AS a breed, we columnists tend to spend our days on the dark side. That’s where outrage lives and it makes good fodder for our regular bursts of indignation.
But there are those rare times when the sun breaks through and warms the cockles of our bleak hearts. And this, I’m happy to say, is just such an occasion.
Unlike nearly every other country in the world, we have done something so clever that it’s almost impossible to believe we meant it. But once done, we’ve fallen in love with it and right now it’s repaying our dedication 10 times over. I speak, of course, of compulsory voting.
Its introduction was nothing much to boast about. No ringing phrases from some antipodean Abraham Lincoln ushered it in. Instead, voters had been so apathetic in the 1922 election that the result was a mess and they made it law in 1924 (but only for whitefellas; the First Australians were not included until 1984).
But since that time our elections have basically been decided on who controls the votes of what Malcolm Turnbull called “the sensible centre”. Some will protest that it makes election day a choice between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dummer. And there’s some truth to the criticism, despite the leaders protesting: “This is the most critical election in a generation” each time polling day comes around.
But look at the alternative. In the US where only 60 per cent voted in 2016, the hard core from the ‘base’ elected Donald J Trump. Enough said. And in the UK, only 70 per cent voted in the Brexit referendum that just scraped through by 51.89 to 48.11 against. The remainers thought it would be an easy win and many didn’t bother to vote. So, once more, a victory for the hard-core extremists.
It gets better. In addition to compulsory voting, we have a preferential system that gives voters for the smaller parties a say – at the margins – in the final count. So everyone has a stake in the system and you don’t get the ridiculous Canadian results where a first-past-the-post system wipes out one side or the other.
Better yet, when we become disillusioned with the major parties and the extremist groups don’t fill the bill, we have an in-built shock absorber in the form of independents. And it’s becoming clear that our preference is for the highly credentialed women from that sensible centre – viz Cathy McGowan, Kerryn Phelps, Rebekha Sharkie and, hopefully, Zali Steggall.
And while we’re on the subject of women, the recent “Q&A” on the ABC gave just a glimpse of the many women-in-waiting to become MPs, not only from the panel but the questioners as well. It’s a barely tapped resource, but it takes a uniquely splendid public broadcaster to reveal its national potential. So chalk up another win for Australia in the election stakes.
Our system is far from perfect. We need four-year fixed terms so the government can get on with it and the opposition can have their policies ready at the starting line. And we really don’t need an English “royal” as our head of state. Happily, those days are coming to a natural close.
Meantime, we can give ourselves a hearty pat on the back. Not quite sure how we managed it, but come election time, fair dinkum, there’s no better place to be.