Tim Singleton Norton

communications, media, advocacy, campaigns

Just shut up and tell me the news

So this is it. We’re in the midst of an election campaign and true to form, every political party, candidate, politician, lobby group, organisation, commentator or spokesperson is attempting to garner your favour and convince you that they truly stand up for the issues that matter to you.

It’s truly a horrible time in our electoral calendar. Dirty tricks, backhanded compliments and sledging matches rise to the top of political debates and brainless commentary comes to the forefront of the media cycle, where all attention is being directed to whether or not Kevin Rudd is too fat in the face, or what it was like to jog with Tony Abbott. Hard hitting journalism if ever we saw it.

At the end of this torturous journey, we all slog into the voting booth and ultimately direct our support to those political hopefuls that we find the least horrific to face. It’s not a pleasant experience at all, and anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding themselves.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer some quick tips on how to better understand the relevance and importance of your vote, how to decide who you vote for and ultimately how to avoid the whole thing.

1. Vote on issues, not ideologies

Too often you’ll hear people say “I’ve always voted Labor” or “Can’t trust those lying union thugs – I’m voting Liberal” or “This time, I’m voting Green”. This helps no-one. Deciding on your political affiliation before you’ve even delved into the ramifications of that decision just shows you aren’t looking at the practicalities of what these groups will do with the political power that you offer them.

Instead, analyse your own feelings and thoughts about the issues that matter to you. Research which party has a platform on these topics and interrogate them about the practicalities of how they would enact them. Use this knowledge to arrive at a decision on where your vote goes. Utilise tools such as the ABC Vote Compass to look at issues-based political decisions and arrive at your own position. Tribal ideologies of association that lead you to blindly join on to whatever gang of cool kids happens to grab your attention first is not the way to decide on where your vote goes.

Of course, voting on individual issues can be problematic. You may passionately believe that marijuana should be legal, but a vote for such a small, minor party may end up (after preferences) flowing to a major party for whom that issue is extremely low on your priority list. The Pot Smoking Is Great Party may also have views on other issues that are at odds with your beliefs – such as abortion, and yet a vote for them may eventually flow to the Baby Killers Australia Party – something you don’t want.  These tactics have been employed by party organisers since their student politics days, where fronts such as the “Free beer on campus” party were (and no doubt still are) used to direct votes back to the major faction. Don’t allow yourself to be used in such a way – educate yourself about who these smaller groups truly are and where their votes end up.

Alongside this, try to avoid just jumping to extreme opposites. “I hate the Liberals and what they stand for – therefore I’m voting for Labor” is not a sane train of thought. Neither is “I don’t like those damn hippy Greens – I’m voting One Nation.” Don’t base your vote on what someone isn’t – focus on what they do stand for.

2. Demand clarifications and answers from your candidates.

Do not listen to the one-liners. They have been carefully crafted, tested, workshopped and re-workshopped to be the most succinct way in which the parties want to talk about the issues. Instead, ask questions and don’t stop until you’re satisfied. Don’t be rude, or antagonistic – simply seek clarification from the candidates about their exact stance on the issue. You may find your local candidate supports a local infrastructure project, and yet their party platform would never allow it to be of national importance. Ask the candidate to justify the likelihood of the project going ahead on this basis, and what they will do to make it happen.

A candidate’s ability to operate under pressure and answer questions goes a long way to garnering trust with their potential votes. A Liberal candidate was recently embarrassed publicly for failing to answer questions about one of his party’s policies. This has likely led some to doubt his capacity to understand the issues and therefore govern on that basis.

Ask your candidates questions on social media, email them, phone their office or make a time to meet with them. Listen to what they have to say, outline why certain issues matter to you and call them to account for how they will act in the best interests of you, their constituent. They’re working to gain your support – make them earn it.

3. Ignore the media

Seriously. It’s undeniably the most derp-ridden period for political, national, current affairs and other news coverage. Turn off Q&A. Avoid political news stories and bulletins. Under no circumstances turn on talkback radio. Turn to other sources for your “news” – social media, neighbours, friends, colleagues. Have meaningful, interactive discussions about politics with people whose opinion you actually value. If you must, try to find reasoned, unbiased coverage that looks to inform you of the facts, figures and actual news of the day. Do not listen to anyone with the title “commentator” or “celebrity”.

4. Vote below the line in the Senate.

Educate yourself on what the Senate is and what differentiates it from the House of Representatives. The Senate is designed to be a check and balance for our politicians – to ensure that Ministers and Cabinet are not given absolute power to enact and change laws without proper scrutiny. In the last term of the Howard Government, the Coalition had a majority in both the Senate and the House, and radically changed the landscape of our country with this power. Regardless of whether or not you agree with their decisions and policies, this drastically reduces the oversight of the Senate and takes away diversity of views from our Parliament.

With that in mind, how you decide to vote in the Senate should be treated different to that of the lower house. The MP you elect for the lower house is there to represent the views and issues of the localised area in which you live. There is a certain selfishness to this choice, as whoever represents you must be doing so for the benefit of you and your direct local community. However, your Senators will represent your entire state – in many cases a larger area, population and with a greater diversity of views. Their role becomes one of oversight into the work of the lower house, and so accordingly you should make your decision based on your opinion of their capability to do so.

At the polling booth, there is one important distinction to make in how you vote for your Senators. No doubt you’ll read countless arguments for and against the concept of preference deals between major parties. As with every election that comes around, this is becoming a hotbed of accusations and arguments between the political parties – particularly the smaller ones. Several parties failed to submit their preferences to the AEC, disallowing them from being listed above the line on the ballot paper. An ‘administration error’ is currently being blamed for the Wikileaks Party directing preferences to right-wing groups in NSW. You’ll find heaps more in the whinging and complaining category about this.

Here’s an idea – decide yourself. Vote below the line. Sure, it takes an extra few minutes to number all the boxes, but by doing so, you’re in complete control of where your vote(s) go. Look to tools such as Below the Line to do the work before you get to election day. Or, when you’re in the booth, make it easy – start with your top 10 of the people and parties that you like, then flip to your bottom 10 of those you would hate to see in power. Fill in the middle. You’re welcome.

5. Disregard all advertising

I heartily endorse this as a general life rule, but particularly within an election campaign, just throw away any pamphlets, promotional materials and other propaganda you receive. Political parties and other organisations are bound by certain rules when it comes to producing election materials, but there are so many loopholes it’s just not worth even giving them the time of day.

Did you receive a “helpful” how-to postal vote from your local member in the mail? The return address is not the AEC. On its way back to the federal election regulator your details will pass through a political party’s database, profiling you for further targeting.

See a full page ad in the paper about how X party wants to take away Y from you? It’s paid for by a business lobby group that stand to lose money as a result. Ignore everything.

6. Don’t spoil your vote.

An “alternative” to accurately completing your ballot paper is to utilise it as a protest of your compulsory requirement to vote. There are two common methods to doing so. Don’t do either.

A donkey vote is the process of  consecutively numbering the candidates in the order in which they appear on the ballot paper. This is potentially the dumbest form of “protest” and actually does more damage than good. When forming the ballot papers, the AEC will randomly arrange all candidates and the order in which they appear. This is to offset the very phenomenon of donkey voting – in each election, and in each electorate, all candidates have an equal chance of appearing first (or last) on the sheet. By automatically allowing your first preference to go to the first name on the ballot paper, you could be unwittingly giving power to an extreme group with views drastically different to your own. In fact, many of the major parties purposely set up tiny single-issue parties purely to drive preferences back to themselves.

The second method is to submit an informal vote. There are several reasons a vote can be considered informal, such as leaving a ballot paper blank, failing to number all candidates, or writing your name on the ballot paper. An informal vote will be discarded by the returning officer and your individual vote will not be counted. No harm done, right? Wrong. Whilst not as potentially damaging as the donkey vote, an informal vote takes your voice away from the political process. Take away enough votes from people “like you” and you leave space open for people with differing views to take over. The logic of “I don’t like politics – they don’t speak for me, so I’m abstaining from the vote” allows others to make decisions that will affect you regardless.

Avoiding your civic responsibility to vote is an ignorant understanding of the democratic rights afforded to you in this country. We need only look to the American political system to see problems with voter turnout, access to polling booths, voter registration and entire demographics of voters who are targeted to stop them voting. Theirs is hardly a beacon of democracy when large sections of the population are held back from voting due to circumstances largely out of their control.

Whatever method you choose, you’re not proving anything to anyone. You’re not exercising any kind of “right”. You’re a petulant child who needs to educate themselves in why we have a democratic system that affords you the luxury to have a say in who governs our country.

7. No-one else cares whether you’re right or not

Honestly. There are enough people out there, all screaming and shouting about why their policy/thoughts/platform/position/ideas are more credible than everyone elses. You don’t need to add to that. In fact, you’ll just look like a jerk if you do.

Instead, talk to people with intelligence, reason and knowledge about what you do know. We’re all experts in some area of life, just not all, and that’s ok. You don’t need to understand the difference between NBN fibre-to-the-node vs NBN fibre-to-the-house. You don’t need to know the ins and outs of international refugee conventions and law. But you can talk to the people around you about what it is that matters to you and why. What you’ve looked into and why you believe that a particular party or candidate will stand up for that. Why you’ve come to this decision on your own, but that you recognise your friends may not share the same views.

Your stance is your own and you have a right to it. But you never have a right to ridicule, undermine or bully others because they disagree. The second you assume that someone else’s differing opinion makes them “wrong”, you’ve lost all credibility and are nothing more than a political pawn, dangling from the finger of a party that will fail to care about you after September 7.

Now go.

Ultimately, who you vote for and why is your decision. You do it once every three years. It’s a legal requirement that you turn up to do so – although what you choose to do in the privacy of that awkward cardboard box is entirely up to you. What you do choose in the polling booth will be combined with millions of other decisions around the country, and we’ll have a new Parliament. That’s it. Let’s not make it any harder.

Disclaimer: Tim Norton is a former adviser to an Australian Greens Senator. However, who he ends up voting for is none of your business.

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