Friday 12 August 2016

How to Vote

It seems like my Friday posts this Blaugust have become politics themed. When I set out they were earmarked for either 'longer writing' or 'infographics', so I guess this is some weird mixture of those, but a little light on the graphics side... I don't know how sustainable this theme is long term, but since I had something to share this week, let's stick with it for now and see what happens for the rest of the month.

Democracy is the worst...
One thing that I find myself repeatedly gobsmacked by living in Oxford is the Brits continual denial that their first past the post voting system is a mess. When I delve further, I find that they don't like the choices that FPtP gives them, but think that it's better than all the others. They often quote Churchill.

When I try to explain the joys of the alternative vote, explaining that expressing preferences allows people to engage with politics by voting for their favoured candidates without wasting their vote, as is currently the case if you vote for anyone other than the two expected front-runners in an election, they say that's all very nice, but we had a referendum, thank you, and decided that was a silly idea.

As someone who has never expressed a first preference for a winning candidate in my life, I find this very frustrating. I go into detail explaining how the Australian system works, but the overwhelming response is that it's probably a bit too complicated to work in the UK.

Well, they're right that voting is complicated, at least. Which brings me at last to the topic at hand.

You see, this isn't actually a post about how the United Kingdom should fix its voting system (although it should). This post is about how I went about deciding who to vote for in the Senate during the election that just finished up (the House of Representatives was informed by the same process, but on a much simpler level).

In the past, I've gotten a lot of electoral mail and been able to listen to the radio and attend town hall meetings and generally get a good feel for many of the candidates, then I've made an order of preference from that and gone to town. Long time readers might recall the post that resulted from some of that research back in 2010, still far and away the most popular post on the site. This year, as a result of being on another continent, I found myself much more separated from the level of discussion and immersion in the whole campaign, so while many friends were sick and tired of it all, I was still trying desperately to glean as much as I could in order to make up my mind. In the end, I did what I always do when I find myself with a decision to make. I made a spreadsheet.

First, I made a list of policy areas that I thought I cared about, and tried to put down basic ideas of the sorts of ideas that I wanted to elect a government based on. Then I tried to quantify how much I cared about each of these policy areas, giving more wait to urgent things that I think should be the priority of the government. Then I combed all the websites of the candidates, in order to see how closely they agreed with my values, and I gave them a positive or negative score in each of those policy areas. Sometimes I found an issue that I decided I cared about that didn't fit nicely in my categories, and when this happened I added it to the spreadsheet. Sometimes I found views that didn't agree with mine, but had the same aim in mind, and I tried to take those ideas on board as much as I could, knowing that most of these people are a lot smarter and more informed than I am.

When I finished, I had the following table. Well, not this actual one, this is actually a preliminary one prior to some later changes and the inclusion of the major parties, which I decided to do last so that I could be most sure about their rankings, since they were the ones that were most likely to matter. I can't find that version for some reason (probably deleted it in a fit of post-election pique). But this one is good enough for demonstration purposes. Then I added up each party's scores, took their ranks, and after a sensible amount of sanity checking, used them to determine my voting order and filled in my postal ballot in time to send it home prior to election day.

Flawed system? Undoubtedly. But aren't they all? I'm confident that this system placed the candidates in a pretty close order to where I would rank them ideologically, and gave me a framework that I can continue to revise and use in future years to ensure that I continue to critically analyse the parties and my own preconceptions in order to determine who ultimately gets my vote. And it only took me about 20 hours to decide who to vote for!

Without understanding why I allocated the numbers I did to each party, this isn't very meaningful, I know. So let me now give you a little look into how my ever-increasingly-socialist tendencies broke down each of the above categories, and hopefully that will help you understand how I ranked the parties how I did. Or maybe it won't but it will at least give you an idea of how I think about the political climate in Australia. Or maybe it will make you hopping mad about how wrong I am on a particular issue and you just have to set me straight, and that's what the comments box is for. I acknowledge that many of my positions are naive, and I'd appreciate being better informed. Just be nice, alright? I'm a delicate beast.

I think it's worth mentioning at this point that I am a home-owner in a Liberal seat whose household income usually (not so much at the moment) puts me in a relatively-high tax bracket, and who personally uses very few of the welfare/medicare/education  provisions that I advocate.

Refugees: I find it unconscionable that a civilised country has resorted to locking up asylum seekers in the conditions that Australia does, and that we continue to dodge the obligations both of international law and human decency. I'd like to see the culture of secrecy on the matter demolished, offshore processing centres closed, humane onshore detention such as the one previously used in Inverbrackie reinstituted with sensible time limits, community integration including access to government support and right to work, and a pathway to residency for those found to be genuine refugees, regardless of their faith, language, or culture. I acknowledge that we don't want people risking their lives coming by boat but also that our 'approved' refugee intake system is extremely poor.

Foreign Aid: I see foreign aid as the responsibility of affluent nations, and oppose reductions in our current levels. I can see the sense in targeted aid, but think this should be restricted to humanitarian grounds rather than used as a political or diplomatic tool.

Health Policy: I support ongoing reform of the public health system, to allow full and fair access to the public system of GPs, hospitals, and secondary care givers, regardless of economic status. I oppose reductions to the current overall levels of medicare and PBS funding.

Drug Policy: I think it's clear that enough people are using cannabis recreationally that the government should regulate and legalise the industry, and collect a tax similar to the ones it does for other drugs like cigarettes and alcohol. For other illegal drugs, the focus should be on prosecuting producers and dealers, and rehabilition for users.

Public Education: I acknowledge that private schools are outperforming public ones in Australia (but don't get me started on some of the reasons why!), and believe that the public purse should contribute to the education of all students regardless of the income of their parents, but oppose ongoing reduction in public school spending to fund private education.

University funding: I oppose the current trend of deregulation of the university sector, which is turning higher education into even more of a business: not the point of education. I support developing a sustainable but fair system of student loans.

ABC: I love the ABC and the SBS and value the vital role they play in providing a public service, both in their news and community programs as well as providing quality entertainment from around the world. I want them funded properly and immune enough from political interference to allow fair and nuanced reporting.

Climate Change: Seriously guys, why are we still talking about this? Once upon a time the consensus reason was not to do anything about climate change because no-one else was. That was a lame excuse then and it's a terrible crime now.

Science: Funding the CSIRO to deliver world-class research, regardless of the short-term financial benefit, is only the start. Governments need to find better ways to effectively interpret the scientific consensus and allow it to affect public policy. And to stop spending money organising witch hunts of wind farms for political points.

Barrier Reef: I like it. I'd like to keep it. This means protection from dumping and dredging as well as some quick smart changes on the climate change stuff.

Water Usage: I'm a South Australian. I support effective water management policies. To my mind, this means an increase in water-saving measures and policies that encourage a reduction in widespread flood-irrigation farming in climates utterly unsuited to it.

General Environment: I love our national parks and would like to keep them, but also think that we have an awful lot of them and could definitely encourage more use of them by recreational users if carefully managed. Not cattle, though.

Balancing Budgets: I like my political parties to have made some attempt at offsetting new spending measures with equivalent income. I'm no economist, but that seems like a sensible idea. Parties that promise the world but have no way of funding it miss out here. That goes for parties whose idea of saving money is just to 'cut read tape' or 'increase efficiency' too.

Privitisation: I don't like it. I think responsible governments ensure the best amenities for their populations and profitable businesses squeeze out as much money from their clients as possible, and that these two ideals are fundamentally opposed. If the private sector can out-compete government services, they're welcome to it, but I oppose further privitisation of government owned services and government departments.

IR: I think the minimum wage and workers rights need to be enforced by clear laws to ensure fair dealing. I don't think these costs should be so high as to make business untenable, but think we need some level of regulation to allow a decent quality of life for our citizens. If this requires some additional tariff measures (ala European standards) to protect Australian jobs, I think I'm ok with that.

Taxation: I think everyone thinks that businesses and the rich should be paying the full extent of their taxes, and support the closing of loopholes that allow them not to do soI oppose the raising of the broad-base GST, as flat-taxes have a much greater impact on those on low incomes than the rich. I would like to see conditions favourable to the formation of small business to foster jobs growth if it's possible.

Welfare: Though the current system is extremely unwieldy and could be effectively streamlined, I think it does a pretty good job at protecting the most vulnerable in our society. I endorse pensions and welfare support that are set a level that allows for some quality of life but which doesn't incentivise being on them to being in the workforce. And I think they should be fair, not targeted towards particular demographics.

Superannuation: I see mandatory superannuation as a useful tool towards reducing the pension load, and therefore important, but also think that's only a good argument in a world where pensions are asset-tested. I'd like to see super reform to see it be a realistic option for everyone and less of a tax-dodge for the well-off.

Housing: I'd like to see more efforts made to build and subsidise sustainable low-cost housing, and more controls on the housing and rental markets to allow more people to live affordably. This would probably mean making real estate a less profitable investment to encourage owner-occupiers, and I think that I'm okay with that, though I know it's complex and that I'm no economist and that sny changes would have to be rolled out over time.

Indigenous: I'd like parties to continue to commit to closing the gap between indigenous Australians and the rest of us, and to act at the community level with local consultation and inclusion in the process as much as possible.

Internet: I'd like to see rollout of a quality internet infrastructure across the country, although this ship has probably sunk already. I also support an unrestricted internet, free from region-locks, whitelists, and ISP site tracking.

Marriage Equality: I think there's a clear need for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia, both as a symbol of acceptance of a large and growing part of our community and to ensure full legal protection of marriage is available for all who wish to enter that state. It's clear there's a public concensus on this topic, so this change should be determined by a vote in parliament rather than a wasteful plebiscite.

Religious Freedom: People living in Australia should be free to practice their religion as long as it doesn't restrict the rights of others. This should mean freedom from laws designed to target specific religious groups. Free practice should also include, for example, reserving the rights of churches to decide who they will and won't marry.

Website Design: This one isn't used to determine my vote, but I like to keep track of who did well and who didn't. Clean, well-set out sites with clear policies sorted without repetition into policy areas are my favourites. This year the award goes to the Nick Xenophon team, who not only actually have a bunch of policies this time around, they've organised their site pretty well to allow you to access them too.

Electoral Reform: I support parties who support ongoing electoral reform, particularly in the area of campgain finance. I acknowledge the time and cost of our current electoral system is high, but reject moving to online voting due to security concerns and moving to electronic voting without a robust system of ongoing security checks and scrutineering at all stages of the process.

Respectability: I found that my model was biasing small single-issue parties with narrow focuses and no wide-scale policies to disagree with, so I instituted another measure designed to give higher scores to parties with broad policy directions and/or a history of participating in responsible government. I don't think this measure is ideal, but it was necessary. I hope to find a more robust way of measuring this one in future.

There you go. Did I make the wisest choices? I doubt it, but at least I tried. I think it's clear that the Brits were right about one in Australia sure is complicated.

Blaugust Writing Prompts
1) What would your perfect political party look like?
2) How do you make important decisions in your life?
3) Do you have a favourite spreadsheet?

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