Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Democracy Inaction

This is a quick primer for my American readers who are undoubtedly confused by the results of Australia's national election on Saturday.

First, don't be embarrassed that you don't know we had our national election this past weekend. Most Americans don't.

Now, if you did know about them, you are probably wondering why we haven't been able to determine who won yet. If you're thinking Bush-Gore, don't. Our inability to determine a winner has nothing to do with hanging chads and corrupt governor brothers. Nope, ours is simply a result of good old-fashioned Westminster style government.

Unlike you Americans, we don't actually elect our head of state. All we vote for is our electorate's representatives and senators in the Parliament. The Parliamentary leader of the party with the majority of seats then becomes the Prime Minister and gets to live in the big house on Sydney Harbor.

The problem with this system, of course, is that it is possible that no single party will actually win a majority of the seats. And that's what is happening here. It's called a "hung Parliament" and in order to actually take control of government, one or the other party will have to get the few independents to agree to support them.

But of course, most of the independents became that because they couldn't stand the major parties. Their feeling about working within the major parties is so strong, these people chose to be almost completely irrelevant members of Parliament rather than have a say in actually influencing government. But not anymore. I think we can expect them to rub the big guys' noses in it for as long as they can stay in the catbird seat.

Here's an analogy to help you Americans understand. It's as if Congress is virtually tied after the next election so Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid need Joe Lieberman to support them. But their prize if he does isn't being Majority Leader, but President. If you watch Fox News, you're probably quite sure that this isn't really the way democracy should work. And I guess we'll find out here soon enough. But frankly it seems to be working in Britain, where the same thing happened only a few months ago.

Our system here makes it a legal requirement that you have to vote. Unfortunately, the lawmakers did not figure out how to make it a legal requirement that the country should be able to make some sense out of all these votes once they're cast.

It doesn't help much when you don't even know the final tallies in the closer races. This is partially because of postal votes, partially because some vote counters in Western Australia apparently are leaving work in the middle of the afternoon even though the seat they are tallying is too close to call, and also because of preferences.

Preferences is something that Americans might like to try. Basically, you get to rank the candidates, and if the one you like doesn't get enough support, your No 2 choice gets part of your vote. Or something like that. I know I am not explaining it well, but that is primarily because I have never found anyone here who can explain it well to me. Anyhow, it means that quite regularly the candidate who got the most votes doesn't win because the second-place person got more preferences.

Now that's democracy in action!

This year all of this is academic for LK and me. You have to reside in your current house for a month before you can vote, and we weren't in the Tasmania house long enough to be able to register. Which is kind of unfortunate because our district is one of the still too close to call seats.

This morning LK and I filed online forms to change our address. It says something about our enlightened government that they have you fill out the form online and forward it to them electronically, but at the end they tell you have to print it out, sign it and mail it to them, too.

Because I have a driver's license, I didn't require any further evidence that I was who I am.

LK, on the other hand, doesn't have a license and she is going to have to provide proof of who she is in person. The good news is that she doesn't have to go to the electoral commission. After all they are still a tad busy trying to figure out what happened last weekend.

Nope, there's a pretty lengthy list of people who can countersign your form and confirm that you had the appropriate documents to prove who you are. Some I understood: a commonwealth or state employee, a sheriff, a justice of the peace, a clerk of the court.

And some - well, I understand it, but I think you Americans should consider this part of your primer on understanding Australian elections. Among the other people who are officially authorized to verify that you can vote in our elections are: a veterinary surgeon, a real estate agent, airline ground staff, managers of a woman's refuge. And, as you would expect, anyone holding a current liquor license.

We will probably know who our next prime minister will be within a week or two. In the meantime, I hope this helps you understand how democracy works down under.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Small point of correction from a pedant. Prime Ministers actually are supposed to reside in The Lodge in Canberra. Kirribili House in Sydney is officially the Crown residence (for visiting regals, Govenors General or other guests of the Commonwealth where security and privacy is essential). John Howard (your former MP and our former PM) insisted on living there (under duress from She Who Must Be Obeyed) as he had teenage children in high school when elected as PM and he did not want them to live in Canberra. It was an unprecedented request from a PM. Kevin lived in the Lodge. Julia has said she would move into The Lodge after winning an election (probably not going to happen). Tony (as a Sydney-sider) may want to follow in the footsteps of John Howard and take up digs in Kirribilli House. He'll probably need new whitegoods, flooring and carpet as well.
I enjoy your blog. Kingston looks great. All the best from a former IDG employee.