The cult of the returning officer

STONE the crows! We have to wait six months until the next election! Now the tumult and the shouting of the Tasmanian and South Australian polls are out of the way nobody much will notice the departure of the pundits and psephologists until the federal election.

Which is a bit of a wait if you adore elections.

Not the endless analysis the “Newspoll is better than sex” obsessives indulge in. Not the “no one really understands the issues except me and my readers” beloved by bloggers.

It’s the actual experience of voting I look forward to.

I delight in the queuing up with people who have other places to be but patiently wait their turn because they know voting is a duty none can duck.

And completing the ballot paper and bunging it in the box would set me to singing – if it didn’t lead to being chucked out by a polling clerk.

Voting is as close to a spiritual experience as secular Australians get.

It is when we all get to tell the people who run the country to buzz off, or if we are feeling magnanimous that they can hang around for another three or four years when we will have another look at them.

And the men and women with the mates and the money, the power and the patronage nod obediently and do what a bunch of people they would never have home to dinner tell them.

Never mind they can put the police or the army on the streets. Never mind they can turn off the electricity in electorates that annoy them. Never mind that they could order the public service to keep obeying their orders, or else.

The loser’s militia do not slug it out in the streets with the winner’s youth wing.

When we say buzz off, off they buzz.

This is no small achievement. How to transfer power between competing factions without wholesale slaughter was the core question of politics when the oligarchs overturned Athenian democracy at the end of the Peloponnesian War. And it went unanswered for 2000 years plus.

But, in a bare 150 years, Australians have worked out a successful way to peacefully transfer power between parties on the basis of a popular vote. The Americans beat us to it sort-of with the 1800 presidential poll, but nobody actually voted for any of the candidates and some members of the electoral college were not picked by the voters. And the Civil War was a bit of a setback for the idea that losers do not get to pick which election results to respect.

In contrast, we were running elections not that much different from the ones we hold now a century back, long before the Brits or any of the Europeans. Perhaps the Canadians or Kiwis beat us to it but we were definitely among the earliest adopters.

That every citizen gets a go is one of the enduring delights of our political culture.

An even better one is the way the voters make such sophisticated decisions.

It is hard to think of a federal election where the voters got it wrong. Perhaps Whitlam should have won in 1969 not 1972. Perhaps Fraser should have lost in 1980 not 1983. But while the voters are cautious about chucking governments out they make considered judgements on the performance of incumbents and the potential of challengers.

The electorate’s sophistication drives the self-appointed smarties insane. People who think their education or the intensity of their opinions means their judgement is automatically superior to those of people who think Bob Green leads the Browns and do not worry all that much about global warming hate the way the electorate ignores them.

Of course they dress up their anger with arguments about the way average electors are conned into ignoring the proper causes – except when they accuse voters of being racists or reactionaries whose opinions do not count. There was a bit of that about at the height of Hansonism.

And snobs of all sorts will always tell you about the lady they met who did not know there was an election on or planned to vote for the candidate with the nice eyes.

But what they forget is every one of us is somebody else’s idea of an idiot.

The joy of Australian democracy is that we manage collectively to make sensible decisions at each election.

There is probably a neurobiologist doing a post doc on systems thinking who can explain how we manage it.

I’m just delighted we do.