Colombo Telegraph

Australian Voting, Hung Parliament, & Lessons For Democracy

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

There is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government, and with the major parties.’  – Malcolm Turnbull (PM)

As we move deeper into the 21st century, considerable changes in attitudes and preferences, or what we could simply call ‘voting behaviour,’ seem to take place among the voters and citizens of major representative democratic systems. This was evident two weeks ago at the Brexit referendum and now confirmed by the Australian parliamentary elections at the weekend. People are moving away from the traditional political parties, and the leaders, and they seem to vote flexibly on issues or policies rather than on political party lines. This could be a result of what we could call the ‘new information age’ in respect of democracy.

Information Age, also known as ‘computer age,’ ‘digital age’ or ‘new media age’ is usually refereed to the economic changes that have taken place as a result of increased use of computer based (digital) information for the industrial/service products, marketing, distribution and sales. This is more or less becoming the same for the polity and electoral processes it seems. Voters or the citizens (also the political parties) are using the same technologies for their informed decisions and voting. The voters are becoming more autonomous and self-determined compared to the earlier generations without depending much on political parties; and the digital information or ‘propaganda’ supplied by the political parties are considered one among others by the voters. The result at the moment is volatile or even ‘outraged voters’ clearly moving away from the directives of the (traditional) political parties.

After Brexit

At the Brexit referendum both the two major political parties, the Conservatives and the Labour, almost officially asked the voters to vote to ‘remain’ within the EU. It is true that some of the leaders of these parties were hesitant or, in the case of the conservative leader Boris Johnson, even defiant and campaigned for a ‘leave’ vote. However, it was only the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) that campaign for the ‘leave’ vote as a significant political party and it was also a new ‘single issue party.’ It was mostly by the network called the ‘Leave Vote’ formed on cross-party lines that campaign for the Brexit. Even after the closing of the vote that Thursday, Nigel Farage admitted possible defeat. But the result turned out to be different, 52 percent voting to ‘leave.’ There was a clear defiance against the existing leaders apart from other political cross currents including xenophobia and extreme nationalism.

There is clear defiance against leaders particularly when they call for elections or referenda believing that they could outsmart the voters and get away with what they want. This was true even in the case of Sri Lanka in 2015. Mahinda Rajapaksa called for presidential elections two years before its schedule and got badly defeated humiliatingly. David Cameron called for the unwarranted Brexit referendum arrogantly and now he himself has to leave the premiership after the defeat. This is also the case in Australia although full results are not yet out at the time of this is written. Malcolm Turnbull called for the parliamentary elections early, calling for stability, and even advised to dissolve the Senate (a double dissolution) believing that he could get away. He is now even in a difficulty in forming a minority government and there will be a more chaotic Senate as a result, no major party commanding a majority. He or more correctly his Liberal Party held 90 seats before and now he has fell below the magic number 76 in a parliament of 150 members to form a stable government.

Australian Voting

The Australian electorate is very much similar to Sri Lanka in terms of the number of voters of around 15 million. However in Australia, voting is compulsory and non-voting at elections without proper reason might put you in jail. In 1996, I almost got into trouble by supporting a ‘conscious objector,’ Albert Langer, who canvassed among voters not to give preferences for major parties. Otherwise, I have always been a Labour supporter. Langer was convicted for violating the Elections Act but then released after an appeal was heard by a full bench Federal Court. He didn’t advocate abstention, but asked voters to give preferences only to a small party or parties by voting 1, 2, 2, 2, …or 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, … This is now accepted as a valid way of voting, if all the necessary boxes are marked. My article appeared in the ‘Human Rights Defender’ (UNSW) titled “Albert Langer: Australia’s First Political Prisoner” and I was modestly gratified to see that someone republished that article recently.

In Australia, voting takes place in different forms – pre-polling, postal vote, absentee voting and proper voting on the polling day. As a result, and for other reasons, counting takes time which is not good for political or economic stability. After completion of the elections on Saturday (2 July), still final results are not known even today (6 July). After counting much of the days voting and pre-polling, on the same day, the counting of the remaining postal votes and absentee votes only commenced yesterday (5 July) apparently because of new security measures. There is a tendency for voters to go for pre-polling which was held throughout a week this time. While the total registered voters are around 15.6 million (95 of the eligible), over 4 million had gone for pre-polling this time. Postal votes and absentee votes would amount to around 1.5 million.

An increasing feature this time is intentional informal (spoiled) voting. This supports our ‘hypothesis’ that voters in the information age becoming restless and cynical about traditional political parties and leaders. In Gilmore, an electorate not very far from where I live, 4,000 have intentionally spoiled their votes, while the so far counted gap between the Liberal and Labour is only a tiny 407 votes. Apart from informally voting for ‘dick and balls,’ some have voted for Harambe, the gorilla who was unreasonably killed in Cincinnati zoo!

A Hung Parliament?

When the first round of counting was completed on Saturday night, the Elections Commission gave the following tentative figures as ‘those who lead’ with all indications of a hung parliament. Labour 71; Liberal/National 67; Greens 1 Katter’s Australian Party 1; Nick Xenophon Team 2; Independents 2; and ‘not yet determined as 6. However, the ABC ‘predictions’ were different giving Liberal/National 68 and Labour 67 considering 10 as undecided. Whatever the way the remaining or undecided 10 seats go, it is clear that no party Liberal or Labour would obtain at least 76 seats to have a majority government in the House of Representatives of 150 members.

Only possibility is the Liberals gaining few more seats out of the ‘undecided’ 10. It is believed that the postal voting, mostly of senior citizens, would tilt towards the Liberals. The situation in the Senate would be much more complicated even if Liberal or Labour managed to form a minority government with the understanding or support of the cross bench. The Liberal/National Party is already a coalition of four parties unlike the Labour Party.

While Australia does not have a proportional representation system for the lower house like in New Zealand or Sri Lanka, to finally elect a candidate for an electoral division, preferential voting is in operation. If a candidate does not obtain an absolute majority (50% <) from the first preferences (primary vote), the other preferences are counted until an absolute majority is obtained. This system ensures MPs with credible support of voters from the respective divisions or seats, but finally the party voting in electorates does not proportionally reflect in Parliament at all. For example, around 25 percent of voters believe to have voted for small parties and independent candidates at the present election. However, their representation will not be proportional and all indications are that only around 6 members (6 percent) will be elected while they may be entitled to over 30 seats, if a proper PR system is in operation.

Many parliamentary systems are moving towards ‘hung parliaments’ not just because of proportional representation (New Zealand) or two major parties usually go neck to neck after a ‘majority government’ (Australia or UK in 2010) but because the voters are becoming increasingly disillusioned of major parties under the current information age. This has been very evident in many state level elections in the country (QLD, NSW, VIC). As the incumbent Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, himself has admitted, ‘There is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government, and with the major parties’ (‘The Huffington Post,’ 5 July 2016). It is true that it is not only a predicament of the Liberals. Even the primary vote of the Labour has become all time low since the end of the war. At this elections, many Labour and Liberal candidates are getting elected only on the basis of second (or third?) preferences.

New Trends

Although the reasons are not clearly identified yet through careful research, some of the trends are evident. What I happened to observe as a human rights issue of Albert Langer in 1996 has enlarged as a common antipathy against major parties. There are hundreds (or even thousands?) of ‘Albert Langers’ today behind the FB, Twitter and the Social Media in general. Of course there are dangers of the situation. The right wing, xenophobia or even racism can get expression through these new channels and opportunities. For example, Pauline Hansen’s One Nation party has come forward again at the federal elections.

However, the situation might not be equated to the 1930s in Europe, in my opinion, which gave rise to fascism. The thinking of the people, particularly the youth, are fairly advanced and democratic. There can be an element of anarchism which is worrying. The technologies are advanced, open and accessible easily and cheaply. Therefore, there are immense possibilities to counter the possible adverse effects and trends.

The reasons why particularly the youth (or even the older voters) prefer small parties or independents can be numerous. Voters are becoming more and more autonomous in this information age. They are interested in diverse issues both national and local. They range from environment to domestic violence, from gay rights to job security in particular industries. The major parties are increasingly becoming incapable of addressing micro and these diverse issues. These are some reasons why the Katter’s Party or the Nick Xenophon’s Team has come forward apart from the Independents and The Greens to fill the emerging vacuums.

Any of the above is not reason to completely abandon or underestimate the importance of the major or traditional parties. They may also need to adapt to the situation through flexible ways, means, policies and manifestos. However, there are clear challenges to the democratic systems and even for the economies. At least in countries like Australia or the United Kingdom or Europe the state structures or administrative arrangements are firmly in place to carry on the day-to-day public services for the benefit of the people. Although it is not well established, even the business sectors are quite used to live with unstable or minority governments. Those uncertainties are not necessarily inimical to democracy. Markets or businesses may have to leave a bigger margin for ‘political instability’ in their strategic planning in the future.

Two Lessons

As John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at ANU, has summarized (ABC News, 5 July 2016):

“The maths are quite clear and I think the social situation in Australia is equally clear. The major parties are losing support, they’re losing membership, they’re having a crisis of identity, and the Australian community has made it clear that they quite like the idea of voting for minor parties and independents.”

The lessons of Australian elections are not only for Australia or for developed countries. These trends of the new information age and increasing autonomous voter behaviour are also the trends in countries like Sri Lanka as became partly evident in the last year’s two elections. These will enlarge in the future. Stability is not something that should be cobbled at the expense of good governance or decency in politics under the circumstances. Two main lessons could be drawn, particularly thinking of Sri Lanka.

First is to strengthen the state/administrative and democratic structures, with professionally trained and competent people, independent of the day-to-day politics, which could withstand any of the instabilities that would emerge in the electorates/elections in the future. This means competent and independent judiciary, public service and the police (also the security forces).

Second is for the civil society and civil society activists to take initiatives and fill the vacuum/s that the electorates create by moving away from the traditional parties in order that the democratic system is stabilized without falling into anarchism or into the hands of xenophobic nationalists.

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