Everyone intuitively suspects that politicians are cynical and self-serving, but rarely are those traits more evident than when they discuss electoral reform. Today, a long succession of self-interested decisions have resulted in a situation where Steve Fielding alone will decide whether thousands of young people will be able to vote in the next election. It’s an important question of democratic principle. So, like any other politician, we can expect Senator Fielding to decide it purely on the basis of his own electoral self-interest. Rarely has there been a better example of lunatics running the asylum than a system where politicians get to set their own electoral regulations.
What’s this all about? Well, cast your mind back to the last Parliament, when John Howard had control of the Senate. It was a little bit like when Gollum got control of the Ring, and not just because of their physical resemblance. Unbridled power isn’t good for politicians – it tends to make them overstretch. And so it was that without the hand-wringingly moderate Democrats to stop him, John Howard pushed through a few things that turned the public off, like WorkChoices, leading to his own ultimate destruction.
But perhaps the most transparently self-interested legislation he passed while he had his “precioussss” Senate majority was a change to the Electoral Act which removed the grace period for enrolment. This means that now, when Prime Ministers call an election – which they invariably try to do by surprise, to give themselves an advantage over their opponents – the electoral rolls close that very day. Previously, there were seven days where the lazy and hopeless could twig to the fact that there was an election happening, and register to have their say. But under these changes, anyone who hasn’t sensibly enrolled as soon as they became eligible is stuffed.
But voting is compulsory, you may ask, so isn’t everybody on the electoral roll? Why, yes; nearly everyone is, and once you’ve appeared somewhere in the system, the AEC will chase you with considerable efficiency to make sure your registration is correct. So, except for people like Michael Clarke who have been in hiding, those registering are usually first-time voters – that is, new citizens and young people who’ve turned 18 since the last election.
Now, who do young people tend to support? Why, Labor, of course. So you can see why John Howard was keen to slam the trapdoor shut as soon as possible. Fortunately for him, young people are chronically disorganised, and generally don’t bother enrolling until they’re reminded to do so by an election campaign. Sure, if you could do it via Facebook, they’d be all over electoral enrolment like a rash, but it involves forms and signatures, and as everyone knows, they’re really lame and boring.
But unfortunately for him, despite the roll shenanigans, enough young people had enrolled to help propel Rudd into the Lodge. Had more young people enrolled, Howard may well have haemorrhaged even more seats. And it’s predicted that young voters will have an equally big impact again this time.
So it’s hardly surprising that Labor’s trying to undo the changes. And guess what – the Greens, who have an even bigger youth vote than Labor does, are on board too, and so’s Nick Xenophon. And that leaves, yet again, a certain Senator from Victoria who received 2% of the primary vote in charge of determining the nation’s future.
No politician, even one as unusual as Fielding, will determine such a vital issue according to principle – they’ll twist the principle to tally with their self-interest. It’s like the debate in the US about depriving convicted felons of the vote, which is backed by Republicans, or Julie Bishop’s recent opposition to compulsory voting. And while again, she argues from high-minded principle concerning individual liberty, it’s no coincidence that compulsory voting is generally viewed as more likely to help left-wing parties, since lower-income Labor voters are more likely to have jobs that require them to work on Saturdays.
So, what’s Steve’s self-interest here? He was elected last time on so few votes (1.9%) that he needed Liberal, Democrat and Labor preferences to get elected. In essence, he’s the Steve Bradbury of Australian politics, only succeeding if everyone else stuffs up. His only chance beyond dumb luck is if there’s a double dissolution, since that will reduce the amount of votes needed for any Senate candidate to get elected in his own right.
Since Family First is a broadly conservative party, and therefore more likely to be supported by older voters, you’d expect him to align himself with the Liberals on this one. But Senator Steve is not only a bit of a wild-card when he’s in the media spotlight, but doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to work out his own electoral maths – after all, he reckons the Earth was was created 10,000 years ago.
I think our democracy should be as representative as possible, and strongly support measures that make life easier for disorganised people like me, so I think the longer deadline should be restored. If you agree, by all means spam the good Senator via GetUp – sorry, “GetUp!” – or just Tweet him here. The vote’s scheduled for tonight, and I really hope he does the right thing. But then, since I’m still sort of youngish myself, I would think it was the right thing, wouldn’t I?