Melaleuca Media
None of the Above: how voting the party ticket does in democracy

"Policy, for both parties, is what you cynically announce to the voters. The only bits they are slightly serious about are the not so carefully costed giveaways, and there is usually precious little policy behind those"

Sir William Schwenk Gilbert - the wordsmith side of the Gilbert and Sullivan duo - said it all really. In the memorable ditty where the Rt Hon Sir Joseph Porter KCB describes how lack of talent is no impediment to a great career, Gilbert let loose on the politicians and the parties of his day.

"I always voted at my party's call,
and I never thought of thinking for myself at all,
I thought so little they rewarded me,
By making me the ruler of the Queen's Navy".

Nothing much has changed. In electorates all around Australia, most citizens of voting age will next Saturday vote for a representative who will then go off and represent some party.

Even worse, most of these so called representatives will come from just two main political groupings, which are on many issues and for many purposes virtually indistinguishable. Indeed, much of the election rhetoric has emphasised their sameness. Labor has promised the electorate to be very nearly as keen on foreign military entanglements and as phobic about people approaching our shores on leaky boats as the coalition is. In these circumstances, the coalition needs to put very little effort into its corresponding attempts to appear caring, concerned and compassionate.

Policy, for both parties, is what you cynically announce to the voters. The only bits they are slightly serious about are the not so carefully costed giveaways, and there is usually precious little policy behind those. What actually happens, whoever is in government, is a combination of the proposals being churned out by the departments and the proposals for their modification being advanced by lobbyists. When something really sinister is going on, the sure-fire indication is the smokescreen of a serious public relations effort.

The parties themselves make much of supposed differences - the coalition, we are told, has to be watched for its cosying up to business while Labor must be scrutinised for dirty underhanded deals with union bosses. In practice, both parties have their strings pulled by the same sectional interests - the main effect of old mythologies seems to be on who gets selected to plum government jobs, with a slight predilection to reward union bosses on the part of Labor. (Business and show business leaders do well in the sinecure stakes whoever is in government.)

Some years ago in another forum I drew all sorts of ire from political mates and critics by advocating the non-party vote. My rationale was that in voting the party ticket, we regularly end up electing people you wouldn't feed, or invite home or get to babysit the kids. Some of these people need jailing (and some, all too few, are... eventually.) but end up being ministers of the crown.

This shouldn't be the case. Our political leadership should be composed of people we look up to not down at. Pollsters should rank them up there with archbishops and head mullahs and lamas, not down with used car salespeople, hawkers of Gold Coast real estate investment opportunities and journalists.

My humble suggestion was that we should scrutinise that ballot paper and put '1' beside the name of the best person on it. And '2' beside the next most worthy and so on. Party affiliations should be completely disregarded.

If this became significant behaviour, it would have radical implications, not least for party preselection councils. They would actually have to look at the calibre of their candidates, and weigh up the political benefits of selecting the worthy aspirant against the political costs of picking the party hack.

More independent and minor party candidates would be elected. Despite the dire prediction of the major parties, this would not bring on the complete breakdown of government and the end of civilisation as we know it. In fact, the evidence seems to be that electors who choose to be represented by independents often do fairly well out of the arrangement. Governments have to take more heed of parliament and sit down at the negotiating table with the elected representatives of ordinary folks as well as with the highly paid lobbyists for special interests - but these, methinks, are not undesirable outcomes in a democracy.

Vote for the best person is a much less radical notion than some alternatives, like One Nation's predilection for a vote against all sitting members or the various marginalised groups, from right to left and back again, who advocate a vote for nobody at all.

Logically and mathematically, the best person on offer will often be standing for one of the major political groupings anyway. And if they maintain their identity, such a candidate could well be the best on offer next time around. Anyway, who is to complain if the other party has to resort to quality to beat quality.

One thing is for sure. There is no mention whatsoever of political parties in the constitution. In the interests of democracy, it is best to ignore their presence on the ballot paper as well.

Author: Phil Dickie
Date: 07 November 2001