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Richardson: Democracy’s three-card trick


Elections are considered the lifeblood of democracy but, as Tom Richardson argues, for the most part they’re merely rubber-stamping decisions being made right now, with limited scrutiny, by major party insiders.

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‘Tis the best of seasons, made all the merrier for the fact it only comes round once every four years.

Preselection season.

When the great and the good (well, maybe not the good) of their respective parties decide the candidates who will represent them at the forthcoming state election, set for March 19 next year.

Party insiders and political reporters (well, me at least) get quite enlivened by preselections – and why not?

There’s a particular grubby drama and intrigue to it all that crystallises politics in all its (soap) operatic grandeur.

But for many a casual observer, it’s all a bit in-house.

For most, politics is a three-or-four yearly chore, an occasional administrative task on par with renewing your driver’s licence.

But more importantly – and quite understandably – the pinnacle of our democratic expression is generally regarded as the day we cast our ballot.

Our Westminster system suggests that peak democracy comes on that single day when many an aspiring political leader becomes, to paraphrase Notting Hill, just a candidate standing in front of an electorate, asking them to love him or her. Or vote for them, at least.

But the fact is – it’s doesn’t.

Election day is, rather, more like democracy’s version of a three-card trick.

When you’re asked to pick a card, but are only given a limited selection to choose from – and in most cases the result is already predetermined anyway.

Take the state election, for instance.

Based on the swing-to-lose figures from last year’s electoral boundaries redistribution, there are currently seven marginal seats in SA – that is, seats with a margin under five per cent.

Three of them are Labor-held: Badcoe, Wright and Mawson, with the rest Liberal: Newland, Adelaide, King and Elder.

Mind you, that’s predicated on the same statewide result from the 2018 poll: if the two-party-preferred vote is recalibrated to 50:50, the boundaries commission estimates there are still seven marginal seats, albeit not the same exact seven: Badcoe and Wright are excluded, replaced by Liberal-held Colton and Harley.

Which suggests that, barring a landslide one way or another, only Mawson, Newland, Adelaide, King and Elder are seriously in play.

Labor went into Opposition in 2018 with 19 seats to the Libs’ 25, with three crossbenchers.

Of those three, one was a former ALP member and another had helped prop up the previous Labor government, while the third was a former Liberal, Troy Bell, who had stood aside from the party while he faced (still unresolved) theft and dishonesty charges stemming from an ICAC investigation.

New boundaries have forced Geoff Brock to fight for his political career in a new – safe Liberal – seat, while Frances Bedford is still weighing up which electorate to contest.

And while Bell has been a genuine conservative independent, it seems unlikely he’s ever back a Labor government.

In recent times, two other Libs – Sam Duluk and Fraser Ellis – have joined the crossbench, both on account of separate legal troubles. But both represent seats that are considered safe Liberal territory.

All of which suggests that, to have a hope of forming Government, Labor needs to win all four of the Liberal seats designated as marginal – and hope for plenty more to go their way.

But it also means that, for those of us who aren’t in any of these seats, our role is to simply turn up as legally mandated and cast the vote we are expected to cast.

A few years back, I used to dabble in the online fantasy football game AFL Dream Team, wherein participants select their team within a prescribed budget and are awarded points based on the relevant players’ real-life counterparts’ actual game-day performance.

By the time I gave it up, the competition had become so widely promoted that most teams you came up against were virtual carbon copies of your own – with just a handful of alternative selections – or “uniques”, as they’re called in the trade – deciding the weekend’s outcome.

That’s kind of how it works in elections too.

And while a variety of inputs – election promises, leadership gaffes, demographic changes – can influence the outcome in those electoral “uniques”, the actual candidates themselves are, for the most part, neither here nor there.

And to the extent that they’re democratically determined, much of it is done in virtual darkness, without considerable public scrutiny.

The Libs, for instance, have just held a fortnight of preselections, deciding candidates for three vacant but safe seats and the Labor-held marginal of Mawson.

The endorsed candidates in those three nominal Liberal seats will no doubt work hard, knocking on doors and shoring up their support, but for the most part the important work was done by impressing enough of their local sub-branch delegates to win preselection.

Because, barring some extraordinary event, such as a star independent surfing in and seizing the local zeitgeist, these three candidates – Ashton Hurn, Penny Pratt and Sam Telfer – are effectively already members of parliament.

The real work of democracy wasn’t done by their electorates, but by the few dozen party members who turned up to vote in their preselection contest – not to mention the party’s moderate-faction-dominated state executive, which also gets to influence the outcome.

Outgoing MP for Schubert Stephan Knoll told ABC Radio this morning that “there isn’t factional politics” up in his Barossa seat, but rather “a group of local people who vote for the person that they believe is going to best represent them”.

Maybe so, although that doesn’t explain why the party’s moderates were celebrating like they’d just won an AFL Dream Team Grand Final when Hurn snared the preselection to replace him – with the backing of the state executive, where there most certainly is factional politics.

Which means all the factional stoushes – the bust-ups, friendships, uneasy alliances, truces, compromises, betrayals and even the genuine sales pitches – that feed into the average preselection result… that’s the real stuff of our democracy.

Election day itself – well, for the most part, that’s just a rubber stamp.

In a safe seat, it’s a rubber stamp for the designated electoral boundaries. If you happen to live in a Mawson, a Newland, an Adelaide, a King or an Elder – or unless a plucky independent shows up in your backyard at just the right time – your democratic right is exercised by endorsing the decisions of a few dozen party faithful – or worse, a handful of unaccountable powerbrokers.

It’s a three-card trick, in which you’re probably just going to get the card the dealer always knew you’d take.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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