It was the leftist political nerd’s version of Brazil’s loss during the World Cup this year. Attending an expat election party in Melbourne, as the vote count progressed I noticed a shift in collective mood from jovial to funereal and punctuated with occasional booing whenever Paul Henry appeared on screen. Since then, the losing side is swinging between feelings of helplessness, over-thinking, and blaming everyone including their side, their opponents, and the public. Most importantly, we’re wondering where to channel our thwarted passion for the next three years.
The huge failure in this election to increase turnout of the one million or so non-voters symbolises our flawed approach to how we participate in politics. We wanted to bring non-voters to the process, but what the process often is – exhausted talking points, winners and losers, dirty attacks, and shallow policy debates – must surely put off many.
Non-voters aren’t necessarily apathetic but perhaps disillusioned. Many who identify themselves as apathetic usually still have passionate views on individual issues like gay marriage, education, public transport, or foreign wars. Last week’s Scottish Independence Referendum, which was hailed as a triumph in political engagement, had a turnout at about 85% – much higher than the UK General Election. Non-voters can hold strong opinions on political issues they feel affects their lives, but the focus on party politics isn’t relevant to many.
Worse still, the heartache felt by many is based on the idea that winning parties have a sweeping mandate to enact, similar to Germany being able to call itself the soccer world champion for the next four years. I remember years ago studying a politics paper at Otago when our lecturer told us how he once timed his vote – entering the polling station, name-checking, voting, and ballot box – to about one and a half minutes total. He posed to the class the idea that our political power was limited to that short process once every three years. The Key Government enacted 90 day employment trials and went against public opinion on partial asset sales on the basis of this mandate, which can effectively ignore public opinion. The importance we give to general elections underestimates how much power we citizens really possess and undervalues other ways in which we can engage in politics. Parties are just one part and these are limited in effectiveness because their goal is to win power and are often at the mercy of their donors, internal interests, and powerful lobbyists. They’re no more representative of politics as a whole than professional teams are of a sport; they’re nothing without public passion and support.
My advice to those lamenting on where to channel their political passions is to think bigger about what politics is: participation and empowerment to ultimately improve your community, and ironically this can mean thinking smaller and more locally by devoting yourself to an individual cause. One possibility is a career. If you care about education and how children learn, become a teacher. If you aren’t satisfied with debate on the economy, specialise in a field of economics. If you care about ending poverty, become a social worker and see the reality of poverty up close. Practical experience can empower you in a way that party politics often demands you limit for the sake of ‘party unity’, and focusing solely on the game of politics makes you none the wiser about policy. Another way to engage in politics is to engage an issue you care about. Read or study about an important issue. Join or volunteer for an advocacy organisation, especially those that address policy areas that aren’t properly debated in the party political sphere such as the position of women, foreign policy and surveillance powers, the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, or any other areas which main parties are reluctant to debate meaningfully. Political parties can’t claim a mandate over policy areas if they aren’t willing to campaign openly on what they stand for and debate their beliefs. Bettering your experience and knowledge, and spreading public awareness through civic participation is an ongoing political activity just as important as voting.
Democracy isn’t limited to electoral participation once every three years. Politics exists on every level of society and affects every aspect of our lives. The more involved we are, the healthier our society is. We need to think more broadly on what participation in the political process is.