Thursday, 26 August 2010

what's next

Welcome democracy, welcome chaos.

I've been nothing short of a political junkie in the weeks leading to the election but now that 'it' is all over it seems the trip has only just begun. Like a lot of people I expected the Labor Party to win. Not by much, but to win. Basically it seemed like despite my various dissatisfactions with the government, it was inconceivable that most people could choose him.

I was raised in this political system, and despite the historical blips of splinter parties, minor parties, single issue parties and independents, it is and has always been a two horse race. A few senators, a couple of members of the lower house have never been, nor even implied, an alternative to the binary choices of Liberal and Labor. And like most people in this country I was raised in one of those two camps, and like the vast majority of Australians when forced to choose, I would elect to remain in my family tradition.

As the numbers started to come in on Saturday night I was stunned. And then I got cross. I felt cross with the people who let their frustrations with the government result in voting for a party who represent so many of the things I just can't sign up to, things they didn't want to sign up to just a few years ago. I'm cross that the 'issues' that dominated the campaign are at the heart of it pretty marginal to what makes or breaks good government, and that the really important stuff pretty much remained under the carpet.

But I felt even crosser, so much crosser, that the simple reality of the two party race seems to elude so many voters. One poll that was cited claimed that 25% of voters who had moved to the Coalition (or who shifted away from Labor, I'm not sure which) did so as a protest against the government but based on the belief that Labor would still win. In other words they voted for someone they didn't support to try and tell the party they do support that they were unhappy. I just can't get past how self defeating this is. The idea that you can vote in such a way as to say none of the above (even if in a two horse race you know exactly who you would back) denies the reality that someone has to mind the store.

I am not one who subscribes to the notion that the two major parties are peas in a pod. There are real and important differences between them, however much we may feel Labor has shifted to the right or the Liberal party has abandoned it's roots. Their failure to agree on super profit taxes or GP clinics in hospitals or computers in classrooms or broadband infrastructure are not insignificant. But politics only goes so far in writing the government's to do list. The biggest part of the agenda is taken up with stuff that's beyond politics, doing the best you can with the available knowledge, using measures and decision making tools that are largely accepted as the best for the most.

As someone who works in government, as distinct from politics, it can be very frustrating to feel that the everyday work of democracy (that would be running the country, paying the bills, employing the people who deliver the services, building the roads, assessing your tax return and so on) is held up, made inefficient and unnecessarily laboured by political shenanigans. The rights people have in a democratic country to make determinations about what should be done, and how, are often confused with the job of actually doing it. The importance of exercising your democratic voice to shape your community looms larger than the expertise to make good decisions.

How funding models for hospitals should work, or whether we should buy more ambulances or kidney dialysis machines, or whether we should have safe injecting rooms or if we should have a national high school curriculum or if teachers should get performance pay and if so how much and who should get it are all things any of us might have a view on. But do any of us know as much about any of these things as the people who have spent their lives investigating those questions? How do we balance the role of widespread engagement with policy issues and the need for the people who know the most about it to just get on with it?

And on Sunday morning I felt very much like quite a few people were saying, you know what? I would rather those decision just didn't get made than for them to be made by people who I don't think do a good enough job. And I'll be honest in saying I felt angry that so many who understand so little about what it takes to make this whole song and dance number work were blowing off the work of so many doing things that are invisible to most people. Yeah, I'm pissed off with Julia and the faceless men from the Right so heck, let's see what happens when we just shut it all down.

It's Thursday now and I don't feel quite the same way. I was lucky enough to catch the panel interview with 4 of the key non major party players at the Press Club on Wednesday and along with conversations with some of my more erudite friends I am thinking about it a little differently. What I found most interesting is that as well as challenging exactly which issues should be holding the floor, the very notion of two party binary opposition has been challenged. I was heartened to see that perhaps there was some scope for shifting the paradigm, because this is one of those moments when the fundamental differences between people can't be controlled with a party whip. Somewhere, somehow, these people are going to have to find some way to negotiate and move through disagreement, and not all of that will be hidden behind the caucus door.

And in case you think I'm going all third way I'll say straight off I don't see this as the death knell of the party system or the event horizon for honest or transparent of real politics. Despite welcoming a little debate and a more open access to the decision making process, at the heart of it government is too big, and too complex to be carried out in the sun. Managing diversity of opinion is a time consuming process, and no matter how healthy debate and engagement is, it has to be selective in what it chooses to give airtime to. At least a good portion of the time, people have to agree to let stuff go and only fight for the stuff they really care about. If you pull this right along the spectrum you reach the tight party organisation the independents so object to, you drag it up the other end and every issue that anyone cares about gets fought through like wrestling cats.

And let us not gloss over the fact that a very small number of people who represent a very small number of people will be holding a degree of power over the agenda that is highly undemocratic. Much of what's being said about genuine power sharing and honest deal brokering is a lot of bull, because 3 blokes in suits are calling the shots and making it all too clear that they won't be supporting anything that's not in the interests of their own constituents (regardless of how many other members will have to do just that in order to keep the alliances strong).

So I don't think I'm finished with this, not by a long shot. I see the future and it's full of murky water and perfect conditions for breeding all kinds of hazardous bacteria. But whatever happens, I'll be watching with interest.


nicole said...

We don't have mandatory voting in germany. I used to be very interested in politics, involved in university politics, vowed to always always vote.
I haven't voted in years. There is simply no party that supports people like me. Most parties are family friendly, if the family consists of a male and a female adult and one or more children. Most parties support cutting unemployment benefits, regardless of why people are unemployed. The big parties want some sort of internet censorship put in place. Privacy rights are undermined every year.
So my choice is to either protest-vote for some obscure party and hope not too many others vote for them, or vote for one of the big parties and actively enable them to screw me over with my consent.
Neither of which sounds appealing to me, so I stay home.

sooz said...

Yeah, I think where voting isn't compulsory there's a whole different set of issue at play. And I completely get the rub of voting for someone you don't fully support. I suppose what gets me is that someone has to win, right? In our version of democracy, at some level, everyone is given the responsibility of exercising choice within the available options. The bigger question of how you get better choices is a whole other ball game, and mostly to do with how bloody hard the job is, but that's another post.

Claire said...

I find myself in a seat with an independent. I actually met him when I bought a rug from him a few months ago and we were in agreement about the utter evil that is poker machines (he ran on an 'anti pokies' platform).

I always vote labour and did so in this election in the assumption that they would retain the seat... but I have to admit that I knew NOTHING about the candidate and I think they ran a very lazy campaign here.

I'm keen to see how this all plays out. And cross my fingers that Labor can form an alliance with these guys.

Ren said...

I hear you. Yep, been staying up late every night and dreaming about the whole damn shemozzle. I hope we don't end up with 'him' as our pm. Yuck

Nikki said...

Yep - as usual you say everything I'm thinking, but so much more eloquently that I think I shall henceforth remain silent and let you do all my talking....

nicole said...

Great big Rant coming, brace yourselves...

Well, in germany we now have a government which is basically being led by industry managers. Well, they're not the actual politicians, but they make sure that their goals get worked into the laws. A few years back the previous government agreed to gradually shut down all atomic reactors one by one when they reach a certain age (I think, it's been a while) and now the lobbyists are pretty much saying "If our reactors get shut down we want money from the government because we're losing money otherwise." and what does our government do? They get blown over and now want to keep the old reactors running! Until when? Nobody knows, probably until they blow up...

And stuff like that makes me so mad. We agreed on shutting down the reactors. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when that was finally agreed on, and now Mrs Merkel gets cold feet because some industry guys tell her how to do her job. And instead of standing up for her country and her voters she decides it's now in the best interest to keep those reactors running.

During the last winter one of our ministers lead a campaign against the welfare receiving poor. Basically saying we have too much money still and we should get even less to really make us get up off our lazy asses and finally find a job. And that enrages me! I am not a lazy slob, I'm a single mum who can not afford child care for an under 3 y.o. because that would mean handing over my entire welfare money! (300€) and anyway, the only jobs I have a chance at getting hired require me to work later ours than day care is available at (usually 17-22 cashier jobs), so even though I have been trying to find work it's incredibly hard. Sara starts Kindergarten in two weeks, she got a regular 8-12 spot. So I can work, depending on where I find something, between 8:30 and 11:30. Guess how many jobs are out there for that time frame... And still, people like that politician (who btw is also receiving his monthly check courtesy of taxpayers, and he's getting about 25 time as much as I do (I looked it up, he's earning around 8000€ just for being in parliament, any other income he has, from lectures, interviews, independent work isn't in those 8000€).) look at me like I'm leeching off of them because we're receiving welfare/unemployment money.
And to me that's unacceptable. I can not vote for people like that.

I know someone has to win, well, actually they can form coalitions any way they please, so technically they don't really have to win, they just have to get along in the end.

And better choices.. I don't think we'll get any. Those who do not fully support the industry will have a very hard time making it into parliament.

eeloh said...

I´m glad we have compulsory voting in australia.
I´m totally pissed off with Mark Latham for advocating a donkey vote.
Wish there were more comments on this post.

The Shopping Sherpa said...

I know I've been in Australia for almost 13 years but I still don't understand why voting is compulsory.

In New Zealand enrolling is compulsory but voting isn't. The general feeling seems to be "If you don't vote, don't complain about the outcome"

I'v often wondered about all those dis (un?)interested people who are forced to vote in Australia's elections and how they chose who to vote for. Is it how they look? Habit? Whatever flier was thrust into their hands at the polling booth?

jamsandwich said...

Thank god someone is talking about this! I cannot believe how little interest the press seems to be showing on the future leadership of this country. I wanted to laugh and cry at the font page of the age the other day when all it covered was the footy and bike helmets.
And it cannot be called democracy when 3 independents get to call all the shots!