13. What are we actually voting for?

quote-voting-is-the-foundation-stone-for-political-action-martin-luther-king-86-76-24Much of the problem with the electorate’s interaction with politics can be probably summarised in this question.  When we vote, what do we actually believe we are voting for?

Prime ministers who are about to be deposed by their colleagues have been heard to complain that this shouldn’t be allowed because the public voted for them, not some unelected replacement.   Similarly when an elected representative decides to jump ship from the party who funded their election campaign (lets have a big shout out to the now independent Jacqui Lambie and Glen Lazarus), you can understand why not only their electoral funders, as well as those who voted for them, might feel a little bit cheated!  This also doesn’t help when the ballot paper places the party which the candidate is standing for is next to their name.

So when you put your numbers on the ballot paper, what do you believe you are actually voting for?  Is it the prime-minister?  Is it the party?  Or is it really just the person on the form?  (And lets not get started on all the behind the scenes preference stuff on the senate elections!)

The reality is that you are voting purely for a person.  In the UK, only the name of the candidate is shown on the ballot paper.  This, at least, sets an expectation that you are in fact only voting for the person whatever their party at the time, or in the future.  In Australia, however, we have to put a sequential number next to each candidate, so remembering which one represents which party would take quite a feat of memory.  Having the party they represent next to them is useful for that reason.  But it does endorse a party based system, and as we’ve already argued, there are a number of significant flaws with this approach.

But if you were given the choice of what you would like to vote for, what might that be?

There are those who believe that the public should vote for everything. Yep.  Full blown democracy.  Every decision, every piece of legislation. With technology already in most peoples pockets, this is no longer technically unfeasible.  However, lets face it, this idea is not even a runner.   To do it justice, we’d have no time to do a job! Moreover, many people simply wouldn’t have the capability (far less the interest) to digest some of the more complex pieces of economic, or agricultural, or health related information to be able to provide a useful decision. This would be donkey voting at its finest.

So representative democracy is still most likely the preference for most decisions, and voting for your local candidate to represent the views of your electorate is.  But I don’t want that person appointed by a bunch of people I didn’t vote for.  And personally, I’d also like to get a greater say in whom I think should be running the show.    And finally I’d like them to first articulate what their plan is going to be, so that if they change their minds once in power, then they can be given the long walk off the short plank.  Is that too much to ask?

Because what is the alternative?  More of what we’ve had for the last 8 years, where no elected PM has made it to the end of their term?  There are many reasons why this has been the case, but lets follow the process through.

Firstly the Prime Minister goes about their job as they would like, confident in the knowledge that they have enough party room support to pass the legislation they need.  Along the way, however, they might hit a few roadblocks.  Big miners might decide to run a big advertising campaign against you, you don’t have a big enough majority without an external party support meaning you have to make compromises that you had previously said you wouldn’t, or proposing policy totally in contrast to what you promised prior to the election.   The media notice these chinks, and start to run stories criticising the government, and the public start to reassess their support.  Opinion polls start to be watched carefully.  Back benchers become nervous that their leaders fortunes may result in them losing their seats at the next election, and when the next election is in sight they realise they have to act, or suffer the consequences. Add in an ambitious minister with leadership desires, keen to stir the matter up, who seizes the opportunity to leak to the press, or make statements slightly contrary to the leaders message. And finally, with the downward trend continuing in the polls, and fractures appearing in the ranks, backbenchers panic. And getting behind a new leader, they depose the ruler, hoping often vainly that this will salvage their jobs.

And politicians know how this works.  Tony Abbott, in his resignation speech, said exactly this.  He was brought down by the media, by white anting by colleagues apparently too afraid to put their names to those published opinions.  However the reality is that for him, he was brought down by poor leadership, just like Kevin Rudd before him.  Julia Gillard, on the other hand, was treated like an assassin and mercilessly attacked by both a rightwing press and a pugilistic opposition leader determined to undermine her.  The problem in all cases is that ultimately it is the party allegiance that underpins how these issues emerge, and how they pan out.  Anticipated party loyalty makes prime ministers lazy and arrogant.  Toeing the party line removes personal accountability from MPs for their performance and their actions. Most importantly, they make MPs and Prime Ministers try to serve two masters, and this is a hugely tricky thing to do.  But the party does not pay their wage, or their expenses.  We do.  And for this we deserve much more.

Voting in elections is our single most important democratic function as citizens.  But we need to make that act more meaningful, to ensure the election of worthy leaders and representatives who are looking after our collective interests, not their own or some other political organisation.  Let’s not forget that we, the voters, are the bosses. We pay the wages.  And it’s time we reclaimed that authority.


About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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