Arise, Australia, free…

Australian Prime Minister, Welsh-born Julia “Moving Forward” Gillard has thrown a prawn of controversy onto the Barbie of news with her republican headline chasing a few days prior to the General Election called for reasons most Australians don’t understand.

With China (now the world’s second largest economy), Japan (formerly the second….), and India on its Asian-Pacific doorstep, Aus tends to look towards economics rather than monarchs for its daily distractions. Only during election times does the subject tend to become a hot-debate, although Gillard has caused some feather ruffling bringing it up at all. Unlike many developed countries, Oz survived the economic downtime without lasting wounds or injuries.

However Australia looks to the outside world, the testy subject of its ultimate Head of State – currently the ruling Monarch of the United Kingdom – means the nation will always have an uncertainty on the inside. Australian politicians are volatile mixes of American chest-beating and English eccentricities. They know never to avoid a subject, unless its absolutely necessary, and like a timed bomb, republicanism is one of those subjects.

Referenda are expensive. It would be foolish and somewhat tasteless to run any pro-republican debate in Australia while Liz is still alive. Notice how Gillard rushed out a blathering tribute to the Queen not long after making her original pledge?

The monarchy debate is very different in the two parts of the world often cited as good examples of the current Commonwealth set-up working without much complaint. In the United Kingdom – incidentally, I am somewhat agnostic towards the Monarchy, although without thinking too much on the subject the idea of a British President makes me want to go outside to stab a kitten through both eyes with a pencil – the monarchy debate has largely disappeared from view. Occasional outbursts from both extreme left and right flicker the debate with all the illumination you’d expect from a broken lightbulb.

Canada is a constitutional monarchy, sharing with its Aussie brethren Queen Brenda as its Head of State. As the Vancouver Olympics showed, Canadians share the same gene ingredients, just with a different mix; less nationalistic fervour, more eccentricities. The recent State Visit by Ma’am did not ignite much in the way of a Canadian Republican movement, much to the bemusement of neighbouring Americans, for whom the notion of a Soap Operatic Head of State is one they’ve endured since the nation was born.

Having an unelected Head of State whose position is down, ultimately, to an accident of birth centuries ago is utter bonkers if viewed from afar. Ideally the United Kingdom and all its former outposts and Dominions would be freed from such a constitutional screw-up. Unfortunately, just as the lack of religion in the UK has been replaced by elected officials preaching from beyond the ballot box, I fear losing the Monarch could create Politician Overdose. Dreams of a very British coup are drawn out only in the Morning Star, and even there usually in stubby pencil.

Australia has many reasons to be proud of the nation it has become, even tethered to the motherland by its flag and status. Its identity as an outcrop of Empire is one thing; how it will be viewed amongst its friends and enemies across Asia could ultimately dictate the result of any future monarchy referendum…

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Turnout at the next General Election may fall below 50%…unless the population are required to vote by law….

Liberal that I am, the last thing I want to do is follow Tony Blair’s footsteps in turning our democracy into anything more of a “banana republic” style joke. Democracy is precious, and for all the improvements made to the way in which our system works there are far too many ways in which corruption is now commonplace. I say this as an activist and a voter: postal voting “for all” has taken away the assurance of British democracy being amongst the best in the world.

Understandably the MPs expenses scandal (of which so much more is being played out as we speak) has turned off many more thousands of voters who have tired of parliamentarians of all persuasions. There can only be so many times MPs can promise to be “whiter than white” only to throw a strop when an attempt is made to close the scandal sooner rather than later. Turnout in 2010 will fall below 50%, of that I am confident, as a consequence of the expenses mess and the inability for anyone – most notably Gordon Brown – to do anything constructive about the sorry affair.

As with so many Prime Ministers, the administration of elections – voting systems and the like – flies over the head of Brown as a mere irrelevance. That our democracy is more flawed and failing now than it was 10 or 20 years ago means nothing. That Labour are a Government with less support than any other in living memory is just tittle-tattle. First-past-the-post means winner-takes-all, and that is – as they say – “end of”.

So how about we look at the “modernising for the sake of it” zeal of Tony Blair and the Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice addiction to fiddling about with electoral administration, to come up with something of our own? If it’s alright for Belgium, Greece, and Australia, it could well work over here. Could the United Kingdom be fit for….compulsory voting?

From “a stern letter” to “a month community service”, what to do with anyone who does not cast a vote under compulsory voting is often brought up as a damn good reason not to introduce it here. Certainly no party leader has yet suggested the nation should be forced by legislation to show an opinion at a ballot-box (and I know from experience that opinion can be, in red capital letters, “CORRUPT BASTARDS”). Compulsion does not equal with liberalism, and I agree that following this Government down the route of legislating for everything is not the way to install confidence in the minds of very suspicious voters. However there is a massive contradiction which doesn’t tally up with my liberalism; how can there be so many opinions on politics, expenses, and current affairs, and yet so few people turning out to vote?

How can – indeed – so many people phone X-Factor phone lines or get Facebook to analyse what kind of serial killer/vegetable/famous footballer they are while not walking to the nearest church at election time? Compulsion, with a small fine perhaps after two or three no-shows, would surely promote politics and current affairs at the most local level? It would certainly ensure candidates do knock on every door in fear of being labelled as the one who can’t even get out the vote when there’s a law ensuring it happen…

Of course compulsory voting has not been suggested by anyone for one very good reason, and for that matter why my personal liberal persuasion cannot quite feel totally invigorated by the promise of future telling sessions being a little busier. Compulsory voting would merely sour further the relationship between voter and Westminster. For all my hope that people would be willing to find out more about each party, each candidate, every issue, the reality would be far less ideal; voters would feel angry at the lack of a “none of the above” option, and dismayed that politicians have tried to repair a broken system by seemingly punishing ordinary people. Turnout is falling because of a failure of more than just access to a ballot box on a wet Thursday.

As a liberal, compulsion from “up high” never sits well with me. Belgium and Australia have their systems woven into the fabric of their states, and in Greece there is no penalty for not voting anyway. In the UK our negative opinion of politicians suggests high turnouts, even though this is not the reality: trying to force people to have an actual recordable opinion by means of a ballot paper would be something to aim for…were it likely to achieve anything. For all that it may kill off the purile insult “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain”, I guess it is not something for the United Kingdom’s rather unique electoral system.

Unless, of course, radical reform far beyond the tame introduction of AV is the elephant crouching in the corner of the room. Liberalism never was easy to align with reality…