Date: August 18 2012
An ABC radio producer went questing this week for comments about one of the ACT's hottest political topics: the brouhaha surrounding Canberra Hospital's waiting times. From the broadcast, I got the impression she struggled to find a Canberran who was interested, let alone informed. Vox pops are about as useful as sheep's liver for measuring public opinion, but they do provide an interesting glimpse into what the Demos thinks and feels. It seemed almost half of the passers-by that the producer interviewed needed to be reminded (or told from scratch) what the issue was all about.
There's nothing profound about people ignoring day-to-day politicking; it may be a remarkably healthy approach to life. Nor is the ''problem'' specific to the ACT. However, it surprises me that our well-educated population, with its overflow of politicos, doesn't pay more attention to the goings-on in the Legislative Assembly.
Most Canberra voters, by dint of the industry that employs them (public administration), are steeped in politics in one way or another. Yet when I worked in the Assembly as a reporter, I began to notice how switched off many people seemed. Some Canberrans who would discuss national politics enthusiastically couldn't name the ACT opposition leader. Others openly disdained the Assembly and even the notion that the ACT ''deserved'' a legislature.
Perhaps this shouldn't surprise: after all, about two in three Canberrans rejected the idea of self-government in the 1978 referendum, preferring instead to be the unvoting subjects of a territory bureaucracy. I suspect, against my better hopes, that, if we were formally asked today, most of us would again shy away from the responsibilities of democracy.
It's a shame, because our unusual electoral system has so much to be said in its favour.
There is no ''donkey vote'' in the territory because no single candidate benefits from sitting at the top of each ballot paper. Like Tasmania, we adopted the Robson rotation of voting tickets, which means the order in which candidates are named differs from one ballot paper to the next. As a result, name recognition is hugely important for would-be MLAs. ACT election scrutineers say voters regularly preference well-known candidates before unfamiliar names, even if the unknowns are from the voter's preferred party.
In a way, this system should create a more representative and engaged Assembly. After all, it encourages us to vote not so much for a preferred party but for the individuals we know and trust. It also coaxes MLAs to interact with the community as much as possible, because they know they can't simply rely on their party's blessing to win re-election.
Yet this theory doesn't quite match the reality. Both main parties keep a close watch on MLAs' ''name recognition'' via polling. Pretty much every Canberran, when asked, says they know who Katy Gallagher (the Chief Minister) and Zed Seselja (the Opposition Leader) are. The rest of the MLAs' names are recognised by as many as about 90 per cent of people and as few as about 40 per cent. At least, that's what Canberrans tell pollsters. The true scale of voters' lack of interest is almost certainly hidden by survey response bias, where respondents try to appear more knowledgeable than they are to impress an interviewer.
I hope, over the coming two months, this lack of interest fades at least a little. The ACT election arguably affects its community more than does any other Australian vote. Our government, overseen by a tiny legislature of just 17 MLAs, compacts all of the work of a state and a large municipal council. And our voting system, with its multi-member electorates, gives us a much wider range of genuine voting alternatives than most Australians get.
Next time you hear someone whinge about the Assembly being no more than ''a trumped-up local council'', remind them we get the politicians for whom we ask.
Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant. Send your tips to firstname.lastname@example.org
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