Many Australians are still mightily impressed with the state of our nation, especially when we compare it with our rich and powerful ally, the USA. We have managed to somehow avoid the utter chaos and devastation, which they have endured now, for close to two years, during a once in a century pandemic.
Our Government(s) made plenty of mistakes in handling the pandemic, but nothing on the scale of the criminal negligence President Trump and his Republican Party allies were guilty of. Even now, with Joe Biden attempting to salvage the situation, vaccination appears to be the only way out.
But there are gathering signs that we have a particularly immature, and sadly ill-informed set of ‘parliamentarians’, and their fellow travellers, mainly from the loony-right think tanks, who are keen to import some really bad American ideas. Of course the loony-right think tanks are another import we could do without, but that is another matter entirely; suffice to say we are stuck with them.
One reason the American system has faltered recently is that the traditions and the myths of their origin story have been hi-jacked, and politicised, and the myths have won out, over common sense.
Some bad American ideas
Some examples include the notion of personal liberty outweighing the public good, the belief that public health systems are socialist, the idea that education is not a basic human right, but something to be purchased.
Other caustic ideas include the notion that imposing regulations and limits on the private sector are always bad, that global warming is rubbish, that welfare paid is money wasted, that citizens should have the right to bear arms, that any relationship, or family, based on anything other than the classic nuclear family is immoral, that reducing taxes on the rich does nothing other than to increase inequality, and that poverty is a sign that a vengeful god is punishing the poor.
There are many other silly ideas, but I want to highlight the matter of voter ID, aka voter suppression, which is definitely on the radar for our very own Trumpist Government.
Voter suppression is a first step to authoritarianism
Voter suppression is an ancient, and honoured tradition in America, and it continues today. Since 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, all men (later broadened to include women) were guaranteed the right to vote. This included men of all races, and specifically former slaves. Southern states, still smarting from their loss in the Civil War, set about limiting black access to the vote. These methods included a poll tax, which charged a fee to lodge a vote. Poor whites could gain an exemption from paying the fee, but not poor blacks.
Literacy tests were also routinely applied, with many more black Americans being excluded than white Americans. This often related to the level of education achieved by black Americans, which was in most cases inferior, if it was even available. But in other cases, the tests applied were selective, with African-Americans often receiving more difficult tests. These measures were gradually phased out during the 1960s, but not before they had disenfranchised generations of otherwise entitled voters.
More recently the Republican Party has refined its methods, to suit the times. In Florida, for example, until recently convicted felons were ineligible to vote. Many with similar names to felons were wrongly purged from the electoral rolls.
That law was reversed in 2018, but the Republican State Government managed to circumvent the intention of the statute, known as Amendment 4, by making restoration of the right to vote almost impossible. In the election of 2000, George W Bush won the country by less than a thousand votes, while convicted felons, and some of those with similar names, were purged from the electoral rolls. Convicted felons were, by a huge margin, more likely to be black, and to vote Democrat.
Although the election last year was not decided by a tiny number of votes, Florida voted for Trump. As many as 1.4 million voters were eligible to be restored to the rolls, but only 300,000 were allowed to register. That is 1.1 million voters disenfranchised. That would make a difference to the result.
That couldn’t happen here
Of course that could never happen here, or could it? We have no voter fraud here, so there could be no reason to change the voting rules. Well, yes it could happen here. As Caitlin Fitzsimmons reported in the Herald Sun in January this year, the federal government’s joint standing committee on electoral matters recently included a recommendation to require ID to vote, and another recommendation to require ID to enrol or change address. The chair of the committee is Senator James Paterson, an ex-IPA director. He thinks if he has to show ID in a club, why not when voting?
Liberal members of the committee made similar recommendations in their reports on the 2013 and 2016 elections as well. They quoted several submissions in support, from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), and others. Labor and the Greens opposed the recommendations, but they were outvoted.
There is a cynical reason for such a simple rule. The more disadvantaged you are, the more difficult it is to conform to what look like petty requirements. And the ID of choice for the majority of Australians is the driver’s licence. Petty for you, and me, but not if you have insecure housing, or are forced to live on the starvation line, or if you are fleeing domestic violence. And many disadvantaged people do not own, or drive, a car. That means they probably don’t own a licence, and yet they may need to buy some form of photo ID, in order simply to vote.
The Liberals think that the disadvantaged are more inclined to vote for Labor, so any measure which makes voting or registering to vote more difficult, is a good thing. There is a reason why most Australians despise the IPA and its ilk. They appear to be staffed by strange individuals who dream of making life difficult, in a range of petty ways, for the vulnerable.
In the case of instituting Voter ID for Australia, we would need to accommodate Australia’s system of compulsory voting, and compulsory enrolment to vote. That would arguably force the Electoral Commissions, state and federal, to implement inclusion measures such as provision of regulated photo ID for anyone who needs it. Obviously that would send the cost of elections through the roof. This is an example of unintended consequences, caused by allowing inexperienced, or simply shallow twits, to write policy.