Hewson's view: Election campaigns are not what they should be

Over and done with: Millions of Australian voters have taken the option to pre-poll this federal election. It may not be possible to get a result on election night as the pre-polls will be counted last.
Over and done with: Millions of Australian voters have taken the option to pre-poll this federal election. It may not be possible to get a result on election night as the pre-polls will be counted last.

A number of key "weaknesses" in our democratic system have become evident during this campaign. First, as many as 5 million may have voted, pre-polled, before the election on Saturday.

The idea of the whole nation coming together on one day to vote has now been seriously abandoned.

The rules have been weakened dramatically, as the only legitimate reason for pre-polling was that you would be genuinely unable to attend a polling booth on election day.

Voters are "choosing" to vote early for a variety of reasons - they may have already made up their minds and want to effectively opt out of concentrating on the campaign, ignoring campaign promises, policies, and so on.

The growing disenchantment with politicians and politics is a part of this - they really don't believe any of them - and this is showing up in the sustained drop in the combined support of the two major parties, with the increasing support for minor parties and independents, often simply as a "protest" against the majors.

Of course, if the contest is close in some seats, it may not be possible to get a result on election night, as the pre-polls will be counted last. It used to be an accepted feature that pre-polls and postal votes tended to favour the incumbent, but clearly this may no longer be the case.

Second, the number of "informal" votes seems to be increasing. Our system is not really compulsory voting, just compulsory "attendance". You just have to get your name crossed off the electoral roll. You are not required to complete the voting forms.

Of course, with increasingly complicated ballot papers, errors can easily be made in filling them out, making the vote informal, but also voters can deliberately decide not to vote at all, or to use the occasion just to write some quite derogatory remark about politics or a politician.

Our system is not really compulsory voting, just compulsory "attendance".

Third, voter preferences seem more likely to go all over the shop, rather than as directed on some How to Vote card distributed by a party or individual candidate.

I was struck recently on manning a polling booth at the recent NSW state election at just how many people just brushed past into the polling booths, not wanting to take any of the voting literature - they had made up their minds already.

There is always much focus on whether the major parties have "done a preference deal" with any of the minor parties - in this election the focus has been on possible deals between the LNP, One Nation and Palmer's United Australia Party.

The significance of such deals is exaggerated. Voters often ignore the proposed distribution of preferences, resulting in outcomes inconsistent with the "deal".

For example, in the last Queensland state election, where the LNP had negotiated what was referred to as a "tight" preference deal with One Nation, Hanson preferences ended up electing two or three Labor candidates, fundamental to them retaining government.

There has also been considerable focus this time on the deal between the LNP and Palmer.

Apart from the moral issue of whether it is appropriate to deal with an individual who has ripped off his workers in the failed nickel project, it seems that for every 1000 votes taken off the LNP in primary votes, they can only hope to get about half back in preferences.

This may help Palmer get elected to the Senate, but may not really help the LNP to retain or win seats in the House of Representatives.

This campaign has been "uninspiring" with both Morrison and Shorten going out of their way to avoid providing any real policy detail, even in the so called debates. Neither really offers a "vision" for our nation moving forward, and in the longer term.

Indeed, the whole campaign has been dumbed down, dominated by slogans and point scoring on the other side. Neither has offered what voters crave - authenticity and honesty, and better government that actually addresses the needs of voters, either in their day-to-day struggle with the cost of living, or on longer-term challenges such as climate and our inevitable transition to a low carbon society.

Unfortunately, with both candidates personally disliked and limited policy detail, the choice is between the "lesser of two evils", and then having to live with the "evil (in terms of poor government) of two lessers".

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.