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“The Government of Australia has changed”

| by Laksiri Fernando

( September 9, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) “The Government of Australia has changed” were the first words of victory speech delivered by Tony Abbot, the leader of the Liberal Party (LP) when the results of a majority of seats were clear and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) leader Kevin Ruud, and the outgoing Prime Minister, conceded the defeat. Still the final result is not declared by the Australian Election Commission formally as recounting continues in half a dozen of seats due to close count.

In a conservative swing in Australian politics, it is believed that the composition of the House of Representatives (Lower House) of 150 members would be something like 90 to 55 between the LP (along with the National Party) and the ALP, the rest going for minority parties including the Greens. The elections held on 7 September were not only for the House of Representatives but also to elect one half of the Senate of 76 members, although the formal change would come into effect only in next July.

Voting System

Voting in Australia is compulsory and every voter has to cast it’s preferences in two ballot papers, one to select a Member of Parliament (MP) for the relevant electorate or seat and the other to give a mandate to a preferred party to nominate desirable members to the Senate from the State. I am relating these details for the benefit of those who still aspire for a better electoral system for Sri Lanka and to take some inspiration from the Commonwealth Australia.

Unlike in present Sri Lanka, Australia retains the electorate or the seat system like in the pre-1978 parliamentary system in Sri Lanka. This is one of the most important corner stones of any parliamentary democracy, in my opinion and experience, which has been destroyed for known and unknown reasons under the present Presidential system since 1978. Likewise, a Second Chamber is important for any parliamentary democracy that believes in checks and balances, especially with devolution of power, which was abolished in Sri Lanka in 1972, in an effort to concentrate power in one chamber.

Preferential voting operates in Australia, to select among the contenders in an electorate for the House of Representatives, and among the parties from a State for the Senate. It is not the preferential voting like in Sri Lanka which has led not only to interparty rivalry but interparty killings and political violence in general. To explain the system clearly, at the last elections, I voted in the electorate of Greenway in the State of New South Wales in the following manner.

I have no hesitation to say that I voted for Michelle Rowland from the Labor Party as the first preference (1) for Greenway, but I also had to cast preferences from 2 to 9 as there were altogether nine different candidates. Otherwise, my ballot would not have been counted as valid. The counting system is such that if there is no clear winner with 50% + 1 in the first count, then the other preferences are counted until a clear winner is selected.

The Senate ballot paper was different. It is similar to what JR Jayewardene advocated as the list system in Sri Lanka in 1966, where the party decides the final candidates. There is nothing much wrong in this system to the Senate, if of course the political parties are democratic. I had two options in the ballot paper for the Senate, either to select one party above the line or cast preferences to different parties below the line. I selected the first option, to cast my vote only to the ALP which was predicted to be wiped out in the election, although it was not the case in the final count. Of course I could have voted for the Greens for the Senate, but I strongly sticked to the ALP given its current vulnerability. The ALP managed to retain all former cabinet ministers, and the party was not wiped out in Queensland or in the Western Sydney where I live, as predicted by the opinion polls.

This I have expressed before. I doubt the efficacy of opinion polls except in terms of knowledge or research in a parliamentary democracy. I may be wrong. Opinion polls were almost like party propaganda. When Kevin Rudd took over from Julia Gillard in late June, he was the preferred PM compared to Tony Abbot, according to the polls. Then he came down (or brought down?), and down, and it was even predicted that he would sure to lose his own seat. But he won the seat very comfortably. I am not saying that the opinion polls determine the outcome of elections, but they definitely influence the psyche of the voters or even the parties. In a democracy, opinion polls cannot be controlled or outlawed. But people at least could be better educated not to depend on the opinion polls. Even the ALP got rattled by the opinion polls and some party members got demoralized.

Voter Behaviour

I have known and I have taught that people vote by and large considering three variables, (1) party, (2) issues and (3) candidate/s, not necessarily in that order but the order depending on the voter’s outlook and the country situation. Like in many other countries, there are disillusionments, particularly among young voters about traditional parties. As the ALP was in power since 2007, and at least for the last four years they were fighting among themselves over the leadership, this disillusionment was high. This is something perennial in many left oriented political parties.

In respect of issues, the economy took prominence, the Liberals highlighting the budget deficit and the debt very prominently in the campaign. The ALP effort to emphasise the possible cuts to education, health and social services didn’t work much. The Labor slogan ‘cut, cut and cut to the bone’ didn’t bear fruit especially when the highlighted 70 billion ‘black hole’ was not credible to any decent imagination. Even in his victory speech, the newly elected PM, Tony Abbot, promised that “the carbon tax would go, the boats would be stopped and the budget would be on track for a surplus.” In contrast, the Labor promises or the slogans were too general or abstract.

There were electorates where the outcome became determined by the candidates and this is something I wish to emphasise from experience that needs to be strengthened in Sri Lanka or in any other country. The close synergy between the electors and the elected is necessary. This I would call the Greenway experience.

Greenway Experience

Michelle Rowland of the ALP was elected in 2010 for the first time with a margin over the required 50 per cent by only 0.9 per cent. This time she ran against all the odds of party rift and national issues on the strength of her candidacy, of course with a Labor background, and won with a 3 per cent margin. As she told the media, “I was campaigning from day one after I was elected last time,” to mean that it is the way any MP should have acted when elected for an electorate. This was very clear from our arrival in Blacktown, a year back from another electorate and since then we used to receive her information regularly with her request to contact her in any (public) necessity. In addition, the opposition candidate for the Liberal Party was abysmally weak, without being able to answer basic questions posed by the media and of poor campaigning.
Michelle Rowland, MP
Greenway, with nearly hundred thousand electors, is an 84 square kilometre electorate to the North West of Sydney with several major towns of mixed population. I had the opportunity to talk to over 150 people, over the phone about the election, of course to campaign for Rowland. There were some who refused to talk or point blankly expressed their antipathy for Labor but by and large people were responsive. Even those who expressed misgivings about the Labor policies or the party, they were appreciative of the ‘popular touch’ of Michael Roland. There was no need to introduce the candidate; they all knew her in favour or against.

Some were quick to say, “Yes, I have talked to her,” “Yes, she addressed our meeting,” or “I met her campaigning this morning at the Seven Hills station” etc. Of course there were complains of personal or social nature. One wanted to know whether she could get back his job that was lost due to some redundancy in NSW Railway. One asked whether the Labor could allow the pensioners to draw their pensions abroad. One was complaining about robbery in the neighbourhood, and the police inaction, and many in Toongabbie complained about the lack of a lift at the Sation. Some complained about school bus transport. I was talking to people in Seven Hills, Toongabbie, Pendle Hills, the Ponds and Blacktown areas.

More enlightened ones discoursed about the economic policy, refugee issues, issues of education or hospitals. I was talking to mainly three groups, the Tamils (both Indian and Sri Lankan), the Indians in general and a mixed group including traditional Australians. I am not sure whether there was any category called Sinhalese but some Sinhalese names came under Tamils or Indians.

What I have to emphasise is the most systematic way that the campaign was organized by the Rowland’s Office in Seven Hills and given to the volunteers like me to campaign. There were many volunteers, and in addition to telephoning there were doorknocking, mailing and poster campaigns which I was not involved. My involvement of telephoning also was limited due to health reasons. Rowland herself telephoned the voters with a daily target of 50 per day.

I went as Lucky. This was the name I was called from my first day in the Labor office. No one asked or worried about my actual identity. I had only to reveal my full name if it was asked, by my old compatriots recognizing my accent over the phone. There were other lighter moments. Once I had called the Christian Democratic candidate for Greenway and quite a seasoned one! He was extremely polite, but gave me a long sermon explaining the differences between the policies of Labor and the Christian Democrats which I decided to humbly listen.

There is no need to say that the election was held, as always, peacefully and thus the campaigning was allowed until the last moment. Only disturbing scenes on TV were due to the heckling of both Liberal and Labor leaders by some refugee advocates during the election campaigns. It may be relevant to quote from the concession speech delivered by Kevin Rudd as it would have a message for a country like Sri Lanka in terms of authentic democratic values.

“Tonight is the time to unite as the great Australian nation. Because whatever our politics may be we are all first and foremost Australian. And the things that unite us are more powerful than the things that divide us which is why the world marvels at Australia.”

“This country which can manage its political differences peacefully and conduct the most vigorous of debates peacefully and resolve our politics peacefully and with civility, that is why this country is such a great country is such a great country. And that in this marvellous tapestry of modern Australia, the mosaic of our multicultural nation that with fashion such unity out of diversity, therein lies the great Australian miracle.”

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