The apathy of the almost 1 million Australians who decided not to enrol to vote stems from problems within the system, not the system itself.
The 23rd of May was the last day people could enrol to vote. Despite numerous campaigns, from both the Government and organisations like GetUp and Enrol4Change, 955,000 people decided not to. About a third of them were young, with half of all 18-year olds failing to fill out the forms. So, just under a million people will not be able to vote at the coming Federal elections. Funnily enough, not everybody is as enthusiastic about this election as the politicians themselves. Ask comedian Dan Ilic, who is currently hitchhiking around Australia, trying to engage Australians in discussions about the election on July 2nd. Most of them are telling him they are “over it,” because they don’t feel politicians are really listening to them. Their solution is the “tick and flick’ approach: go in, tick a box, have a sausage and forget about it for a few years. That is not good news for democracy, but is it understandable? Unfortunately, it is.
Let me count the ways:
First of all, there are the council amalgamations. In August of last year, the Baird government floated a plan to reduce the state’s 152 councils to 112. This, it is said, would save “up to” 2 billion dollars a year and make ruling the state smarter, faster, better. A number of councils would be dismissed as soon as possible, the idea read, fast-tracking amalgamations and forming 19 newly created super councils. Throughout NSW, people got very, very angry. Some of them, because of the content of the plan; most of them because they couldn’t believe the Premier was proposing to sack 400 elected councillors to replace them with unelected administrators. There were protest meetings, petitions and demonstrations. The politicians nodded their heads and said they were listening. And then they did what they wanted to do anyway. As a consequence, NSW voters have been pushed aside until September 2017. Until then, administrators will decide what happens in their council, not the people themselves. There were ugly scenes at the first meeting of the Inner West council, with somebody spitting in the face of administrator Richard Pearson, and others yelling so loudly that the gathering had to be broken up. On Sunday, there was a “March against Mike.” It was a great example of the failure of DAD. Don’t worry, I’ll explain later. First another example.
Last year, the State government floated the plan to move the Powerhouse Museum from Ultimo to Parramatta. This was a good idea, the Minister said, because it was what Parramatta deserved (and selling the inner city site would make the State 200 million dollars, but that was, of course, only a whispered argument). More than 10,000 people signed a petition arguing against the move. Cate Blanchett, Bob Carr and Edmund Capon added some star-appeal to the campaign. Again, the powers-that-be said they were listening. But last month they were nevertheless “very excited” to be able to announce that the move would go ahead and construction would start in 2018.
Then there were the trees on Anzac Parade. They had to be cut down because of the route the new light rail had to take. Once more, people protested. They commissioned new plans, to show that there was no need to touch the trees. They chained themselves to the trunks, sat in front of bulldozers, engaged the media and smaller political parties, tied yellow ribbons around the branches. Transport Minister Andrew Constance said he had “worked with the public” and that the plans would go ahead. Eighty trees have been felled so far, and many hundreds more are going to fall in months to come. Something similar happened in Bondi, when Waverley Council decided to upgrade Bondi Pavilion (with public money) in readiness for a commercial take-over of the public place. Public outcry, a few celebrities (Jack Thompson, Michael Caton, Hoodoo Gurus’ David Faulkner), 707 public submissions, but no change of plan. Just talk of “community consultation.” That is also the buzzword at North Parramatta. The State government recently rezoned the heritage “precinct” to make way for 3,000 apartments, some 24 storeys high. The National Trust, which is responsible for 500 heritage listed buildings in the area, was outraged, and so were community groups. One of the last remaining bits of colonial architecture in the country would have to go, swapping history for money. It does not seem likely that the government will change its mind, though. Because they have put in DAD, and that is enough.
DAD stands for Decide, Announce, Defend, a management strategy used by business and politics alike. It is the top-down version of decision making. You decide what is going to happen, then you announce and defend it. Next, you say something about “community consultation,” which does not mean real consultation or real listening, but ticking the box. Then you can do what you want to do. It is, in short, pseudo-democracy. Which is actually worse than dictatorship, because you pretend that people have a voice where they really don’t. The consequence is always the same: first people get angry, then they get sad and then they give up. If it happens too often, they decide that democracy as a principle does not work. And we’ve seen through history what that can lead to. So before we start blaming the people for opting out of the system (by not enrolling or turning away from election-hype), let’s look at what has caused that behaviour. Then maybe the next step might be to replace DAD with ADD: Announce, Discuss, Decide. Also called real democracy. It might mean that you don’t get your way all the time. But at least you won’t be blowing up the system from the inside.