Automatic enrolment:

Stephen Mills writes: Re. “The new electoral law that will deliver tens of millions to parties” (yesterday, item 2). I was shocked to read Bernard Keane’s take on the automatic enrolment initiative. Normally you can be relied on the see through the posturing and conspiracy-mongering that constitutes so much of today’s political discussions. But here you fanning the flames!

Your entire argument is of course based on a fundamental misconception: that in Australia’s “punitive compulsory voting system … people who choose not to vote are threatened with fines”. Actually not so. Enrolled people who choose not to attend a polling booth may be so threatened — not that there is much evidence that the fine acts as any sort of deterrent. You go from that inaccuracy to make a massive logical slide: enrolment leads to voting for a major party candidate which leads to a public funding boondoggle.

Talk about infantilising your readers! The reality of course is that enrolment leads to nothing more than the requirement to attend a polling station — where, as you must be aware, voters are free to vote for any candidate or none of them. This is hardly a “punitive” voting system.

Of course enrolment is likely to increase the rate of actual voting but unless you are living on Planet Anti-Democracy this cannot be considered a bad thing. Are you in fact advocating the abandonment of the system of compulsory enrolment? Or the system of public funding?

That seems to be the implication. If so why not come clean. Better than this ridiculous tirade. Which by the way is out of date I think — with the rise of the Greens/Labor’s primary vote share and therefore public funding share is likely to fall and push the ALP plus Liberal market share below 80%.

Your article is in fact filled with so many crazy notions: where did you get the impression that “younger people … have no interest in politics and no interest in voting”? Where did you get the bizarre idea of comparing Australia’s long-established system of electoral democracy (and long-established system of compulsory enrolment) with something that might happen in the Congo (?!).

I’m not even going to open up the topic of the administrative nightmare currently threatened by the inconsistent approaches to enrolment between the Commonwealth and the states — guess it would be better for legislators to just pretend it is all too hard. Or that encouraging non-participation in the electoral system constitutes a “progressive” cause.

Sorry for being a paternalistic academic but I feel I should speak out about what on this occasion is really sloppy argument. You fail.

Simon Copland writes: In Bernard Keane’s recent article he attempts to systematically tear apart a new electoral law that will allow the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to automatically add people to the electoral rolls, arguing that it is just a money-making exercise for parties and another way to enforce the punitive act of compulsory voting.

We commonly hear arguments against compulsory voting. People are quick to say “how on Earth can we live in a democracy, but then force people to vote?” To turn this around, we should ask; “how on Earth can we live in a democracy, but force people to pay taxes and obey laws?” Most people agree that doing so is the responsibility of all citizens.

Strong democracies only work if citizens are provided with rights and freedoms, but are also expected to take on responsibilities. As we expect people to pay taxes and obey by laws, it is just as important to expect people to engage in the political process. One of the biggest levels of responsibility citizens have in a democracy is to ensure its continued strength and vitality. Voting is a key tenant of this and without it our system would fail.

Moving beyond this, let’s look at Keane’s main points against the law.

First, Keane argues that the law increases the surveillance state and stops people from showing disgust at the political system. It is important to remember that our system does not actually enforce voting, but rather enforces turning up on election day. People can vote informally (showing their disgust) and this law does not stop that.

Second, it is simplistic to argue that people don’t enrol because they don’t want to vote. While of course there are people like this, many don’t enrol because they don’t know they have to, they don’t know how to or they are unable to negotiate the process.

Keane also argues that this is just a money-making exercise for the big parties. It is unfortunate that the only evidence provided for this are the numbers around how much the parties stand to gain. Keane didn’t provide evidence to show that this is the motivating factor.

Looking further it is Keane’s argument around the lack of engagement of News Ltd in the debate (which he argues is because it stands to gain financially from the law) that stands most strongly against this assertion. With the benefits of empowering people in our democracy I think it’s actually possible that even News Ltd. found it difficult to turn this into a scandal (remember it is happy to report negatively on government advertising campaigns, which it also benefits from).

Compulsory voting ensures engagement in our democratic processes and is a key tenant in the health of our democracy. Legislation to create automatic enrolment is essential to ensure that all members of our democracy have equal access to our democratic institutions and I look forward to seeing it happen in Australia.

Mungo MacCallum writes: Bernard Keane apparently believes that people who do not vote are actually demonstrating a positive involvement with democracy by dropping out of it. Apart from the self-evident absurdity of the proposition, it suggests that Keane has never taken a close look at systems where voluntary voting prevails.

Apart from the obvious risks of well-organised pressure groups taking control and the sheer waste involved (vast amounts of time and money are spent trying to persuade voters simply to turn up at the polling booth instead of campaigning on policy) there is a genuine threat to the democratic system itself.

I worked for the British Labour Party on the election of 1963 and saw at firsthand how disengaged the voters of Hammersmith were under the voluntary system. Not only did they demand to be driven to the booths, they insisted on tea and biscuits when they got there — if these were not provided, they simply switched to the opposing camp. Voting was not a right or even a hard-won privilege; it was simply a day out.

Democracy is fragile enough at the best of times; it depends on the participation of the electorate. Asking them to devote a few minutes every three, or four, or six years is hardly a high price to pay for its continuance. Those who do not want to make the choice can vote informal, but at least they should have to acknowledge the obligation of being citizens in a system that allows their participation. And of course, if your don’t accept that premise, you have absolutely no right to complain of the consequences.

Jason Ives writes: It is enough to drive me to drink (admittedly a short drive on some days) when commentators incorrectly assert that “people who choose not to vote [in federal elections] are threatened with fines”. Bernard Keane, who usually has an impressive eye for detail, did this yesterday.

No one is forced to vote in a federal election. Indeed, the beauty of the secret ballot is that it is impossible to know whether or not one has voted at all. Even people who apparently advocate not voting (a la Mark Latham) seem to be free to do so. Five per cent of people turning up to the ballot boxes in the 2010 election chose not to vote, and the AEC will never know who they are.

Sure, we are forced to make a half-hour round trip to our local primary school on election day, but once we are there the choice about whether or not to vote is ours and ours alone. I guess there may be an economist somewhere jumping up and down about the inefficiency of it all, but let’s face it — that trip to the ballot box is probably the smallest tax that the government will ever levy upon us.

Joe Boswell writes: Bernard Keane’s piece found all sorts of faults with a new law for automatic enrolment that would “open up individuals to the punitive compulsory voting system, whereby people who choose not to vote are threatened with fines”.

That phrase overlooks that enrolment is just as compulsory as voting. As the AEC puts it, “Compulsory voting means that every eligible Australian citizen (18 years or older) is required by law to enrol and vote.”

So long as enrolment is compulsory it makes little sense to moan about measures to enforce it, unless you think people should be free to pick and choose which laws they obey. On top of that, this law, far from being “draconian”, as Keane puts it, is a particularly mild and non-punitive enforcement of compulsory enrolment.

The headline issue raised in your piece about how much money the parties will make is a complete red herring. All that will happen if these people are enrolled by the implementation of this law is that the parties will get public funding they are properly entitled to receive; funding they are currently being denied due to the unlawful actions of some citizens.

The real issues are whether voting should be compulsory and whether political parties should receive public funds.

Brian Mitchell writes: I got about halfway through before giving up in disgust at this article’s inherent bias: Keane is clearly no fan of compulsory voting, as is his right, but people are breaking the law if they do not enrol to vote when they achieve eligibility, so there is nothing “draconian” about automatically signing people up.

Keane can provide an argument against compulsory voting if he chooses to, but I prefer to read my news without being led by the nose about how I should be feeling. Nasty, unfounded little turds such as “the surge in informal voting by people disgusted with contemporary politics” belong in The Australian, not Crikey.

Is Keane seeking to join former Crikey shit-stirrer Christian Kerr over at The Coalition Daily?

Bill Castleden writes: Compulsory voting and enrolment would be fair if there was a box on each ballot paper entitled “None of the Above”.

If that ballot were to win the election we would have a true indication of people’s disgust with politics and politicians and the parties would have to go back to the electorate to find acceptable candidates.

Fukushima:

Geophysicist Dr Mark Duffett writes: Re. “If Fukushima goes to shit again, maybe Jesus is onto something” (yesterday, item 5). Paul Johannessen, I understand that you and many of your acquaintance in Japan are feeling apprehensive. I’d like to make you feel better, in the best way I know how — by looking rationally at the facts of the situation.

First, the alarming e-mail you received, which said “cesium fall-out” in Tokyo had increased to around 230 MBq/km2. (from both Cs isotopes). What does this mean?

Well, 230 MBq/km2 equates to about 0.031 microsieverts per hour. This needs to be compared with typical Japanese background levels (from all radioactive isotopes) of around 0.05 microsieverts/hr. So even the “high” Cs readings amount to barely 50% over the normal total background level. Fifty per cent still sounds like a big increase, albeit that it was temporary? Not really, when you consider that the population of Ramsar (Iran) thrives in an average background of 1.16 microSv/hr — over 10 times the “spike” level of radiation in Tokyo, with no indication of increased cancer rates or anything like that.  Maybe even the opposite.

But from your dark speculation about “faulty” thermometer readings, I gather you’re more inferring that the increased Cs is somehow symptomatic of some fresh failure at Fukushima.  Surely, through some technical wizardry, “they” know what’s “really” going on? Thermal imaging? As a videographer, you should know that photons don’t go around corners, much less through metres of concrete and steel. And as someone who “maps the composition of metals deep within the Earth” from a distance for a living, I can tell you it ain’t that simple.

Now, I get that you don’t trust TEPCO, and maybe that’s fair enough. But do you really think it’s a helpful response to second-guess them, play armchair nuclear engineer and publicly propagate new disaster scenarios?

You see, in this realm, it’s not just idle speculation. As a writer, you should know: words matter. They change the way people think, how they feel, what they feel. Like fear, for instance.  And if there’s one thing we learnt beyond doubt from Chernobyl, it’s that the health effects of fear are far, far more damaging than those of radiation.

The implication is clear. I started by trying to make you feel better, but I’m afraid that’s not the conclusion I’ve come to. Because the harsh truth, when you boil it down, is that by spreading fear, you, Paul Johannessen, are helping to kill people. Not to mention cruelling the chances of the technology that is our best hope for avoiding dangerous climate change — but that’s another story.

Note I’m not saying the consequences of Fukushima are completely inconsequential. But neither are they, or at least should they be, catastrophic.

Geoff Russell writes: Can Paul Johannessen please do some actual journalism. Perhaps Paul can find out how many workers involved in the clean-up got more radiation than from a cat scan? How many raised their lifetime risk of cancer by more than 1 in 100? How many raised their lifetime risk of cancer by more than the fire-fighters who received a hefty carcinogenic dose of fumes fighting the Chiba oil refinery blaze? Or perhaps he can find out what proportion of the evacuated area has a higher radiation level than occurs naturally in other parts of the world with no measurable ill-effects? Perhaps he can find out how many cancers are caused by motor vehicle emissions annually in Japan? Or how many children die in India annually because their mothers use wood for cooking because Greenpeace is delaying nuclear power plant construction?

What? No fun in hard work? Much more fun fear mongering and taking pictures of frantic worried people so that more people get frantic and fearful.

A US expert recently called for an end to the evacuations, but the Johannessons of the world prefer ignorance and unfounded terror.

So what IS normal rate of cancers in Fukushima prefecture? Globocan puts the national incidence in Japan at about 615,000 new cases each year. So for the 2 million people in the Fukushima prefecture, that’s about 8000 cases in the 11 months since the quake and tsunami.

So the current toll is: normal cancer in Fukushima prefecture, 8000; quake and tsunami deaths in whole region, ~20,000; radiation deaths, 0. Likely cancer deaths over the next 20 years?  Most of the evacuation area would give an exposure of about 20-50 mSv per year, so it’s a much safer part of the world than any Tokyo roadway.

The Tent Embassy:

Justin Templer writes: Re. “Aboriginal protests: grassroots activism v boardroom blackfellas” (yesterday, item 4). Chris Graham writes of the Tent Embassy disturbance in Canberra that “Regardless of your views of the actual incident, exposing the racist underbelly of this nation to the rest of the world is not a bad thing for the Aboriginal cause.”

It is unclear in what way this racist underbelly was exposed — all I saw was a sensitivity and tolerance that would never be afforded non-Aborigines — illegal structure in the middle of the nation’s capital, a demonstration requiring the evacuation of the Prime Minister and yet no arrests made, burning of the Australian flag, threats of assault against journalists.

Maybe it is the racist underbelly of the Aboriginal peoples that Chris is referring to?

Ian Hickie:

Martin Whitely MLA, Member for Bassendean, writes: Re. “Ian Hickie: on Twitter, The Lancet and my critics” (Wednesday, item 3). Professor Ian Hickie accused me of defaming him in my blog titled “Professor Ian Hickie — Wrong, Wrong, Wrong“.

The relevant section states:

“Professor Hickie has been a high-profile key opinion leader appearing at a Servier Valdoxan briefing in April 2011, and presenting at Servier funded master-classes and symposia. While he declared some of his earlier research ties to Servier, he did not declare his appearances at Servier events in the original Lancet article, or in the authors’ response to criticism.”

In Crikey, Professor Hickie wrote:

“… some have alleged that we had not declared our financial or professional relationships with manufacturers of one of the compounds — even though we clearly stated these at the end of the original article… This is an area where the local critics continue to defame me by misrepresenting this process. Given that we submitted the original article (as requested) in July 2009, and started returning proof corrections in February 2011, it was not possible to declare key educational or media activities supporter by Servier that occurred later in 2011.”

Unfortunately for Professor Hickie he has got it wrong yet again.

As early as November 2010, six months before publication, and three months before the process of returning proofs began, he helped promote Servier’s Valdoxan at a Servier Depression Masterclass.

Heartland:

Tamas Calderwood writes: Re. “Who’s the Anon Donor keeping a climate sceptic think tank afloat?” (yesterday, item 12). The most striking thing about Amber Jamieson’s report on the leaked documents from the Heartland Institute are the small numbers thrown around. An anonymous donor has donated $US8.6 million since 2007, which is 60% of ALL Heartland’s contributions?  I mean, I could probably live on 8.6 million bucks over five years but it’s not a huge sum to fund 60% of an entire think tank.

Contrast that with the government money fire-hosed on the global warming industry:  Tim Flannery alone gets 180 grand a year as a “Climate Change Commissioner”. A recent FOI request in the UK revealed that £234 million was spent by the government Research Council on “climate change research and training” in financial year 2009/10. Fift six Universities also admitted to receiving over £72 million a year for research grants relating to climate change.

That’s just the UK. How much cash is sprayed on our universities and think tanks to study climate change? What about all the others throughout Europe, Canada, America? And how about all the solar subsides, wind farm subsidies, green car subsidies?

Perhaps the biggest scandal of the global warming story is how such vast sums of government money have corrupted so many institutions into following the consensus position. That kind of money talks, you know.

JA’s big survey:

Regan Forrest writes: Re. “Tips and rumours” (yesterday, item 7). John Alexander’s push-polling will look very familiar to South Australian voters, who received a very similar “survey” from Senator Mary Jo Fisher in early 2010 (pre-Rudd topple). I sent mine back — not with answers, but marked up pointing out how appallingly loaded the questions were.

In the “Any feedback?” section, I expressed out my dissatisfaction with such a survey and how if this is what passes for political “polling” these days, I would never believe any poll results I read ever again!

Funnily enough I never heard back anything back from the senator’s office …

Peter Fray

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