Talking Point: Beats going to the dentist

By Dennis Grube and Matt Killingsworth

Matt Killingsworth Dennis Grube

A FEW minutes. That’s all it takes. A few boxes, a few numbers, and we’re done.

And not once a day, or even once a month — just once every three years.

As a process, it’s right up there with scribbling down your shopping list in terms of excitement. Many of us look forward to it about as much as a trip to the dentist, and you don’t even feel healthier afterwards.

But elections matter — profoundly. And that’s why the health of a democracy can be measured not just in the mechanics of voting, but in the energy generated by an election campaign.

This year, political junkies, political scientists and political rubbernecks in general have been blessed by being able to observe two very different elections.

The US presidential election, up to now, has been a voyeur’s dream (Donald Trump’s involvement no doubt contributing to this), while the Australian Federal Election, by most accounts, is a bit of a snooze fest. Why might this be the case? And does the nature of each of these campaigns offer us insight into the respective democratic credentials of each political system?

For the casual observer, US presidential campaigns can be confusing. Much of this relates to the relationship between the primaries (and caucuses) and the general election.

Essentially, it is a two-part process. Each major party conducts a series of state-based elections, from which candidates garner delegates, which in turn determines who the party’s presidential nominee for the general election in November will be.

Adding to the confusion for the casual or seasoned observer is the lack of consistency in each party’s primaries.

For example, while the delegates from the Democratic Party’s primaries are all chosen on a proportional basis, some of the Republican Party’s primaries are winner-takes-all, where the candidate with the most votes (not a plurality) gets all of that state’s delegates.

Likewise, some primaries are open to only registered members of the party conducting the primary (closed primary), while others allow voters not affiliated with the party running the primary to vote (open primary).

The comparative high energy of the US election is primarily due to two interrelated factors: non-compulsory voting and money. To get people to a ballot box (or a caucus, which takes real dedication to the cause), candidates need to make themselves attractive to core constituents. Likewise, to get their message out, they need money. When people start voting for them in early primaries and caucuses, it becomes much easier to raise money. Thus, what can often appear like a high-octane circus, is merely a byproduct of the evolved system in which candidates are operating.

The democratic nature of the primaries, however, is slightly more complicated. Only 17 per cent of eligible voters voted in Republican primaries (the number is even lower for Democrats, at 11 per cent), which might lead one to conclude that the respective presumptive candidates lack legitimacy. There are a number of things to keep in mind, however.

First, while these numbers are very low, comparatively they represent the highest percentage of voter turnout for primaries since 1992.

Second, the primaries might in fact be the most democratic aspect of the whole campaign.

They are state-based, meaning those willing to be engaged can demand that presidential candidates respond to local issues, something that is not guaranteed to occur in the November general election.

Caucuses are arguably even more democratic; people gather, often at someone’s house, and debate relevant issues, after which they choose a candidate by organising themselves under a sign or banner of the candidate they wish to nominate.

No wonder Australian democracy might occasionally feel less invigorating by comparison. No arena spectaculars here. No year-long process of selecting candidates through primaries. And no standing in the snow in Iowa waiting to caucus for your preferred candidate.

Compulsory voting means parties do not have to get voters excited enough to go out and vote — they have no choice. On the other hand, it also means parties cannot afford to ignore any part of the electorate, including minority opinions. There are votes to be won and lost among all segments of the population, not just those likely to vote in a voluntary voting system.

The other beauty of our system of representative parliamentary democracy is that local issues and national issues are equally central to the election outcome. Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott — when removed from the prime ministership by their own parties — protested loudly that they had been elected by the people of Australia.

The truth of course is that Rudd and Abbott were elected only by the members of their own electorates.

Under our system, we elect local members, not a national leader. It means that anyone who wants to become and remain prime minister has to take note of the local issues raised by their local members, while simultaneously crafting a wider message about the kind of Australia they want to create. It’s no easy task, but it ensures that parties and individual candidates fight hard to win our votes on both local and national issues.

So on July 2, as you once again throw your coin in the fountain of Australian democracy and make your wish for the next three years, there are reasons to feel positive about the experience.

Whether the election campaign has electrified you or not, the guarantee that you will vote means that the politicians cannot ignore you. That’s how you know democracy is working. And it still beats going to the dentist.

Associate Professor Dennis Grube is Principal Research Fellow in the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania.

Dr Matt Killingsworth is Head of Politics and International Relations at UTAS.

This article originally appeared in The Mercury on 18 June 2016

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