The democracy sausage has become the symbol of Australians’ trust and enthusiasm for our free and fair elections, but we have much more to celebrate than sausage sizzles (which, I will point out, are needed to help P&Cs fundraise for our underfunded public school system).
Think about the thousands of people across the country who volunteered their time to leaflet their suburb, or who knocked on their neighbours’ doors. What a powerful and positive experience of democracy they have just participated in, and what an asset they will be to strengthen our democracy going forward. For many of them, this will have been the first campaign they have ever been directly involved in – and, for anyone who volunteered for Labor, the Greens or the independents – they know they had a real impact. They not only changed the government, they transformed the next parliament and delivered a mandate for it to pursue ideas like saving the planet from global heating, achieving gender equality, tackling the wages crisis and restoring integrity to Parliament and politics.
Of course, Coalition volunteers had a tough and disappointing night, but there are lessons in that too: in a democracy, your side doesn’t always win, as many Labor and Greens federal election volunteers of the past decade can well attest. Certainly, one of the big trends coming out of the election result is that voters abandoned the Coalition in droves. The inner-city electorates of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne (and the entire state of Western Australia) delivered thumping losses for the Liberal Party in particular, while regional voters delivered swings against many Nationals MPs who nevertheless held their seats.
Now is the time for the Coalition to listen to voters who abandoned them, much as Labor had to do following their electoral defeat in 2019. Whether the Coalition lurches further to the right or pursues a more moderate path looks like an issue that won’t be resolved easily. Many Liberal moderates lost their seats, leaving those advocating a more conservative path with the numbers and power internally. Talk of abandoning the Liberal heartland seats to pursue new voters in the suburbs with more climate wars and imported culture wars seems like a path to eternal opposition for the Coalition, but if this election has taught us anything, it’s that no seat can be considered “safe” anymore. That’s probably good for democracy too.
The strength of Australia’s democracy does not just lie in the campaign, but our system itself. Australia pioneered the secret ballot, designed to stop the intimidation of voters. We also have compulsory voting, ensuring that everyone votes, not just the partisan or the outraged. We have the Australian Electoral Commission to draw and redraw electoral boundaries so they are representative and fair, and to recruit 100,000 Australians to run polling booths, where everyone’s ballot papers and voting methods are consistent across the country. The AEC’s vote counting is scrutineered by parties and candidates to ensure the integrity of the count is transparent and verifiable. No fraud here.
Contrast that to the United States, where free and fair elections are polluted and diminished not only by outrageous gerrymandering but by laws and regulations designed to deliberately disenfranchise voters, where the former president lied to the public about election results, and where a first-past-the-post system means many votes are wasted.
Our preferential voting system (and proportional in the Senate) ensures no one’s vote need ever be wasted. If your preferred candidate does not get elected, your vote transfers at full value to your next preferred candidate, and so on until someone is elected. If Australia had a first-past-the-post system, fully one in three Australian votes this election may have been wasted. As it is, we can see that preferences will decide a number of lower house seats. Without a preferential voting system, the Liberal Party would have won both Ryan and Brisbane, despite a clear majority of voters in each seat preferring they were turfed out.
That’s not to say our Parliament should not help the AEC improve our elections. It is still perfectly legal to lie in a political ad, which new truth in political advertising laws could fix. COVID also proved a threat to voting, with some remote booths unable to be staffed and emergency voting provisions coming with a loophole that could have affected tens of thousands of voters (fixed thanks to the intervention of incoming independent Monique Ryan).
In the Senate, Australia Institute research shows half of voters incorrectly think you should put a 6 beside the box of the party you dislike more than any other, when actually that would make them the sixth-most-preferred party on your ballot. Though voting materials indicate that voters should mark at least six boxes above the line, 1 to 6, in the Senate, anecdotally some AEC staff were instructing voters they could only vote 1 to 6 above the line and no further. Better public education on Senate voting and better training for AEC staff could help ensure Senate votes don’t exhaust, and a review of how the new Senate voting rules are operating in practice would be wise.
It’s thanks to preferences that independent Senate candidate David Pocock looks set to defeat Zed Seselja in the ACT. Pocock spoke at an Australia Institute webinar this week, where he talked about how restoring the territory’s rights is a priority. It is a quarter of a century since Kevin Andrew’s bill made territorians second-class citizens. Since then all states have passed voluntary assisted dying laws, but the territories cannot even debate them.
Dying with dignity is a powerful idea, championed by the Northern Territory in world-first legislation 25 years ago, just as marriage equality was a powerful idea championed by the ACT. Both were overturned by the federal Coalition government.
Exactly one week ago, Australians voted to change the government. Great ideas change the country, even if sometimes takes a while.