GREG RAY: Lessons in elections


UNIVERSAL suffrage, they call it.

Which makes it sound bloody terrible, like everybody is suffering.

But suffrage is just the right to vote, hence those cheeky suffragettes, the women who threw themselves in front of horses, held up placards and went on sex strikes and hunger strikes to persuade the men in power to give them their fair piece of democracy.

Strange, when you think about it. Lots of people have actually suffered and died for that simple principle, that every adult citizen ought to have at least some little bit of a say in choosing their rulers and the policies under which those rulers will operate.

And yet plenty of people today would prefer not to have to vote at all.

About a fifth of voters in Newcastle and Charlestown gave it a miss last weekend, either because they couldn’t be bothered, objected to the hassle or were confused.

Now, with those non-voters facing $55 fines, there are calls for the fines to be waived and for voting to be made non-compulsory.

On one level, I sympathise with the view. Sometimes you look at the choices on the ballot paper and ask yourself why you bothered to turn up.

And you read the following Monday about the obligatory dirty tricks played by the usual suspects to con people in any number of ways. Copy another party’s colour scheme to fool that party’s supporters into voting your way by mistake. Make your how-to-vote material look like official government advice. Pretend you’re an independent when you and your mates have done deals with somebody who paid for your T-shirts and printing bills.

Maybe voluntary voting would be OK. They have it in the US, and loads of people simply never ever vote. They just assume the elites are going to get what they want anyway, so why waste time queuing half the day?

Mind you, some of those elites work hard to help the “wrong” kind of people decide not to vote. Systematic electoral roll errors in certain neighbourhoods, a lack of voting machines in poor neighbourhoods, voting machines that behave “erratically”, to use a euphemism.

That’s the potential problem with non-compulsory voting: it gradually becomes the exclusive preserve of the better-off, to the point where those who initially chose not to vote as a sort of exercise of freedom find themselves actively discouraged from trying to change their minds.

The other argument against voting is that the same types of people always seem to win. This argument alleges that only pliant party stooges, cutthroat careerists and sly dogs with hidden agendas seek office.

I don’t believe it’s true, although sometimes it seems almost true.

With all this discussion going on, and with the prospect of more elections in the near future, I was fascinated by the argument that blew up in a local school last week.

Some parents complained that, after going to all the trouble of organising an election for school captains, the principal and school executive reportedly vetoed the choices of the student voters and installed their preferred candidates anyway.

What kind of example does this set for the impressionable minds of young school pupils, some correspondents to this newspaper wanted to know.

Let’s face it, the fact is that many schools do similar things. The principals and staff don’t want their student figureheads chosen via a mere popularity contest, and you can see their point.

They argue that their elections for captains are a kind of “guided democracy” where they sort-of make it known who they’d like elected and then trust the voters to produce the desired result. And if the voters don’t get the point and elect somebody else, then they might well get overruled.

Some schools get around it by declaring up-front that teachers and principals get votes that weigh more than the votes of students, so they can swing their result without looking quite so heavy-handed.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for anyone who is allowed to be on a short-list of acceptable candidates if the brutal reality is that they won’t be permitted to win.

What kind of example does this set for impressionable young minds, was the question. Fair preparation for the real world, perhaps, if you think about it.

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