Elections, Fairness and Community

There were three things which were impressive about the Bridgewater polling booth. For a start, voting took place without emotion or rancour. The voters streamed in quietly, some taking How to Vote Cards, some not.

Secondly, the partisans handing out How to Vote cards all chatted away amiably with each other. Labor and Liberal, Green and National. They had mutual friends and experiences. Divided as they were by politics, they were more united by bonds of community.

And thirdly, the little school itself, like so many around Australia, used this great act of democracy to sell sausages. But why no coffee? That was a mistake!

I spent an hour at the polling booth and this year it made me think of how democracy is about so much more than the right to vote. For a start, there has to be a broad consensus that the electoral system is fair. No one at the Bridgewater polling booth would have even imagined that the Australian Electoral Commission officials working there would be stuffing the ballot boxes with fake ballot papers. Nor would anyone think it appropriate to interfere with a person as they voted.

In other so-called democracies that’s always a possibility. Then there is the perception amongst the voters of the institutions of government themselves. The Australian public, whoever they voted for, accept the result as fair. Defeat is depressing in politics particularly as you travel to Canberra the week after the election and pack up your fancy ministerial office, say goodbye to your officials who served you loyally in government and have now turned their attention to others. But Kevin Rudd and his ministerial colleagues glumly accepted defeat and moved out just as the Howard government had done six years earlier. Not so in many emerging democracies.

In Australia the prime minister and the ministers all change when a government changes. But remember, a lot doesn’t change. The judiciary remains in place, most senior public servants keep their jobs, the police and other law enforcement agencies stay put, the army stays in its barracks, the generals and admirals stay in their jobs. These are the struts which hold up our society even as political leadership changes.

All this helps to explain why our democracy works so well. But it helps explain why, by contrast, the Arab Spring has been such a catastrophic failure. The Tunisians, the Egyptians, the Libyans – they’ve all been able to vote in the last two years. But too many in the West have proclaimed that fact to be sufficient to herald a new era of peace and democracy. It isn’t. The Arab Spring has taken the Arab world from dictatorship to anarchy in two short years.

It wasn’t that the elections were undemocratic, although there were plenty of claims of vote rigging and ballot box fraud. The greatest single problem was that the winning politicians ended up with a blank sheet of paper. For the winners, there was no careful briefing from the heads of government departments, no incoming government’s brief based on campaign promises. The successful candidates – particularly for the Egyptian presidency – had to write a new constitution and hire new heads of just about all of the country’s major institutions.

Imagine if the Abbott government had to do that! It would be a huge task. And imagine if they did what Egypt’s president Morsi did: Abbott appointed Liberal Party members to all the major institutions from the High Court to heads of government departments, from the Australian Federal Police to the ABC’s managing director. That’s what president Morsi did. He put people from his Muslim Brotherhood party in charge of everything he could. And worse. He wrote a constitution which entrenched the Islamic ideology of the Brotherhood.

The result was disaster. The political system lacked legitimacy with around 60 percent of voters who hadn’t voted for president Morsi and were now alienated from the whole political system.

And look at Syria. The institutions are run by and in the interests of 10 percent of the population – the Alawites. But if the rebels win the civil war, will they build new institutions which exclude their opponents? I’m sure they will. The result will be endless instability.

The thing about Australia is it has a sense of community. We know we have differing political views but we know partisanship shouldn’t be taken too far. Losers in elections are as much part of our community as the winners. They can’t expect to run the place but nor should they be alienated from the heart of the system by non-partisan institutions being turned into the playthings of the winners.On Election Day I couldn’t help but feel the strong sense of community at our local polling booth. It’s at the Bridgewater primary school in the Adelaide Hills. Bridgewater usually votes Labor and it did this time, just. But independent Senate candidate Nick Xenephon won a swag of votes and there were plenty of Green and other voters.


Photo by Ahmed Abd El-fatah, flickr.com


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