As I’ve mentioned from time to time, I lived in Sydney for two years, from 2002 to 2004, long enough to get a decent sense of the culture. Australian policies are intriguing. They are either brilliant or stupid, there seems to be perilously little middle ground. For instance, they’ve done away with the penny, a coin I consider to be a barbaric wallet-ruiner (tills round up or down to the nearest five cents). They prove that the US belief that we can’t do much about drunk driving is a crock. They set their blood alcohol limits for driving under the influence much lower than ours, at the equivalent of one drink. If you are caught driving drunk, you lose your license permanently. The only exceptions are people who drive for a living (and by that they mean folks where driving is the primary part of their job, like taxi drivers or truckers). They can apply to get their licenses back in something like ten months or a year.
As a result I repeatedly saw people integrating their transport choices with their drinking. Those who had to drive really would stop at one drink, and people who though they might want to drink more would go out knowing they’d be taking public transportation or a cab back home. (Don’t get me started on the stupid parts of Australia, their idea of tax compliance places petty bureaucracy way ahead of revenue maximization and common sense).
One of their strong points was politicking and voting. Australia didn’t, and I hope still does not, permit paid TV ads. Each party (or was it candidate? I never was clear on the mechanics) who scored above a very low threshold got a certain amount of free air time. This took the big reason for fundraising out of the picture. And the result, a limit on how much TV advertising their was in total, seemed to have the effect that people got proportionately more of their information about politics via print, which allows for longer form discussion.
Another interesting feature was that voting is a duty not a right. I was surprised at about month three in my apartment there to get a sternly-worded official notice, which wanted to know who the hell I was and why hadn’t I voted. If you don’t vote, you get fined.
The net effect of these policies, in combination with native Australian skepticism, was an informed and engaged electorate. I’d go to my local pub, which had a cross-section of the population ranging from data entry clerks, former heroin addicts, a barely getting by poet of retirement age, a construction worker to marketing and IT professionals, a senior staffer in the New South Wales government, and the CEO of one of the top 150 companies. The quality of the political conversations, both on local and international issues, was considerably better than I’d get in any Manhattan cocktail party of nominally much better educated professionals.
So I’ve now become a believer in seeing voting as a duty on the theory that regarding it as obligatory, as opposed to elective, forces one to take it a tad more seriously. And in Manhattan, that duty is more costly than you might imagine. Voting pretty much guarantees you will be included on the juror rolls, and jury service is very much a duty in New York City. Given that Manhattan has a much bigger daytime population due to commuting than residents, it ensures that court cases are even higher relative to the pool of potential jurors than crime stats would suggest. Jury duty summons seem to arrive every two or three years, deferrals are very limited, and pretty much no one gets excused from service. So exercising your right to vote here assures that other duties of citizenship will fall on you as well.
So I will do my civic duty and vote later today, and strongly urge all NC readers to do so as well.