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COVID-19, democracy and voting



Coronavirus lingo is proving as catching as the virus itself. Attempts to ‘flatten the curve’ of infection and transmission involve full blooded efforts at ‘social distancing’, a term that really ought to have been thought through a bit more.

People vote at Queensland elections (Getty Images/Jono Searle)

In Australia, every politician from Canberra to the Northern Territory is insisting on isolation measures and avoiding close contact, keeping to distances of 1.5 to 2 metres. Work from home and only go out for necessaries. Avoid the beaches. Avoid areas of congregation. For all this urgency, such messages have been inconsistently policed.

When it comes to the very practice of democracy and political representation, the social distancing imperative has been approached with confusing inconsistency. Legislatures, such as the European Parliament, have cancelled essential meetings and debates indefinitely. Regional elections in Spain’s Basque Country and Galicia have been postponed, as has Italy’s constitutional referendum that would have taken place on March 29.

We can admire the statements of those who insist that the business of parliament and the election process must go on. As Italy’s Senate President Elisabetta Casellati put it on 22nd of March, ‘The centrality of Parliament can never fail, especially when government measures limit citizens’ personal freedoms and activities essential to the country’s economy’. John Meachem makes a similar case for the United States, reminding us that President Abraham Lincoln was ‘unwilling to sacrifice democracy to save it — a lesson we need to bear in mind as the coronavirus epidemic threatens primaries in many states’.

Such a position has been adopted with full and foolhardy force in Queensland’s council elections. The Palaszczuk government has unwaveringly insisted that its citizens practise compulsory voting, despite lengthy queues and extensive periods of congregation. Overnight, 70 new COVID-19 cases were identified, pushing the state’s total to 625. In the face of the continuing spike, Queensland’s chief health officer Jeannette Young insisted, with breezy confidence, that there was no risk in going to vote in person. ‘Make sure you’ve got a pen of your own, take in your card so you can quickly and efficiently be ticked off the electoral roll.’

Young, instead, had a comparison to make, though it had little by way of evidence to support it. It was far better to do your duty and vote than frequent liquor outlets. The former came with no risk of infection; the latter, with considerably higher risk for COVID-19 to do its work. ‘The scenes I’ve seen there,’ she spoke disapprovingly, referring specifically to Dan Murphy’s, ‘have been appalling.’


'While we can admire the democracy-as-usual attitude in these circumstances, such stances have done little to reassure the voting public about consistency in the message.'


Young has had support from the health minister, Steven Miles, who claims that purchasing groceries in aisles is a far more dangerous prospect than lining up in voting queues. The message here is that it is more imperilling to your health to shop for food than vote by compulsion.

It must be said that such statements have come with attitude. Both Miles and his colleagues insist that social distancing has worked in the state. With an astonishing cocksure disposition, the state government has also claimed, without due cause, that Queensland has the highest testing rate for coronavirus per capita on the planet.

One figure fixated officials: as long as 500 persons in a gathering could be avoided, all would be well in terms of halting transmission of COVID-19. In a statement, Electoral Commissioner Pat Vidgen explained that the elections ‘are essential public events required to ensure the continuity of democratic representation and public administration across the state.’ To that end, it was ‘extremely unlikely that more than 500 people would ever be in a polling booth at any one time and electors generally only spend a short period of time in a booth’.

In such cases, coronavirus tends to have other ideas and Queensland officials have baffled various virologists. Adjunct Professor Ian Mackay, based at the University of Queensland, felt that determination to move ahead with the vote ‘boggles the mind’. It was confusing and mudding to members of the public, and risked encouraging dare devil attitudes. ‘This is not a flattening of the curve exercise… we should have been looking at a postal vote process.’

Unfortunately, the Electoral Commission Queensland has been less than consistent in policing its own social distancing measures. On Thursday, workers walked out of the ECQ call centre fearing possible infection. ‘The cubicles,’ recalled one worker who wished to remain anonymous, ‘are no more than 1.5 metres wide.’ Some 120 people were crammed into the particular centre.

When confronted with these claims, an ECQ spokesperson proved unconvincing. ‘The volume of requests for telephone voting is unprecedented, at more than 10 times any previous election. Our staff work in pairs to ensure one is speaking to the elector and the other is auditing the process.’ Such a volume of calls alleviated the need to abide by social distancing rules; besides, ‘we regularly clean all surfaces and provide hand sanitiser and breaks to wash hands.’

While we can admire the democracy-as-usual attitude in these circumstances, such stances have done little to reassure the voting public about consistency in the message. With a surfeit of information, the curse of social media overload and the dangers of conspiracy induced rumours, Queensland’s approach to health and voting was, to put it mildly, inconsistent. If you shop, you are at risk; if you vote in congregated crowds, you are not. Either a postponement, or even the conduct of elections by mail, could have been tenable measures.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: People vote at Queensland elections (Getty Images/Jono Searle)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, COVID-19, democracy



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Existing comments

Inconsistency has been rife throughout. Perhaps the worst was the notion that more than 5 for a wedding or 10 for a funeral would be unsafe but 25 children in a classroom with a teacher would be fine. Moreover, while the children would be very unlikely to infect each other, their teacher or their parents it would be unsafe for them to visit grandparents. That was about as convincing as the idea that it would be unsafe to have a manicure but fine to get a haircut.

Peter Albion | 31 March 2020  

I could not agree more with you Binoy. Did the elections have to be held anyway? As I watched people lining up it struck me as a kind of madness. Certainly commonsense had deserted the scene. The adjuration to 'Bring your own pencil' was about as useful as a pig's ear on a sunflower.

Henri | 01 April 2020  

What happens when the constitutional term of the House of Representatives (or those of half of the senators) expires during a public emergency and there is no constitutional provision to allow the Commonwealth Parliament to respond in a flexible manner? The Commonwealth elections of 1914, 1917 and 1943 were held during war but not under wartime conditions. The House of Commons, unrestricted by a locked constitution, extended its term to ten years during the Second World War when it was thought impossible to hold a general election. Every Australian state parliament can imitate the Commons and lengthen its term as state constitutions are merely ordinary laws unsecured by referenda; they can also extend the term of a municipal council or appoint administrators. Territories are creatures of federal law but unless the federal law permits a territory legislature to extend its term, it, too, is in the same bind as the Commonwealth Parliament, especially when the Commonwealth Parliament’s term has also expired. The Executive Council of itself can’t collect taxes and spend from consolidated revenue. Fortunately, the Mother of Parliaments cannot bind itself and can treat the Australian Constitution as just another transient British law (which it is).

roy chen yee | 01 April 2020  

Binoy, I totally endorse your findings on the Government's ineptitude and inconsistency in combating the Corona Virus pandemic. Peter you are absolutely spot on. My wife teaches in a Secondary College.Each day she would face around 200 students and interacts with say 20 staff each day . I became so concerned that I emailed the Principal to express my concerns. I pointed out that while she is extremely healthy, I have respiratory and heart conditions.Should she contract the disease and asymptomatic, come home and give me the virus, then I could become seriously ill. His response was unconvincing. My wife has taken carer's leave and is working from home. The Government's attempt to keep schools and child care centres open, verges on absolute lunacy. The reason given, to enable essential service personal to be available is hard to justify, given the risk that children could unwittingly pass the virus to vulnerable people at home or elsewhere in the community. The Government has not only been inconsistent, there have been confusing messages from too many so called experts, often contradicting each other. There needs to be one voice giving one medically considered set of instructions.

Gavin O'Brien | 01 April 2020  

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