October 2007

The Nation Reviewed

The flatbed scanner of democracy

By Charles Firth
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

It is vitally important to the health of Australian democracy and the economy that everyone buys a flatbed scanner.

A few weeks ago I was standing in front of my mirror, practising my smug-yet-sombre look, when I was informed of a rumour that John Howard was ten minutes away from announcing the date of the election. It’s important to have an expression for every occasion: if I ever enter politics, for example, I’m petrified that I won’t have a look prepared should I win control of both houses of parliament. For that, you need a look that channels unbridled glee into something that passes for humble acceptance of responsibility. It’s a complicated one: even harder than the stunned-yet-unsurprised look that outgoing leaders wear on the night of their election defeat. And much, much harder than the Howard-yet-not-Howard appearance that Kevin Rudd has perfected in the past few months.

Anyway, there I was in front of the mirror when a look of panic crossed my smug (yet sombre) face. For I recalled that the Coalition changed the law last year so that Australians only have until 8 pm of the day the writs are issued to update their enrolment details. The law is called the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act 2006, and it required a very straight face to guide it through both houses, given its gall.

Eric Abetz didn’t even smirk when he told the Senate that in introducing the legislation he was going against the explicit wishes of the Australian Electoral Commission. It was the integrity of the system he was worried about, not the commission’s petty objections. He claimed that the new bill would protect the commission from again being swamped: last time around, 160,000 Australians used the seven days following the announcement of the election to update their details. What a thoughtful guy. And no doubt the senator had only the integrity of the system in mind as he read into law the part of the legislation which strips an extra 9800 prisoners of their right to vote.

It was one of those laws that I didn’t think too much about - I’m white, middle class and tend to mix with white-collar criminals, who on the whole get non-custodial sentences. But for months following my return from overseas I had failed to re-enrol, despite knowing the law. So when the message came in telling me about the election rumour, I panicked. With a serious-yet-graceless look, I turned on my computer and went straight to www.aec.gov.au. I downloaded an enrolment form, filled it out, put it in an envelope, stamped it, and then realised that if the writs were issued that day, the form would be useless: it would arrive at the AEC the next day.

Surely, I thought, there must be a way to lodge my form electronically? The internet has made it wonderfully easy to pay money to the government, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to work out an online enrolment system, should it?

There is indeed a system. You print out an enrolment form, fill it out by hand, acquire a flatbed scanner, scan the form and then email it to the AEC. Simple. I’m pretty sure the Commonwealth Bank is thinking of introducing a similar process in its next update of NetBank; by 2010 we’ll no doubt all be writing cheques and scanning them. Anyhow, thanks to the AEC’s olde-worlde embrace of the information age, only those who own a scanner will be able to enrol to vote at the last minute. Users of late-’90s computer technology, unite!

Since a flatbed scanner is one of those anachronistic things that you might normally throw out when moving house, the system is utterly unsuited to the people it purports to serve. It’s almost as if - perish the thought - the Coalition isn’t as committed to letting citizens enrol as Senator Abetz led me to believe. In hindsight, perhaps the look he had while reading the bill into law was not restrained-yet-power-addled, as I’d assumed, but more a variation on honest-yet-lying.

It’s almost as if the Coalition planned ahead, thinking that the more people who enrol at the last minute, the more there’ll be to vote against it. Which is intriguing, given the profile of those who’ve been disenfranchised. Sure, everyone knows that hardened criminals vote Labor, but the remaining voters affected are not necessarily rusted-on ALP supporters. People in low-cost housing and rental accommodation move more often than those higher up the socio-economic scale. In many marginal seats, especially those in the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, they are precisely the people who voted Howard into power.

Why would Howard strip his own battlers from the roll? The answer may lurk in recent statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It notes that wage-earners are paying 18% more for goods and services than they did five years ago. And a recent report by Australia Fair found that nearly 10% of Australians are living at or below the poverty line, an increase of almost 2.5% from 1994.

John Howard and Peter Costello invented a new kind of economy. They avoided stagflation, where both inflation and unemployment are on the rise. Instead, what we have now in Australia could be called ‘lagflation’ (or ‘Libflation’): creeping rises in prices without a corresponding rise in ordinary wages. In a way this is worse than stagflation, because it projects the image of prosperity while ignoring the reality of growing poverty. It gives the Australian economy a rich-yet-impoverished look.

The Coalition knew it had no hope of picking up the votes of those battlers it once relied upon. The law scrubs roughly 1.8% of the voting population from the rolls; Kevin Rudd needs to gain 16 seats to win; there are 16 seats with a margin of less than 1.8%. Clever politics, then, but the look of the legislation epitomised the Coalition’s problem: not smug-yet-sombre, but arrogant-and-corrupt.

It’s why I’ve spent every day since my panic encouraging people to invest in a flatbed scanner. The day the election is announced, there’ll be hundreds of thousands of people running around wishing they’d purchased a scanner sooner. That’s enough to swing the election either way.

Those with a scanner, meanwhile, will be affecting a gleeful-yet-influential look. We’ll be the ones holding the key to solving Australia’s lagflation.

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