It’s a federal election year – and although a date hasn’t yet been set, all the political ducks are starting to line up in rows as the triennial wooing of the Australian voter begins.
They aren’t really wooing ‘us’ of course – what they actually want is our votes. And with the focus put on polls by both politicians and the media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that your vote is a valuable commodity. But exactly how valuable is it?
How much say do we really have?
Voting is arguably the most prominent cornerstone of democracy – the means by which we each get to participate in the democratic process. Your vote is supposed to represent ‘your say’, and collectively the outcome of the voting process should represent ‘our say’ in how this country is run – the will of the Australian people as it were.
But what is your vote worth? When you trot along to the polling booths later this year, run the gauntlet of ‘How to vote pamphlet’ pushers, enjoy your democracy sausage and cast your vote – what exactly are you getting a say in?
The following are some common expectations people have about the power of their vote:
- Elections are about picking which party you want to vote for
- The election outcome represents the will of the Australian people
- All votes are equal
- We determine which policies will be used to guide the direction of the country
- The Australian people elect a Prime Minister
- Your vote determines who will represent your individual electorate
Let’s take a look at each of these, and see exactly how well our expectations about what our vote is worth match up with reality…
1. Are elections about picking a political party?
When people talk about who will win an election, they are typically referring to which party will win. Election results (and polls) are framed in terms of what percentage of the vote each of the two major parties received. And if people talk about how they are going to vote in an election, they will typically express it in party terms “I voted Labor/Liberal/Greens Etc”.
So certainly, there’s an expectation that our vote gives us a say in which political party is in charge of governing the country.
But here’s the problem with this…
You can’t actually vote for a party
Even though many people do cast their vote for whoever happens to be representing the political party they support, that individual isn’t bound to stay in that party. Most do of course – but they certainly aren’t obliged to. There have been plenty of examples of individuals who have resigned from their party during their term and subsequently become an independent. Notable recent examples (albeit in the Senate) include Clive Palmer’s PUPs: Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus.
Theoretically, the person you voted for can even align themselves with a party that you would be least likely to vote for. That’s probably unlikely, but it’s not impossible. Whilst not quite a defection from one party to another – when National-Party-turned-Independent member Tony Windsor sided with the Labor government in 2010 to enable Julia Gillard to take the reigns of government, it was considered by much of his largely conservative New England electorate to be an act of betrayal. In fact he was arguably acting as a true independent in selecting the option that he believed would best serve his electorate. However because people are so focused on which political party is in power, many didn’t see it that way. But there wasn’t anything disenchanted voters in the New England electorate could do about it – not for at least three years in any event.
So you can’t technically vote for a political party, only for an individual. That said, defections don’t happen that often. If we assume for a moment that all elected candidates continue to dance with the party that ‘brung’ them, that brings us to the next question….
2. Does the election outcome represent the will of the Australian people?
Politicians love to talk about ‘the will of the Australian people’ as though somehow all 24 million of us think exactly the same way, and that they – and only they – know what our singular will is. This is particularly the case after an election, when the winning pollies love to claim that they have a ‘mandate’ from the Australian people for any policy they ever dreamed of. In putting forward his repeal of the Carbon Tax shortly after his election in 2013, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament:
“The Australian people have already voted upon this bill” (Tony Abbott, November 2013)
This claim to a mandate from the Australian people is based on the assumption that the make-up of the House of Representatives is – as its name suggests – ‘representative’ of the Australian voters’ will.
But is it?
Perhaps it would be better named the House of ‘Representish’
If you look at the primary vote from the last Federal Election, the LNP got only 45% of the votes in the House of Representatives. And yet, despite the fact that they were first choice for less than half the country, they still claimed a ‘resounding victory’, ending up with 88 seats – or 59% of the 150 seats in that House.
The Labor party got only 33% of the primary vote, but still claimed 57 seats (38%) in the House of Representatives. Combined, the two major parties were first choice for just under 79% of Australian voters – and yet they claimed 97% of the seats.
Conversely, the Green party got 9% of the primary vote – but only one seat (0.7%). In fact, more than one in five Australians (21%) cast their primary vote in the House of Reprentatives for a candidate who was neither in the Liberal nor the Labor party – and yet those candidates won only 3% of seats.
Put bluntly, our House of Representatives is more ‘representish’ than representative – when you look at the Australian population as a whole. This is due to the now arguably outdated tradition of assuming that people who live in the same area – or electorate – have similar views and needs, and that therefore Representatives in the House should be allocated by the physical location of the voter, rather than by their political persuasion.
3. Are all votes equal?
‘Political equality’ – the notion that all citizens get to vote and everyone’s vote is equal – is critical to democracy. It is a key part of what makes a democracy:
“government of the people, by the people, for the people”
However, in reality…
All votes are equal. But some are more equal than others.
As we just saw, Australia’s political power is primarily divvied up between the two major parties, whittling down the Australian voter’s choice of government to one of two options – the LNP or Labor. But in practice, because a large portion of voters don’t change the way they vote from one election to another, around 41% of seats are considered to be ‘safe’ seats (which means it would take a swing of more than 10% for them to change hands, making it highly unlikely). Another 25% of seats are considered ‘fairly safe’, and therefore reasonably unlikely to change. The remaining 51 seats (34%) are considered to be the swinging (or marginal) seats – which can change hands at any election.
If you live in a ‘safe seat’, the political parties will not really be wooing you in the upcoming federal election for the simple reason that unless there are exceptional circumstances in your particular electorate – such as a high profile independent member running, or you live in Tony Abbott’s electorate – your individual vote in the House of Representatives will have no impact whatsoever on which party ends up winning government. If you live in a ‘fairly safe’ seat, you might get the odd political sweetener thrown your way – just in case. But it’s really the voters in marginal seats who get all the political love.
This means that while in theory we all have an equal vote as to who is in government, in practice, it’s primarily the one in three voters who live in the 51 marginal seats whose vote actually determines the outcome of our federal election. If you’re a voter who lives in a safe seat, your vote – to determine who is in government in the House of Representatives – is really just a formality.
4. Do we get to determine what policies will guide the country for the next three years?
In arguing their case at election time, politicians put forward the policies they say they will govern by if elected. Voters are encouraged to make their choice of who to vote for on the basis of a party’s policies.
Who can forget the following policy promises from Tony Abbott the night before the 2013 federal election:
Political parties are in no way, shape or form bound by the policies and promises they make at election time
You need look no further than the video of Tony Abbott above to prove that politicians are not bound by their pre-election promises. There’s not a single promise made in that video which hasn’t either been broken or put on the table for discussion. Further, according to the ABC promise tracker, if you look at all the promises made by the LNP prior to the last election, and compare the number of promises kept with those that have been broken, the ratio is nearly one to one.
While I personally believe that politicians should be given some leeway to change policies in response to new circumstances, that should be the exception and not the rule. It’s completely incongruent with our broader legal system that voters are not able to hold politicians accountable for the promises they used to convince you to vote for them.
If a company were to entice you to buy something from them by lying to you, you have protection under the law and can hold that company to account for that promise.
And yet, if politicians entice you to vote for them with blatant lies, nobody bats an eyelid. As Australian columnist Niki Savva said last year on Insiders:
“pretty much everyone assumes that once they see a politician’s lips move, that means that…you’re not necessarily going to hear the truth”
5. Do we get to decide who gets to be Prime Minister?
If ever you needed proof that there is a group of people who cast their vote based on who they think should be Prime Minister, the improvement in LNP’s fortunes in the polls following Abbott’s replacement by Malcolm Turnbull should convince you. Changing Prime Minister had a significant impact on the way a percentage of the population said they would vote at the next election. Clearly, at least a proportion of the population believe that their vote gives them a say in this decision.
But you can’t actually vote for a Prime Minister
The irony of course is that the sheer volume of Prime Ministers we’ve had leading the country over the past five years illustrates that there is no guarantee that if you cast your vote at election time on the basis of a particular person becoming Prime Minister, that he or she will remain Prime Minister for any length of time.
In the words of Malcolm Turnbull:
“it’s very important to remember that the leadership of the Liberal Party is, as John Howard said, in the unique gift of the party room” (Malcolm Turnbull, February 2015)
6. An individual to represent your electorate
In his farewell speech about Warren Truss last week in parliament, Malcolm Turnbull said of Truss that he was a ‘formidable advocate’ for his electorate:
“That is our primary obligation – to the people who actually put the No. 1 against our name on the ballot paper—the citizens of our electorate.”
(Malcolm Turnbull, 11 February 2016)
And that is definitely the theory. As I’ve written previously, it’s called the House of Representatives, not the House of Rulers. In Ancient Athens, their democratic model meant that every citizen had the right to attend monthly sessions where issues and laws were discussed and voted on. Of course this type of direct democracy is impractical on a large scale or for those who lived a fair distance away. So it wasn’t too long before a form of ‘representative’ democracy was developed – the theory being that rather than everyone voting individually, each district sent someone to represent them and vote on their behalf.
It is this model of ‘representative’ democracy that our political system is loosely based on today. The individual that the people in your electorate decide will represent you in parliament – your Member of Parliament (or MP) – takes their seat in the House of Representatives (or House of Representish) in Canberra. And in theory, their ‘primary obligation’ is to be the voice of the people in their electorate.
Sounds great – but in practice…
It’s party first, electorate second
Unless you are represented by an Independent, your MP in the House of Representatives will typically vote the way their party tells them to. As a member of one the major political parties, MPs can’t vote in a manner that represents their electorate if doing so would go against the way their party wants them to vote – at least not without risking censure and even expulsion.
Put simply – it’s party first, electorate second.
All MPs are equal. But some are more equal than others.
Malcolm Turnbull has made much of the fact that he runs a truly consultative style of government:
“We have a Cabinet system of government. It’s a collective form of decision making.”
(Malcolm Turnbull, 20 September 2015)
Sounds good – at least on the surface. But what this means in reality is that decisions about our country’s future are not really debated on the floor of parliament with every elected MP getting the opportunity to put forward the views of their electorate and vote on their behalf. These debates happen – but by the time they do, the outcome is a forgone conclusion. Instead, decisions about the future of this country are made behind closed doors in Cabinet meetings. There aren’t public minutes to Cabinet meetings, which means that we only hear what happens in these meetings if there is a leak – which, while reasonably frequent, is actually illegal.
And since Cabinet is only made up of the Senior Ministers of a party, even if your MP happens to be on the governing side of parliament, they really only get a deciding vote on matters of major policy if they happen to be a Senior Minister.
Even worse – if your MP is in opposition or is an independent, unless they happen to hold the balance of power, they don’t get a voice in the policy development process – not in any meaningful way at least.
This leads to a situation where instead of parliament being a time for Australians to be represented by their MP on issues being discussed, it becomes a time of name calling and political point scoring. But let’s face it, if all policy decisions are made behind closed doors, there’s really nothing else left for them to do.
Many MPs don’t really know what their constituents want
Even if your local MP is a Senior Minister in Cabinet, many of them don’t interact regularly with their constituents. The recent debate around marriage equality was a good example of this. Despite the fact that poll after poll shows that a majority of Australians are in favour of marriage equality, many MPs talked of their personal position on this rather than their constituents’ position. (There was one notable exception in Queensland where the local MP actually took a poll of his constituents – but he was the exception and not the rule.)
And many constituents don’t even know who their MP is
On the flip side, many people don’t actually know who their local member of Parliament is either. In a recent poll done in the UK, only 22% of people knew who their elected representative of parliament was. I suspect the situation is similar here. So clearly, if many people don’t even know who their local MP is, they haven’t spent a lot of time interacting with them or even caring about who they are.
So what does your vote count for then?
Let’s do a quick recap.
- If you cast your vote for a particular party, there’s nothing that says the candidate you elect must continue to represent that party – it’s completely up to them.
- The House of Representatives should be renamed the House of Representish – since politicians who do end up as Members of the House of Representatives are not a particularly accurate representation of the primary vote of Australians as a whole.
- All votes are equal, but some are more equal than others – the decision as to which of two parties gets to govern the country is primarily made by only a third of voters.
- All our elected representatives are equal, but some are more equal than others – for your MP to have a voice in parliament, they really need to be in government. And for it to count, they really need to be in Cabinet.
- When voting in parliament, your MP will typically put their party first and their electorate second – unless they are an independent of course.
- Your vote doesn’t determine who is Prime Minister – that is the ‘gift of the party room’.
- Your vote doesn’t even guarantee you that the government will follow a specific set of policies – as there’s absolutely nothing that requires the party that was voted in on a particular policy platform to govern according to that platform.
Ok – so who really gets the deciding vote on all these issues?
I guess Mark Twain was mostly right…
Mark Twain famously said “if voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it” – and to a certain extent, he’s right. He’s not entirely correct of course, we do get some say – just not quite as much as we might think we do.
The thing is that our vote used to count.
Our current democratic model and conventions were largely adopted from the UK model at the time of Australian Federation in 1901. At that point, the UK model of democracy had been evolving since the 13th century. And when the basics of democracy were put into place in Britain back then, every man’s vote was equal – every man, not woman, but that’s another story. Further, back in the 13th century, the King needed the vote of the people in order to collect taxes – no vote, no tax. There were no political parties, so each electorate’s representatives (they had two) actually represented the people who sent them.
Voting – it’s all about the Money
But that was back then. Since democracy was introduced to Britain in the 13th centurty, the power of each individual’s vote had diminished significantly. And it’s all because of – yep, you guessed it – the money. In my next article – Voting: it’s all about the Money – I’ll outline how this happened, and how money continues to drain the power of our vote today.
Now for some good news….
It’s not all doom and gloom. The good news is that a lot of the problems with our democracy are there by convention rather than law – the bones of a truly representative democracy are still enshrined within our constitution. But it’s up to us to decide that we want to claim it back.
I spoke a little about this in my first article on this topic – Democracy: The Genie is out of the bottle – and there’s more to come. So stay tuned!
This article was first published on Progressive Conversation.
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