Click here for my post-election chatter.)
How I will vote in the 2001 Australian Federal Election, and Why
The Australian Federal Election is on Saturday 10 November. On 9 November, I will take time off from my job in the U.S.A. so I can go to the Australian Consulate and cast my vote. (When it's Saturday in Australia, it's only Friday in America.) I won't be able to determine how I number the candidates until the time I get there, but my mind has been made up about a lot of things.
Voting "Below the Line"
Australia has the best political voting system that I've seen. There's definitely room for improvement, but it's much fairer than any other that I've heard of. The primary reason is that Australians exercise preferential voting, known to some as "instant run-off elections" in other parts of the world.
I can't stress the importance of this enough, especially after witnessing the 2000 Presidential Election in the United States of America. That election was botched in many ways—we've all heard about the problems with the voting cards themselves, and many of us also believe that the thousands of voter registrations which were "lost" in parts of Florida were part of a conspiracy to prevent those people from voting against G.W. Bush. But even if everything had gone the way it should, there are flaws with the way that the votes are interpreted. The main one, in my opinion, is the first-past-the-post system, which is only fair when there are exactly two candidates.
I'll explain by example. In Florida, the most highly contested state, 2,909,135 people voted for Bush and only 2,907,351 voted for Gore. But 96,844 voted for Ralph Nadar, and the vast majority of those people would certainly would have preferred Gore to be president. Because of this, perhaps 3,000,000 votes would have ended up going to Gore in a preferential system, which would be the majority of votes, thus awarding him the election. This would have been the fairer outcome, because most Florida voters preferred Gore over Bush. (Of course, nationally, Gore received more votes anyhow; Gore had 49,244,746 and Bush had 49,026,305. The fact that Bush's party is in power means that the government here is not representative of voters in America. A similar problem exists in Australia's House of Representative, but to a lesser extent.) If you're confused, I suggest you refer to the Parliament of Victoria's diagrammatic explanation of that State's electoral process. The green section of the diagram shows what happens when no candidate has the majority of votes, which is when the magic of preferential voting kicks in.
So what's with voting "below the line"? Well, unlike Victorian ballot forms, Federal ballot forms have two sections, separated by a horizontal line. (It's interesting to note the different electoral processes used in different States—see this ECA page.) Voters can choose to complete either the top section, or the bottom section. Those who vote "above the line" simply choose their favourite political party. If that political party doesn't receive the majority of votes, then that party chooses which party your vote counts for instead. They'll usually vote for a party you like, but they might not. I became disillusioned with the Australian Green Party one election year when they exchanged preferences with One Nation in some electorates—One Nation is the last party I'd vote for! This brings me to the most fun thing about voting below the line: not only do you get to award your highest preferences to the candidates you like the most, you get to rank the candidates you hate last! So to enjoy the full control of votes that Australians have enjoyed since 1918, I'll be voting below the line, and I recommend everyone else to do the same.
Voting Out the Current Government
Let me be plain about this: I will celebrate the demise of the Howard Government. For one thing, I'm embarrassed by the man himself—over the years, the words I've used to describe him have included "arrogant", "ignorant", and, on my more emotional days, "slimy little dweeb who looks like Penfold out of Danger Mouse". But we vote for parties, not prime ministers, so here are the main reasons that I wouldn't vote for the Liberal party no matter who was at the helm:
1. Environmental Irresponsibility
Frankly, I don't think the Howard Government cares about the environment. Mining in Kakadu, watering down the Kyoto treaty—need I say more? I would never vote for such an environmentally irresponsible political party.
2. Cuts to Education
For decades, Australia has been able to pride itself because anybody with appropriate academic ability has been able to go to university. University courses were heavily subsidised by the Government to make them affordable for almost anybody, and if you couldn't afford them, schemes like AusStudy would make up for the shortfall. You wouldn't end up with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt in your name when you graduated, because it wasn't a loan scheme—the Government recognised the value of having an educated population. Well, previous governments did; the Howard Government has just made massive cuts. The cost of tuition has gone up, AusStudy payments have gone down, and they're available to fewer people. The Government has also made it possible for rich students to buy their way into university by paying much higher fees, bypassing academic requirements. This obviously encourages courses to be "dumbed down", thus affecting the quality of education. Worst of all, I've heard of cases where excellent high school students have not gone to university, because they couldn't afford it. I find this absolutely unacceptable.
3. Cuts to the ABC
The Australian Broadcasting Commission was formed early last century, when radio was new, to guarantee that all Australians had access to electronic media. As commercial television and radio started to catch on, it became an oasis of commercial-free programming and journalism with integrity. The ABC is to radio and television in Australia what your local independent cinema is to Hollywood—the thinking person's station. Of course, thoughtful views are usually progressive ones, and since the Howard Government is anything but progressive, it felt it was necessary to make crippling cuts to the ABC's budget. Gone is Radio Australia, which broadcast via shortwave so I could pick it up from overseas. Gone is much of the educational and entertainment programming which put viewers in touch with the rest of Australia, certainly more than a BBC rerun could. I admire the ABC for not letting up on its scrutiny of Government policy, as it has always done for every government. Still, I'm scared that media in Australia will become like it is in America: an assault to the senses, and very difficult to find an alternative voice.
4. Cuts to Job Training and Welfare
Next in the "John Howard wants to make Australia just like America" campaign is cuts to welfare. The most offensive thing was the replacement of proper job training programs with the "work for the dole" scheme. Under the previous government, if you were unemployed, you'd probably qualify for job training to help make you more employable. These programs were badly managed, yes, but also badly needed. Today, you get to "work for the dole"—do the kind of work that has traditionally been community service work, for an amount of money on which you can barely survive. I agree that this helps keep "the spirit of being employed" alive, but without job training, the jobs that these people eventually get won't be as meaningful. This would quickly kill any good spirit that they get from being employed, especially since many of these people will only end up in the dole queue again anyhow.
It was bound to happen, and only months after these cuts, it did: a stranger stopped me in the street and asked for spare change. In Australia! I almost cried—this shit wasn't meant to happen, but least of all in my country! I'm told that it's fairly common now; not as bad as in Africa or Asia or America, but the fact that it happens at all is unacceptable to me, and I blame the Howard Government for it starting in Australia.
5. Selling Off our Assets
I've only seen bad things come from privatisation. I've seen electric companies go bankrupt in California. Hell, I've read about entire cities in New Zealand going for weeks without power! I've seen busses run less frequently. Telstra's service was much better before it started being privatised. Now the Government wants to sell the airports, and who knows what else? My tax dollars paid for those assets, and I'm against them being sold off, especially since the buyers will probably be overseas corporations. And the primary goal of any corporation is to make profits, not to serve its customers, so it doesn't make sense to have corporations manage essential public services like utilities and employment agencies and public transport! I can't see what sense this strategy makes in the long run anyhow—what happens when we run out of things to sell off? It's a stupid thing to do, and I will not vote for a party who does it.
6. Refusing to Apologise to the Stolen Generation
I possess a certain amount of national pride, but that pride shrivels when I think about the Stolen Generation. The Stolen Generation is the name given to the generation of Aborigines who were removed from their parents during the 1920s as part of government policy. This is one of the many atrocities committed against the Aboriginal people by Australia and the colonies that united to form it. For further information, I refer you to the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's page on the subject.
The current Government itself is not directly responsible for this, and it may not even have been a Liberal or National government that started the practice. However, since it was a Federal Government that formed this policy, a Federal Government apologising for it would be an important step. Besides, the Government is out of step with community opinion—even each of the State Governments have apologised.
An apology, of course, is merely a token gesture. It's clear to me that the Howard Government doesn't give a stuff about Aboriginal Australia, except maybe for the tourist dollars it attracts. This was illustrated by the amendments it made to the Native Title Act in 1996. In a nutshell, they've made it harder for Aborigines to claim unowned land as sacred sites—see this page at the Community Aid Abroad site for more information.
I believe that Australia needs to take great steps forward in the process of Aboriginal reconciliation. The Howard Government has made too many steps backwards, so I will not vote for them.
7. Other Stuff
There are many other problems brought on by the current government. There's the GST, cuts to Medicare, and its willingness to jump into bed with the WTO. I don't have enough knowledge about these issues to discuss them here, but since Liberal governments' interests have always favoured the wealthy and conservative, I'm sure it's not pretty. I really wish that Australia would wake up and realise that party policy is much more important than who's Prime Minister, and that they have more choices than the two mainstream parties anyway.
So who am I voting for?
Like I said, I won't know for sure how I'll rank the candidates until I see the ballot form, but I do know that I'll give my highest realistic preferences to The Australian Democrats. I simply like their policies best. I'm also a big fan of The Green Party, but when they exchanged preferences with One Nation a few years ago, their image was tarnished a little in my view. But that may change. I can change my mind if I like—it's a free country!
Well, most of the results are in, and so is, unfortunately, the Coalition government again. Needless to say, I'm disappointed by this, and it has further disillusioned my view of Australia's voters. On the other hand, it's encouraging to see Australia's version of the two-party system crumbling a little more—more than 20% of voters selected a party other than Labor, the Liberals or the Nationals. The majority of those votes went to one of the two most progressive parties, the Democrats and the Greens. So as I express frustration about three more years of racism, environmental destruction and cuts to health care and the ABC, I can take heart in the fact that Australia's population is becoming a little more progressive... slowly... slowly...
A Note About Proportional Representation
Recently I was talking to somebody (Peter Garrett, actually) about how glad I am that Australia has a preferential voting system. Peter seemed more concerned about proportional voting, and expressed his wish that Australia's House of Representatives had it. I can see his point; the House is dominated by the mainstream parties—there are a few independents, but everyone else represents the Labor, Liberal or National parties. Still, the whole point of the House is to represent the populations of geographic portions of Australia. This ensures every Australian an equal voice in Parliament, regardless of their location. If everyone in Australia thinks putting a nuclear waste dump in My Back Yard is a great idea, I can call on the Federal Member for My Back Yard to express my view that I think it's a bad idea. So while I think I see your point, Peter, I disagree with it. (Just because you're the currently living activist who I admire most and the lead singer of my all-time favourite band, doesn't mean I have to agree with everything you say!)