Notwithstanding Kevin Rudd’s belated attempt to seize the moral high ground, both major parties are committed to enormous increases in expenditure as a result of promises made during this election campaign. According to The Australian’s “spendometer”, the Coalition leads with $64.5 billion of promises, but Labor is pressing hard in second place with $54.4 billion.

All democracies are prone to vote buying at election time, but our elections seems to be set up as spending contests. It is what voters have come to expect, and politicians are quite brazen about indulging them. Howard and Rudd have made no attempt to outline their political philosophies, or map out future strategies. Instead, they concentrate on waving dollar bills in our faces.

What makes this particularly galling is that we are yet again being bribed with our own money. Very little of the promised extra spending is going to do much good, and most of us will end up paying for it. Our tortuously-convoluted tax system is also going to become even more complex as a result of all the new concessions. At least the tax advisors and accountants should be happy.

But politicians are not stupid. They know spending promises can win votes. Discerning commentators may recoil at the stench, but there must be significant numbers of voters out there whose votes really are up for sale to the highest bidder, otherwise politicians wouldn’t behave like this.

Why do our elections increasingly resemble an unseemly auction rather than the high ideals of the Athenian polis? The fact that the economy has been sizzling makes it easier for the pollies to offer election bribes, but what drives them to do it in such a crude and blatant manner? I believe the answer may be compulsory voting.

Very few democracies have compulsory voting laws, and most of those that have them don’t enforce them. Australia is one of a tiny basket of countries that really do force people to participate in elections (the others are Belgium, Cyprus, Fiji, Luxembourg, Nauru, Switzerland, Singapore and Uruguay).

Compulsory voting has many negative consequences. It makes political parties complacent, for they can rely on the law to get their vote out rather than going door-knocking. It also disguises voter disenchantment (the 100% turnout next week will cover up the disillusionment many voters may be feeling). But the biggest draw-back is that it puts the fate of the country in the hands of those who know and care least about it.

If voting were voluntary, probably one-third of Australians wouldn’t bother. These are the people who don’t understand the issues and are not interested. But to avoid a fine, they’ll traipse off to the polling station on the 24th and they will vote for … whom?

Probably, they’ll vote for whichever party has managed to penetrate their indifference and incomprehension with its blatant spending bribes. The cruder and more brazen the bribe, the more likely it is they will be aware of it.

That’s why Howard and Rudd will continue waving dollar bills in our faces. They know they can’t buy your vote or mine, but they think they can buy the support of those who don’t give a stuff. What’s really depressing is, they are probably right.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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