Last year we moved house. I’m not a political writer, and nor am I aspiring to be one. However, my experience in my new electorate has prompted me to consider the Australian Federal election from an entirely different perspective than I have in the past.
Our new home is only 30 minutes’ drive from our former residence. This move took us from the centre of one electorate to the very edge of another. Life at the margin of an electorate is quite different than it was at the centre. I’m left with the dilemma of how to vote when the factors to consider have radically changed.
Australian democracy is based on the concept that people within an electorate will vote for the best person to represent local interests. Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to realise I’ve taken this for granted. It’s no secret that my values lean toward the left, and as I moved from inner Melbourne to regional Victoria, my local members have been very strong Labour Members of Parliament – Lindsay Tanner and Catherine King.
I tend to be one of those voters who support Labour in the Lower House and at first the Democrats, and now the Greens in the Senate. So my vote supported the status quo, seemed logical and didn’t require any in-depth thinking. In some ways, there is no reason to change my voting strategy, but in this electorate, the question of ‘the best local candidate’ is not easily answered. I’ve had to think more deeply about who I will support and why.
The local member dilemma
The concept of electing ‘the best person’ to represent local interests in the Federal Parliament is sound in theory. To me, this means electing someone who is aware of local issues and who makes the time to meet with local people or attend local events. Catherine King in Ballarat was a great example where this is concerned. Catherine was always in the news for being at community events, and her office produced a newsletter reporting on her activities which was delivered to every household. She was engaged in her community and available to people.
In my new electorate, the person who looks like they will best fill that role is a Liberal Party candidate, Sarah Henderson. As far as I am aware, none of the other candidates have made an effort to meet local people, nor to support local issues such as the campaign for a Telstra mobile phone tower to be installed. Our area is extremely vulnerable to bushfire, and we are in a mobile phone black spot. In fire season, this combination of factors puts lives on the line.
In my capacity as a volunteer local newsletter editor, I went along to a community meeting attended by Sarah Henderson, so I could write about community opinion. She was a strong speaker, appeared to be committed to achieving mobile phone communication for the area, and I have no reason to doubt her sincerity. However, I would be naïve if I didn’t recognise that her actions were also politically astute. Labour’s Darren Cheeseman is the current Member of Parliament with a very slim margin of 0.3%. It makes good political sense for the Liberal Party to be canvassing support in every tiny pocket of the electorate to win back the seat. Corangamite was formerly held by the Liberal Party.
I would have thought this was the case for Labour as well, but one glace at Darren Cheeseman’s web page shows he is firmly focused on Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula. I’ve heard local people say they have approached him about the mobile phone tower, with little success. I guess if he is going to retain the seat, he probably needs to put his energy where the majority of voters live. Unfortunately, his focus on Geelong means that my little community doesn’t count for much.
If she were representing the Labour Party or the Greens, I would certainly vote for Sarah Henderson, but a vote for her would be a vote for Tony Abbot’s right wing agenda. I could never support a Liberal Government which opposes many of my fundamental beliefs and values.
There are ten other candidates: one woman and nine men. Realistically, none of them would have the political clout to make a difference in relation to mobile phone communication, even if they did overcome an almost impossible task of winning in Corangamite.
For the first time in my life I’m an ‘Undecided’ voter. It doesn’t feel right to vote for a person who has no interest in our local community, but I could never support the right wing politics of the LNP. So I take a step back. Is this like supporting a football team? Picking your side to win even when you know the other side has better players?
The Federal party dilemma
Federally, the notion of local representation is being weakened by increasing pressure for Politicians to tow the party line. In reality, we vote for a political agenda promoted by each party. This is formed partly on ideals, partly on the reality of budget and the economy, and partly on the results of political polling. While factionalism within parties has always been a factor, for the Labour party it has been particularly damaging in recent times.
Using the ‘Two Party Preferred’ model, which forms the basis of most political analysis in this country, I can’t say that I am impressed by either party. Both sides are throwing away long-held values in pursuit of marginal seats. In place of long-term planning and visions for the future, we see frequent shifts in position to shore up the polls. Over the weekend I saw footage of Bill Shorton on live radio admitting he had heard of a policy Kevin Rudd had proposed only the day before. He had been put in the position of speaking about it with little or no knowledge. It is difficult to place faith and trust in a leader who leaves his team so unprotected.
Kevin Rudd’s conduct over the last three years does little to alleviate my doubts. Regardless of how he initially lost the Prime Ministership to Julia Gillard, if he had integrity as a leader he would have been working to publicly promote good policy and working behind the scenes to lobby for change. Respected journalists such as Barrie Cassidy, have spoken about Rudd doing almost the opposite of this – actively working to undermine her achievements.
Gillard made mistakes. There is no denying this. However, she held together a minority Government in the most difficult of circumstances, and managed to pass some ground-breaking legislation. Now that he has regained the Prime Ministership, I see Kevin Rudd steadfastly refusing to give any credit to Gillard. After three years of working to destabilise her efforts, he can’t seem to bring himself to run for re-election on the achievements of the Labour Party over the full term of office. This doesn’t leave him a lot to promote. So now we find ourselves in the spin of yet more negative campaigning.
I find it so alienating when the Labour Party backs away from fundamental human rights issues and a humanitarian approach to asylum seekers. Aside from the fact that this leads Australia away from our obligations under the Refugee Convention, surely such values underpin everything the Labour Party is built on – decency, humanity and a fair go for all.
Tony Abbot is no better. For three years he has been behaving like a petulant child, out for destruction because he didn’t get what he wanted. Julia Gillard out-negotiated him for the Prime Ministership and he never forgave her; never got on with the job. Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech sums up my thoughts about him as a person. As for policy, it would take a longer column than this one to detail all of the issues I have with LNP policy.
So where does this leave me? There are some reasons to vote for Labour – for example, ensuring the NBN is rolled out across the entire country in a way that allows for future technological developments. In regional Australia, a good internet connection is as important as mobile phone communication. It is another life-line. Increasingly, companies require us to do business with them through their websites – to read policy, update details, make payments – even tax payments to the Government. Regional Australians monitor fire risk from home, run businesses from home, shop from home, and in the future will have medical consultations from home via a fast internet connection. A fast broadband connection is becoming a necessity, it is no longer a luxury.
As an Instructional Designer, I have an interest in online learning. Depending on the course requirements this could include watching an instructional video, participating in various simulations, connecting with the instructor and classmates to discuss the learning in various ways, including live chats, downloading documents to read, completing a structured assessment or various other learning comports. If it is done well, online learning can be a cost effective way of providing education and training, in addition to more traditional classroom learning. I find Tony Abbots insistence that the only use for high-speed broadband is to download multiple ‘Hollywood movies” at once is both insulting and short sighted. I live in a broadband black spot as well as a mobile phone black spot, so for me, the NBN is a big issue. The only reason I can use the internet at all is because the NBN project provided us with a subsidy to install a satellite. For this, I’m extremely grateful.
Taking a cue from Julia Gillard’s final speech, maybe this election requires me to have the courage to support the Labour agenda, in the hope that the NDIS, the Gonski reforms, the pricing of carbon and other reforms that she initiated are implemented in the form envisaged.
Perhaps, after all of this, I will follow my usual strategy of voting for the Labour Party in the Lower House and the Greens in the Senate. If I do, it won’t be without nagging doubts and a heavy heart.