About eighteen months ago, fired up in a fury of righteous indignation about the way the Labor party snuck some pretty significant income redistribution- especially toward fairly wealthy retirees- into the Carbon Tax bill, I did what any occasionally-aspiring political pundit would do, and took to Twitter. I declared my allegiances fixed, then and there, and that, with the Labor party having shown it was more interested in redistribution than a sound carbon pricing scheme, I would do my democratic duty and join the Libs.
The then-editor of The Drum saw my tweet, and asked me if I’d care to write a piece about it, which I did, then enjoyed the occasionally-terrifying responses.
But once it all died down, I did join the Liberal party. Not out of anger, but because I felt that to be truly engaged in our two-party system, you have to be a member of one, and that my commitment to civil liberties meant that the Liberal party was a better fit. Plus, as much as I appreciate our system (and I am 100% committed to having a strong welfare state), I think our income tax rate is plenty high, and shouldn’t go up further.
Well, after a year, I can tell you my experiment with participating in Democracy more actively was a miserable and abject failure, and one that has led me to believe that a donkey vote may just be my best option.
That isn’t to say I didn’t meet good, committed, intelligent people while in the party. I certainly did, and I appreciate the time I spent with them. Unfortunately, most of them are stuck working in regions where they’ll never win, and fighting internal factional battles with the rest. And losing.
The rest are the problem. As best I can see, there are two real types, and neither is committed either to ideology or to governing with specific outcomes in mind. In tandem, they are the reason our system is so flawed.
The first of these two types is the Power-Hungry Player. The Player is committed first to themselves, to gaining power or influence. They’ll wear any hat, kiss any arse, and do whatever it takes, as long as they win. They don’t need to win right now- many of them are playing the long game- but for these folk, the only reason to be in politics is to gain power. Their approach to policy is to ask what will gain them the biggest advantage.
The second type is the Party Faithful. They are fundamentally and essentially committed to the Party. For them, the Party is a source of identity, of pride, and often a pretty big part of their social life. These people walk, talk, eat, drink and breathe the party. So for them, the health of the party is paramount. They’ve lost touch with much of what people think outside the party. Their approach to policy is to ask what the party thinks, and then to work back from there. They start from the position that the party is right.
And they work together. The Players use the Party Faithful to do their bidding, and the Party Faithful rely on Players for direction. Meanwhile, people who are actually committed to talking about policy and trying to figure out what the best way to govern is are pushed to the side. Leave that to the public servants.
And so the government becomes less the attempt to represents the interests of those who elected each representative, and more a giant game of football for nerds, where the desire to win trumps all else.
And ultimately, those elected are mostly only accountable to these people. Thanks to mandatory voting, unless you’re a preselector (usually either a Power Hungry Player or a Party Faithful) or are one of a small number of swinging voters in a small number of swinging districts, the parties couldn’t care less about you. They don’t need to appeal to you- your vote makes no difference at all. So while the system feels ideal to those within it, those of us who fall outside it are left with no voice.
People talk about the “horse race” of politics. It’s a ridiculous comparison. In a horse race, sure, there are favourites, but every single horse on the track has a chance to win, and usually there’s at least one 20:1 chance that gets up on any given day. Politics in Australia isn’t a horse race. It’s more like being stuck in the MCG watching Collingwood and Carlton play over and over again, when you go for another team, and there’s someone threatening to fine you if you don’t cheer for either the Blues or the Pies.
Well, I tried it. I put on a metaphorical Carlton guernsey, and tried to sing the club song. But it’s a world of Power Hungry Players and Party Faithful. I got sick of the inside baseball jokes, of laughing at anyone who held a different view. I got sick of the “well, if you join a team, you’re on a team” mentality.
I also got sick of the “moderate” Liberals completely decimating Civil Rights, but that’s a whole different issue.
So what’s my take away? Mostly, that our system needs to change. I tried to work within its confines, and it just didn’t work. Unless 100,000 people who cared deeply about issues signed up for the major parties- unlikely given the screening process- the inside baseball attitude is not going to change. Meanwhile, I cannot, in good conscience, vote for either the party of Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard at the next election. They’re both fiscally-irresponsible statists who don’t give voters who don’t fit a certain profile any respect. Yet in order to cast a legal ballot, I am compelled to do so. How is that democracy?
And so my experiment failed. Or perhaps it succeeded- I learned a hard truth about Australian politics: that nobody is really all that interested in governing well. They just want to win.