Who doesn’t enjoy dealing with party workers on election day?

Victorians have just spent a weekend dodging creepy political types wielding how to vote cards, and paying for our public buildings to be covered with all manner of expensive, paper-wasting party advertising garbage.

Not the best illustration: I wish I’d taken a shot of our booth, with a tiny entrance festooned with party garbage, and a swarm of volunteers from the bigger parties. The Liberals had up to three or four people handing out for them at various points of the day.

And I think I speak for most of us who aren’t advocates for the two big parties who have the most public money to spend on this rort to give them an advantage over non-incumbent and smaller parties, when I ask is this necessary?

It’s obviously necessary for each party to play the game when all the other parties are doing it – it’s an advertising arms race. If one party gets wraparound bunting, the other party has to splurge on it too – if it can afford to. And whether it can afford to depends on whether it has the funding benefit of incumbency, in which the public pays for a large chunk of it – or whether it has backers with plenty of disposable cash who’ll stump up out of self-interest.

So it’s a system that gives a massive advantage to the wealthy and incumbent.

But what if we adopted an exclusion zone on election day, keeping punters safe from being harassed by expensive political crap for which they happen to have been forced to pay?

In the ACT and Tasmania, you’re not permitted to canvas for votes from electors within 100m of the polling place. I gather, but my French isn’t good enough to confirm (desolee, mes cheries), that it’s even further in France.

Now, it could be argued that it sounds suspiciously like undemocratic censorship to apply any restrictions at all to the full and frank expression of political views. Who is the electoral commission to be telling those who would be our elected representatives what they can and can’t say on the day on which we choose between them?

Well, I’m not suggesting it should. I’m suggesting we should demand that our parliament pass exclusion zones around polling places on our behalf, and for one very good reason: this kind of speech is very far from free. It actually undermines real free speech, and democracy, and replaces it with a destructive and very expensive advertising arms race which serves only to lock in the powerful and rule out their competitors. It makes the barriers to entry, to use a market term, unmanageably high, thereby robbing us as voters of a decent choice of candidates.

I think it’s time we, to quote the Liberal Party, stopped the waste.

14 responses to “Who doesn’t enjoy dealing with party workers on election day?

  1. jordanrastrick

    Although exclusion zones in and of themselves would hardly be a disaster, this post is so symptomatic of the many problems with allegedly “progressive” calls to restrict political speech, that its hard to know where to start attacking the reasoning.

    Perhaps a couple of questions might get the ball rolling.

    First, If electioneering is “very far from free”, could you please clarify in what sense precisely? In particular, could you characterize speech that is very close to free, and what qualities supposedly distinguish it from the unfree kind?

    Second, since you apparently now disapprove of public funding for parties based on popular vote due to incumbency bias, and of course private funding as well, what funding model do you propose instead?

  2. You misunderstand me. Public funding based on previous vote is the least unfair way of doing it; but the warping effect of incumbency and receiving political donations (which should be capped) would be reduced to some extent if there was an exclusion zone of at least a couple of hundred metres around polling places.

    We already make a compromise – campaigners aren’t allowed in the polling place itself. Well, just extend that zone a bit further.

    What does all that last minute waste achieve, anyway?

  3. I think if the feds tried what you’re suggesting they might run foul of the Australian Constitution the same way Keating(??) did in the early 1990s with his laws that restricted advertising.

    At least I think it was ALP laws…long day.

  4. jordanrastrick

    Canpaigners in the pollig place itself potentially compromises the secrecy / security etc of the ballot, so that’s a separate issue.

    If you put exclusion zones around voting places, the major parties will just channel those funds into television, radio, print, mail-outs etc. It is smaller grassroot/independent candidates, who don’t have the scale to access such channels and may rely on volunteer labour to make up for an inability to finance commercial advertising, who would lose out most.

    Donation caps impair the moderately wealthy from aggregating their efforts but put no restriction on the largest special interest groups. The two most effective recent cases of private spending influencing the Australian political process, by far, were the MCAs campaign against the RPST, and the ACTU against workchoices. Both organisations had sufficient scale to make donating to a party irrelevant; a cap would have had zero effect on either. A smaller union or business that can’t afford to fund their own ads, on the other hand, would be restricted from chipping into a wider cause.

    Furthermore, the incentives to game the system are strong and almost impossible to effectively regulate against without even more dangerous overreach. What if GetUp decides to run a “5 reasons Tony Abbott shouldnt be PM” campaign. There’s nothing to stop me donating $cap to the ALP and then $cap to NoTony 2013. Of course then the small business council and the Australian Christian lobby can both counter, with their own independent NoSocialistJulia and NoAtheistJulia movements. Thus while you might succeed in reducing the scope or perception for corrupt donator influence on decision makers with such a change, you won’t necessarily effectively limit the ability of money to sway popular opinion. If anything, encouraging the proliferation of such non-party partisan groups as outlets for political spending merely serves to reduce the transparency of who is giving how much to what cause.

    Campaign finance control is an absolute minefield of potentially unconstitutional restrictions on political free speech, coupled with few if any concrete proposals that any evidence or theory suggests would be truly effective. Booth exclusion zones are a relatively minor and unimportant example, but the arguments you put in favour of them suffer from similar problems as arguments to impose simplistic caps on donations or spending.

  5. As one of those creeps, I would agree with getting rid of advertising banners and the like. There is an exclusion zone for campaign workers already.

    Some voters appreciate help from us creeps especially if they are absentee voters. Senate and Upper House ballot papers can be intimidating without a how-to-vote card.

    Voters who are not on the roll, need assistance with voting or have similar issues also take advantage of our assistance. This is particularly true at booths with high indigenous enrolments or at the mobile booths that visit remote communities for only a couple of hours sometimes.

    Get over it!

  6. I’ll come back to yours, Jordan.

    Kevin – don’t take it personally. I spent Saturday handing out HTVs too. Ten hours of it.

  7. Nothing personal taken, Jeremy.

    Wish you’d been at my booth. Conversation with the tories was a bit limited. The Green made our 19 year old candidate look ancient.

  8. Lefty – totally OT and I apologise, but do you have any plans to post on the wikileaks story?

    I’m very interested in the views of the regulars here.

  9. jordanrastrick

    Ha! I had been resisting the temptation for quite a while now to try and dictate Jeremy’s agenda by suggesting topics.

    I’d be very interested to see threads here about:

    * Nuclear energy
    * The Korean peninsula crisis
    * Details of the electoral system Jeremy would replace our current one with
    * Immigration and population
    * Yeah, wikileaks too

    Maybe I just need to revive my own blog? 😛 But my audience was nearly always too small to get a decent discussion going…

  10. I should do one on Wikileaks. Maybe tomorrow.

    Kevin – the papers should not be so confusing someone can’t figure them out, but in any case that’s something polling officials can help with.

    Jordan – I don’t agree that the current system helps grassroots candidates. For one thing, it’s much harder for them to provide people at the booths in the first place – contrast the many Liberal HTV people during the day with me as the one Green and the only other parties there being Fundies First and the ALP.

    You’re right though about the potential for money to simply find its way around campaign restrictions by starting its own political campaigns, as in the US. I’m not sure what the solution is to this, but the status quo is hardly satisfactory.

  11. Splatterbottom

    The party workers at the polling booths are part of the carnival atmosphere of election time. It would be very boring without them. We need this little bit of political theatre, and it is useful for some to be able to grab a how-to-vote card if they have forgotten who the candidates are.

  12. Why not just abolish compulsory voting so that the phenomenon of idiot voters not having made up their mind until they actually reach the voting station is minimised.

    Seriously – democracy is more important than a one-minute decision made every three years and based on who waves the shiniest pice of paper in your face that day.

  13. jordanrastrick

    Mondo, then you have the situation where the marginal voter is opinionated but lazy instead of indecisive. Parties put their efforts not into persuading the swinging voter who’s in two minds about who to vote for, but the voter who would only ever countenance voting one way but is too apathetic to do so if not forced or cajoled.

    It is not necessarily worse, but its hardly evidently better. Britain and America have non-compulsory voting and I don’t think any case can be made that it has lead to a substantively better political process that ours for either country.

  14. but the voter who would only ever countenance voting one way but is too apathetic to do so if not forced or cajoled.

    I’m not sure that’s a particularly valid conclusion. There would still be a sizeable portion of swinging voters engaged enough in the political process to be worth pursuing, but with the added benefit that the big parties could no longer chase them by ignoring their base.

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