Pre-polling does not spell the end of democracy

Simon Cowan

13 May 2019 | CANBERRA TIMES

If you were a naysayer, the unprecedented level of pre-poll voting for this year’s federal election, combined with the relative disinterest in the leaders’ debates, could be yet further entries in the folder marked “the failure of democracy.”

The live broadcast of the first leaders’ debate was the 19th most-watched show on free-to-air television that night, with just 415,000 people tuning in. And though this is a very high result for a multichannel broadcast, the fact that it was on 7Two rather than the main channel in most capitals is damning itself.

That 667,000 voters tuned in to the main 7 channel to watch Home and Away instead says a lot.

It’s a far cry from the 3 million who watched Abbott and Gillard debate in 2010, or the 1.5 million who watched Rudd and Abbot in 2013.

Anecdotally, there is a sense of exhaustion with this election campaign, even though it’s only a couple of weeks old. No doubt in part this stems from the feeling of perpetual campaigning and inherent instability of minority government — something Australia has experienced several times in recent years.

Though neither convenience nor frustration are legitimate reasons to pre-poll in Australia, in the current environment it is perhaps easy to understand why increasing numbers of voters choose to effectively opt out of the election early and pre-poll.

AEC data compiled by the parliamentary library shows that, with 12 days to go to the election data, pre-polling had almost doubled over 2016. Nor is the historical trend promising in this regard: pre-polling seems to be increasing exponentially, having almost doubled at this same stage in each of the previous 3 elections.

But an increase in pre-polling is not, by itself, inherently negative.

There is no doubt that upwards of 1.5 million voters casting their vote prior to the last week of the campaign (on current trends) will have an effect on future campaigns.

Parties will have to lay out more of their election platform earlier in the campaign, which will allow both for greater analysis of the issues in the media, and for the parties to more robustly test each other’s claims and costings.

It will also reduce the effectiveness of baseless scare campaigns launched in the last week of the campaign, where they can be difficult to combat with facts. It is bound to make the leadership debates more interesting as well.

There is merit in everyone voting on the same day, in possession of the same facts, but there is also something to the idea that voters will form a fuller picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the parties’ platform over the course of three years. Not every last minute decision is a sound one.

However, in a broader sense it is true that opinion polls continue to show declining trust in democracy, especially among young voters, both in Australia and in the western world more generally.

Voters report frustration that politicians are not accountable for broken promises, that politicians don’t deal with things that actually matter, and that various interest groups have too much power.

And the speed at which news moves in the 24-hour social media era has perhaps made it harder, not easier, for voters outside the political bubble to remain informed.

No doubt these factors are relevant to the increase in pre-polling and the relative disinterest in the campaign in general, yet the extent to which this can be imputed to supposed discontent with democracy itself is questionable.

Much of the concern reflects a failure of political process, not democratic process. And even amidst the gloom, this election has given us some reasons to remain optimistic about the health of our democracy.

Firstly, enrolment figures are high in Australia. Many enrolled to participate in the marriage equality postal survey, and more enrolled to vote in this election. Almost 97% of eligible voters are now enrolled to vote, according the AEC — up from 95% in 2016.

And at least those who are pre-polling are actually voting. Regardless of the level of planning, there are always going to be some people who cannot reasonably be expected to make it to a polling place.

In other countries where pre-polling is limited, and voting is voluntary, many of those voters are effectively disenfranchised. Indeed, given the compulsory nature of voting in Australia, it’s hard to see how we can avoid some form of pre-polling.

Compulsory voting is one of the great strengths of the Australian system: it pulls the major parties back towards the centre, and makes them compete with each other’s ideas to try and win the uncommitted middle, rather than just energise the extremes of the base.

When compared to the turnout rates in the US and UK, there is little doubt the election will reflect the will of the overwhelming majority of people in Australia.

Second — and again unlike the US, in particular — there remains significant trust and faith in the electoral process. There is no Australian comparison of Trump hinting at rejecting the legitimacy of the people’s vote in 2016, and then the extended tantrum the Democrats have thrown over losing that election.

Nor do we see Australian politicians frustrating the clear will of the people in the hope of forcing them to vote again (this time the ‘right’ way) as we have seen in the UK over Brexit.

Finally, this election does offer a choice between two genuinely different policy platforms. Whatever you think of Labor’s policy proposals, they deserve credit for laying out a fulsome program prior to the election for scrutiny rather than attempting to impose radical change on the electorate after the fact.

Should Labor win, the campaign paradigm may shift away from the small target strategy adopted by both parties as a result of the 1993 ‘unlosable’ election. Again this would be a welcome change.

The election campaign doesn’t have long left to run, and though they say a week is a long time in politics, it’s a short time in the life of a democracy. We should be cautious of reading too much into the ebbs and flows of a campaign.

Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies

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