Sunday, April 8, 2012

A post in three parts III: ‘Politics is not a TV show’

Part 3: ‘Politics is not a TV show’

On Tuesday 3 April, Anne Debert, Senior Producer for Spencer Howson’s Breakfast program on 612ABC Brisbane, called me seeking a view on postal voting for council elections. Apparently, the Lockyer Valley council planned to run the election as a postal vote only, ostensibly to save money and, because they could.  Well, could they we pondered and I agreed to go into the new South Bank studio the next morning to chat with Spencer on air.

I have on my Twitter bio that I am a ‘pro-am’ psephologist because while I am no Antony Green, and my professional expertise is in Japanese and Australian politics, my passion for political analysis extends to just about any vote left standing. Give me a few moments to consider a political question and I’ll endeavour to have a reasonably educated opinion to share. Although I was aware postal voting could occur in some of our state’s more far-flung electorates—mainly to account for distances and small populations—this was the first I’d heard of a medium-sized council (approx. 21 500 enrolled voters) opting for the postal vote only option.

Anne’s question allowed me to indulge one of my secret passions: reading Hansard. Yes, dweeb for a day, I just really enjoy getting into the verbatim documenting of our democratic debate at state and federal levels. I did so prior to internet databases and recall many a quiet afternoon in the bookstacks at UQ’s library tracing my fingers over Hansard spines, seeking out a particular date, or a parliamentary session. I’m one of the few people I know who has indulged in a reading of Quick and Garran’s authoritative account of the constitutional debates of the 1890s. (If anyone is interested in the founding debates of our constitution, it is a book I can’t recommend highly enough.)

But I’ve strayed…turns out, there has been some discussion and debate on reform of council voting since about 2010 when the Law and Justice committee sought submissions on proposals to amend the Local Government Act. A number of amendments were proposed but of key interest was the proposal to give councils the option to arrange, through the Electoral Commission Queensland (ECQ), postal voting only. The bill was passed in August last year (2011) and for this postponed local government election, it turns out that some 30 out 73 Queensland councils are choosing to conduct their elections via postal vote.

Well, I found that to be disappointing. As we went on to discuss on air, the actual physical process of casting one’s vote is an important civic duty for all of us, and certainly one we shouldn’t take for granted. As a student of international relations I have studied too many countries where citizens have had to fight and shed blood for the right to vote. I get a little annoyed when those who have that right can be so nonchalant about it. I find the ritual of going to my local school, aka polling booth for a day, an important aspect of community as we all partake in this quite fascinating and peaceful process of supporting or changing our governments. It was, I suggested, an important aspect of our engagement in our political process.

And then there was ‘the moment’ in the interview. A few posts ago, I noted that lectures can have that ‘unscripted moment’, a comment or question from a student, a quizzical look which can change the direction of the lecture, and leave me pondering on matters in ways I hadn’t considered previously. It is always a good thing. And so it was when Spencer challenged my ‘engagement’ assertion…why not a postal vote, he suggested, in the way we can use our remote control to vote for and against in our TV shows. Well, yes, he had a point. But, I said, politics is not a TV show! And there, dear reader, was the moment. I would hate to see our political engagement reduced to a yes/no button on a screen before us. Yes, there is some discussion about electronic voting, but I would only trust it when one could be guaranteed that you could only vote once, and not often. I don’t envisage that ever being successfully accomplished in my voting lifetime.

So my contemplative moments this week have revolved around the notion that ‘politics is not a TV show’, and nor would I wish it to become one. It has made me more determined in my role as political scientist and teacher that I should redouble my efforts to get people enthusiastic and, yes, more engaged, in our political processes. It is actually never more pressing than now here in Queensland with a government holding an overwhelming majority in a unicameral parliament (WE have to keep the bastards honest!).

Why, it has even given me pause for thought about how I might approach the politics elements of this blog. In my readings of political philosophers through the centuries, I am constantly amazed at just how relevant much of their thinking is today. ‘Reader be aware’…a kind of caveat emptor for the blogosphere. I think I shall preface my political ~ologies with a quote from my library of political philosophers…my guess is that no matter what observation I choose, there is sure to be something of great relevance to be said about politics today.

So thanks Spencer and Anne, and 612ABC. Your contribution to this blog is duly acknowledged. Cheers.