The perils of insular thinking

In yesterday’s Fairfax papers, John Hirst had a fine piece on policy areas where Australia is out of line with international norms. Sure enough, in today’s Age Russell Marks has another example with the same underlying theme: the fiasco of Melbourne’s new public transport ticketing system, Myki.

Non-Melbourne residents might easily pass over it, but it’s well worth a careful read – not just as a warning for those who might travel here, but as a study in how badly a ticketing system can be mismanaged.

Smart card ticketing isn’t somehow unique to Melbourne. Most large first-world urban transport operators either have or are planning such a system. The technology isn’t even particularly new any more; it was already spreading across Europe in the 1990s. Yet the Victorian government not only chose to commission a new system to be constructed from scratch, but picked a tenderer that lacked relevant experience and seems to have studiously ignored the lessons to be learned from overseas.

Unfortunately this is a failing that Australia can be prone to: ignorance and lack of attention to how other countries tackle problems. Many policy choices are made as if we lived in a world of our own. Not just ordinary voters but politicians and pundits as well often show a complete lack of interest or understanding about overseas practice, assuming that the way we do things is the only possible way. (And our politicians have enough of a history of wasting money on “study tours” that are actually junkets for us to be sceptical when they try to redress their lack of knowledge.)

There’s nothing wrong with being patriotic; there’s nothing wrong with thinking that we’ve developed the best way of doing something. No doubt sometimes we have. But before making that judgement we should be sure that we’ve actually looked at how it’s done elsewhere and consider whether we could learn something from the successes or failures of others.

Hirst’s two examples are school funding and death duties. Both seem to run counter to our professed egalitarianism; as he says, “Americans would be surprised that there are no death duties in Australia and that one in three children attend private schools, which receive government funding.”

For what it’s worth, I have no problem with the idea of subsidising people to attend private schools, but I think it’s undeniable that our school funding model is badly broken and could benefit from a good hard look at some overseas examples. (The Gonski review tried to do this but has largely been ignored.) The abolition of death duties, on the other hand, is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time but in hindsight has helped to screw up our tax mix in regressive and unproductive ways.

The two examples that always come to my mind are bills of rights and compulsory voting.* In each case, Australia is out of step with world democratic practice; not, it seems, through any conscious decision to do things differently but simply out of ignorance and insularity.

We are the only democracy with a written constitution that lacks a bill of rights. Yet the arguments against introducing one are typically made with no reference to the fact that they have been falsified by overseas experience. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad arguments, but it surely puts the onus onto their proponents to explain why Australia is different and why something that works in similar countries to us wouldn’t work here.

The story is much the same with compulsory voting (although the argument tends to come from the opposite side of politics). Outside of Latin America, Belgium is the only other democracy that forces people to vote, and even there it is apparently on the way out. Supporters of compulsion here, however, prefer to just ignore the fact that all the most successful democratic systems seem to cope just fine with voluntary voting and seem to have no interest in changing. Maybe Australia is special, but it would be good to be told why.

As Hirst says, we often criticise the US for its insularity – and rightly so; American ignorance of other countries can be staggering. But ironically enough we not only have a similar problem, but when we do look at the rest of the world we often limit it to the US. That, I think, is a big factor in the debate on compulsory voting. We observe that American democracy is dysfunctional, notice that they have voluntary voting and draw a connection, without stopping to wonder why the same problems don’t affect Canada, New Zealand, Japan and most of Europe.

The billions of dollars wasted on Myki may be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the costs of insularity. We have no choice about being an island continent, but we can choose whether or not to keep the island mentality.

* Or, for pedants, compulsory attendance-at-a-polling-place. I would be grateful for enlightenment as to why anyone thinks this distinction is important.

4 thoughts on “The perils of insular thinking

  1. Hi Charles, missed this the first time but thanks for your re-post.
    Agree with your main point, but to respond to two sub-points here…
    1. I have no objection to “an entrenched law that guarantees certain important rights within defined limits, ideally with provisos settling the most obvious interpretative disputes right at the outset, rather than kicking these down the road to judges”, but by contrast
    1.1 Terminological – governments that enact laws with “Human Rights” in the title also exhibit the sort of mindset that sees their police investigating little people for posting stupid jokes online. Terminology can be a giveaway. Put it this way: I like governments that govern for the people, I support a republic, but there’s no way I’d want to live in somewhere that calls itself a “People’s Republic”.
    1.2 Substantive – Recent (post-1980) models usually resort to grand, sweeping general phrases (“reasonable justifiable limits” etc), abandoning the boring 1950s Foreign Office practice of inserting “provided however that nothing in Section (1)(c) (freedom of religion) shall be construed so as to prevent restrictions on public gatherings in times of actual or apprehended plague or epidemic” in the [Former Colony X] (Constitution) Order in Council. This means that, while blind Freddie can predict that before the ink is dry, someone is going to litigate whether, eg, “right to life, liberty and property” forbids, allows, or indeed (as formerly) in Ireland compels the government to restrict abortion. True, we can’t expect Pierre Trudeau in 1982 (let alone James Madison in 1789) to protect genomic privacy, but a lot of these disputes are eminently foreseeable. (Credit to Trudeau that his draft did exactly the above by classifying in advance whether “equality before the law” precludes affirmative action).
    2. Compulsory voting: Here’s a non-pedantic illustration of why the distinction between “compulsory attendance-at-a-polling-place” and “compulsory voting” is important. At the recent Queensland local election, I took my ballot-paper and dropped it, unmarked, in the ballot-box. Perfectly legal. I didn’t know enough about the candidates – had some tentative opinions, but not enough to want to risk infection. South Australia explicitly states this is lawful but it is implicit in the legislation of all other Australian jurisdictions, as Anthony Green notes. Contrast Belgium, which has genuinely compulsory voting, not just attendance – the ballot is electronic, and the screen alerts officials if you try to leave without ticking the required number of boxes.
    It’s not irrational to favour the former but oppose the latter, just as one can support compulsory schooling for children while opposing prayers or pledges of allegiance in the classroom. Compulsory attendance (with a mild fine, two digits at most and broad excuses for not turning up) operates as a Sunstein/ Thaler-type “nudge”. Anyone who truly does not want to vote or is convinced they don’t know whom to vote for (such as the late Frank Devine, who campaigned incessantly for voluntary voting, presumably so he would no longer need to number LNP candidates ahead of Labor ones, right?) can lodge a blank ballot. But you don’t get whole communities who lose (or never acquire) the habitus of voting, are then ignored politically, and because they are ignored politically don’t see any point in voting.
    Moreover, when voting is compulsory, then governments assume an obligation to make it easier, rather than the US/ UK attitude of “well, if you insist on being a pain by claiming this right, you must take time off work on a weekday and queue for hours at this particular place, no other.”
    Finally, compulsory attendance helps mitigate the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who realise they don’t know much about politics might take some coaxing to express their opinion and can still lodge a blank ballot if they remain genuinely undecided. But the truly ignorant fools don’t realise they’re fools, and would turn up and cast votes even if attendance were fully compulsory.

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    1. Thanks for that Tom – sorry, the spam filter caught you for some reason. I don’t really disagree with you about bills of rights; I think there are some very poor drafting specimens around, at least partly because their authors have not started by working out exactly what they’re trying to do.

      As to compulsory voting, yes, I can see why someone might object to actually being forced to vote but not object to being forced to attend a polling place. (Altho some academics claim our laws do actually make voting compulsory – I’m not convinced that they’re right.) But I think they’d be a small minority. For most people who object to it, what they’re objecting to is the inconvenience of being forced to show up at a polling place, stand in a queue and get a ballot paper, not anything about what they have to do with the ballot paper. So I think it’s reasonable to refer to it as “compulsory voting”. And of course I don’t deny that there are legitimate arguments in favor of it, some of which you’ve outlined. Personally I think they’re outweighed by others, including the simple empirical argument that democracies with similar political systems to ours but voluntary voting seem to be better governed on average than we are. But that’s something about which reasonable people can disagree.

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