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Democracy the big loser on election day

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 12 October 2004


The election result is in, and the winners and losers decided. The electorate has spoken, and they won’t speak again until another election is called.

On election day I handed out “how to vote” cards at a large polling booth in a very marginal electorate in WA. At this booth the demographic was skewed a little downwards in terms of socio-economic status and also ethnically diverse, but overall, it was a reasonable cross-section of the Australian electorate.

And what a sobering experience it was. It would be over 20 years since I first worked at a polling booth, and the changes over that time are a real concern. The campaigns are much more negative in form and content, but the most worrying thing is the attitude of the voters as they came to vote.

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I would break the voters that I encountered into three groups, roughly equal in size. One third came in confident, acting as if the voting experience was a normal, even interesting part of modern life. Another third looked confused, uncomfortable, at best resigned to carrying out an unpleasant task. Another third seemed downright hostile to the whole thing - not hostile to a party or person (which would at least be understandable in political terms), but hostile to the whole voting process. The level of their hostility was sometimes quite alarming.

So, in my assessment of the people coming to vote, well over half were less than positive about the experience. Apparently, spending half an hour to come to vote every year or two (allowing for state elections) to determine who ran the country was a lot to ask. This was definitely not a proud people exalting in their right to rule through a full franchise democratic election process.

It has to be said that the voting experience itself increases that sense of discomfort for voters. The voters arrive at the polling station to face a barrage of election posters, increasingly negative in message. They then face more posters with their simplistic slogans and a gauntlet of people shoving pieces of paper into their hands, sometimes quite aggressively. This whole process is increasingly pointless and counter-productive, but as a worker from another party argued, it suits the parties to keep it up because it is probably their most productive recruiting activity.

Reform of this ridiculous situation would go some way to making the actual experience of voting less chaotic and more meaningful. Perhaps the Electoral Commission could post out all the “how to vote cards”, with one person from each party present at the polling station to answer questions. Posters and all the other pointless paraphernalia should just be banned. The overall message should be the importance of voting, not the increasingly irrational claims of the vying political parties.

But the most important point to come out of this voter response is their general disengagement from the whole electoral process. In a very real sense it is clear that most do not feel like they, as “the people”, in fact “own” elections, and since voting is functionally the only actual way of expressing political will, democracy itself is not highly valued.

This impression gels with what pollsters and others have been saying for some time about a disenchantment with democratic politics generally. It is in fact a broad western phenomenon and some commentators have described it as a crisis in western democracy itself.

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If this general lack of engagement is the case, then the political implications are profound. If people are switched off to politics - not engaged - then they are not informed as to the real issues. When elections arrive - a few weeks of frenetic overkill - they are vulnerable to the most simplistic slogans, which evoke the most basic emotional responses. Certainly the major parties know this and act on it, which is why they choose a couple of basic messages which the increasingly presidential leaders hammer with monotonous regularity, staying “on message”. These slogans supposedly encapsulate the vast complexities of government and provide a real choice between alternative approaches to government. It is patently absurd.

Ironically, Afghanistan went to the polls the same day Australia did: in that benighted country voting can get you killed. Afghanistan, like Iraq, has been the dubious beneficiary of an apparently ongoing campaign by the US and its allies to spread “democracy” throughout the world. The right to vote is considered so important wars are fought over it.

In Australia, where you are fined if you don’t vote, the actual meaning of that word “democracy” becomes ever more unclear. If true democracy requires an informed populace who genuinely value their democratic rights, then what we have in Australia is increasingly something else altogether.

There is much shoulder-shrugging about this problem of apparent voter apathy among political managers; indeed, some rely on it. But I want to conclude on a positive note. For some time I taught an introductory unit (that is, for new students) on Australian studies in a university with an unusually broad entry criteria. The students typically came in with the usual disinterest in thorny issues like the economy, immigration, indigenous affairs, social and environmental change, etc, all the stuff of normal political contention.

What then happened in that unit was in fact very similar to what must happen if the electorate is to re-engage in the democratic process. They had to become informed, and to do that they have to become interested. As the unit proved year after year - as indicated by the feedback of the students themselves - it is possible. These students were suddenly well informed and able to participate in debates and action that they had previously thought beyond them, and to which they had previously responded with a defensive disinterest. Their own newfound sense of engagement and empowerment genuinely surprised and excited them. 

So, I contend, with the right intent and effort Australian democracy can be rejuvenated, and the political process turned into a meaningful one genuinely focussed on deciding which alternatives best suit our national interests. My doubt relates to whether the increasingly insular political parties, which currently “own” the political process, really want to share their power with such an informed, active electorate. 

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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