The first time I voted, Ireland picked my choice to be its President. I only voted one more time there which means that for various reasons, including moving to other side of the world and taking more than 10 years to become a citizen, I’ve not voted for twenty years.
Although I realized that one of the things I opted into when I chose to become a citizen of Australia was that one was required to vote, I was looking forward to breaking my duck, as it were, here in Australia. Especially after going half my life without taking advantage of freedoms hard won.
How disappointed was I then when I realised the first time I would participate in democracy! in my adopted country would be in today’s local council elections? Aside from the fact my council ward seems to be embedded within what’s known as a safe seat both at State and Federal level – with the then likelihood of any contrary vote to the local tendency ending with no result for me – none of the candidates in my ward were known to me, and this is how it remained throughout the campaign, which made it almost impossible for me to decide who to vote for.
Some might say I should chase these candidates down and try to find out more about them. To that I respond, fair comment, but as they are the ones who desire my selection, I’d be expecting the shoe to be on the other foot. Adding insult to injury is the financial penalty that can be imposed upon me or others like me if we choose not to vote due to the lack of interest in the candidates. In my view the fines should be applied to people who put themselves up as candidates and solely rely on a poster in their front garden or a patronising flyer telling me how to vote on the day.
In Federal or perhaps even State elections the constituency sizes are large enough for me to understand if we see neither sight nor sound of a candidate through the campaign. In local council elections, with a population of just thirty thousand to canvass over a period of six to eight weeks – or realistically, if they really are local, over four years – there’s no excuse whatsoever for this population of one not encountering a single candidate among the 14 running.
Democracy involves some amount of free choice, including the choice of whether to participate in its execution. In Australia and NSW, maybe the removal of the choice on whether to participate is allowing these so called local representatives to take our votes for granted. If my experience of this election has thought me anything its that it’s about time the over-represented people of Australia started taking their representatives to task. Not on the polarised party lines so populised in the media, but on their suitability to hold any office.
Making voting optional and removing above the line choices might be good mechanical methods to make candidates use a bit more effort to gain a receptive audience. Most other democracies seem to survive reasonably well without the requirement to vote after all.
But people like me being a bit more curious about who these people are and forcing them to earn their place in society wouldn’t go astray either. It would certainly help me avoid choosing people based upon their names, their party or even how pretty they look.
Otherwise, as a journalist friend of mine tweeted today, they’ll disappear again for four years after Monday only to pop their invisible names up on a ballot paper again in four years time.