September 30, 2004
The Australian election rapidly approaches. For those of us exiled from the motherland thanks to ruinous high marginal tax rates, we have the option of voting any time. Indeed the nice lady from the AEC informed me that Hong Kong is the second biggest polling booth overseas after London. And so it is time to make a decision.
Firstly some history. As a lad I grew up in a household where free thinking was encouraged. Despite being firmly ensconced in a bastion of blue-ribbon Liberal-hood, my folks were always keen to support the underdog, being either the Natural Law Party or the erstwhile Save A Life A Day Party. The Labor Party might have been a long running joke (save those golden few years of Keating-ism) but the Liberal Party was worse: they were solicitors rather than unionists and thus a far more worrying proposition. This combined with attendance at a "socialist" (Gucci and champagne variety) Jewish youth group which was short on substance but long on substances firmly entrenched my views in the left hand column...to some extent. Somewhere deep inside me the capitalist pig-dog had always been strong and my worship for all things Mammon meant on certain issues I titled to the right instead. Thus I entered that blurry period known as university as a socially liberal but economically conservative actuary in training. The world was my oyster and I didn't even like shellfish.
From that blessed moment that I earned the right to vote, I faithfully stuck with the Labor party for the first few times. Hawke-y was likable enough and not screwing things up to badly and the best the Liberals could offer were Peacock and, mum, Howard. Then came the Keating/Henson contest, which was a spectacular story of political suicide by the Liberals. I met my wife and he imposing 6 foot 4 inch father, full of Hungarian incredulity that anyone could ever vote Labor. I think he likes me because even though he saw me as a Communist (in the very worst sense of the word) he didn't bash me into next week when we first met. Indeed amongst their friends I became something a novelty, the token Labor-item in a sea of Liberalism.
Then came the Howard GST election and suddenly I found myself slowly dragged to the siren call of proper tax reform despite his social conservatism. For the first time in my life, in the confines of that curtained booth, I was ticking the box for Liberals. In a dreamlike state I dropped the ballots in their box, safe in the knowledge that it was a once-off that could be corrected three years hence. Unfortunately Labor then did its level best to make itself unelectable, going into the next election with big Kim Beazley and very little in the way of policy. Then of course came the events of September 11, which redefined the lines of politics forever. Right and left have come to mean different things from times past, and I found myself firmly in the "right" camp on the wars on terror and Iraq.
Before I go on I must digress for a minute for the benefit on non-Australian readers. In the Golden Land our elections are based on a Parliamentary system: we vote for a local representative and a separate vote for the Senate, based on party lists. The party with the majority of House of Representative seats takes power; the Senate is voted for with each state as an electorate, thus usually leaving the Democrats (a motley crew whom at one stage threatened to become a legitimate party until they kicked out the one leader who had any sense, Meg Lees) with the balance of power and disproportionate say over the running over the country. In each case votes are based on a preferential system. So for your local rep there may be 5 candidates, which you number from 1 to 5 in order of preference. Whichever candidate has the least number 1 votes is eliminated and those votes second preferences are distributed amongst the others, and the process is repeated until there's a winner. What this tends to mean is regardless of whom you vote for, the key is whether you put the Liberal or the Labor candidate as the higher number.
And so finally we come to this election. For once Australia actually has a reasonable choice to make. The Labor party (narrowly) opted for Mark Latham, a fiery type but an ideas man and one with great potential if only he could ignore opinion polls for a few minutes. On the other hand is John Howard, whom is now 9 years in and not likely to see out the term before handing off to his deputy, Peter Costello. Much like the US election, Howard has staked out the hawkish war on terror stance, whereas Latham at least has had the sense (John Kerry, are you listening?) to argue that Iraq is a sideshow and more resources need to be deployed closer to home to fight against terror (I disagree with the view, but at least its a semi-valid argument). Thanks to years of good fiscal management plus an economy that seemingly can defy gravity forever, both parties have a Federal Budget with surpluses and debt under control. This makes a marked contrast to the US case. The Liberals can argue they have been competent economic managers, although Labor from times past have an equally valid claim. Now the parties are spending like drunken sailors in the usual sops to key interest groups, but a totem of Australian politics (wrongly) remains not to let the Budget slip into deficit.
The reality there is very little difference between the two parties when it comes to the economy. Interest rates will likely rise slightly regardless of who wins. The economy seems likely to continue on it gentle rising path, a housing bust notwithstanding. And as a small trading nation Australia will remain economically hostage to the winds of growth and the vagaries of oil prices. In times past this would have meant the election would have switched to focussing on those domestic mainstays: health and education (although largely a State responsibility). But this time is different. There is a war going on. The two parties have made their stances relatively clear. Latham's silly promise to withdraw Australia's small Iraq force by Christmas blew his chance to shut the issue down. So that combined with the Liberals' reasonably solid track record mean they are more likely to get my vote.
BUT it isn't that simple. Amazingly my cast-iron blue-ribbon stretch of electorate has turned into a marginal electorate. This is due simply to a rich merchant banker's ham-fisted efforts to push out the sitting Liberal member, succeeding in stealing the endorsement by massive branch stacking and pissing off large chunks of the voting public. Combine the Australian tall-poppy syndrome with the displaced candidate's quixotic decision to run as an independent and the seat, for the first time in over 100 years, will actually be close. Ironically just when my vote matters the Liberal candidate repulses me, clearly seeing the seat as a stepping stone to greater things rather than showing any interest in the needs of the community he will theoretically represent.
And thus it is highly likely I will split my vote this time around. Nothing makes a party take notice of a seat, especially a previously safe one, than losing it. So I'm likely going to vote for Peter King, preferencing the Labor lackey ahead of Malcolm Turnbull. I might agree with him on the republic, but otherwise I cannot stand his imperial manner and brute force political tactics. I think I'm doing the Liberal Party a favour: the last businessman they elected in Wentworth snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. However for the Senate I am likely to vote for the Liberals. I hate Howard's social conservativism but admire his economic credentials, and I fervently hope that in 18 months time Peter Costello will assume the reigns and lead the party back to the centre on social issues as well.
I keep saying likely for one very good reason: in all political campaigns the unexpected often happens and swings the vote. In these modern times that is more likely than ever, especially both on the security front and the economic front.posted by Simon on 09.30.04 at 06:19 PM in the
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"...in all political campaigns the unexpected often happens and swings the vote."
Do you think this is true? I am not sure if I have really ever seen evidence of this in other countries' elections (other than the Florida voting ballot extravaganza). Generally, from the sidelines, a lot of elections look very clear-cut, and indeed in many countries where you vote for the party and not the candidate, it seems there are almost never any surprises.
But you're a good lad for absentee voting. I should get my ballot in the mail any day now.posted by: Helen on 09.30.04 at 07:20 PM [permalink]
Helen, This is an unusual election in Simon's electorate. The result will be almost totally party independant due to a long story involving bloodletting, Machiavellian intrigue, bribery, corruption (hey let's throw in sex and porn as well) etc bewteen two members of the governing party.posted by: da on 10.01.04 at 09:46 AM [permalink]
I'm proud to say you are a chip off the old block. Scary when you actually agree with your adult child and for all the same reasons. Is this nature versus nurture, nuture versus nature or something even more spookey?posted by: ma on 10.01.04 at 10:04 AM [permalink]
My God, if both of you are agreeing with me, I might need to reconsider. You see Helen, these are the kind of unexpected events I was talking about.posted by: Simon on 10.01.04 at 10:21 AM [permalink]
As a left leaning anarchist I have followed your logic and understand your conclusion. However i am disappointed that, as an actuary, you have neglected to do a risk analysis. Who to vote for local has been well canvassed. The question in the Senate is who do you think will win the lower house? Once you answer that question you vote for the oppose in the Senate. Unless... If Labor wins and the Libs control the Senate will they do a Fraser and bring down the government. On the othe rhand it is impossible for Labor to control the Senate. The Greensare as nutty as the Democrats. Conclusion. A vote for Labor in the Senate is a vote to continue the good times.