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Reality TV senate candidate - bring it on

By Peter Andren - posted Monday, 12 July 2004

The Seven Network's planned  political idol show designed to nominate a Senate candidate by SMS or phone call has the political purists up in arms.

“An abuse of democracy!” comes the cry from the political parties - hoping the mere voter forgets or doesn’t understand the processes used by the major parties to install many candidates in House of Representatives or Senate seats.

Surely the TV method couldn’t be worse than that, where grassroots party members are so often trampled on, or the public is forced to vote for a list of names about whom they know nothing.


Under Seven’s planned Vote for Me  show, people will be asked to submit their own “policy speech” videos, with 18 to be selected by political experts before the audience votes for a final six who will nominate for the Senate in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and West Australia.  Bad luck, Australian Capital Territorians, you miss out on this experiment!  I was asked to be one of the panellists, but declined -  not least because of the huge time drain it would make on a sitting MP, with previews and interviews in each state.  However, much as I detest reality TV, there is something approaching a democratic process in this show that appeals to me. Meg Lees thinks the idea is a great way to help Australians understand how the electoral system works, and I agree.

As an Independent, I know better than anyone how difficult it is to compete with the major parties. There are many hundreds of people out there who should be in our Parliament before many of the party hacks I’ve had to deal with in my eight years in the place.  Heaven forbid, one of the Vote for Me candidates might actually get into the Senate, and might actually vote according to his or her conscience!  The free exposure being offered will give a public profile most would-be Independents could only dream of.  No wonder there are cries from the political establishment that such a leg-up is unfair. (This is from parties with no compunction about dipping into taxpayers’ money to fund their own campaigns).

The critics also say such an Independent senator might well become a Trojan Horse for any number of conspiracy theories (they might oppose the US free trade deal, for goodness sakes!), or might be “owned” by the Seven Network and be obliged to vote for changes to cross-media laws. Give us a break.  At least these people will undergo close scrutiny from panellists and then the public, before any votes are lodged. There may be a danger extremist groups could organize mass texting or phone-ins, but in many countries around the world citizen-initiated referendums, requiring parliaments to conduct plebiscites, offer the electorate regular between-election access to parliamentary processes.

There is probably a greater danger of undue influence from extreme lobbies in CIR, but it seems to have only enhanced democracy in Switzerland, among other countries.

Who will deny that many of the senators “elected” over the years simply by being on a party ticket have also held extreme views?  They are harder to get rid of than a single Independent who turns out to be a goose. It only takes one election; whereas a piece of dead wood can hang on to party endorsement until they get their pension.

The other question nervously being asked by the major parties is where the Vote for Me Independents will allocate their second, third and later preferences. In my book, this is where the integrity of the successful Vote for Me candidates will be tested. They must appear below the line on the ballot paper, and offer a how-to-vote card that says “vote for me number one, then place your second, third and subsequent preferences in every square below the line”.  If they don’t, then such candidates can lay no claim to independence. Any so-called “Independent” who directs preferences to any other candidate has no right to be regarded as independent, and this is the real test for the voters. If they want truly independent representatives, they should be prepared to stay the extra few minutes at the ballot box and fill in every square below the line. Any voter seeking a likely Independent on the hustings or on the box should always be asking to see the candidate’s how-to-vote card.


Such a card is the ultimate test of the Vote for Me candidates. I haven’t noticed many Independents among the suggested political “experts” on the Vote for Me  panel.  I’d be surprised if they advocate such a card.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 29/6/2004.

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Peter Andren was the independent member for Calare (NSW).

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