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In praise of our unique democracy and its sausage

Graham Hand  |  26 May 2022Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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At 6pm on Saturday, the polling booths for the Federal Election closed and vote counting started. By 11pm on the east coast, we knew who would be Australia's 31st Prime Minister. By early Monday morning, he was sworn into the top job and by midday, with the new Foreign Minister, he was on his way to Tokyo to attend the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the most powerful heads of the United States, India and Japan.

All in less than two days. Anthony Albanese even had time on Sunday morning to sit with family and supporters at Marrickville Library. He held his dog and smiled for selfies as cars tooted and passers-by shouted "We love you Albo."

You gotta love our process

In the US, the election takes place in early November and inauguration is delayed until 20 January.

Regardless of how anyone feels about the result in the 2022 election, and the subsequent recriminations within the Liberal Party, sit back and consider how Australia is blessed by the best electoral process:

  • We have the right to decide who leads us, a privilege denied to most people in the world.
  • We completely trust the independence and integrity of the Australian Electoral Commission, the agency responsible for organising the election.
  • We are 100% sure that our vote was counted, and one person, one vote.
  • The only threat at the voting booths was enthusiastic and well-meaning volunteers in colourful t-shirts thrusting how-to-vote cards into our hands. Or choking on a sausage.
  • Compulsory attendance ensures maximum participation and forces many people to think about the decision who would otherwise be totally disengaged.

As the former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, said in his concession speech on Saturday night:

"In this country, at a time like this, when we look around the world, and particularly when we see those in the Ukraine fighting for their very freedom and liberty, I think on a night like tonight we can reflect on the greatness of our democracy.”

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No questioning the result. No incitement to storm the capital. No protests on the street. Just some mad commentary on Sky After Dark which few people watch.

At the polling booths, there's almost an obligation, certainly among politicians casting their own vote, to eat a democracy sausage. It's a fine and unique Australian tradition, notwithstanding that it is usually a money-raising exercise for an underfunded public school. It's an amusing nod to an equal and classless society and an acknowledgement of our fine democracy. Social media posts fill with photographs and reports on the best sausages, and the country joins in a national institution as a juxtaposition to the far-reaching and earnest act of voting.

There's no place like home

After his acceptance speech around midnight on Saturday, Anthony Albanese was driven to his home, also in Marrickville. He bought the 1920s house in 2006 for $997,000, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a pool and sitting on 519 square metres. It's not in Vaucluse or Toorak or Peppermint Grove, or overlooking the ocean or the harbour. It's in the same street he moved to when he left his mother's council house in 1990, paying $146,000 for his first home.

It's relatively easy to find where the new Prime Minister lives among neighbours he has known for 30 years. Although Federal Police are now stationed nearby, it looks like any other couple and their dog when they leave the house, although Kirribilli beckons (and he needs a decent front fence).

(Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

We have heard about Albanese's humble, poor upbringing with a single mother on a disability pension. While a country such as the US boasts of its 'Anyone can be President' image, Albanese is an example of how it can really happen in Australia.

The rise of community-based independents

A highlight of the 2022 campaign was the rise of independents, gaining an incredible 12 seats in the Lower House. It's not only the 'teal' candidates who arose from local dissatisfaction with the major parties, especially the Liberal Party and its dysfunctional policies on climate, integrity and gender issues. It included Dai Le, Fairfield's Deputy Mayor, and former Wallaby, David Pocock, who looks like gaining a Senate seat in the ACT.

Cathy McGowan defeated Liberal Sophie Mirabella in 2013 based on local issues, long before the label 'teal' was invented. McGowan now gives lectures to independent candidates on how to manage their campaigns. Andrew Wilkie in Hobart controls 70% of the two-party vote, Rebekha Sharkie in Adelaide Hills has 63% and both Helen Haines and Zali Steggal increased their margins.

The teals and others are no grab-bag of amateurs. Their campaigns were sophisticated and well-funded and they help each other while firmly representing their own constituents. Although Climate 200 provided an average of around 30% of teal funding, all winning candidates demonstrated significant community support and attracted volunteers by the thousand. In total, Climate 200 raised about $12 million from 11,000 donors. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg's successful opponent, Monique Ryan, ran with the Zen Buddhism phrase, 'Chop Wood Carry Water', signifying there's always another vote to win.

The major parties hate it but it is democracy at work. Most of the volunteers had never participated in a political event before, yet they spent their evenings and weekends door knocking, armed with talking points that supported the policies of this new wave of politicians. As Zali Steggal showed, once an independent is in power, they can be difficult to dislodge if they stay close to their community. Money struggles to match this level of grass roots enthusiasm, as Clive Palmer and his $100 million found.

In my own seat of North Sydney, the swing away from the sitting Liberal, Trent Zimmerman, himself a moderate, was about 14%. Here are the Tink volunteers waiting for the results at the Kirribilli Club after spending the day on the booths.

Let's not take democracy for granted

In his final letter to shareholders in 2021 before stepping down, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon wrote:

"Democracies are not normal. Tyranny is the historical norm. If we stopped doing all of the continuous hard work that is needed to maintain our distinctiveness in that regard, we would quickly come into equilibrium with tyranny."

I have previously mentioned the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) in Old Parliament House which is now open again following the fire at the front doors. It's an important reminder of how we need to work to retain the values and features of our democracy.

MoAD includes a terrific exhibition called Truth, Power and a Free Press on the role of the media in exposing corporate crime and government scandals. The exhibition includes this explanation, which large sections of our mainstream media overlooked in the election campaign in favour of trivial, gotcha moments:

"News needs to be trustworthy. Facts need to be reported as accurately as possible ... sometimes it means confronting those who wish to prevent the publication of facts that are in the public interest. Without a shared basis of fact, trust declines and democratic debate withers."

Daryl Karp, a Director of MoAD wrote about an exhibition called Democracy DNA:

"Australia’s democracy is a unique amalgam of institutions and practice adapted from the UK, USA and elsewhere. It’s something we’ve built. It is not innate, nor simply inherited, nor is it fixed in time. It reflects our pragmatism, our mistrust of authority and our willingness to work together. When completed, Democracy DNA will occupy the core, three central spaces in Old Parliament House, encouraging Australians to value our democracy, to understand how it works, see themselves as part of the story; consider how they engage with it, and what they expect from their representative and government." (my bolding)

Where will Albanese take us?

In our Reader Survey on the election a few weeks ago, on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is terrible, two-thirds of our readers rated the quality of political debate at 3 or less. Readers disliked 'lies and deceit', 'scare tactics about policies of other parties', 'media bias' and 'too much focus on gaffes'. Only 1% of respondents accepted nothing is wrong and 'It’s all the ‘cut and thrust’ of a democracy'.

Voters wanted a move from toxic politics. While promises are easy to make on the election trail, Anthony Albanese spoke about the need to change throughout the campaign including in his victory speech. He wants to "change the country and change the way politics operates in this country".

Two surprising statistics about our elections:

  • No Prime Minister has won consecutive elections since John Howard in 2004, and
  • The last time a major party served only one term in government was in 1929.

For all the strengths of our election process, our politicians have divided more than united for at least two decades. As a result, we have a third force in Australian politics as the model for running an independent campaign is now established.

Time will tell if the country and its politics really changed over the weekend. Regardless of whether Albanese hits a snag, our electoral process and the democracy sausage are welcome again in 2025.

is the editorial director of Morningstar Australia.

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