Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The case for compulsory voting

Last weekend I exercised my vote in the Australian Federal Election. I did it willingly because I wanted to participate in the choice of a new Government.

I also did it in the knowledge that if I didn’t, I would be breaking the law.

Voting is compulsory in Australian elections and has been for almost 100 years. This attracts little comment or criticism within the country, in fact many citizens here are surprised to learn the practice is not enforced more widely in other jurisdictions (Belgium is one).

Having previously lived in the United Kingdom and New Zealand where, like the vast majority of the democratic world, voting is voluntary, I was surprised and at first a little hostile to this system, but I have grown to understand and appreciate it.

In Australia, the ability to exercise the franchise is not seen just as a right, but a responsibility — a responsibility to help shape the community in which the elector lives, and to participate in democratic freedoms which can never be taken for granted.

Because it’s compulsory, everything is done to ease the task of voting. Those who want to cast their vote early can do so in the weeks before polling day at various pre-poll stations.

There are special arrangements and services for the disabled and the elderly. Australians abroad can vote at their embassies and consulates. 

As a result voting turnout is usually well over 90 per cent, with absentees being those who might have died in the weeks before polling day; overseas travellers who could not get to a polling station (voting is not compulsory for citizens based overseas for long periods).

Or those who did not vote without a valid excuse, for which there will be a small fine of $20 (more for persistent offenders).

Excuses such as ‘I forgot” or ‘I was too busy’ are not accepted. 

I now agree with the argument put by my Australian friends that not to vote is to spit in the face of those who toiled long and hard for the ability to participate in the government of their communities and their country.

For those who might argue they are so disengaged and disgusted with politics of all persuasions they feel that no one deserves their vote, I say fine. Turn up at the polling station and write ‘none of these’ or ‘Micky Mouse’ or simply just shove the unmarked paper into the ballot box.

Your vote will then be counted as ‘informal’, and you will have avoided any penalty.

The point is you have to turn up, and in doing so you are forced to consider, if only for a few minutes, the duties of being a citizen of a democracy. Not really much to ask.

Compulsory voting in the United Kingdom may well have stopped Brexit, as it could be argued that those who did not vote against European Union membership were happy with the status quo.

It would certainly make a difference in the United States where in some parts it seems there is more effort put into stopping people from voting than assisting them to exercise their franchise.

Above all, it would remove the tag of illegitimacy attached to any Government, or referendum result where there is a substantial proportion of absent voters.

Universal suffrage should mean just that.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

EU supporters in danger of a split vote

A few days after results were known in the English local government elections, Prime Minister Theresa May told a conference of Welsh Conservatives: “I think there was a simple message to both us and the Labour Party to just get on and deliver Brexit.”


At the elections, for local councils of various sizes throughout England, her largely pro-Brexit Conservative Party took a bath, losing 1334 councillors, its worst showing in almost a quarter of a century.

The Opposition Labour Party, which under its leader Jeremy Corbyn has been sitting on the Brexit fence for so long it is in danger of developing haemorrhoids, did not benefit from the Tory disaster, recording a net loss of 82.

The hard-line pro-Brexit UK Independence Party virtually disappeared while the big winners were the staunchly pro-European Liberal Democrats up 703; the Greens, also on a pro-European platform, up 194 and independents who gained 662.

While there are different interpretations that can be put on this result, it would be hard for anyone other than the blinkered Prime Minister to call it a vote for leaving the European Union.

Of course, Brexit apologists have rushed to say that local elections are about local issues such as rubbish bin collections and dogs fouling footpaths, not major national issues — but that would be to deny history.

For generations, voters have used the annual local polls to voice their opinion of the ruling national Government of the day. This is not a good thing, as often well-performing councils are swept away because their membership happens to correspond with that of an unpopular ruling party at Westminster — but it is fact.

Voters took a look at the Conservatives’ inflexible stance on Brexit, and Labour’s prevarication and rejected them both, largely in favour of a party that has been pro-Europe throughout its history.  

On this basis there is a substantial case for a re-think of the entire concept of the UK leaving the European Union.

The 2016 referendum that produced a narrow majority in favour of leaving was held almost three years ago in a different world — before the election of Trump in the United States, before escalating trade wars between the US and China; before Putin in Russia and Xi in China cemented their positions as virtual dictators in their respective countries.

Before anyone considered what to do about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic; at that time there was little or no debate on the consequences for industry and the effect on the nation’s social fabric.

Back then there was no ‘orderly Brexit’ or ‘no-deal Brexit’, just a gloriously amorphous gilded Brexit that was supposed to lead the UK into a new golden age.

In a recent interview, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, gave the most clear headed analysis of the 2016 result when he said the decision by then Prime Minister David Cameron to call the vote was a political miscalculation.

“I would expect a different result in a vote today given what we have learned about the consequences of the UK leaving,” Tusk said.

“A real debate about the consequences of Brexit wasn’t had during the referendum campaign, but only after the vote. Paradoxically, Brexit awoke in Great Britain a pro-European movement.”

There is absolutely no doubt that Remainers were asleep at the wheel during the 2016 campaign, and even today the movement is fragmented, with no clear leader such as Brexit champion Nigel Farage.

The next big test comes in elections for the European Parliament later this month in which the UK must participate as it is still formally an EU member.

Brexiteers will fall into line behind Farage, and opinion polls show this is happening with his Brexit Party on 34 per cent of the vote.  A win for his group would be a crippling blow to the hopes of those who want to remain part of Europe and to a second referendum.

In this vote, the two major parties are an irrelevance. May and Corbyn have put ideology and ambition above the national good and refuse to see the tide is turning against them.

However, many Remainers will continue to vote Labour (on 21 per cent) because of Corbyn’s hints at support for a second referendum. Change UK (3 per cent) is also dragging off Remain votes. The Greens (8 per cent) also have mostly Remain support as has the Scottish National Party (4 per cent)

Finally there is there is the party that consistently throughout its history has supported Europe — the Liberal Democrats at 15 per cent.

It would be an absolute tragedy for Remain if their combined vote outpolled Leave, but was split among a plethora of groups that support, or might support, staying in Europe.

A vote to stay part of the European Union must go to the Liberal Democrats.  

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Magic pudding production in full swing

Depressing as it seems, ‘fake news’ has become a feature of our lives and will play an increasingly spoiler role in the democratic process — the current Australian election being no exception.

Already one newspaper has been caught, headlining the results of a poll favouring an independent candidate that turned out to be false.

What can’t be faked are the official pronouncements of the major parties. Here it’s not what is said, but rather what isn’t.

The incumbent Liberal-National Coalition is running a campaign based on “sound economic development” with the delivery of tax cuts and the promise of more to come.

Opposition Labor advocates spending increases in a range of areas including, health, childcare and older Australians.

For both parties it’s all about the upsides, and not a mention of the downsides.

Economics 101: If you reduce the tax take you have to reduce spending; if you increase spending you need higher taxes.

You won’t hear Prime Minister Scott Morrison laying out the details of where he wants to cut spending at this election other than some airy-fairy comments about “greater productivity” or “reducing waste”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has been slightly more honest by flagging tax increases in certain areas, but nothing like the amounts needed to finance his ambitious spending plans.

Both leaders are guilty of producing magic puddings which always seems to have something left, no matter how many slices are taken.

Neither have the qualities of leadership to say: “I can give you lower taxes, but some services we provide are going to be abolished or reduced.”

Or: “You will have the better services you crave, but you will have to pay more for them.”

As a result there is never a proper debate over what kind of economy Australians really want.

Should it be high tax, with increased services like many of the Scandinavian countries?

Or low tax with individuals looking after themselves as best they can such as exists in the United States?

Both major parties try to suggest we can have the best of both worlds. Australia has often been described as the Lucky Country, but it isn’t that lucky.

In the end whichever party is in power is forced to make compromises on its promises, leading to disgust and disillusionment among those who voted to put it there.

That has led to the rise of the far right, the ultimate magic pudding manufacturer, harvesting the naivety vote with their simple answers to all the complexity of the nation’s and the world’s problems.

And heaven help us all if any of that crowd ever got a taste of power.   

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Amritsar: The cost of no apology

Earlier this month India paused from its election campaign to mark the centenary of one of the darkest deeds in the history of the British Empire — the massacre at Amritsar.

On April 13, 1919 British-led troops fired on hundreds of unarmed people in a walled garden in the Punjab city of Amritsar. They were ordered to fire until their ammunition ran out.

No attempt was made to allow the crowd to disperse. The troops were firing from the only exit. There was no means of escape.

Officially the death toll was 379; Indians put it at closer to 1000. 

Historians believe that incident and the fact the perpetrators were never properly punished, provided the impetus that eventually forced the British from India 28 years later.

Before the massacre Indian independence had largely been the subject of debate among a small group of intellectuals.

Even activist Mahatma Gandhi, who later led the campaign for independence, had believed the British could still be absorbed into a free India in much the same way as past conquerors, such as the Mughals, had been.

All that changed after 1919.

Fast forward 100 years and the United Kingdom, long stripped of its overseas possessions and preparing to leave the European Union, is desperately casting about for partners to fulfil its hopes of becoming a ‘global’ trading nation.

One would assume that India, now a rising superpower with a population of more than 1.3 billion, would figure large in this new global strategy. Time to mend fences, with the Amritsar anniversary providing the ideal opportunity.

A heartfelt and sincere apology for the atrocity, delivered on site by a royal personage was in order. Instead the UK was left asleep at the wheel.

It was represented at the anniversary ceremony by its High Commissioner, Dominic Asquith who laid a wreath and mouthed a few words about being unable to rewrite history, but the need to learn its lessons.

What the UK has not learnt is the depth of feeling and resentment that continues in India about the massacre. It has not been forgotten and for many Indians, Britain can never be a true friend.   

In London, Prime Minister Theresa May did pause from the Brexit crisis to tell Parliament that the massacre was “a shameful scar on British Indian history.”

“We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused,” she said.

However, in diplomatic speak “regret” falls short of an apology, as was noted by the Chief Minister of Punjab State, Amarinder Singh.

“An unequivocal official apology is needed for this monumental barbarity,” Singh said.  
Sadly May is not the first UK leader in modern times to stumble over this highly sensitive and emotional issue.

When David Cameron became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit the site in 2013 he defended his decision not to say sorry.

“It happened 40 years before I was born…I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for,” Cameron said.

History may well come back to bite the UK as it seeks to replace the trading relationships it has lost with Europe.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Happy days for dictatorship

What a wonderful time to be a dictator.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will be reviewing the world with some satisfaction this Easter. Their rivals are in disarray, democracy everywhere is under challenge, while their own power and influence is expanding.

The United States, once the unchallenged superpower, is led by a president who makes war on his own people; who purges his staff at the first sign of any disagreement and promotes his own family with a ruthless efficiency not seen since the days of the Borgia Popes.

Obsessed with internal issues such as ending migration, and continually lashing out at those who would question him, President Donald Trump’s ventures into foreign policy have only underlined his ineffectiveness.

Much heralded summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have done nothing except boost Kim’s standing on the international stage.

Despite a barrage of threats, Nicolas Maduro is still firmly in place as President of Venezuela, while his US backed opponent, Juan Guaido remains in limbo.

Moving the Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem and recognising the country’s annexation of the Golan Heights has destroyed any hope of a two-state solution to the long-running Middle East crisis and wrecked Washington’s reputation through much of the Arab world.

Repudiating the Iran nuclear deal has done nothing to blunt the Islamic Republic’s support for dissident groups throughout the region.

Having engineered the collapse of American international influence, Trump’s domestic agenda is in tatters.

As the country gears up for another election next year, the wall on the Mexican border has not been built, much less paid for by Mexico, illegal immigration continues at high levels, jobs have not been repatriated.

Yet incredibly, Trump’s support base has suffered little, with many voters insisting, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, that he is a man “who does what he says”.

In Beijing and in the Kremlin there is growing hope that Trump might actually win a second term, and plans are no doubt being made to help him along that path.

Putin and Xi might also look with some optimism at the European Union, beleaguered with a Brexit crisis that seems likely to go into a fourth year, still grappling with an influx of refugees, largely of Putin’s making, and with the possibility of a new surge of migrants as Libya descends into civil war.

The EU has been distracted and weakened by the United Kingdom’s long-running departure, while the distinct possibility of a no-deal ‘Global Britain’ cast adrift and friendless, will present more intriguing possibilities for both dictators.

Meanwhile Xi’s Belt and Road initiative is drawing more countries into its orbit, and may even make headway in Europe, while Putin now has a firm foothold in the Middle East having rescued his Syrian ally, and will have high hope of advancing its cause further in Ukraine and other countries of its ‘near abroad’.

No doubt about it: Authoritarianism is in this year.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Courageous leaders who did what was right

Earlier this month Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited Skopje, the capital of neighbouring North Macedonia to be welcomed by his counterpart, Zoran Zaev.

In a relaxed setting in front of Government House, the two men chatted and even posed for a selfie.

Nothing unusual about that it would seem. After all, the countries share a common border and would appear to have a great deal to offer each other.

In fact, it is the closeness of their geography that has kept the nations apart for almost three decades — a row over what many people would call semantics, but which has fired up nationalist fervour on both sides of the border.

If it had been left to their respective populations, the meeting of the Prime Ministers would never have taken place.

North Macedonia borders the Greek Province of Macedonia and ever since the break-up of Yugoslavia, of which it was a part, the Balkan country has wanted ‘Macedonia’ as its name.

‘No’ said Greeks on the other side of the border. Macedonia has always belonged to Greece and the name cannot be stolen by another sovereign state.

Such a dispute might have been settled by international arbitration, but the United Nations didn’t want to get involved and for decades there was a compromise whereupon Skopje was landed with the ridiculous name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) which pleased no one.

The dispute was having serious consequences as Greece was blocking FYROM’s bid to join the European Union and NATO. European unity was at stake and in today’s fraught international environment, there were dangers that unfriendly powers could exploit the situation.

Last year Tsipras and Zaev hammered out the compromise name of North Macedonia. Nationalists on both sides erupted in fury and a referendum in the Balkan State failed when a boycott reduced participation to below the required 50 per cent.

At that point the two men displayed a quality that is sadly lacking among leaders around the world — courage.

Tsipras forced recognition of the name through the Greek Parliament and Zaev decided that as around 90 per cent of those who did vote in the referendum were in favour of North Macedonia, he would ignore the 50 per cent requirement and declare it passed.

This led to their historic meeting earlier this month at which both hailed a new chapter in economic and political cooperation.

The two Prime Ministers know they may have to pay a political price. It is quite possible that nationalists on both sides of the border will turn on them when next they face elections.

What they did may not have been popular, but it was right — for European unity, the defence of the Western way of life, and most importantly, for the long-term prosperity of their respective peoples.

In taking the course they did they showed true leadership, something in short supply in a democratic world obsessed with the next opinion poll or focus group.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Post-Mueller — time to address the real threat

Now that we have Robert Mueller’s finding that neither President Donald Trump nor his staff colluded with Russia to fix the 2016 United States election result, perhaps we can turn to the most important question.

Was Russia involved in a dirty tricks campaign to swing American voters behind Trump and, if so, how can this be prevented?

Because as the Washington Post correctly pointed out in an op-ed written by the Professor at the Alabama School of Law, Joyce White Vance, the one person the Mueller Report did not exonerate was Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In his usual scatter gun approach to these matters Trump has sought to use his own exoneration to try and sweep the whole issue of Russian election interference away.  This cannot be allowed to happen.

If Putin gets away with this, then many other attempts to pervert democratic decisions around the world will follow. Every election result will be doubted, trust in democracy will be weakened, in some countries fatally.

What leader could claim legitimacy if the shadow of Russian interference, or that of any other democracy hating country with the resources to do so, looms over their elected victory?

As Vance states, there is little doubt that Russia did interfere “and Trump’s foot-dragging on the subject for the past two years has meant he has taken no steps to protect the security and integrity of future elections”.

US security agencies are united in their findings that Russia was involved in meddling. Trump has overruled them with his view that Putin had told him he didn’t and was “extremely strong and forceful in his denial”.

Putin is a former KGB operative: They are trained to lie.

The one thing that terrifies the Kremlin is the possibility of another US President in the mould of John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, because in any stand-up confrontation Russia is bound to back down.

Putin has built up the old Soviet military at huge cost to the country’s shrivelling economy. Population is ageing and falling, many of its people, especially in remote areas, are living in conditions barely above third world.

He maintains the fiction of a global superpower largely by bluff and bluster. Propping up an ally like Bashar al-Assad is easy when all that is required is bombing rebel positions that have no air defences.

Talk of new hyper weapons owes more to the skills of his spin doctors than anything remotely connected with reality.

However, cyber-weaponry – setting up fake websites, spreading fake news – is much easier and, up to now, very effective.

In a contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Putin’s candidate was clear.

An erratic narcissist, obsessed with internal issues such as building a wall across the Mexican border and destroying his predecessors’ health care plan — and with business ties to Russia that might be exploited later — it could hardly have suited the Kremlin better.

It seems that post-Mueller, US politicians are finally waking up to this much greater threat to their democracy. 

After years of downplaying Russian interference in the 2016 election Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has finally accepted that “Russia poses a significant threat to American interests”.

That threat has been present since shortly after Putin came to power, but it is much more potent now and a threat not only to American democracies but democracies around the world.

Action is needed — and the time is now.