This is where it all started, with a reform that is simplicity itself.
It’s just a check box at the bottom of your ballot, inviting you to be your party’s brutally honest friend. An explanatory note on the ballot tells you that crossing the box registers your disapproval of the party that you voted 1 in the compulsory part of the ballot. Which, sometimes, is what an honest friend needs to say – before disapproval turns to dismay, then to disgust and disillusion. Few of us agree entirely with our party’s program; few reject every element of opposing programs; there comes a point where an honest friend calls it out.
Breaking the friendship – voting for the other side – should not be a friend’s only option.
Having a choice, to cross or not to cross, gets us thinking how to choose. It gives us a kind of permit, the mental permission to examine our side more critically, the other side more receptively. We can venture beyond the main issues on which we vote, safely explore others that may prompt us to cross a box that registers our disapproval. Elections should not paint all in the black and white of the party faithful. Above all else, elections should faithfully preserve our shades of grey.
On election night, look forward to Antony Green reporting the disapproval counts from each of our 9,000 polling places, closely mapping voter disapproval for every party to acknowledge, for none to deny. Even the safest of safe seats, routinely taken for granted as the property of one or other party, would have found their voice. Look forward to election nights that are less for the anguished faithful reliving their leader’s blunders and master strokes, more about the priorities that electorates would put to the incoming government and the new parliament.
Look forward to election campaigns that are sometimes respectful, occasionally constructive, after we teach politicians that they pay a price for dishonesty, division and dog-whistles. Might pollsters take the hint, learn that many are interested in the matters that unite us, not so fussed about who is winning the battle to divide us?
Look forward to the new government coming into parliament with new-found modesty, chastised by honest feedback from its own side, facing a similarly chastened opposition. At last the two sides would have something in common, both having been told that their support is shared and conditional, not exclusive and unqualified. Then might parliament become the place where the nation cools off after the heat of the election.
Most of us learn the value of cooling off before making important decisions, know how dumb it is to rush a purchase just to escape the high-pressure selling, remember how stupid we feel as we try not to disappoint total strangers, the salespeople. We learn to walk away and give ourselves time to coolly think it over, to run an honest debate in our heads, take honest advice if we need. Parliaments do that job for the public dollars that we spend, 25 cents in every dollar. We need them to be places where honest debate and honest advice are routine. Any party that curtails or disrupts that serious work should expect the brutal honesty of its friends.
Brutal honesty might help political leaders to wriggle free of the party faithful, giving us the leadership that many crave. These few, the faithful, insist on painting leaders out in their uncompromising whites and blacks. They refuse to have ‘their’ leaders become ‘our’ leaders, except by deception and stratagem. Shades of grey, in us and in our leaders, would blend more readily, giving leadership its chance.
Double all these good things if, instead of a simple cross, the ballot invited you to rate your party, one to ten. Invite all seventeen million voters to put more thought into their vote.
Redouble all these good things with a reform that adds another check box at the bottom of your ballot, inviting you to also be the brutally honest friend of your party’s candidate. The explanatory note tells you that crossing the box, or numbering one to ten, registers your assessment of the candidate that you voted 1 in the compulsory part of the ballot.
Since, often enough, voters happily vote for their party but disapprove their party’s candidate. They would punch a protest button if they could. Because they object to the candidate’s policy positions and beliefs, or abusive and divisive behaviour, suspect associations and finances, ignorance and laziness, suspect pre-selection processes, lack of community roots. Or they just have a bad feeling about where this candidate is taking both their party and their country.
Again, having choices gets us thinking about how to choose. The protest option gets us thinking and talking about candidates, opens us to information and opinion about candidates, gives us a reason to engage with candidates. Journalists respond by covering pre-selection contests more closely. Antony Green dissects the disapproval counts on election night, including for MPs in safe seats who otherwise never feel the sting of electoral disapproval. Pre-selectors feel the need to put ‘local’ back into local member, ‘representative’ back into representative government. MPs occasionally put aside their partisan talking points, find time to personally connect with the broad sweep of their constituents.
If that’s the fix, what’s the problem? The problem is that getting elected to parliament is a two-vote process. MPs win their seat in a popular vote against candidates from the opposing parties but must first have won pre-selection contests within their parties, contests that are largely hidden from public view. Candidates emerge from internal party processes that, for ordinary voters, are secretive and unaccountable in respect of selection criteria, composition and motivation of pre-selection committees, factional deals, branch stacking, promises of financial support and corruption. The second contest is the election that we celebrate as democracy; we all vote. The Electoral Commission oversees the second contest and Antony Green reports the second count on election night. But we mostly choose from the candidates pre-selected by the major parties in the first contest, which happens out of sight, in the shadows.
When a dodgy candidate emerges from the shadows, or an extremist, or somebody who simply doesn’t feel right, voters might at least cross a box to register their disapproval.