It takes a lot for an Australian political story to get reported overseas. We’re mostly pretty inoffensive. We’re a modern, first world democracy that fights in the right wars, and, most of the time, avoids political upheaval. So for the U.S.’s Time magazine to start comparing us to “nations where human rights and freedom of speech are routinely curtailed … the ranks of Iran, China and a handful of other nations” we must be doing something pretty retonto.
And oh, Lord, how we are. Our Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy wants to introduce a mandatory censorship mechanism — euphemistically known as a “filter” — for Australian Internet access, one requiring service providers to block access to a government mandated list of websites. This list is non-public, and the government has tried to prosecute people who have attempted to reveal what’s on it. Google and Yahoo have protested it and the Obama administration has expressed its concern.
We’re now hearing talk, unconfirmed, that the bill to implement this censorship scheme has been shelved until after the next election. Despite poor polling numbers, the government is expected to retain its majority after that election, due at the end of this year or the beginning of 2011. Opposition leader Tony Abbott is unpopular and distrusted, and it is extraordinarily rare for an Australian government to lose power after one term. Nonetheless, this presents the progressive voter with a quandary.
The Australian polling system is one of mandatory preferential voting. This means that a voter must, to cast a valid vote, enter the booth and number the candidates competing for his or her local seat in order of preference from first desired to least desired. Preferences are apportioned until one candidate receives 50 per cent plus one of the vote. (If you’re a non-Australian and you want a better explanation of this, ask me, or research “instant run-off voting.”) That means that, in most electorates, absent, for instance, a Liberal vs National Party face-off, the presence of a highly popular independent, or an unusually successful Greens challenge, the vote will ultimately come down to a two-party preferred count. That’s why 2PP is so valued by pollsters; it’s what decides elections 99 per cent of the time.
That means a voter such as myself, voting in the safe-Labor seat of Grayndler, will have to ultimately indicate a preference for the Labor Party or the Coalition if I want to cast a legal vote. Given that I am highly concerned about the Labor government’s policy of mandatory Internet censorship, one might consider it sensible for me to indicate this by voting for the Liberal opposition. And, believe me, I have considered this.
But the Liberal party is not; it is a decidedly conservative party. Though some of its members have expressed dismay at the policy of Internet censorship, its current leadership has no formulated policy on the “filter.” And even under previous leaderships, which did express a more solid opposition to online censorship, the Liberal opposition holds many other political views so repugnant to me that I could not vote for them. To make them even more distasteful, their current leader, that is, the man charged with decisively deciding their policy directions should they gain majority, is a disturbingly unhinged, deeply misogynistic man whom no one should trust with the reigns of the country no matter what they think of his ideology. An offside that could be the foundation of an entire post: Sydney Morning Herald journalist Michael Duffy gets little right, but when he wrote a book comparing Tony Abbott and Mark Latham, he got something very right.
Now I hear folks outside of Australia (if they’re still reading, and if so: bless you) thinking, “I hear you brother. Two party systems suck.” But in all likelihood, the experience of foreign voters is not comparable to that which I am critiquing here. For not only do we have an essentially two party system here in Australia, we have a political infrastructure that ruthlessly enforces political rigidity on those who participate in it. I have frequently heard Americans complain that their system represents a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Even if these Americans believe there is no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats (if so, they are wrong), they should at least be able to perceive a distinction between Dennis Kucinich and Bart Stupak; between Joe Cao and Ron Paul.
In Australia, this intra-party distinction is largely meaningless. Sure, politicians will hold their fights in the party room, and particularly within cabinet. Peter Garrett and Penny Wong will joust it out with Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan, and apart from general comments made in public, we will know nothing of these politicians’ actual actions. They will evaporate into the party ether. And because politicians almost always vote according to their party’s dictate, there is no way a voter can lobby his or her representative to oppose a policy the party leadership is enthusiastic about.
That means that if I want to vote on the basis of the proposed censorship scheme, I must hand my vote to either the Labor government or the Liberal opposition. Worse, because this is a policy deferred beyond the next election, I must allow one of those parties to claim a mandate for their policy.
Which results in an awful dilemma for folks like me.
Part of being an adult, and hence a voter, is learning to accept that the politicians you approve will not always please you. But part of living in a democracy is insisting that there are certain actions which you will not lend your support to. I voted Labor in 2007. It was a touch and go decision and it was the first time I’d voted Labor in my life. (If they had needed them, however, they would have always received my preferences.) That creates a unique decision for me next election: not, “Should I give them my vote,” but, “Should I lend them my support again?”
And on such a fundamental issue as free speech, I cannot pretend this is a question of first preferences. I must decide whether to endorse the Labor government or the Liberal opposition, even if I do actually vote for some doomed third party as my first preference.
I’ve told you my reservations about voting Liberal. Here are my reservations over not voting Labor: They are, like it or not, the progressive party in this country. Kevin Rudd gained power after 11 years of conservative rule, a period in which the Labor opposition became so cowed and so cautious that they believed they might never gain power again. They had no idea as to how they should retool themselves for government. They were fortunate in that, in 2006 and 2007 they finally found themselves with a leader the electorate loved, a tired opposition the electorate loathed, and the opportunity to claim issues the government had no interest in and to oppose a bad policy the government had a great interest in. It Was Time, as the saying goes, but the stars were also aligned right.
If Labor loses government after one term, it will be read as an endorsement of the politics of John Howard and his conservative ideology. It will not be seen as a judgment on a particular piece of Internet policy. It will be read as an electorate experimenting with left wing government and confirming that, in Australia, the party of government must be the conservatives. Since 1949, the left wing of Australian politics has held power for three periods: from 1972-1975, 1983-1996, and 2007-2010. That is 19 of the past 61 years. If the government were to lose power after just one term, it would be the first government to do so after just one term in power since James Scullin in 1929. Scullin, you might note, was a Labor PM who took office two days before the Great Depression hit.
In short, a loss by the Labor government in the next election would destroy progressive politics in Australia. Ours is already a government that tries to cleanse any signs of left-wing thought from the party, even if they are electorally popular, as the climate change reforms were. I do not like restrictions on freedom of speech. But I am not sure I am willing to gamble the end of all my political goals for Australia on stopping this issue, particularly considering, even with the mandate of re-election, it may fall foul to changing party priorities or a hostile Senate. But that said, I am not sure I want to risk placing my preferred vision of the country in the hands of people who are willing to compromise such a fundamental ideal as freedom of speech.
There is a simple way to solve my dilemma, but because it would solve my dilemma, I doubt either of the major parties would be interested in it. But it is very simple and its worth is proven.
In my state of New South Wales, elections are conducted using a non-mandatory preferential system. To cast a valid vote, all I must do is indicate a preference for one party. I can go on to indicate further preferences if I like, but I do not have to. In fact, this is what I have done in every single state election held since I have become a voter. I have marked a number one next to my preferred candidate, and figuratively told the rest of them all to get out of here.
The beauty of this system is that it allows voters to reject the major parties if they wish to do so, but it does not require them to cast a futile vote to do so (think Ralph Nader in 2000). In Australia, because of mandatory voting and mandatory preferential voting, politicians are almost entirely incentivised to target their policies at the slim portion of voters who change their vote between the major parties each election. Non-mandatory preferential voting enables voters some mechanism to signal exactly how they are dissatisfied with their representatives without reducing the choice down to the binary decision enforced by the parliamentary system of government. Further, such a voting system is simpler and hence less likely to omit voters who intended to cast a valid vote but could not understand how to do so. As a very rough indication of the force of this, consider that despite voters being highly invested in the Federal election in 2007 and highly disinterested in the NSW state election that same year, and despite the habit of voters using informal (non-valid) votes as a protest mechanism, the Federal election had 3.95% votes not counted because the were not properly cast, while the state election had 2.77%. The NSW system is harder to screw up, and it more properly counts a voter’s intention.
I do not know how I will vote at the next Federal election. It’s a very troubling decision. But whatever happens, I would urge the government to do the following:
1. Not implement a mechanism to censor the Internet.
2. Permit federal elections to be conducted as NSW elections are, on a voluntarily preferential basis.