How Aussies do politics

Now that I’ve got Australians in the family, I take a particular interest in that particularly interesting land. Australian journalist John Barron offers an amusing and instructive comparison of how our two countries run elections. The Washington Post article is entitled Elections? Here’s How You Do It, Mate.

Down under, campaigns last just six weeks. Everybody must vote under penalty of law (a $20 fine), so there is no question of turnout or stirring up the base. This cuts down on the extremist rhetoric. On moral issues, members of parliament give a “conscience vote,” in which the party may not dictate how members must vote, which prevents one party from monopolizing moral issues. The bottom line, according to Mr. Barron, is that picking one’s governmental leaders is like picking which accountant you want to do your taxes.

Would any of that work here? Should it?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • fwsonnek

    I dont understand the conscience vote part of your post. please say more.

  • fwsonnek

    the link did not work for me.

  • http://heresyhunter.blogspot.com Bob Hunter

    Same thing in Canada, where I’m from. Sure beats the 2 year campaigns here!

  • fwsonnek

    ok . i found the link but did not find anything about the moral conscience vote. how does that work?

  • Joanna Hensley

    From the article on conscience voting:

    If ever an issue such as stem cell research or the “morning-after” contraceptive pill RU-486 should come before parliament, the law is determined by what’s called a “conscience vote.” All members of parliament are free to vote as their conscience dictates; they aren’t bound by the policy of their political party. The prime minister’s vote has no greater value than the most junior local member’s. And there’s no power of veto. Majority rules — and because we all voted, fair enough, mate.

  • Joe

    Forcing people to vote is a bad idea. First, voting is a right and as with all rights one is free to chose not to exercise it. Second, encouraging uninformed people to vote is really really dumb. Why on earth would you want people who are not going to pay attention or actually educate themselves to vote. Of course, you can’t do anything to stop them from voting but encouraging them to vote is just stupid.

    As for the moral issue question, that comparison breaks down here doesn’t it? No Democrats are forced to vote pro-choice and no Republicans are forced to vote pro-life. See e.g. Rudy. But the bigger problem is who gets to decide if it is a moral question? Is there anything a gov’t does that could not be wrapped in the language of morality? Where is the line and who draws it.

  • Eric

    Should everything be a right? What about the obligations of being a citizen of the body politic.

    We enjoy the rights and freedoms granted by our founding documents, but what do they obligate us too? We are obligated to follow the law and pay taxes.

    What is the old saw. “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” The IRS probably says the same thing about taxes. We do enjoy the right to lobby for changes and practice civil disobedience. These methods obligate us to spend time (money) or suffer consequences.

    Why not make choosing our leaders, local and national, an obligation for enjoying rights and freedoms.

    After we do this can we bring back monthly Saturday Militia days?

  • Don S

    I would be interested in a six week campaign, but I don’t see how you enforce it without trampling on candidates’ and citizens’ 1st Amendment rights even more than we currently do. Other countries do not enjoy 1st Amendment rights, so it is easier to implement something like a 6 week limitation.

    I agree with Joe — compulsory voting is a horrible idea. We have enough problems with uninformed voters, duped by dishonest campaigns and complicit media, diluting and negating the votes of citizens who care enough to educate themselves on the issues and to cast a thoughtful ballot. We don’t need voters who are casting a ballot solely to avoid a fine.

    Aren’t all of our legislators supposed to always cast a “conscience vote”? “Mavericks” like Chuck Hagel are always praised by the press for bucking the Republican party principles (not so much for guys like Joe Lieberman on the other side of the aisle). And how would such a principle be enforced? If a democrat were to vote pro-life on an issue, despite “conscience vote” protections, he would certainly see his favorite pork projects slashed, no doubt because of a sudden need to cut the budget.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Far more scary than the “conscience vote” is the situation that occurs otherwise; your “representative” in Parliament would seem to be bound to the official position of his/her party. Is that fair, Joanna?

    If I understand this correctly, that would seem to imply that between elections, writing your MP about issues that matter to you could well be a pretty pointless exercise. Scary.

    And I hate the idea of mandating voting; if someone doesn’t care enough to educate themselves and get themselves to the polls, I really don’t want them casting a ballot.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    N.B. Don S (@8), Lieberman is an independent, and has been for a year, though he caucuses with the Democrats.

    Also, I easily found an op-ed in the New York Times praising Lieberman’s independence. Care to cite instances of the press “prais[ing]” the same in Chuck Hagel?

  • Don S

    tODD, my point was that “conscience voting” is a sham. Implementing it in Congress would serve no purpose. Those who vote their conscience in a party whose principles are not in agreement with such a vote are going to face consequences. They can’t be shielded from them. They are going to lose their earmarks, lose committee positions, or lose the support of their party in the next election, as Joe did, in effect. These consequences are not typically directly and publicly linked to the “conscience vote”, because of political considerations, but they follow as sure as day follows night.

    My point in contrasting Hagel and Lieberman was that I believe the Republican Party does tolerate “conscience voting” a lot better than the Democrat Party does. There are a lot of pro-abortion Republicans, for example, but very few pro-life Democrats, and Democrats who start out pro-life, like Al Gore, are quickly disciplined into a more “correct” way of thinking. Our vaunted Fourth Estate likes Republican mavericks, but is not so hot on Democrat mavericks.

    The example you cited is not a New York Times editorial. It is an op-ed contribution (essentially a column) by a Republican (former Dole staffer). It’s a token Republican piece in the Times, and most certainly does not reflect the opinions of the NYT editorial board.

    As far as the Chuck Hagel example is concerned, if you don’t think the good senator from Nebraska has gotten consistently positive and outsized coverage in the media largely because he is a Republican office holder who is consistently willing to criticize the Republican administration and Republican positions, particularly on the war on terror and Iraq, then I don’t think I will be able to convince you by citing all of the articles. However, here is one glowing example from the beloved NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/12/magazine/12hagel.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Don S (@11), it seems that you think the Republicans tolerate “conscience voting” more than Democrats because you’re focusing on abortion. If you even consider the Iraq War, I believe you’ll find the diversity among Democratic members of Congress is not so different from that among Republicans (Biden?). Less divisive topics show a greater amount of “tolerance”. Similarly, arm-twisting and “discipline” is not unknown among Republicans (DeLay’s “hammer”, late-night extended voting sessions, etc.)

    As for the New York Times article I cited, I said it was an op-ed. And while it doesn’t reflect the opinions of their editorial board as such, it does so as much as any other non-editorial piece — that is, they chose to run it. That said, your counterpoint — an article in the New York Times Magazine written by someone who also doesn’t work at the Times (though he once did) is no more indicative of the editors’ positions than an op-ed would be.

    I’m not arguing that Hagel isn’t the subject of puff pieces — clearly, he is. No, I’m arguing that you may have a bias that prevents you from taking into account, for example, the disproportionate number of times that Sens. Biden and Lieberman have appeared on Sunday morning talk shows, compared to, say, the more numerous, more stridently anti-war Democrats. What you perceive as a liberal bias I see as a bias towards “mavericks” of all stripes, because, to our media, that is “news”.

    At least we agree that implementing “conscience voting” here would be pointless. (Though myself, I think so because, yes, there would be consequences anyhow, and also because our representatives are not bound to their parties anyhow.)

  • Don S

    Yes, tODD, we do agree, at heart, that “conscience voting” is pointless. However, I think it is probably as pointless in Australia as it is here, because in any political body you are going to be held accountable for your votes. It’s a “feel good” policy that any politician would be foolish to take at face value. There will always be a cost for standing up for your moral convictions.

  • allen

    As I understand it, in a parliamentary government, if a member votes against the party line, he is liable to be expelled from the party, thereby losing his seat, since in a parliamentary system, voters vote for the party, not the person. I know there are different types of parliamentary systems, so perhaps this is not always the case. A vote of conscience would be for things like the death penalty, abortion, divorce, euthanasia, cloning, riding to hounds – stuff like that there. As to how a decision is reached regarding exactly which votes would be votes of conscience, I’m guessing the Prime Minister would decide when the cabinet had reached a consensus.

  • Joanna Hensley

    Bike Bubba, I quoted the article so fwsonnek could see where it talks about conscience voting. Your beef isn’t with me.

  • Australian

    Here’s how it works:

    The conscience vote is on moral issues and protects the MP from any coercion of his conscience either from his party or his constituents. We are talking here about representative democracy, remember, not a plebiscite system, although a mechanism for referenda exists at the discretion of the government of the day. There is nothing to prevent a group of people lobbying parliament for a referendum on any particular issue, but the decision is in the hands of the government.

    Voting is indeed viewed in our participatory democracy as an obligation, hence its compulsory nature.
    In practice, it seems to increase interest in politics rather than facilitating a dumbing down of political discourse. I certainly haven’t noticed that the Australian system contributes to any greater impoverishment in the life of the body politic than is evident in the USA.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Joanna– my apologies if it seemed as if I had a beef with you. I was rather trying to address the question to you who would probably know better than I about the matter at hand.

    But if what I read on Wiki, and from Allen, is representative, I must confess to severe reservations about parliamentary systems. While it would have the good effect of forcing parties to have consistent stands (no “RINOs” in parliament, so to speak), it would simultaneously grant enormous power to party leaders–and given where party leaders seem to want to take us here, I don’t know that I want that.

  • Australian

    Bike Bubba,

    The Westminster parliamentary system which we operate with actually has built-in mechanisms that limit the power of party leaders and prime ministers (and the organisational political parties and their parliamentary wings are actually separate entities as well).
    Policy is formulated in cabinet, and then has to be argued on the floor of the party room, where every member has a say, and then has to pass both houses of parliament before becoming law. Minor parties and independents in the senate often then have the power to call for amendments of legislation in order for it to get their vote and pass. Then it has to be signed into law by the constitutional head of state, in our case the governor-general, representing the Queen. Bear in mind that the Australian people have proved historically reluctant to grant a majority to one party in both houses of parliament, which checks the power of the government of the day. Further, a prime minister is just that, first among equals, and has no power of veto like the US president. The governor-general is not party-political.

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