I didn't vote for that

It’s getting exciting, isn’t it. Very dramatic, full of unexpected twists and turns. It’s the first thing we want to talk about when we get to work each day.

But it’s not a prime time drama.

It’s not The Voice, or Australia’s Got Talent.

It’s not the AFL, NRL or even the intrigue-soaked A-League.

For once, Australian federal politics is captivating people across the country. If the real world was the twitterverse, Australian politics would be "trending".

Who’d have thunk it? Australians, rightly or wrongly, have a reputation for being mostly ambivalent, or at least not terribly passionate, about politics.

Sure, come election time, Australia gets polarised in the same way it does for the Bathurst 1000. In the same way people dust off and wave their Holden and Ford Flags, most Australians line up behind the Coalition or the ALP, scoffing at the Democrats, Greens and Independents like they were Toyota, Mazda and Nissan at Bathurst.

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"The truth is, we never vote for our leaders. We get to vote directly for an Australian Idol, for someone with the Voice, for Australians who've got talent and for people with the X factor, but not the leader of the nation."


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When the race, or the election, is over, however, the passion subsides and it’s back to a state of disinterest and mild amusement.

But that’s changed in recent times.

Much like a soapie, people want to know the latest on Craig Thomson or Peter Slipper, or what’s gone wrong in the friendship between Michael Kroger and Peter Costello. Like a soap opera, it’s salacious and voyeuristic and engaging.

But the interest goes much deeper this time around.

You can trace it back to any number of events, and pundits from each side will point the finger of blame at different ones, but the last federal election that left us with a minority government laid the foundation.

When the ALP made a deal with the Greens and Independents, there was an almost visceral outcry from the disaffected many that "we didn’t vote for this".

And that’s true. They/we didn’t.

A few months earlier, some said the same thing about Gillard taking the prime ministership from Kevin Rudd.

They were right too.

The truth is, we never vote for our leaders. We get to vote directly for an Australian Idol, for someone with the Voice, for Australians who've got talent and for people with the X factor, but not the leader of the nation.

We vote for our local member, deals are done further down the track and voila, we have a leader but we didn't get a say.

When we ended up with a minority government, the outcry was at its loudest. There was a Convoy of No Confidence and many prominent talking heads calling for an early election because this wasn’t right, but it was entirely kosher in terms of the constitution.

It’s a bit like the underarm bowling incident in cricket. It was yucky, unsavoury and unpopular but totally within the rules of cricket at the time. The rules in that cricket match, and after the federal election, weren’t broken, they were simply applied.

Sometimes situations like these serve a purpose. Sometimes what is needed is for unsatisfactory loopholes and flaws to be exposed for them to be corrected.

So let’s do that now. Let’s correct our electoral system so that we DO get a say as to who leads us.

A new system

Since we’re looking at having MORE of a say rather than less, that leaves us with democracy as our starting point. Sure, every version of democracy has its own flaws, or as Winston Churchill said "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried," but it’s the best game in town so let’s stick with it.

If we were assembling a version of democracy from scratch, which bits would we take and from where?

Well whether you love or hate American cultural influences, there are aspects of US politics that would work well here and also give us more of that "say" we’ve been craving.

Like the Westminster system we have, it still involves representative government with locally appointed representatives assembling in the lower house of government to represent us. It also has a senate, which is a state’s house, so those bits don’t represent a massive change.

But two aspects from the US system that make a lot of sense are direct election of their president and their method of electing a cabinet.

In our current system, the leader of the party that either receives the most votes or does the best job of wrangling with other parties to have the majority of votes gets to lead the country – but we have no say in who that party elects. Also our system encourages us to elect local members who belong to the same party as the leader we want, irrespective of whether they’d be a good local member.

But what if you like a person as a local member because of their personal qualities and proven record of community involvement irrespective of political party, but would prefer the nominee from another party to lead us? In our system, you can’t do that. In the US system, you can.

The American system recognises that being a local member is a job in itself better than ours does, and this links to their system of electing cabinet.

In our system, elected representatives from within the party that wins government become cabinet ministers. In the US system, highly qualified people with relevant skillsets get to be their version of a cabinet minister – a secretary.

In our system, a loyal party man who has been good at winning local votes and/or following the party line gets to be the minister for defence, finance or health whereas in the American system, a suitably qualified former defence, finance or health expert is chosen to lead the relevant department.

Which makes more sense?

And not only does that aspect of the American system make more sense, political purists will be pleased that it also adheres more closely to the doctrine of separation of powers. The American system offers absolute separation of powers (Executive – president and cabinet; Legislative – congress and senate; Judiciary – the court system) whereas the Australian system has the Executive as a subset of the Legislative.

So to recap, stealing those elements of the US system would mean:

• we get local members who only have to do that well without trying to hold down a portfolio and hustle for political position

• we get to have a cabinet that are presumably qualified for the department they lead and are not simply competent at gaining political favour

• we get to elect our leader

But one more thing we can steal from our friends across the Pacific is their way of arriving at the candidates for leadership.

The Primaries

The primaries are a series of conventions where the candidates tour around, have the chance to sell themselves and debate with their rivals from within the same party, before participating registered party members get to vote on who they want.

In the US system, interested contenders are paired down to around half a dozen candidates before the series of "Primaries" take place. In Oz, there’d probably be one for each state and Territory.

Outwardly, it appears to be a pretty robust, and even confrontational system. Candidates go at each other hammer and tong trying to outpoint each other, often denigrating their opponents before later endorsing their erstwhile opponents and saying they have their full support.

Another advantage of that system is that potential candidates aren’t limited to federal politicians. It would be interesting to see who would stand if that system existed in Australia. Let’s assemble two hypothetical lineups.

For the ALP, naturally we’d expect to see Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd standing. Perhaps Bill Shorten and former NSW premier Bob Carr might also have a go. From outside of federal politics, SA premier Jay Weatherill might get a look in and perhaps former power broker Graham Richardson would join the list. Those last two are purely speculative but help to illustrate the sort of diversity available in this system.

On the Coalition side of the equation, Tony Abbott would top the list of candidates, and might be joined by Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey. Given that the primaries were on a party basis, Nationals leader Warren Truss wouldn’t be eligible but if this system ever came to be in Australia, no doubt the coalition parties would merge. State premiers Campbell Newman and Barry O’Farrell might also earn a Guernsey for the Libs and Alan Jones could be another potential candidate.

Who’d win those primaries? Who knows, but it would be entertaining. To maximise your "say", you’d register with your party of choice, attend the relevant primary and vote towards who you wanted. Then, when the party's lead contender was finally decided, in addition to electing a local representative, you’d also get a say in who was the leader of the nation.

Of course, that may not be the person you want. You still might want to bellow "I didn’t vote for that" from time to time. Sadly no political system promises you’ll get what you want but at least this way, you'd get a say in who leads the country.

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