Well, Election 2001 is well and truly upon us here in Australia. This Saturday we’ll all trot off to the polls, and elect a leader to take us boldly into the future. As such (and because with all the political advertising and analysis on TV there’s nothing to watch) I thought I’d spend some time explaining the Australian electoral system to any foreigners who might stumble over this site looking for information on Werewolf: The Apocalypse.
To start with, unlike the Americans, we don’t vote for a specific person to lead the country. instead we vote for a person to represent our little bit of the country which is called an ‘Electorate’ or ‘Seat’ (the latter apparently because the person elected is generally the biggest arse). Once elected, this representative goes off to a big room in Canberra and spends their day sleeping, waking only for tax-subsidised parliamentary meals. This person is typically a member of some political party of other, and whatever party has the most people dozing in the room at the end of the day wins and forms the Government. The leader of this party becomes the Prime Minister, leads the country, and gets slightly better meals.
Well the actual leader of the country isn’t the Prime Minister, it’s the Governor General who is the representative of… well the actual leader of the country isn’t the Governor General it’s the King or Queen, who also happens to be the King or Queen of England at the same time, which is a great way of getting paid for two jobs at once and probably explains why the current incumbent Queen Elizabeth the Second is the richest woman in the world. But the Governor General is the monarch’s representative on the ground as it were. Not that they do much, apart from make speeches, give out awards and open museums. Oh they can dissolve the Government, force elections, declare war, and that kind of thing if they have to, but that sort of behaviour can threaten their pension so they mainly stick to the speeches. The current Governor General used to be a Archbishop, that probably tells you all you need to know about him.
So, whatever party has the most people in the parliamentary dorm (better known as The Lower House, presumably because it’s on the ground floor) wins the election and rules the country. Which means that any political party that wins enough support can get into power. This would be a truly remarkable example of democracy in action, except for the fact that there’s only two parties with enough members and support to ever have a majority.
The first is the Australian Labour Party or ALP. They’re sort of what the American Democrats might be like if they restricted membership to blue collar workers, then held a meeting and decided to completely sell out. Their current leader is Kim Beazley, about whom the best you can say is that he’s lost some weight recently.
The second is the Liberal-National Coalition, who are actually two parties doing the political equivalent of a couple of kids under a long coat trying to pass as an adult. The Liberal Party is like the American Republicans but more evil at heart and less effective at getting anything done. The National Party are a bunch of redneck farmer types whose only claim to fame is that their former leader used to wear an amusing hat. The leader of the Coalition (and current Prime Minister) is John Howard. He is short, balding and has eyebrows that could conceal entire pyramid building Mayan civilisations.
Exactly why the Liberals are called so when they’re about as liberal as Stalin on one of his good days (when the proletariat were being properly subservient, all his enemies had been recently purged and no one was invading) is a bit of a mystery. The obvious confusion that could arise from this misnomer has necessitated the creation of two phrases unique to Australian politics, “Large L liberal” and “Small L liberal”, the former referring to a member of the Liberal Party, and the second to a person who wouldn’t string you up just for taking a shortcut across their paddock.
The rest of the parties are non-starters really. About the best of the bunch are the Australian Democrats who can lay claim to strong and progressive policies on the environment, sexual equality, indigenous affair, social justice, and a bunch of other issues the main parties wouldn’t touch with a ten foot clown pole lest they actually have to do something about them. Not that the Democrats ever do anything about them either, their time is completely consumed appearing on trendy left-wing youth-oriented TV shows and attempting to broker deals with all the other parties in desperate attempts to get any kind of power. If they ever actually got any power they’d probably have no idea what to do with it, but at least Senator Natasha Stott Despoja is kind of cute.
Filling out the political spectrum are a host of wild and wacky minor parties including the Greens (who appear to have abandoned the environment in favour of Gay rights these days), the Australian Shooter’s Party (who think a gun under every bed and bullets in every cupboard are the best solution to crime), Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party (who wouldn’t be out of place hosting a garden party for the KKK), the Natural Law Party (who will solve all our problems by employing hundreds of meditators to sit in a big room in Canberra and go “om” – as if this is any different to the parliament we already have), and the Christian Democrats (right wing fundamentalists who can’t seem to decide whether to pray for God to destroy Sydney because of the Gay Mardi-Gra or spare Sydney in spite of the Gay Mardi-Gra).
In addition to the parties, there are usually a few independents standing in each seat. On the rare occasion they get elected their job is chiefly concerned with answering any question put to them with the phrase “I am an independent”, hence any further discussion of them can be safely dismissed with.
So, with this kind of choice, why bother voting at all? Well, actually because you have to.
If you’re over 18 and an Australian Citizen, failing to vote in an election is an offence which can land you with a hefty fine or, for repeat offenders, jail time. This may seem unjustly harsh, but as registering to be on the electoral rolls in the first place is the Citizen’s own responsibility when they turn 18 it’s perfectly simple to avoid prosecution by never putting your name down, thus making yourself politically invisible. This is probably why so much Government money is spent each year telling people it’s a good idea to register, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Of course if you do decide to vote you get to have the fun of not just nominating who you loathe the least to represent you in Canberra, but ranking each candidate in order of preference! This is called (predictably enough) a preferential voting system, and probably lurks behind everything that’s wrong in Australian politics today.
The ballot papers handed out at polling stations have the name and party of each candidate printed on them with a little box next to each. In order for a vote to be valid the voter has to write (yes, write, no faulty Dade County type punching machines here, just illegible handwriting) a ‘1’ in the box of the candidate they like the most, then ‘2’ in the next least objectionable candidate, and so on until all the boxes are full. These ‘preferences’ are then crunched together in some complicated and arcane fashion, probably involving the sacrifice of a Goat and the reading of its entrails, to figure out who wins.
(At the same time as filling out a ballot paper for the House of Representatives (The Lower House, most political institutions in Australia have multiple names, a policy introduced in the 1950’s to confuse the Communists) voters also have to fill out a second ballot to elect someone to the Senate (The Upper House – There are stairs, but most Senators take the lift). Senate ballot papers are generally about three feet wide, and have more boxes than a crossword puzzle. Filling them out properly is a process so complicated that I won’t attempt to explain it here, suffice to say that most people get it wrong and the Senate is generally elected by the small percentage of the population with degrees in theoretical mathematics.)
Most of the population are so indifferent to the running of the country that they’ll fill out the little boxes in any way their chosen political party tells them to. Hence the allocation and trading of preferences between political parties is big business, and anyone coming within 50 feet of a polling station is besieged by foaming campaign workers handing out “How to Vote” cards.
Some voters are so indifferent that they’ll ignore even these idiot cards, and just number the boxes from top to bottom. This, for reasons no one can adequately explain, is called a ‘donkey vote’, and the remarkable number of donkey votes in each electorate make the ordering of candidates on the ballot paper of prime importance (and give a rather accurate idea of how few people would actually vote if given the choice). There are whole Government departments with powerful computers devoted to arranging ballot papers to cancel out the effect of donkey votes. No, I’m not making this up.
There is actually a way to legally fill out a ballot paper so to as deny any of your preferences going to particular parties. I happen to know what it is, but I’m not going to even hint at what it is because (rather remarkably for a country that’s supposed to be a democracy) it’s illegal to tell people about it. I could be fined or imprisoned for giving the slightest suggestion of how to do it, so I’m keeping my mouth well shut 🙂
Some foreigners may by now be thinking how insanely complicated the Australian electoral system is. Well, just to make things more complicated we do the whole thing over again individually for each state. Yup, each State has it’s own Government, with it’s own candidates, own political parties (generally running dog lackeys of the Federal parties with local idiosyncrasies pegged on) and own elections. And then of course there’s Local Government elections as well. Basically this means that the average Australian citizen barely goes a year without having to vote. We’re probably some of the most pesteringly enfranchised people in the world.
So, all that said, how am I going to vote? That’s my business 🙂