Monday, 10 May 2010

Watching democracy

Dr P and I spent most of Friday watching the BBC World News report on the UK elections. Being political junkies from way back, with a combination of practice and theory, there is nothing like an election to get our blood stirring and the mind whirring. We always watch election days, despite having retired. It was, we thought, a good coverage, and it is always interesting to watch the workings of another country's democratic procedures and practices. By the end of the day's viewing everyone looked so tired, as they had been up all night, it seemed. Now negotiations are taking place between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. We await with interest, even though we are far, far away.

Electoral machinery and systems are always fascinating. I think Australia's systems are generally pretty good, and that our electoral machinery and administration are good and competent. I am a great supporter of compulsory voting. It does, I think, give people a sense of ownership of the political process and its results, and it leads to more of a consensus in the overall parameters of policy and administration. Major parties, and others hoping to increase their share of the vote, usually strive to avoid deep divisions in the body politic, and in Australia there is generally a popular acceptance of compulsory voting, as a civic duty. Our election days have something of a festive air to them. I know that some opponents of compulsory voting bleat on about the frightful assault on their freedom of expression by being compelled to vote, but I think this is such a furphy. There are plenty of restrictions on people's actions imposed by governments, they do not cause the heavens to fall in, and the benefits by far outweigh the disadvantages. (It would actually be easy administratively for provision to be made for genuine, rather than cannot-be-bothered voters, to register as a conscientious objector, and thus be exempt from the general public duty to vote.) When you consider the many years during which poor and ordinary people were (and still are, in many countries) deprived of any political representation and civil rights, and the lengthy and extensive struggle to achieve full adult franchise, it is appalling that some people are prepared to abandon such rights.

In countries with low voting turnouts, it is easy for the interests of the non-voters to be excluded from the political agenda. They can safely be ignored. This has been the case in the USA. Turnout in non-Presidential election years hovers around 50 per cent, I believe. Apparently turnout was quite high in the UK for this election, from which I gather that there had been a decline in the last ten years or so.

My preferred voting system would insist on compulsory voting, with optional preferential voting. Australian federal elections and some states have full preferential voting (NSW and Queensland have optional preferential voting). Preferential voting was introduced to maximise the vote of the conservative parties, and being able to transfer the full effect of a vote to another party gives that voter two bites of the cherry, and is in effect a weighted vote.

Other virtues of our electoral system include compulsory enrolment and regular updating of the electoral rolls, and regular redistribution of electorates, with a requirement that there be permitted only very small deviations from the electoral quota.

I hope that there is no rushing into the adoption of a proportional representation system, and that there is a careful examination of how PR works in other countries. The Netherlands, Belgium and Israel, for example. Small parties advocate PR, as it would increase their influence, and of course, larger parties are not so keen, for the same reason. Self-interest should not override the general welfare, or promote special advantages. It is an important principle that any electoral system should be balanced in its effects,and that the representation, or seats won, should be in proportion to the number of the votes cast for them.

Best of British luck to them all over there.

4 comments:

Isabelle said...

And the plot thickens, day by day...

saffronlie said...

I love that you said 'furphy'. My father is about the only other person I've ever heard use that word. He explained the etymology to me when I was younger.

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Frances said...

I have a furphy in my backyard. It has been common here for people to slice off the front, and hang it in their bar...but, mine sits in the backyard. Under the plum tree.