By Alex Kats
It’s that time again in the election cycle of this country, when Australians have to go to the polls to choose our new government. The Labor Party has been on the government side of the parliamentary chamber for only one term – just on three years, though often it feels like much longer. Maybe this is because the Liberal National coalition has had three leaders since John Howard lost his seat at the last election.
I have been interested in politics, both domestic and global, for a long time. I remember watching CNN’s coverage of Bill Clinton’s election to the Presidency; I remember John Major as UK Prime Minister; I remember when Benjamin Netanyahu won Israel’s Prime Ministership the first time; and I even remember a time in this country when Alexander Downer was Opposition Leader. I think what all these elections and political tidings have taught me is that to some extent Australia has the wrong system.
The truth is that the Westminster proportional representation system works very well and is largely very representative and democratic – exactly what you want in a democracy. The problem is that we live in a time in which the media has more clout than at any other time in history, and when people are more interested in Hollywood gossip and hype than in actual news and debates. The scheduling conflict during this campaign, where the leaders’ debate had to be changed to a different timeslot because of a popular reality TV show, is a prime example.
The manifestation of all this is that when it comes to election time, the majority of people probably know the names of the party leaders, but barely know the names or achievements of their local Members. The system that we have adopted in Australia is that each voter lives in an electorate; that electorate is represented by a Member of Parliament; the Members choose their leaders. But the problem is that the limelight is only bright enough for some, and the leaders become the ones that are known. Most of the political action, however, takes place behind the scenes, on the ground in the electorates. The leaders are important and carry a lot of weight, but the Prime Minister of Australia does not yield the equivalent amount of power as the President of America, for instance. In countries where there are popularly elected presidents, like America and France, the president is to a large extent above the parliament. That is not the case here, but sometimes the media makes us forget that.
Just a few weeks ago, on the afternoon of Julia Gillard’s ascension to the Prime Ministership, there was an online poll on one of the media news websites asking voters if they would now vote for Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott as PM. This kind of question compounds the situation and misrepresents the system, because the only people who can truly vote for either of those two candidates, live in the electorates of Lalor and Warringah. The rest of us could potentially vote for candidates that are in the same parties as either of the leaders, but not specifically for the leaders themselves. Sometimes it is a subtle difference, but that is where I see the problem.
If the election is all about the leaders, as questions like that and televised debates might suggest, then there should be a separate direct vote for Prime Minister. However, our current system means that both major parties play two sides of the same coin. They campaign as if we have a presidential election system, but sometimes almost at a whim, they change their leaders because the system allows it and because ultimately the Members, not the public, choose the leaders. In fact, both leaders have acknowledged that this election is in part a referendum on the legitimacy of Gillard’s ascent, considering the brutal way that Kevin Rudd was dumped from the leadership.
The other problem is that our system often creates a dilemma for voters at election time. Some voters know almost nothing about their local Member or candidates and therefore vote blindly based on media hype – which is probably the intention of the leaders – or sometimes based simply on the appealing name or photo of the candidates. Other voters know a lot about local politics and have strong opinions. They may often be in a situation where they generally favour one party and one leader, but like and admire the work of their local Member who is in the other party. They then have a big decision to make: Are local issues more important than federal issues? The answers to these questions may determine the result of the general election, particularly in marginal electorates or areas with large ethnic populations.
For many years this has been a particular problem in the electorate of Melbourne Ports. Though the electorate has been Labor since Federation, boundary changes and gentrification have meant that only a small part of it is now near the ports, and therefore not quite the traditional Labor demographic. The rest of it covers the major Jewish suburbs of Melbourne. More peculiarly, and adding to the voter confusion, is that for more than ten years it has been represented by Michael Danby, a Jewish Member, who until the last election was the only Jewish Member of Parliament, and sometimes referred to as ‘the Israel candidate’ because of his strong, pro-Zionist views. A large sector of the Jewish community would traditionally vote Liberal, but because of Danby’s active Jewish and Zionist stances, even hardened Liberals have proudly said that they have voted for Danby. Until the last election, they were particularly pleased, because the Prime Minister was Liberal, but their representative was Jewish, despite his party.
Some time ago, a Jewish Liberal candidate stood against Danby. That election proved to be Danby’s smallest winning margin, but he still won because of his record; his opponent was Jewish, but had almost no record of active support for the Jewish community or standing up for Israel. In Sydney, in the almost equivalent electorate of Wentworth, which is considered to be a blue-ribbon Liberal seat, the sitting Member, Malcolm Turnbull, also has a strong record of support for Israel and the Jewish community despite not being Jewish. In the last election, when a Jewish candidate stood against him, he still managed to win, though somewhat narrowly, because of his record and because Liberal voters decided that they still preferred the Liberal Member rather than the Labor candidate. In both cases, the views and opinions of the leaders played little part on the local elections.
In the case of the electorates of the two leaders, namely Lalor and Warringah, both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are local members as well as party leaders, but it is unlikely that either of them will campaign on issues that only affect their constituencies. Their assumption is that as party leaders, their voters will elect them without question and without local or communal issues affecting their standings, though that clearly was not the case for John Howard at the last election.
Short of changing the system, the only real solution is to be informed and to know the issues in order to be able to make an informed decision come election day. What is really important is that each voter expresses their democratic right at the ballot box, so that maybe one day someone will get elected who can change the system.