Mythbusting the Vote

August 19, 2013

It’s less than three weeks to the Federal Election on September 7, so let’s take a step back from the campaigns to look at actual voting. In every election, there are misconceptions, half-truth and outright lies peddled by various groups, all designed to do one thing: convince you that your vote is only worth what they say it is.

That’s the first lie. Let’s bust the rest.

MYTH 1: I live in a safe seat. My vote won’t make any difference.

Political parties just love this one. The more they can convince voters that any given seat will remain in the hands of the current holder, the less work they have to do to keep those voters happy – and that gives them more time and money to campaign in marginal seats they might be in danger of losing. Prime Ministers and senior Ministers tend to hold ‘safe’ seats. Politicians tapped to be future leaders often move to a safe seat held by a party member who might be about to retire. It’s all very organised and stable.

Except when it isn’t. Safe seats may well be anything but. Usually, a seat would be considered safe if, at the previous election, the candidate won with 60% or more of the vote. At the 2007 election, however, a shock result saw Prime Minister John Howard lose his seat in a massive swing to Labor novice Maxine McKew. Howard became only the second sitting Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose his seat (the first being Stanley Bruce in 1929). And in this year’s election, there are seats held with margins of over 12% that are considered ‘in play’.

When it comes to your vote, then, questions of ‘safe’ and ‘marginal’ are somewhat less meaningful than perhaps they used to be. It’s possible to overturn a safe seat with only a handful of votes. One of those could be yours.

MYTH 2: It doesn’t matter how I number my House of Representatives ballot, as long as I mark the party I want as number one.

This is a common mistake. The green House of Reps ballot requires you to number all boxes, and often people feel that they only need to focus on which candidate they designate as their first preference. As a result, they simply number the remaining positions straight down the paper.

Preferences determine the outcome of most marginal seats. That could mean a result that at first seems unlikely. For example, a Greens candidate ahead in first preference votes could well be defeated after second preferences were counted, if most of those preferences were for one of the major parties. The way you organise your preferences ensures you have the greatest possible influence on the outcome.

MYTH 3: A vote for a minor party or Independent is just a waste.

Oh dear. Another great piece of misinformation from the major parties – and one you’re likely to hear as you front up at the polling booth. The argument goes like this:

1. Minor parties/Independents don’t get elected.
2. You want to make sure your vote counts, don’t you?
3. You should cast your vote for a party that will get elected.

It’s all based on that first premise – which is rubbish. You only have to look at the Parliament just gone to see that. In the Lower House, we had four Independents and a Greens MP. In the Senate, there were 9 Greens, 1 DLP and 1 Independent. The make-up of that Parliament meant that the government of the day was required to be far more open to negotiation than previous, two-party situations.

There’s no clearer illustration that a vote for minor parties or Independents can be extremely effective.

MYTH 4: Electing someone from a minor party or an Independent will lead to a Parliament that doesn’t work.

You’ve heard this one from the Coalition, both in and out of Parliament’s chambers. Peppered with wonderfully ridiculous terms like ‘shambolic’, ‘unworkable’, ‘held hostage’, the Opposition did its level best to paint the 43rd Parliament, and particularly the minority government under Labor, as utterly useless.

Of course, it’s nonsense. That Parliament passed hundreds of pieces of legislation, including major reforms such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband Network, carbon pricing, and the Better Schools program. Additionally, it implemented a number of reforms to the way Parliaments conduct their business – streamlining Question Time, briefing minor party and Independent MPs and giving them access to Treasury for costings being only a few.

As for the notion that the Parliament was ‘held hostage’ – again, this is entirely down to a Coalition attempt to damage the Labor government. The idea there was to convince voters that Labor was somehow so beholden to the Greens that it would betray its own base just to hang onto power.

The minority government worked, whether people (or the Coalition) liked it or not. There’s no reason to think that another minority government would be any different.

Oh, and since Liberal leader Tony Abbott never bothers to remind voters – any Coalition government has also been a minority government, comprising the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Country Liberal Party, and the Liberal National Party. Those governments functioned – and, presumably, Mr Abbott thinks any future Coalition minority governments would do so again.

MYTH 5: It doesn’t make any difference if I vote above or below the line in the Senate, so I might as well save myself some time.

Oh, where to start with this one?

How can I put this simply? IT MATTERS.

Now, it can be an utter pain to fill in every little box, making sure that you haven’t doubled up or skipped a number. If you live in Victoria, this election is likely to be particularly onerous for you. But don’t be tempted to simply stick a number above the line and be done with it.

Why? Because once you do that, you’ve given your vote away to that party. And while you may think that party represents your views, what about those to whom it’s directed preferences? Do you even know who those parties or individuals are, for that matter?

It’s not too hard to find out the preferences for each Senate ticket – all the information is clearly available on the Australian Electoral Commission website. And there are a few unpleasant surprises when you do look. For a start, some tickets in Victoria didn’t even lodge their preferences with the AEC – so you have no way of knowing what would happen if you did simply hand over your vote.

Then there’s the issue of the Wikileaks Party. Broadly considered sympathetic to Left-leaning parties, the WLP was expected to direct preferences to the Greens – and, allegedly, had indicated that it would do so. Instead, it preferenced the extreme Right-wing Australia First Party in New South Wales; and in Western Australia, preferenced the National Party above the Greens.

WLP supporters demanded an explanation, and were told that the NSW preferences came about as the result of an ‘administrative error’.

There are no clearer illustrations of the need to know where your preferred party directs its preferences, and of the need to vote below the line in the Senate. To put it bluntly, it’s the only way your vote can be truly representative.

Thankfully, there are some very clever people out there at Below the Line. They’ve collected the ballot positions and full tickets for all seats and both Houses, and are in the process of setting up their ballot editors. You can find out who’s running in your electorate or State, organise your voting preferences with these editors and print those out on a sheet to take with you into the polling booth. Yes, you still have to write down a lot of numbers, but the majority of the work is already done.

CONCLUSION: So there you have it. Five myths, all easily busted. If you’re skeptical about politicians when they talk about policy, then it’s worth extending that to anything they say about voting. The vote is your power – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.


Busting the asylum seeker myths

August 15, 2012

Some of the most shameful debate in the history of Australian politics is taking place right now. Over 40 Coalition speakers rise, one after the other, to gloat about the Gillard government’s decision to cave in and re-open Nauru and Manus Island as asylum seeker detention centres. Oh, wait, sorry, they’re ‘processing centres’ now. That makes all the difference.

These dreadful speeches are replete with smugness, scorn and electioneering – but the worst, and most dangerous aspects are the lies. Every single speaker is lying, without shame and without consequences. Parliamentary privilege protects them. They can say whatever they like, and get away with it.

You know what? I don’t think they should get away with it. I think they should be called to account – and since the mainstream media seems unwilling to do it (witness the complete failure to call Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on his lies to the media yesterday), I guess it’s up to the rest of us.

So here goes. Let’s bust some myths.

Myth No. 1: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are committing an illegal act.

It is not illegal to seek asylum, regardless of how someone arrives in the country. The proper designation for those who come by boat is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrival’. The Coalition knows this. The media know this – the Press Council is very careful to urge its members not to criminalise asylum seekers.

In contrast, those who overstay their visas do commit an illegal act, and can be deported.

CONCLUSION: BUSTED.

Myth No. 2: Without offshore processing, Temporary Protection Visas and turning boats around, we will be flooded with asylum seekers coming on boats.

This is a favourite argument of scaremongers and xenophobes. What it boils down to is:

Yet almost all asylum seekers who arrive by boat immediately declare their intentions and enter into the processing system. Visa overstayers, by contrast, often take great pains to hide their unlawful status and keep working. And just to drive the point home, boat-borne asylum seekers add up to around one-tenth of visa overstayers.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 3: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are simply wealthy ‘queue-jumpers’ who use their money to force ‘real’ refugees to wait even longer for resettlement.

The idea of an orderly ‘queue’, where saintly refugees wait patiently to be re-settled while selfish, cashed-up ‘illegals’ bully their way to the front is both pervasive and pernicious. For many asylum seekers, it is not a matter of simply turning up at a refugee camp halfway around the world and talking to the UNHCR. Often, there are no camps, or diplomatic representation, in or near their countries of origin – and thus, there is no queue.

If they do make it to a camp, the strain on the system is so great that they may wait up to a decade to be resettled – and all the while, they are displaced persons, often living in tents and dependent on foreign aid. And these camps are not always secure, either; it’s not unknown for armies or paramilitary groups to raid, looking for ‘dissidents’. Is it any wonder people fleeing for their lives would look to any means possible?

Oh, and one more thing – it was the former Howard government that decided to include boat-borne asylum seekers in our total refugee quota. They created the fiction of a queue.

As for the idea that only the rich (read: and therefore the undeserving) can afford to pay a people smuggler, the UNHCR has found that generally, asylum seekers only pay up to $A5000 – and often, whole families will pool their resources to find that sum.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 4: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat deliberately get rid of their passports so that they cannot be sent back to their country of origin.

There is simply no evidence to support this. Certainly, many asylum seekers arrive without identification papers, but this can be for many reasons. Firstly, someone fleeing persecution may have had their papers confiscated or destroyed to prevent them leaving by normal means. They may have lost papers if they needed rescue from a sinking ship. They may indeed have destroyed their own papers, because they fear being identified by those who seek to imprison or execute them. And there may be a small minority who want to ensure they can’t ever be sent back to risk a resurgence of the state of affairs that prompted them to leave in the first place.

Conclusion: PARTIALLY TRUE, BUT NOT NECESSARILY FOR THE REASONS THE COALITION SAY.

Myth No. 5: Denying family reunion under the special humanitarian programs will deter husbands and fathers from making the boat voyage.

This is one of the recommendations of the Houston panel – and for the life of me, I can’t see how they could come to this conclusion. Neither can Amnesty International and a dozen other refugee organisations. Special humanitarian family reunions were instituted precisely to prevent women and children risking the boat voyage. It resulted in the journey being undertaken primarily by men, although there are still significant numbers of women and children travelling.

Axing the family reunion program will have no deterrent effect whatsoever. It is far more likely to increase the numbers of whole families on boats, wanting to secure a safe haven for re-settlement together. It will not remove the impetus for people to seek asylum through whatever means possible, merely ensure that it endangers more people. Given the possibility of waiting a decade in a refugee camp, living in utter poverty, raising children in an unsafe location, and risking a single boat voyage to possible safety and a new life – families are likely to opt for the latter. It’s a terrible choice either way.

Conclusion: BUSTED FROM SHEER STUPIDITY.

Myth No. 6: Anyone who opposes offshore processing does not believe in the security of the nation-state and has no interest in keeping Australia ‘safe’.

This particular assertion was made by Bronwyn Bishop in Parliament today. According to her, those ‘on the Left’ have a vested interest in tearing down the concept of the nation-state, and opening the borders to anyone who wants to come here, regardless of their origins or intentions.

Apart from the patent absurdity of referring to anyone who opposes offshore processing as necessarily ‘Leftist’, this is cherry-picking to an amazing degree. Bishop quoted former Senator Bob Brown’s declaration that he would like to see a global consciousness of all people as ‘Earthlings’ as evidence that Leftists seek the destruction of sovereign states, when in fact that statement was made in context of urging global action on climate change. She also conveniently ignored the fact that many of Labor’s declared Left, including the outspoken Senator Doug Cameron, have accepted the recommendations made by the expert panel for offshore processing.

Then there’s the idea that offshore processing will somehow keep Australia safe. Bishop here is dog-whistling. That’s all. There’s no evidence to suggest that boat-borne asylum seekers are in any way

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 7: Offshore processing (preferably combined with TPVs and turning back boats) is the only way to stop the boats and break the people smugglers’ ‘business model’.

This is a particularly cunning idea. It sets up the proposition that the boats must be stopped, and challenges anyone to prove that there is a better way of doing this than via Coalition policy.

But take a step back. Why must the boats be stopped? The usual answer is that the voyage is dangerous – people smugglers tend to run a cut-rate operation, and little niggling details like seaworthiness are often overlooked. This much is true – but it begs the question. People only get on boats – and risk their lives – when they feel they have no other alternative.

So what are the alternatives? Increasing our humanitarian intake is one, and this was recommended by the Houston panel. Contributing more money to improving the efficiency and speed of asylum seeker processing is another – and if the government has funds to renovate Nauru and Manus Island, it has funds to contribute to this. Finally, there is the option of bringing asylum seekers directly to Australia via safe means, and processing them here. All of these would be far more likely to reduce the number of dangerous boat voyages and take profits from people smugglers.

As for the claim that these measures stop boats, it’s worth noting that the Pacific Solution did nothing of the kind. There were years when no boats arrived, but in the lead-up to the 2007 election, numbers jumped sharply and were on the rise again. This coincided with a resurgence of unrest in Afghanistan and Africa.

Conclusion: MISLEADING AND BUSTED.

I could go on – the claim that discarding the Pacific Solution made more boats come, that asylum seekers threaten our border, that our naval vessels are suffering from metal fatigue because they’re being used to rescue asylum seekers – but really, these are the major points. These are the most vicious of the lies. This is what the Coalition says, and keeps saying, apparently operating under the theory that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth in people’s minds. This is the strategy of the parties that violated international maritime law with the Tampa, violated our obligations under UN treaties, subjected countless innocent people to shameful and damaging treatment, and continue to tell the world that they are ‘compassionate’ and ‘sensible’.

They are nothing of the kind – and they’ve successfully dragged the government down to their level. Not that it took much persuasion, in the end. Perhaps under Rudd it would have been different. We’ll never know.

What we do know is that this whole issue is surrounded by self-serving, disgusting lies. Those lies should be exposed for what they are, every time they’re uttered.

And apparently it’s up to us to do it, since (with few exceptions) our representatives won’t.


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