On non-compulsory voting in Queensland state elections

The Queensland Government has opened up a discussion paper regarding electoral reform. It covers a lot of things, but one issue that has been making people take notice is the proposal to remove compulsory voting in state elections, meaning the responsibility of turning up at the ballot booth would become entirely optional.

Many writers have already thrown down their two cents, but I have a few idle thoughts regarding this development.

Whatever your political views, I think that introducing voluntary voting this is fundamentally a bad idea.

Many think that being forced to vote is fundamentally undemocratic, but I think those people are confusing the act of voting as something we’re entitled to, something that we can opt out of if we simply don’t feel in the mood, or don’t like particular parties or candidates, but I think these people are confused over the nature of democracy.

I personally think of voting in a democracy as a civic duty, rather than a right. Hell, you didn’t think we’d get to live in this sweet-ass democratic nation without having to do some work to keep it all spiffy clean, right?

Like paying taxes, voting is a necessary part of the democratic governance and the higher participation, the better. The lower the participation rate, at least for me, the harder it is for elected representatives to claim their mandates, for them to claim they govern ‘for the people’, and potentially lead to a policy debate dominated by narrow political interests.Not to get all doomsday on you, I fear the risk of minority disenfranchisement, where those without time or competing priorities will forgo voting in favour of those activities. A democracy where not everyone participates seems demented to me.

The US is the poster boy for optional voting. But, from the outside looking in, it seems mired with problems that just don’t exist within our system. Do US politicians do anything but campaign for re-election? Getting people out to vote seems a massive distraction within the US political system, and a host of dirty tricks get played by certain state governments in order to benefit certain candidates or parties. I fear the same in Queensland, and would become frustrated at an endless cycle of candidates trying to get people out to vote at elections rather than focus on making good policy.

I’ll touch on some of the arguments wheeled out against compulsory voting.

Many think it’s undemocratic to force people to vote. That may be the case, but the rules in Australia don’t actually force you to vote in a certain fashion. The rules require you to turn up at the ballot box every three to four years. You can (and many do) informally vote. Is this process undemocratic? If it is, then surely we should be given the option of having other civic duties as optional. It would be great to choose where my tax money gets spent, or even pay tax at all. Why should some duties be optional and others not. I haven’t come across a good answer to this.

Another criticism that reoccurs is that compulsory voting systems are somehow representative of an immature democracy. Australia is in the minority when it comes to compulsory voting, but critics seem to continually bleat this fact without giving reasons as to why this is bad.

It seems people within both major Australian parties have views on this – and that view is profoundly against non-compulsory voting. It makes sense, as it has worked well for the better part of 90 years here. I don’t see a reason to change it, and I have suspicions that the QLD government are looking into this.

I’ll halt it there, you can understand my position, but feel free to comment if you’ve got a burning opinion on this. To wet your whistle, here are some views on this issue from politicians at a federal level.

Adieu Rave

On the 26 June, Brisbane’s best street press Rave Magazine abruptly ceased publication after 21 years and 1047 print editions. I had been contributing to the magazine for almost two years, signing on as an indie reviewer in August 2009.

This started off a long, meandering piece lamenting the magazine’s death, but after reading Justin Edward’s great tribute, I’ll simply say that I was always very proud of having the opportunity to contribute to the publication.

Despite not being able to be as prolific as many other contributors, I wrote nearly 100 record reviews, 9 video game reviews, conducted 22 interviews, and helped put together two special features, and was an occasional guest on the magazines weekly podcast, Rave On. The editorial team at Rave always made my contributions feel valued and graciously put up with my inclination to the occasional grammatical error. I often felt guilty and overwhelmed by the fact that my work appeared alongside so many other talented writers and photographers.

I owe Rave quite a bit actually. The magazine greatly expanded my knowledge of music and allowed me to talk to some of my heroes. I got to interview Andy Falkous of Future Of The Left twice. I even talked to Australian icons like comedian Glenn Robbins and children’s singer Peter Combe.

Most importantly, it allowed me to fully engage my passion for supporting local groups who traditionally miss out on coverage in mainstream publications and other forms of media. Fittingly, my first and last pieces for the magazine were records by local artists – the first being The Mercy Beat’s How To Shampoo A Yak and the last was ex-Not From There frontman Heinz Riegler’s solo record, Survey #2 (One Thousand Dreams I Never Had). Through the magazine, I discovered a world of music previously hidden from me – bands like Kitchen’s Floor, No Anchor, and a large variety of great music from local talents that has further enriched my life.

Adieu Rave. You’ll be missed.

Australian politics and integrity.

I happen to be reading Plato’s Republic, and am deep into his treatise on how democracy should work and his ideal of the philosopher king. It’s fairly interesting, though I’m not sure of its contemporary practical value and can see why some of the more psychopathic dictators of the past have been inclined to Plato’s ideas, but it serves as an interesting sidenote to another article I happened to read this week regarding the current health of contemporary Australian politics.

Should personal integrity the most important facet of being a politician in Australia? Gregory Melleuish argues that it should be in an interesting article over on The Conversation. Melleuish claims that ‘clever’ politics is flourishing in Australia due to the tenuous grip federal Labor has on government. Clever politics, so Melleuish says, is the politics of doing ‘whatever it takes’ to cling to or acquire power – and something evident in both major camps, with Tony Abbott clearly not accepting the result of the last federal election and Labor nominating liberal dissident Peter Slipper to the speakership late last year. Melleuish contends that these tactics don’t sit well with the Australian public, that these bring short term political gains, but risk long-term voter backlash. I’m inclined to agree with him.

I do wonder if it’s simply the situation federal parliament finds itself in or the character of politicians elected by constituents. I’m inclined to the latter, but don’t entirely blame the public. Major parties are responsible for pre-selecting candidates for voters to choose from. Frequently, it seems, we’re getting getting a poor choice, and I’m left wondering if any due diligence is ever done on major party candidates. Clearly, I’m not the first to notice this, David Donovan of Independent Australia making the exact same point in his humorously titled article “Party politics delivers village idiots, not village elders”. Here, Donovan argues that priorities for party candidates puts the party’s agenda is first and their constituents last. This criticism seems to, on face value, ring true.

Democracy seems to be suffering in Australia at the moment. The traditional media are doing a poor job at keeping us informed, dwelling on soap-opera like moments, pushing personal agendas and generally annoying people with any sort of brain. Plato would roll in his grave.

Thinking about arguing

Came across this fascinating video about how one can think about arguments and prepare themselves to objectivily evaluate them. This one came via The Intepreter.

In this video Julia Galef from Measure of Doubt discusses some techniques that can help you think about the true meaning behind argumentation, herself arguing that the process should be more about striving towards having true beliefs rather than ‘winning’. She discusses argumentation as collaboration rather than combat, encouraging one to try visualise the process as seperate from ones own body or ego. Other techniques she discusses include:

  • Visualising being wrong.
  • Taking a long view – thinking about conceding points like putting something in the bank.
  • Congratulate yourself on being objective.
  • Redirecting competitive instinct – think about your opponents arguments as one that you can use later yourself.
  • Visualising a frustrating argument as one coming from someone you’re friendly with.

The problem of IP: SOPA, PIPA, development economics and Down Under

The whole world has been going a bit crazy over the issue of Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) bills that have been proposed for voting in US Congress. As you might know, Wikipedia and reddit closed down their sites for 24 hours and many other prominent web hubs have expressed their concerns regarding the potential for these bills to censor the Internet. It looks like the actions of these sites have signalled the death knell for these bills, but it is worrying that they even saw the light of day.

While my knowledge on these two bills is fairly limited, a facebook debate with a friend of mine made me recall some of the great work of development economist Ha-Joon Chang, and his arguments against strict intellectual property (IP) regimes in relation to developing nations.

His article, Strong IP regime not in interest of developing countries, published on the Third World Network distills many of his core arguments.

He rejects the neoliberal view that strong IP regimes are requisite for promoting strong economies, increasing innovation and promoting growth, arguing instead that new knowledge doesn’t necessarily evolve due to patent regulations, using the open-source technology movement as one principle example. He rails against the pharmacuetical industry and their profiteering on the back of overpriced medicines, nothing that many of the ideas used to create these drugs originating from research in public institutions, like universities. It’s an interesting read.

(I’d also recommend having a read of his booking Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective for a fascinating historical investigation of how the strategies used by Western powers to retain their economic power over developing nations. Patent law comes in for a right ol’ kicking here, and, while it might not convince the most hardened patent fans, it’s still very well written.)

My own view is somewhat muddled and somewhat limited by my lack of knowledge of IP law. I find myself drawn to arguments against strict IP regimes, but I also value incentives to innovate. I am, however, firmly against censorship of the Internet and am convinced the MPAA is taking the easy way out. Indeed, failure to innovate on behalf of record companies and film companies seems to me to be a bigger reason for piracy. In this case, perhaps IP is hindering innovation.

John Quiggin has also put forth some interesting analysis on the current SOPA/PIPA debate.

An aside

I’m reminded of the famous Down Under copyright case, where Australian group Men At work were sued by an entity known as Larrikin Music for allegedly stealing part of the famous Australian song ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’. Now Larrikin Music didn’t have anything to do with ever creating this song (which was written by Marion Sinclair in 1935), yet had obtained the IP rights to Kookaburra, then sued Men At Work for copyright infringement because the flute riff in ‘Down Under’ sounded similar. Clearly a case of IP gone mad.

Some initial concerns on selling uranium to India

Uranium mining is a particularly divisive topic in Australia. It was only ten years ago that news headlines were dominated by those protesting the development of a uranium mine at Jabiluka in the Northern Territory. However, yesterday, the Australian discourse surrounding uranium took an unexpected detour, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard openly courting the idea of selling uranium to India.

While Australia has been selling uranium to other states for some time, the significance of this move is that the Prime Minister is considering selling Australian uranium to a state who is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

For those not in the know, the NPT is the primary international agreement that seeks to control the sale of materials between states in an effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. True, it is lopsided, with non-nuclear weapon states (the vast majority) being prevented from developing nuclear weapons, while nuclear weapon states are obliged to pursue disarmament (though with no strict timetable). However, the agreement permits the trade of nuclear material between signatories for non-weapons ‘safe’ purposes such as energy.

However, India, along with Pakistan and Israel, are non-signatories, and therefore theoretically prevented from purchasing nuclear materials from states within the NPT regime. The first two are confirmed nuclear powers. Furthermore, India is not (yet) a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which places further exports control on the trade of nuclear material between signatories, which goes beyond the NPT.

I must confess that this sudden change in foreign policy is somewhat disturbing, arguably undermining Australia’s disarmament credentials, increasing tensions between nuclear powers in the region, all in favour of short-term domestic economic gains. It is true that other states signatories to the NPT, such as the United States, have opened up bilateral channels with India and have actively traded in nuclear technology with India over the past few years. However, I find this fact to be a less than convincing justification for an act that sets a dangerous precedent for Australia, a country that sits within a region with growing security concerns. I love India and I love Indians, but the ongoing friction between Pakistan and India, both armed with nuclear weapons, means that the possibility of nuclear exchange is a definite reality. This is something that might not be evident to Aussie Joe citizen given our relative isolation in the South Pacific.

Furthermore, if we’re going to sell to India, why don’t we also sell to Pakistan? Does it even open the possibility of selling to North Korea? Does it legitimise other countries with fewer scruples from supplying other states with nuclear material that could be used in nuclear weapons? Considering the worries over Iran’s clandestine nuclear program, the Prime Minister’s position on uranium sale should be thoroughly scrutinised, with its wider possible international implications teased out.

Some tweets from the PM yesterday, which sought to reassure concerned Australians about the safeguards, also seemed flimsy. She stated that India was the world’s largest democracy, inferring that this somehow acted as a safeguard. History shows otherwise, Julia. The only state to use a nuclear weapon in war was a democracy. Moreover, it is true that sections of the US politic recommended using strategic nuclear weapons against the VietCong during the Vietnam War. Democracy does not mean a nuclear muzzle.

It’s only the start of the debate, and I really need to learn more about the nuts and bolts of the proposed policy if it does eventuate. The Interpreter has an interesting piece arguing the other way, that selling uranium to India will actually bring Australia closer to the subcontinent. Still, there are risks, and the government need to explain the safeguards in detail to assure sceptics like myself.

Some closing questions that are of interest. Will the proposed sale of uranium to India harm Australia’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council? And how will this affect Australia’s relationship with Pakistan? Will it damage Australia’s disarmament creditials? How will China react? All pertinent questions that could be impacted by this new foreign policy angle.