Counting today (a cold Wednesday morning here in Australia), it’s four days until citizens of Australia troop off to polling booths (usually known as school or town halls) to vote for the next Federal Government. I’m not going to bore you with the whys and wherefores of the federal system of government or the fact we had a double dissolution (sounds delicious, doesn’t it, like what happens when you add extra sugar to a pot of bubbling jam, but believe me, it’s a lot more complicated than that)., If you want a quick lesson on the Australian system of government, try this site. Suffice to say on Saturday Australian voters will do their best to elect the best women and men to represent them in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
How, I hear you ask, can a blog about creative and reflective writing, a site that spruiks the benefits of therapeutic writing, shift into politics? In answer, I suggest my country is feeling poorly and I’m writing about the election in the hope I might help make us feel better. I know it will help me.
How is Chicago the Movie like the Australian Election?
The election campaign has lasted for eight weeks, making it one of the longest we’ve endured. That means light relief is in order. One of my favourite musicals, Chicago, was a feature of last Saturday’s movie program on the SBS. I think it ably illustrates the election campaigns of the major parties as they attempt to win voters to their side. (In some ways Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an avowedly Australian movie, might have been a better choice, though I’m not sure Malcolm Turnbull could have played Bernadette Bassinger as well as did Terence Stamp. I think Bill Shorten, however, would have been a splendid Adam Whitely). So, dear reader, please bear with me because, as Billy Flynn (played in Chicago by Richard Gere) says, the aim of the game that Malcolm and Bill are playing is to…
…Give ’em the old razzle dazzle
And that, folks, is what we’ve had. Electioneering means photo opportunities; policy launches (late in the campaign, which make no sense to me and many of my compatriots); media interviews ad nauseum; and, if you’re lucky a chance to speak to your candidate (although, as my Dad used to advise, I won’t hold my breath waiting for them to knock on my door).
I did attend a forum last week, organised by the nascent Arts Party (created, in part, as a response to radical cuts to Arts funding). Four local candidates (excluding one from the current government) answered questions and talked about their parties’ policies concerning the arts. It might be hard to believe, but despite a goodly number of arts practitioners in the audience, there was no razzle dazzle; most voters don’t appreciate being beguiled into voting for a particular candidate. At the forum, each candidate obviously respected the articulate, well informed audience and each other. They used clear language and made thoughtful, considered contributions. It was an example of how I believe election campaigns ought to be run. Billy Flynn says,
Long as you keep them way off balance,
How can they spot you’ve got no talents?
But does that work? As well as resenting the razzamataz of modern campaigning, many voters dislike being spoken down to, treated as if they’re ignorant, harangued, berated and, as has been a feature of the last week of this campaign, exposed to scare mongering.
Because the System works, the System Known as Reciprocity
One of my favourite Chicago songs is ‘When you’re Good to Mama’, sung by the splendid Queen Latifah. Mama’s morals are, like almost everyone in the story, questionable but her song is a perfect opportunity to discuss the double-sided nature of politics.
First, like many countries, Australia isn’t immune from shonky political deals that undermine the well-being of the community. Hidden donations that exploit the system are rife. This system of reciprocity means those with money become default decision makers who influence both policy and candidates, including how those candidates vote once they win a seat in parliament.
Reciprocity has another facet: it’s about relationships characterised by mutual interdependence and interchange. It need not imply ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ but how two or more parties negotiate difficult situations. Democracy relies on understanding reciprocity (from the Latin ‘reciprocus‘, moving backwards and forwards). Nowhere in this definition is money mentioned, though reciprocity implies exchange, which, in a democracy, is vital. The party who wins the majority is, it could be argued, beholden to the minority who, in turn and as an act of faith have to believe their rights won’t be disregarded when significant decisions of state are made. If this form of trust is broken, democracy fails. Too many Australian politicians believe the ‘other side’ don’t deserve a voice. Those voters are indirectly seen as losers, or worse, they ‘wasted’ their vote. I don’t believe this combative, oppositional attitude is an inherent feature of democracy but is instead simply arrogance and hubris.
One of the more moving songs in Chicago is performed by John C. Reilly who plays Amos (not Andy!) Hart. Too many Australians feel like Mr Cellophane:
Everyone gets noticed, now and then,
Unless, of course, that personage should be
Invisible, inconsequential me!
Should have been my name
’cause you can look right through me
Walk right by me
And never know I’m there!
In Australia Mr (or Ms) Cellophane includes our indigenous people, LGBTI voters (who may have to suffer the devastation and ignominy of having their relationships analysed, criticised and pilloried should Bernadette Bassinger, sorry, Malcolm Turnbull’s, LNP win the election and spend our taxes on a pointless plebiscite), people with disabilities, and people living in poverty. And then there’s the inmates of Australia’s offshore concentration camps, asylum seekers whose blood is on the hands of both Australia’s major political parties.
I Can’t Do it Alone
Which brings me to my penultimate point; we mustn’t forget the two main protagonists in Chicago got away with murder, and they didn’t do it alone. There is an old saying that we get the politicians we deserve, in the same way the good citizens of the Chicago depicted in the movie got the justice system they deserved. This is where, as a writer I could trot out tiresome conceits about apathy, voter fatigue and the lack of education that keeps the electorate ignorant of the possibilities and drawbacks of democracy. But none of these excuses go deep enough, none of them really address the malignancy that seems to be spreading through Australia’s body politic. Nor do I have an answer to our problems; better minds than mine struggle to find a cure and political commentators resort to hyperbole, metaphor and exaggeration in an attempt to understand Australia’s malaise. They are no closer than our politicians to building a better democracy and a more compassionate and reciprocal Australia.
What I do have is story: back in the 1990s I worked, during several elections, as a polling officer. This involved managing the queue, ensuring voters understood why they were waiting, assuring them their turn would come and ensuring the elderly and disabled had ease of access. I also checked voters off the roll, handed them their voting slips and directed them to voting booths. I counted each precious vote at the end of the day, tallied numbers for our polling place and delivered the carefully packed box of completed voting papers to the local electoral office. It usually meant a 10 hour day, but it felt like I was doing something useful for my country; only once did a voter swear at me and, without filling it in, throw the ballot paper back in my face. I’m not sure who he confused me with because electoral officers are not politicians; they are usually retired teachers, public servants or, more recently, university students looking for work.
During one election I saw a small group of young voters had their names checked at another table and were heading towards a booth. This was unusual; it’s expected voters mark the ballot paper in private. I noticed an old woman among the group. She walked slowly towards the booth. She was Vietnamese, probably one of the many ‘boat people’ who fled Indochina and managed to reach Australia in the late 1970s. In order to vote, possibly for the first time in her life, she had become an Australian citizen. She walked into the booth like a woman who had crossed a desert in search of an oasis. One of her grandchildren explained the voting slips to her and then left her to cast her vote. The pride she and her family displayed as they left the polling place was palpable. It seemed, that day, as if the machinations of our democracy, our electoral system and the vexations of finding the time, on a Saturday morning, to vote were stilled so that one dignified, proud voice be heard.
Our politicians can’t do democracy (and can’t ruin democracy) alone. In Chicago Velma makes a desperate appeal to Roxie to join Velma’s once double, now single act. The performance, says Velma, is ‘swell with two people’. So, I suspect, is democracy but there are more than two people in Australia and for our act to work we need to dance the democracy tango together.
At the end of the movie, after she and Velma present their double act, Roxy says,
Thank you! Believe us, we could never have done it without you.
It is a telling line. We need our politicians to represent us and they need us to tell them how we want to be represented. Democracy is more than just voting. It’s asking those we vote for to stand in for us and act on our behalf. But we need to make sure they do so in the best possible way. If you’re an Australian and can vote on Saturday it’s worth thinking, as you approach the oasis that is a polling booth, about who will represent you. It’s not about, as the media seem to want us to think, who is the best at politicking, it’s about who can advocate, over the next three years, for our beliefs and needs. If you can do that, I imagine even Bernadette Bassinger would approve.