This is a sample of The Echidna newsletter sent out each weekday morning till the end of the election. To sign up for FREE, go to theechidna.com.au
Call it the wisdom of the ancients or simply the mutterings of a disillusioned old fart. But the Greek philosopher Plato issued a pertinent warning more than two thousand years ago that still rings true for more than two million Australians who will either not turn up to the polls on May 21 or waste their voice with an informal vote.
"One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics," said Plato, "is that you end up being governed by your inferiors."
The Greeks know a little bit about that, of course, having invented democracy before doing their best to stuff it up over the following two millennia. But despite Australia's compulsory voting system the number of us refusing to participate is also on the rise.
About 10 per cent of enrolled voters - more than 1.7 million and many of them young - are not expected to even cast a vote. On top of that more than 800,000 are expected to lodge an informal vote.
Apathy, ignorance, lack of trust in politics and language barriers are all contributing factors. But critics of our preferential voting system also say it is one of the most complicated in the world. While most countries simply require a cross or a tick to be left on a ballot paper, Australian voters have to mark a preference for every House of Representatives candidate. With a record number of candidates standing this time around, that's a big ask on a ballot paper that might feature more than a dozen names, most of them obscure, some of them objectionable, and with policies to match.
There's one solution to this which has been extensively analysed and recommended by various bodies over the years - introduce optional preferential voting where the voter only needs to place a number in one square on the ballot paper. It's a simpler system, particularly for those with language or cognition difficulties. And it works well enough at state level in NSW and Queensland by still allowing a voter the right to mark as many preferences as they like.
"It allows voters to concentrate on the choices they want to make rather than the choices they have to make," long-time ABC election analyst Antony Green has said.
But political self-interest means there's a very good reason why we're unlikely to see it at federal level any time soon.
With support for both major parties in decline for almost three decades, Labor is the greatest beneficiary of compulsory preferential voting. Modelling by researchers has shown that the amount of Green preferences directed to Labor would slump by half - from around 80 per cent to under 40 per cent - under an optional preference system, effectively wiping the party out as a major contestant and guaranteeing the Coalition years in power.
So why hasn't the Coalition already introduced it? A government-dominated parliamentary committee recommended it do just that less than 18 months ago - but a lack of time and a tenuous hold on power meant it was left on the "to do" list. Given recent polling indicating a likely Labor victory on May 21, we're unlikely to see it happen any time soon.
HAVE YOUR SAY: Would you support a switch to optional preferential voting? Do we really need compulsory voting at all? Would you support the new Greens proposal to legalise cannabis? And what other issues in this election do you think are not being paid enough attention by the major parties? Send us your views: firstname.lastname@example.org
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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
- The Reserve Bank will announce today whether it has decided to lift its cash rate, with most analysts predicting a rise from the current record low of 0.1 per cent to 0.25 per cent.
- The Coalition yesterday promised $70 million over the next four years to expand eligibility for the seniors health card, which is currently issued to more than 400,000 Australians over the age of 67 who do not qualify for the age pension. In a pledge immediately matched by Labor, the annual income test for singles would rise from $58,000 to $90,000.
- The Greens announced their support for the legalisation of cannabis and the creation of an Australian Cannabis Agency to licence the production and sale of cannabis products. The party said the current criminal framework for cannabis use had failed and it was time for Australia to follow the lead of several other western countries.
- Two polls released at the halfway mark of the campaign showed Labor maintaining a strong lead over the coalition. Newspoll, published in The Australian, reported Labor with a 53-47 two-party preferred lead, while the Resolve Strategic survey for Nine newspapers showed Labor leading 54-46.
THEY SAID IT: "Politicians are the only people who create problems and then campaign against them." - Charley Reese, conservative American columnist.
YOU SAID IT: "I watched my parents work hard all their lives to build a little wealth - just a little mind you. That little has pushed Mum over the pathetically low 'wealth' level to deny her any assistance from the government in her retirement years. Nothing - from all those taxes they paid and no recognition for the many young people they employed over the years. Don't get me wrong. Mum's comfortable. But where is that recognition for the hard work done in a lifetime?" - Sally.
"Pork barrels and promises fall on my very deaf political ears. We already have our postal votes and will spend this week researching candidates. We would love a teal candidate but sadly we have none. However in our very safe Liberal seat we will probably vote for Labor in the lower house and Greens in the upper house." - Rhonda.
"With all these claims of what politicians will do (but not deliver) I feel like not voting at all. The only problem is that not voting is really a vote for the incumbent party. I guess I'll have to vote for independents or minor parties and hope for a hung Parliament, hopefully with Labor in the chair." - Geoff.
"Go easy on the cynicism. Our politicians often leave much to be desired but most of their working lives are spent trying to make things better for people. Constantly mocking them may be witty but it undermines democracy and encourages extremists and quick-fix scoundrels like Clive Palmer." - Aidan
"The lack of integrity, honesty, and accountability with many politicians and their obscene advertising budgets are out of whack with reasonable levels and community priorities." - Linda.
"Definitely won't vote for any of the majors as they are as bad as each other and nor have they done anything to tackle the housing crisis leaving thousands living under third world conditions. A disgrace and shame in a supposedly wealthy, democratic country that needs addressing urgently." - Murray.
"There's a great deal of concern over overcommitted mortgage holders with the prospect of interest rate rises. There's no mention of savers with funds earning 0.01 per cent or less over the last decade. I wonder how long it will take the lenders to increase their charges after the cash rate increases? Probably the next day!" - Greg.
"Most Australians say "Baa" before voting. - Gary.
"Trust in politics? Isn't that an oxymoron? A good functioning federal corruption body would be a start, and then take the pork barrelling awarding of grants away from politicians, too. The public service is where that should live." - Deb.
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