10/10/2012 - 10:56

Time for major change at the polls

10/10/2012 - 10:56

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An electoral system similar to that used in the US would put an end to the current practice in Australia, where political parties are planning for elections on a rolling basis.

An electoral system similar to that used in the US would put an end to the current practice in Australia, where political parties are planning for elections on a rolling basis.

THE first of the three presidential election debates between Barack Obama and the challenger, Mitt Romney, has focused attention on the US electoral system, which by Australian standards is decentralised and unwieldy.

The states control the voting, with machines used in some states to record preferences, punch cards in others, while postal votes are the preferred means elsewhere. And voting is voluntary.

By comparison, the centralised Australian system – with compulsory voting – looks efficient, despite the size of the country and the isolation of some localities.

However one leaf that Australians could take out of the American election handbook is the concept of ‘super Tuesday’. The presidency will be decided on Tuesday November 6, but so will myriad other elected positions in the land of the free.

For instance, there will be congressional ballots for positions in both the senate and houses of representatives in all the states. No surprise there. But a big number of states also join in to elect governors and other officials for their legislatures and local councils, as a matter of convenience and cost saving.  

On paper it makes a lot of sense, and contrasts sharply with the position in Australia.

It’s generally known now that Premier Colin Barnett and opposition leader Mark McGowan will go head to head in this state’s first fixed four-year term election on March 9 next year. The rationale for fixed terms was to bring some stability into the electoral cycle.

It is less generally known, however, that the Australian Capital Territory will go to the polls on October 20. 

The federal government, which still operates on ‘flexible’ three-year terms, is expected to face the people sometime between August and October next year.

Three states are set to vote in 2014: Tasmania (first half of the year); South Australia (March 15); and Victoria (November 29). NSW and Queensland are due to vote again in 2015, with the NSW poll set for March 28. So whichever way you turn in Australia, political parties are planning for elections, on a rolling basis.

While it has been traditional for a party’s federal leaders to campaign at state polls, experience shows that can be a flexible call. 

If federal leaders are unpopular they frequently are ‘unable’ to join their state colleagues because of ‘urgent commitments’ elsewhere.  The latest example is Mr McGowan’s attitude to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, although that could change as her stocks rise.

An obvious problem linked with the current staggering of election dates has surfaced in Queensland, where the new premier, Campbell Newman, has indulged in some savage cost cutting he claims is essential to balance the books.

Labor has naturally reacted strongly and pointed to next year’s federal poll. Labor’s message, ‘elect Tony Abbott and you can expect more of the same, except this time it will be on a national basis’. 

That may or may not be the case, and it is a matter for Mr Abbott and his strategists to counter if it happens.

But the point is, why not emulate the Americans and have a ‘super Saturday’ in Australia? Federal, state and local elections could all be held simultaneously. 

Then electioneering could be put to one side for several years as the successful candidates get on with their job of making decisions.

An opportune time to move would be when Federal Parliament next considers fixed terms; and the sooner the better. 

The uncertainty about most state election dates has gone, and Canberra should follow suit, just as in the US.

Social media hits

SYDNEY broadcaster John Laws’ interview on the ABC’s 7.30 program last week about the Alan Jones saga was great television. It was also a reminder that, like politics, staying on top in the electronic media is a big ask.

However the decision of major advertisers to boycott the Jones program because of pressure exerted through social media represents a new, and potentially disturbing, development in Australian media.

At the outset it must be said that Mr Jones’ comments about Julia Gillard and her late father at the Sydney University Liberal Club dinner were unacceptable and deserved the condemnation they received. What was he thinking?

But the attempts of some of his critics to make opposition leader Tony Abbott equally culpable for the massive exercise in bad taste stretched credulity to the extreme, although Mr Abbott should have responded more quickly and forthrightly.

Messers Jones and Laws are Sydney radio phenomena. But because Sydney has traditionally been the media centre of the nation, their impact has been more widespread.

Now aged 77, the ‘golden tonsils’, as Mr Laws is known, is just a shadow of his former self, although he still has a program on Sydney’s 2SM.  I saw Mr Laws first hand in 1979, at the height of his influence, when Sydney was threatened with a truckies blockade in protest against road taxes.

The truckies were in a stand off with the NSW Labor government of the day, and it seemed the unthinkable – a blockade – was inevitable. Then, last-minute talks were hastily convened, and the chairman chosen by the truckies was, you guessed it, Mr Laws.

In one of the most bizarre scenes I have witnessed in 40 years of journalism, he chaired a roundtable conference between the drivers and two senior Labor ministers in the premier’s offices.

Labor ministers were wary of Mr Laws, but they knew if they wanted to reach their heartland, he had the audience. For example when Paul Keating dropped his ‘banana republic’ line in 1986 about the state of the Australian economy, it was on the Laws program.

I met Mr Jones in 1978 when he was on the staff of the NSW Liberal leader, Peter Coleman. He then contested the by-election for the state seat of Earlwood, vacated by a former Liberal premier Sir Eric Willis. It was the wrong time to be a Liberal candidate in NSW and Mr Jones failed.

He was certainly an intense character with enormous energy. He then went to Canberra as a speechwriter for Malcolm Fraser, and later coached the Wallabies rugby union team with great success, before turning to radio, where his impact has been powerful.

There is no-one like the two Sydney performers on Perth radio, which is a good thing. Mr Laws thought Mr Jones’ recent comments to be “exceedingly cruel and exceedingly hasty”, but believes he will ride out the turbulence.

Although Mr Jones’ influence has well and truly peaked, the social media blitz against him, which caused advertisers to desert his top-rating program, has important ramifications for freedom of speech in Australia.

Who will be targeted next? And why?

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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