"Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people"
- Russel Brand
With a voter turnout of around 30% at this years local government elections here in Geraldton, many are questioning why most eligible voters didn't bother to vote.
Some have criticised the wider public for not getting to the polls especially after all the complaints levelled at the council this year over the massive rate increases.
But is that criticism really fair, and what is the real reason only a third of the population bothered to vote?
Not voting is voting
First to consider is people's attitudes toward the system. In WA local government elections, citizens have a democratic right NOT to vote. By not voting, some people are demonstrating their lack of faith in the system, or their dissatisfaction with any of the voting options.
If people don't believe anything will change no matter who they vote for, why would they bother to waste their time?
We've voted before
Stupidity is often defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Remember the two council mergers that we had recently? About 30% of the population voted both times in referendums then too, and around 80% of the people voted AGAINST THE MERGERS.
The public made it abundantly clear to the Councillors, Mayors, and CEO's of the local governments that the people did not want the mergers to take place, but both times the council used a loophole to do what they wanted anyway. The rules said that unless 50% of the public voted, the referendum could not be considered valid.
Never mind that it was still very clear what the public wanted, the people in charge knew what was best for us and was going to give it to us.
Nowadays whenever the "local government" is mentioned on this website or social media, a growing number of people feel the need to tell everyone that local governments are illegal.
Sure, this belief is based on misinformation. The WA constitution makes very clear mention of local governments, and the Australian constitution gives the states the right to govern as it sees fit.
But it's amazing how many people want the story (of illegal local governments) to be true.
What about other non-compulsory elections?
In the most famous election of all, the United States of America Presidential Election, billions of dollars are spent on campaigning. Members of special interest groups such as the NRA are picked up and bussed to polling booths, and politicians and their supporters spend countless hours ringing people and door knocking to get support on polling day.
Yet for all that money, time and energy, the voter turnout has been between 50% - 57% over the last several elections.
Why non compulsory referendums in Geraldton were ever required to get 50% turnout to be binding is a mystery, as clearly even with untold resources the US struggles to get 50% of the population to vote in arguably the most important ballot of the western world.
A public servant, not a public boss
You only have to live in Australia for 5 minutes to know that most people think politicians are liars. Sure, we know they don't get paid a lot (relative to what they could earn in the private sector) for their trouble, and it's clear that most of them enter politics with altruistic motives.
But it is mind blowing to see time and again (some) elected officials acting as though they were chosen to be our rulers or leaders, when the reality is they were chosen by us to be our public servants.
Heck, the word "minister" means "to serve, be of service, administer, attend, wait on..." So a calling someone the Prime Minister is basically saying they are the head servant.
Yet much of the media keep telling us we're voting for our "leader/s" and it makes for good television.
On the other hand, in spite of the fact that we're technically choosing who our public servants will be for the next few years, there is a lot of language in use that does not reflect the attitudes of the everyday people.
Some of the titles and formalities are so disconnected from everyday life that they simply widen the chasm between the regular voter (who already finds politics confusing) and the system.
Did you know the formal way to address your Mayor is "His Worship"?
Doesn't sound very Australian.
But when we vote we're asked who we would like to be the next "His/Her Worship".
How about no-one?
(Credit to our local Mayor, who is somewhat more egalitarian than our forebears, preferring to be addressed in a more informal manner.)
(Also worth noting is the fact that Australians do still actually have a ruler, Her Majesty The Queen.)
Who are we voting for?
In local elections here in Geraldton, very little campaigning is done. If you feel confident you can size up a person based on a photo and a sentence they've written about themselves, then you are well armed to vote. Also, I have a bridge to sell you.
If you feel you need a little more, you either have to chase the candidates up yourself, or hope you know one of them in real life. Otherwise the most obvious course of action is to throw your hands up in the air and move on with your life.
People are disillusioned
People are confused as to why the things they're making a noise about never get sorted.
And if a simple every day Joe ever does gather the courage to confront a Councillor, MP or Minister, he is more often than not told "that's the responsibility of the other guys, you'll need to learn all about the confusing three levels of government in Australia so you know who to complain to about what."
Everyday, real people are left scratching their heads at some of the decisions that get made on their behalf. And they're asking the same questions over and over and always being palmed off to the next guy.
Why do we have so many people on the waiting list for public housing, yet we can afford to build useless art structures no one wanted?
Why are we building free wifi in the middle of town where 3G and 4G coverage is the strongest, when young poor kids from Rangeway give you a confused look when you ask them what their email address is?
Why are our own tax/rates dollars spent on propaganda telling us how great the Local/State/Federal government is? It's like a staff member taking money off the boss to make a video about how hard he's been working. Just do your job, we're watching!
(This isn't meant to argue the merits for or against any particular public project, only to illustrate some of the many comments and questions people continuously make to us here at Everything Geraldton.)
(It's also worth keeping in mind that many people don't distinguish the different levels of government well, if at all. If they are disillusioned with the system in general, they may well throw their hands up at the thought of local government elections. In addition, the general public does not investigate (nor should they have to) which level of government spends money on which project. If the local government spends its surplus money on some artworks, but the state government can't afford to fix the hospital, the general public simply see the money as wasted on something they didn't ask for, while something they have been screaming for goes wanting.)
People don't want to do it, so lets force them
What's most remarkable about the reaction around Western Australia to the low voter turnout, is that instead of attempting to address the reasons behind why people feel so disconnected from the system, or considering if the system has had its day and needs an overhaul, many Mayors have hit the radio airwaves to call for mandatory voting.
Perhaps the fact that politicians would actually consider punishing those who don't vote, shows the very mindset that people are so sick of.
Then again, it could just be laziness
It wasn't just Geraldton that had a poor voter turnout this election. All of WA suffered its lowest ever voter turnout.
Maybe nothing (major) is wrong with the system. Heck, compared to just about every other country Australia seems like a pretty darn good place to live.
Maybe we've just gown so accustomed to instant gratification in a Facebook fuelled world that the thought of opening an envelope, ticking a box, finding one of those red post box things your parents used to use, and mailing it back... just goes in the too hard basket.
Maybe we need a fine to motivate us to get off our butts.
People of Geraldton Care
One thing is abundantly clear from the sheer volume of traffic, comments, suggestions, requests and feedback Everything Geraldton receives every day. The people of Geraldton do give a damn about what happens in their city.
Perhaps they don't think politics or local government is the best way to get things done, and the low voter turn out may reflect that. But that doesn't necessarily mean people don't care.
- Jason Smith