Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Your Precious Vote

I know you're all hanging out for a bit more election commentary, given there hasn't been much of it lately.  The truth is, I'm a bit gun-shy after the shock of the last Queensland Election and not quite sure if I should put my toe back in the water in case the sharks rip my foot off.  Still, here goes...

The Australian Electoral Commission has been running these ads, encouraging you to get on the electoral roll.

Your vote, they say, is a precious thing which you keep hidden somewhere safe and then pull out every three years and use, before putting it safely back in its box.

What the ad doesn't show is the next scene in each of these little cameos in which the actors recoil, gagging and gasping as they race to open the window and dispel the stench.  If you leave things unattended for three years, they tend to rot.  We all know that the only things you hide under the floorboards are dead bodies. 

This ad goes some way to explaining the stench which currently surrounds Australian politics.  We often hear that Australians have "turned off" politics.  Party memberships are falling, people are switching off their TVs when Rudd, Abbot and Gillard come on, people have little idea what the parties actually propose to do.  We have, in fact, done what the AEC seems to be suggesting - we have put our status as electors in a box and hidden it under the bed.  What right do we have to complain when we take it out in preparation for September 7 and find it has gone off?

Democracy is not about what politicians do, or even about what those few people who have close access to politicians do.  There is another name for that form of government.  It's called "oligarchy" - "government by the few", a political system in which a small class or clique of people rule the rest.  This is in fact what our system of government has largely become.  If we feel disempowered then our feelings are not betraying us, we really are disempowered. 

I have solid evidence of this.  When I have written passionate letters and e-mails to politicians about issues such as climate change, asylum seekers and housing services, if I do get a reply it is generally polite but clear that the government will ignore what I say, despite me usually writing in association with well-organised campaigns on these issues.  On the other hand, when our nation's big mining companies lobbied to get rid of the mining tax the Prime Minister lost his job and the government caved in.  What is this if not oligarchical behaviour?

This is why both our major parties present us with lists of policies that are almost identical.  This is why it is so hard for us to get decent responses to issues like housing affordability, justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, protection of asylum seekers, emissions reductions, foreign aid or a host of other things that are important to the poorest in our society but mean nothing if you are rich and powerful.  It's no accident that the gap between rich and poor has increased in our society.

We haven't caused this but we aid and abet it by our lack of involvement.  True democracy is not a once in three years thing, it is about constant engagement, being informed, keeping leaders accountable, organising around causes we care about.  Otherwise our democracy will continue to become more and more oligarchical. 

Many of my readers (if they have bothered to read this far) will be saying, "But I'm just not very interested in politics."  Well, I'm not very interested in washing dishes.  Yet if I don't do it every day, within a few days my kitchen will be a stinky mess and I won't have anything to cook with or eat off.  If I leave them for six months, my friends will stop visiting me and my family will be frantically ringing around trying to find support for me. 

If we neglect our politics, the same thing happens.  It may not be fun or interesting, but if we don't want our society and our world to turn into a stinky mess we need to pay attention and do our bit.  We can start in the next month, but if we're not there for the long haul we shouldn't complain if we don't like the result.
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