The compulsory voting argument cropped up again last week, playing out in its usual way. One group of people arguing that ignorant people are ruining democracy by voting even if they don’t know enough or care enough; the other group of people arguing something about democracy and duty and collectivism or something. Both sides are wrong: compulsory voting is good because the people who reckon they’re informed voters are the worst voters of all and need to be kept in check by the people who know that they don’t know anything.
And this gets me neatly to the core argument of this post: stop talking about policies during election periods.
‘But, Mark!’ I hear you shout from across time and space, ‘Don’t you complain that the quality of policy debate in contemporary politics? Haven’t you repeatedly chided journalists for being too ignorant to keep citizens sufficiently informed to participate in political debate? Aren’t you constantly griping that nobody knows as much about anything as you do, you pompous sack of contrarian gas?’
You make some very good points, but you’re still wrong.
Having worked in and been an adviser in three areas of public policy, I know that there’s not enough information in the electorate for people to make an informed decision about which party best represents their interests. So for policy areas where I’m not an expert (the vast majority of them), I know that I almost certainly don’t have enough info to make an informed decision about whose policy is best.
This creates an obvious puzzle: is there anybody in Australia who is sufficiently knowledgeable in every area of policy such that they could make an informed decision when they go to the ballot box?
It also creates another, less obvious puzzle: what if I like Party A’s policy on this, but Party B’s policy on that? How should I order my priorities such that I can express my democratic will at the ballot box?
And then you get to the big, dark, terrible problem at the heart of policy debate: the people with the most amount of power in the election period — the people who can coerce journalists to spend weeks sitting on a goddamn bus or flying across the country to ‘follow’ the campaigns — are the people with the least incentive to give the electorate any information. Politicians have one and only one goal during an election: to tell voters that everything they already know is 100% correct, good, and righteous, and that the world will fall apart if the other team wins. ‘You’re doing it tough; under my team’s policy you’ll be a bit better off somehow.’
That’s why most of the policy announcements are ‘Buckets of Cash’ policies. ‘If we win, you get a bucket of cash! If we win, this group of people you care about will get a bucket of cash! If we win, this group of people you suspect are evil will have a bucket of cash taken off them!’
Connecting the above dots, we get an indisputable truth: anybody who goes to the ballot box thinking that they’re making an informed choice is deluded or a liar. I live in a world where newspaper cartoonists think that they know more about a policy area than the people who work on that policy. We live in a demented, topsy-turvy, broken world where ignorant people are constantly reassured by the media that they’re savvy, switched on, connected, and engaged.
This might all sound depressing and grim, but it’s really not. Instead, it can lead to a better kind of politics. Instead of asking yourself ‘Which political party has the policies that I like best?’, ask ‘Which political party can lead public discussion of public policy in the way that I want, and which of the candidates for my seat will best represent my voice in those debates?’
Because we’re living in a demented, topsy-turvy, broken world, we have parties that don’t present good value propositions. Our parties are good at sledging each other, but when it comes time for a political party to explain itself to the public, we get mediocre and hollow slogans. ‘My party is about fairness and equality. It’s about a fair go for people who are struggling. It’s about being against the elites.’
Our political leaders no longer have the courage to say — outside of little-read pamphlets and sanctimonious ‘non-fiction’ works like A Letter to Generation Next — what philosophy defines them. The Greens — whom you’d suspect would be the best at this — are so utterly divided between State branches that they can’t comprehensively deny the charge that they’re all secretly communists. The Liberal Party struggles to make the case that it’s the party of the individual, and the ALP has an on-again, off-again affair with social democracy.
And yet these platforms should be one of the bases of your vote. Which party best embodies the political philosophy I think best for Australia?
The other basis for your vote should be the quality of your local candidate. I hate to say it (because I dislike him) but Turnbull’s leadership has been good for the Party. There has been an amazing bloodletting over the past year, with some of the deadwood being cleared away for new growth. Unfortunately, the Liberal Party membership appears to be a lightning rod for terrible people and so the new growth coming up is looking pretty bad.
No matter how good I think Turnbull has been for the Party generally, I’m still never going to vote for Zed Seselja in the Senate. He is bad people. Even if I thought the Liberal Party best reflected my political intuitions, I still wouldn’t vote for Zed Seselja. I do not trust him to lead debate.
It’s for this reason that I find it weird so many people argue against focusing on personalities during the election campaign. Part of the electorate’s decision is whether or not they trust the candidate to represent them in parliament. Do I think this candidate would take my concerns seriously when I send them a letter? Do I think this candidate would be more inclined to listen to me or somebody that I think is incompetent? If we’d focused more on personalities during election periods, maybe the ALP wouldn’t have offered us Mark Latham as a potential Prime Minister.
So this election, ignore the policies and focus on the Really Big Thing (political philosophy) and the Really Petty Thing (the personality of your local candidates).