Today, Australia votes in a general election that will determine who forms the next government. The campaign has been tiresome, with both sides prone to making deeply misleading claims.
Exhibit A is the claim made by the Liberal-National Coalition (our main centre right party) that plans by the centre left Australian Labor Party to scrap a tax rebate on share dividends – a rebate no other country seems to have – is a tax increase.
Exhibit B is Labor’s repeated claim that the Coalition have ‘cut’ spending to schools. They have actually increased spending. The claim seems to rest on the idea that the Coalition have not increased spending by as much as Labor planned to do just before it last left office, but that’s not a ‘cut’, it’s less of an increase.
It’s valid to be angry about either of these measures and prosecute your case accordingly, but this kind of spin is disrespectful towards voters.
Australia has a complicated preferential voting system that few people seem to understand, particularly when it comes to the ballot paper for the Senate. Outside every polling station, alongside the charity sausage sizzle, volunteers from each of the parties hand out ‘how to vote’ cards. The game is to try to send second, third, fourth etc. preferences in a direction that disadvantages a party’s main rival. The unfortunate result is a Senate where a bunch of fruitcakes with a tiny number of votes end up holding the balance of power.
I voted Labor today but I voted ‘below the line’ and made all my own preference selections from the main political parties. I have far more in common with the left of the Coalition than most of the tiny electoral oddities. How do I know? I’ve done a bit of homework.
In Australia, voting is compulsory. If you don’t turn out, you attract a fine. If the state requires Australians to perform this duty then what duty does the state owe in return? Education.
The trite solution to politicians making misleading statements is to teach the population ‘critical thinking skills’. However, regular readers of this blog will know that this is something of a red herring. General purpose critical thinking skills don’t really exist.
Instead, Australian electors need to posses relevant knowledge. It would not be possible to attempt to teach all knowledge relevant to an election in school – it would rapidly date and would risk placing educators in a position of advocacy. Instead, we need to equip voters to be able to obtain this knowledge themselves in adult life from a range of reputable sources. I think we sometimes assume that those who disengage from political news always do so as a matter of taste, but it is hard to comprehend sources such as the ABC unless you have a good base of foundational knowledge. That is what schools could and should provide through a knowledge-rich curriculum.
In the meantime, all that remains is to take a bite out of Australia’s democracy sausage and wait for what the night has in store.