Elections: the way they should be held
Posted on December 10th, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

The Victoria State elections were held on Saturday  29, November 2014. It was a warm, relatively bright day just two days ahead of the onset of summer in Australia. Voting was scheduled to be from 8 am to 6 pm. Where I live, the polling station was at the local secondary school. The voters started arriving in significantly large numbers only about two hours after the vote-marking centre opened. This was no surprise because, it being a Saturday, there was apparently no need for most of them to be in a hurry. There were no police around. The whole setup was calm and relaxing; one sensed none of the tension and anxiety that Sri Lankans have now come to take for granted during election time in their country. I heard no news stories to suggest that the situation was any different from this across the state. People cast their vote in complete peace and freedom from fear of harassment.

The school fence running parallel to the road was neatly hung with some posters of the candidates in their party colours only for the duration of the election. The following day there wasn’t even a scrap of paper anywhere to be seen and the schoolyard looked immaculately clean and tidy, which is how it is normally maintained.

Deeply impressed by the stress-free atmosphere and the courteous demeanour of the voters and the few supporters of different candidates who were there doing a bit of unobtrusive last minute canvassing handing out propaganda material (which is allowed here), I involuntarily made a mental comparison of the situation with what I had experienced in Sri Lanka on an election day. But I didn’t blame my poor compatriots wholesale for that shortcoming, because I hold that politicians, and not the innocent voters, are really responsible for the rotten state of affairs in our native land in this connection.  I remembered something I had read in the early 1970’s collection of newspaper columns titled ‘Trials in the Island in the Sun’ by veteran journalist Tarzie Vittachchi: These are not the exact words he wrote, but the idea was: When elections are on, this country (Sri Lanka) is a very good place ….. to leave!” About the time that Mr Vittachchi was writing, election associated rowdyism was still in its infancy. I need not write about what it is like today.

To return to my topic, though not so conspicuously evident to observers before, during or after the event, there was adequate popular interest in this state election, contrary to our usual impression that people in developed countries show only lukewarm interest in the exercise of their voting right. However, for Victorians voting is compulsory by law. (It was reported at the end that the voter turnout was a respectable 58.37%.)

The main contenders were the incumbent minority government of the centre-right Coalition led by the Liberal Party of Australia in alliance with its minor partner the National Party and the opposition centre-left Australian Labour Party. The opposition raised a number of issues  such as alleged corruption and waste by the Coalition. The latter tried to meet these attacks by stating that they took their first term to rectify blunders done by a previous Labour government, and by pledging to build, when returned to power this time, on the foundation thus laid. Labour’s main criticism was directed at an expensive 5-year road development programme (estimated to cost some A$ 18 billion)  known as the East West Link toll road project promoted by the Coalition. The road will run across Melbourne joining its western suburbs to a freeway on the east side by an 18 km highway, the western part of which will be a tunnel 4.4 km long. Many argue that the project is wasteful and unnecessary, and that public money may be better spent on other cheaper alternatives to ease traffic congestion in the city such as the Melbourne Metro railway project.

The general perception among ordinary voters appeared to be that the Coalition policies favoured classes above the upper middle level, while the Labour stood by the lower middle and working classes. Some of Labour’s election promises would be criticized as part of ‘populist’ politics, had it been in Sri Lanka; but they were relevant to the mundane needs of ordinary people (such as workers, the young, small industrialists): more holidays, more ultramodern cinemas, hospital midwives, a doctor in a school, easier planning controls on wind farms, and cleaner government, etc. But wherever they are, politicians are politicians, and election promises are election promises. What Labour means by the following promise is anybody’s guess, but what is clear is that it is a promise that is not going to be kept:

Under Labour, television advertising will be limited to health and safety, community wellbeing and behavioral change.”

 According to pre-poll predictions Labour was likely to be returned, and these predictions proved right. The day following the election (i.e. Sunday 30th November) Mr Daniel Andrews, leader of the Australian Labour Party, convinced of final victory, with counting still to be completed, was able to declare to the Victorians, We won’t let you down”. The premier-elect set to work in his office the same day, the media reported. The outgoing Victoria state premier, Liberal leader Dr Denis Napthine and federal prime minister Mr Tony Abbott, both of the Coalition, congratulated Mr Daniel Andrews on his election. The final results were known (when counting was finalized) only on 2nd December, according to which, out of the 88 seats in the Lower House  Labour got 48, Liberals 39 and the Greens 1. In this state election, the Labour candidate for the Cranbourne district was returned to parliament for the fourth consecutive time. This is Mr Jude Perera of Sri Lankan origin, a very popular politician here. (I should have hardly mentioned this, because ethnicity counts for nothing in Australian politics.)

Australia, officially known as the Commonwealth of Australia, is a constitutional monarchy headed by UK’s monarch in her special role as Queen of Australia represented by a Governor General. It is governed by a parliamentary system of government with federal division of powers. The federal government based in the capital city of Canberra is at present led by Mr Tony Abbott. Australia comprises six states and two territories each administered by its own government and a number of islands and other territories that come under direct federal government rule. Victoria is one of these states.

 All sorts of ideas are tolerated and represented in Australia provided they do not infringe on people’s freedom and human rights. A glance at the names of some of the officially recognized political parties of the Victoria state can be illustrative of this fact. Among the 21 parties currently registered with the Victorian Electoral Commission are the following: Australian Cyclists Party, Australian Sex Party, Family First Party, Shooters and Fishers Party, Animal Justice Party,  and the Basics Rock’n’Roll Party. In this election, only 3 parties got the chance to be represented in parliament the Liberal Party, the Labour and the Greens. The Greens won their first ever seat this time: the seat for Melbourne. The minor partner in the Coalition, the National Party, failed to secure a single seat. Mr Napthine’s Coalition government is the only one to be dismissed after a single term in sixty years (i.e. since 1955).

What struck me about this election was the peaceful orderly manner it was conducted with absolutely no inconvenience caused to the public by politicians. Campaigning was through the media. There were no riotous demonstrations or rallies; nor posters stuck on walls and trees and rocks. A few times, candidates were seen addressing the voters at railway stations, where also they distributed propaganda literature. TV,  internet and press advertising was also resorted to. Individual supporters of contestants displayed their pictures in their front yards. Reflecting on this decent way of electioneering I thought: Yes. Where’s the need for them to conduct demonstrations and rallies with the participation of thousands of idling citizens in a highly literate disciplined society like this?”  

We can see at a first glance that Sri Lanka and Australia are ill-matched for comparison in this or any other respect. Australia (the smallest continent, but the largest island in the world) is 7.69 million sq km to Sri Lanka’s 65,525 sq km. However, the almost totally uninhabitable desert and semi-arid outback forms the largest part of the Australian landscape; of the 23 million population (which compares with Sri Lanka’s  approx. 22 million) 80% live within 100 km of the coastline. In terms of per capita income, the gap is similarly wide: Australia’s roughly US $ 67,000 to Lanka’s US $3,700. Even in the case of Victoria, the same sort of dissimilarities can be found. Victoria (237,629 sq. km, that is, more than three and a half times the size of Sri Lanka) supports a population of only about 5.8 million whereas Sri Lanka holds about four times that number of people. The average life expectancy in Sri Lanka is 72 years to Australia’s 82. Sri Lanka is a middle income country while Australia is among the developed countries reckoned as having the 12th largest economy in the world. Sri Lanka beats Australia only in one thing: literacy rate. Sri Lanka’s is 98% and Australia’s is only 96% according to the CIA World Factbook. (Unfortunately for us, however, in Sri Lanka, the advantages of high literacy are to a certain extent nullified by politics and civic indiscipline.)  

Modern Australia’s most striking feature is its national unity despite it being largely a conglomerate of immigrants or descendants of immigrants belonging to different ethnic and cultural backgrounds who arrived from more than 200 countries in the world over the past two centuries. The country is a modern democracy. Though more than 250 different languages are spoken in the country, English is the common tongue of all Australians as the language of administration, justice, education, and business. There is no official language as such. Australia is practically monolingual in English. But the government pays special attention to the teaching and learning of other languages for helping social integration among all Australians who are from a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds.

Of course, we can’t do as Australians do. Economically and politically Australia has advantages we cannot even dream of. But things like democracy, good governance, social harmony, rule of law, civic discipline, and a decent standard of living which are interrelated and mutually supportive can be enjoyed by us too if we have a mind to it. The fact that Australia is a huge country with vast resources and only a comparatively small population to use them does not mean that Australians are completely free from problems such as crime, corruption, terrorism, delinquency, drug abuse, etc etc  which appear to be the common lot of humanity today. Even at this moment of writing we hear gloomy news about the Australian economy. Recently, we heard harrowing stories about babies being killed by their parents, brutal bashings, and coldblooded murders. People here react to such things just as we do. Young cricketer Phillip Hughes’ accidental death is being nationally mourned. Everybody was moved by Australian cricket captain Michael Clark’s deeply emotional speech at Hughes’ funeral  and he was profusely praised for that speech, and for the leadership qualities he demonstrated through it. He spoke not only for himself and his country, but also for all cricket loving people across the world who had admired the dead cricketer; by extension, he was giving expression to the sense of common humanity that unites peoples in the face of tragedy. In all this, Australians may be said to be very similar to us.

But the difference between us and Australians is that their institutions work efficiently. Though there are criminals, they are properly dealt with and kept in check and the rights of the ordinary citizens are protected to the maximum. There are potentially venal politicians, but the system thwarts their attempts. This difference can be fixed. But it can be fixed only by politicians, because they are the power wielders. But the problem in our country is that most of the time it is criminals who get elected to parliament. Why? Is it because voters look out for criminals in preference to normal law abiding citizens to send to parliament to represent them? No. It is the leaders of political parties who nominate unsavoury characters to contest and what happens is that people vote for the party they like irrespective of who gets elected. To stop unsuitable people getting into parliament, party leaders must mind who they nominate and make themselves responsible for their nominees. It is the responsibility of all decent politicians to get together and create a method to ensure this if the parliament and provincial and local councils are to be rid of characters who should not be in them. (Courtesy The Island)

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