Monday, 21 January 2013 

Campbell Newman’s government is as confused as you might expect from one led by someone whose party effectively collapsed, was taken over by the Nationals who only then discovered that they didn’t have anyone who could take them to power, so had to turn to said collapsed party, but was forced to look outside Parliament altogether to a Lord Mayor, who in between the fall of Howard and the rise of Barnett, at least had the distinction of the being the highest office-holding Liberal in the land.

If that doesn’t exactly seem like preparing for power, you would be right. But, of course, the final necessary ingredient for this unpromising concoction to take over George Street was the implosion of the ruling Labor party.

But implosion may not be the right word even though Labor in 2012 went down to the lowest vote of any Queensland government in history, even worse than its 1957 result when Labor split neatly in half and ran against itself. Because this time there was no scandal or any real issue, let alone a cataclysmic split. In fact there was not really any reason at all, other than some dissatisfaction at a privatisation program it didn’t campaign on and perhaps the sense that it was time to go (like that’s a reason). Probably the lack of real reason just highlighted little more than Labor’s lack of social base in a state where it has long not had one, resulting in blow-outs in its vote one way or the other. Maybe instead of “implosion”, “Pop!” might be a better description for what happened to Labor last March.

Anyway, anyone with a balanced view would clearly see that Queensland’s first Liberal government was one by default.

Nevertheless the right are in an excitable state at the moment, so they took the landslide as a mandate, even though they didn’t campaign on one, and started to cut back services as though voter dissatisfaction at Labor doing the same never happened. Now, a few months, a couple of departing Ministers and some defections later, Queensland’s fledgling government is not looking so hot.

Fortunately Campbell Newman can turn to what every Queensland politician can rely on when surrounded by a floundering political system – anti-politics. In that spirit, Newman has run up the flagpole the possibility of scrapping compulsory voting and going back to optional voting.

It’s a clever ruse. Not because bringing in optional voting would win a single vote for Newman on its own. But because it not only puts a cat amongst the few Labor pigeons sitting opposite, but the National coo-cooing behind him as well. Nationals dread the threat of independents taking away their heartland, while Labor dreads the possibility that, these days, it might not even have one.

As might be expected, stalwarts for the political system, especially the Labor side have come out to warn of the grave threat to democracy should voters be allowed to decide whether to come to the ballot box to cast a vote – thereby showing not only an ignorance of what “democracy” actually means, but also what the vast bulk of democracies in the world actually do.

Leaving aside the Labor fan base, more revealing of what much of the political class thinks comes from one its most articulate spokesman, Barnaby Joyce:

I think compulsory voting in Australia is important. I mean let’s have a reality bill here. If voting wasn’t compulsory a lot of people just wouldn’t bother voting. At times, can only get half the people in America to vote. Now in Australia I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up with you know 30 or 40 per cent of the people turning up to vote and I don’t know whether that would be a good outcome.

The next thing is you’d have a rise of the capacity of parties on the far right, all of a sudden you know, you’d have a White Australia policy and things like that coming back into the fore and on the far left we’ll have a carbon tax on breathing and we’ll have people saying that you, know, that basically all development is evil.

The first obvious point is that 30-40% looks an awfully low number, given the fact there is still likely to be a lot of people who will make the effort to make sure one of our two most unpopular leaders in living memory doesn’t get in. Such a low estimate seems to have more to do with the insecurities of a Nationals Senator unsure of his base than electoral reality.

But then, even if it’s true that only 30-40% of the population actually wants to vote, what’s the point of covering it up and pretending everyone does? At least it might lead to addressing the real problem, i.e. the lack of anything attractive to vote for than pretending it isn’t a problem.

But Barnaby’s point is that it isn’t the politicians that’s the real problem, it is us. Because if we didn’t have compulsion and just opened up to see the real state of us voters, apparently it would not be a pretty sight. All the garbage would rise to the surface and we’d see all the White Australia Policy nutters and greenies hiding amongst the apathetic masses.

In a tweet to this blogger, Malcolm Turnbull gave the US as an example where extremists are using optional voting to mobilise their bases to get the vote out. Turnbull was following others in the media in recent days in using the US as a cautionary example of the dangers of optional voting, but it is hard to see exactly what point is being made.

Even leaving aside that the US is hardly the only democracy with optional voting, if they mean that the one who actually won the Presidential election, Obama, had much of his vote mobilised on racial lines, so resulting in the extreme result of a black man being elected President of the United States, then perhaps they have a point. If they are talking about the others, well, given that they didn’t win, then they don’t.

Of course, who everyone, including Turnbull, is talking about are the US Republicans, especially the Tea Party. The first obvious point about the Tea Party is that much of their “extremism” is what would have been acceptable only a few years ago in the Dubya White House, showing how what classifies as not extremist is becoming narrower and narrower – and at an even faster rate than it has over Joyce’s lifetime when a White Australia Policy could be now regarded as extreme that was still official government policy when Joyce was a nipper.

Indeed it is because the old right and left paradigm is having less relevance to people’s lives that the kick back is coming more from the left-right parties themselves than the electorate. It was the recognition of the lack of electoral interest in what is ultimately a branding exercise that was why even during the Republican nomination, one of the more anodyne candidates took the lead, and after the Republican nomination, tried to create even further distance from this base. In the end, it was not far enough, and the one who has best removed himself from the left-right psychodrama won. It is an advantage that Obama has continued to drive home as right-wing Republicans continue to drag the US and their own party to the cliff.

Yet the ultimate irony of using the US Republican example is that they have not been the only one going through a “branding” exercise. As Turnbull should know better than anyone else in the country, the Liberals have also been going through their own electorally unpopular “branding” exercise. The difference is that whereas Romney lost, the Liberals’ man is on track to win in 2013 – in part because under compulsion, unenthusiastic voters are more likely to be voting for the one that they dislike least and, whatever doubts they have about Abbott’s views, polls say it is this government they like less. Like Newman, the next Coalition will also be one of default, disguised as a mandate under compulsion. If you think Newman’s government is confused, wait till you see what is coming to Canberra this year.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 21 January 2013.

Filed under State of the parties

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12 responses to “Compulsion”

  1. Graeme on 21st January 2013 12:22 pm

    Shrike, love the ‘Pop’ metaphor, and the diagnosis of the Qld Lib and ALP problems and blancmange qualities are acutely accurate, as usual.

    Two comments. There’s nothing to suggest voluntary voting is on the agenda. It was half a page in an undergrad style open discussion paper, which the media naively blew up.

    If anything it’s a smokescreen for the LNP’s real desire which will be to fiddle electoral finance laws to interfere with the union-ALP nexus and screw Labor whilst it’s down.

    ‘First Liberal government’? For a century. Ironically it was the Qld Liberal administration of Digby Denham (great name) which first gave Aust compulsory voting, nearly 100 years ago.

  2. Graeme on 21st January 2013 12:33 pm

    ps – Besides needing to read the Qld election law discussion paper to see that it’s deliberately anodyne (designed to obscure any agenda), my rationale for saying compulsory voting isn’t on the agenda is that the last thing a new government losing popularity will want is voluntary voting.

    Compulsion is the cattle prod of stability; which turns out the lukewarm, apolitical suburbanites who in the final analysis are more likely to fear change and hence plump for the LNP at the 2015 state election. Without that prod, a lot of LNP backbenchers will feel even more insecure than needs be.

    If Turnbull tweeted me I’d say yes, compulsory voting can dampen down extremes, but not necessarily in the way he suggested.

    It’s more that its ordinary effect is to enhance predictability and possibly stability, especially for the established political forces. Except in rare times (eg Hanson’s explosion on the scene) where, after a build up of pressure, electoral dissension which elsewhere might filter into declining turnout finds an attractive or demagogic lightning rod.

  3. Dr_Tad on 21st January 2013 12:56 pm

    I agree with the general thrust of what you put here. The incoherence of the Right is the elephant in the room that must be ignored in order for the mainstream Left (Labor and Greens) to proclaim the need to vote for them despite their failures, OR ELSE THE ABBOTT APOCALYPSE WILL RAIN DOWN ON US.

    A couple of interesting points regarding Newman’s regime that I gleaned from discussions when I recently visited Brisbane. The first is that he is not just a politician playing at anti-politics as O’Farrell has done with some success, he really is an apolitical military technocrat (something that caused much consternation inside the Brisbane City Council bureaucracy, where he repeatedly made arbitrary and incoherent decisions). My take is that this in part explains his especially clumsy and over the top handling of the austerity issue, whereas in NSW the Liberal leaders know better how to play the game.

    The second was that a section of the trade union bureaucracy openly distributed Newman’s election materials on his behalf, in exchange for some deal he then welched on after the election while basking in the glow of his “mandate”. This sheds light on just how degenerate the ALP’s social base has become.

  4. Dr_Tad on 21st January 2013 12:56 pm

    (Which is not to take away from the social basis of the incoherence one bit.)

  5. tomd on 21st January 2013 1:35 pm

    The main argument in favour of compulsory voting is that it completely removes a whole class of anti-democratic vote suppression tactics which are still alive today in the US and many other places. IMO the inconvenience of having to turn up to vote even if you don’t care is a small price to pay to guard against such things. Australia goes against most of the rest of the world in weighing things up that way, but given the sorts of shenanigans that go on, I think we’ve got it right.

  6. Dr_Tad on 21st January 2013 2:01 pm

    My view on compulsory voting, about how it has little to do with genuine democracy, from early 2011:

  7. The Piping Shrike on 21st January 2013 6:17 pm

    I agree that optional voting is not necessarily on the agenda. I see Newman is more running it up the flagpole to put the wind up the other major parties by someone who effectively doesn’t have one. It distracts the parties and gets them thinking internally about an issue that no one else especially cares about – summed up by Gillard’s call to arms to mobilise Labor’s base on the fear that they can’t mobilise anyone else.

    I would have thought Australia itself provided a good counter-example that compulsory voting is quite possible alongside suppressed voting, given the suppression of the indigenous vote through decades of compulsory voting. Actually indigenous compulsory voting for people was not brought in until the 1980s, and even today, as seen by the turnout at Lingiari, is still not properly enforced (unless they’re handing out a hell of a lot of $20 fines out there). There are admittedly tricky practices going on in the States now that may suppress the black vote, but then Howard was also quite adept at using a few tricks on registering on the electoral rolls in his time, especially against younger voters.

    On extremism, the first obvious point is that there is nothing in current voting patterns (presuming people would still vote the same way once they got to the booth) to suggest that extremism is at all an issue in Australia. If anything, there seems a dissolving away from left or right (by the way, everyone keeps going on about the rise of Greece’s New Dawn. Greece has compulsory voting).

    But there is a more important point: I think this theme of the threat of extremism is a rising refrain from politicians of floundering political parties who can pretend that it is only they that are a bulwark against our less angelic nature. The overwhelming mood they are grappling with is disengagement from the political process, which I would have thought would lead in the opposite direction to extremism.

    At the end of the day optional voting is no more/less democratic than compulsory voting. It’s more the arguments against it reveal the current confusion about what democracy actually is within both our politicians and some of their supporters.

    Finally Graeme, you are right, Denham’s party was called Liberal (although not the same one I was talking about). But, as in the Federal sphere, compulsory voting was brought in as response to the new emerging Labor Party because conservatives couldn’t mobilise the vote like them. Now both parties want to keep it for the same reason.

  8. Alex White on 21st January 2013 7:09 pm

    Greece has compulsory voting that is not enforced and has no expectation of being enforced.

  9. Jeff on 21st January 2013 8:05 pm

    Maybe they should and stop New Dawn in its tracks.

  10. Riccardo on 23rd January 2013 10:20 am

    My family is from HK and I see the very real effects of communists going through the old peoples homes, rounding them up and bussing them down to the polling booth with the communist candidate’s name written on their hands, with a free lunch, all paid for by the People’s Republic of China.

    The day will come when this happens here too.

  11. Riccardo on 23rd January 2013 10:24 am

    Agree with Dr Tad to an extent though. The Electoral Commission runs this ideology of ‘democracy’ which suggests that we are living in the ‘best of all worlds’ all you need to do is vote for a candidate and everything will be right.

    Clearly that is not the case. Simple observation tells you that the best people for the job don’t necessarily stand, let alone get elected. And even if elected, they are bound by party votes, incompetents in more senior positions than they, procedural blocking and so on.

    Maybe the government of George the Third was wrong and we should go back to that of George the Second, like the US. An elected monarch. A Parliament to propose legislation but not to force its proclamation. A cabinet of the very best people for the job, rather than whatever timeservers the factions proposed.

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