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Democracy and the polls

By John Töns - posted Monday, 6 September 2010


On September 4, Bob Katter gave a “doorstop” interview. He was asked for his response to the latest poll which had found that those polled would prefer the independents to support a minority Labor Government. In response he said something like: “The people interviewed for these polls do not have access to the sort of information about the two parties that we have.”

He was not stating that he would support Abbott or Gillard - he was merely stating that the three independents have had an unprecedented opportunity not merely to closely scrutinise the policies of the two parties but to seek independent advice about the impact these policies will have on the nation as a whole.

His comments highlight a problem with the way polls have begun to dominate political life. The turnover in political leaders on both sides of politics is, in part, a product of poll results.

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Although we tend to operate under the illusion that people cast a considered vote, that people rationally assess the merits of the various candidates and the parties that they represent; determine which party and which candidate will do most for the good of the nation as a whole, the reality is quite different. Let’s face it in all western democracies there is a struggle to get voters to engage in the political process - wherever there is voluntary voting a good turnout is anything above 30 per cent.

And what of those who do vote? Is there any evidence that they are well informed, have studied competing policies and cast a vote conscious of the need to vote for something that is in the public interest? The reality is again that voters tend to be poorly informed with little idea of what the public good is.

So what Katter and his fellow independents are doing is something quite unusual: they are attempting to make a rational choice between two parties. It is a rational choice fraught with danger for themselves for their electorates would not necessarily be making a rational choice - their choice would be based on raw emotion and, very possibly, blind prejudice. If they choose Labor then they will need to spend the entire term of the Labor Government explaining to their voters why they made that choice. If they choose Abbott then they will need to spend the entire term demonstrating that an independent is preferable to a National Candidate. They have been handed a poisoned chalice; no matter which way they go they run the risk of this being their last term in government.

Yet for those of us on the sidelines one has to admit to a grudging respect of the way they have handled this process - from their very first interview on the Sunday after the election they have demonstrated a quality that is far too often lacking in public life - a willingness to critically engage with the issues that face Australia as a whole. We can disagree with them, disagree with the choice that they have ultimately have made but on the basis of what we have seen we cannot quarrel with the integrity with which they have approached this challenge.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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