Your vote counts. The Gold Coast Bulletin doesn’t seem to understand this simple fact. But we’ll get to that later. First, I want to tell you about Travis Nederpelt, his battle to defeat a superstar, and why his story matters.
Travis is a Western Australian swimmer, who specialises in the butterfly stroke. He’s a fan of spaghetti and supports West Coast in the AFL. He’s done very well in Australian competitions and even made it to both the Athens and Beijing Olympics, representing his country at the highest level. That’s a fantastic achievement.
When Travis was competing in Athens, he reached the final of the 400m individual medley, a gruelling test in which the swimmers must use all four major swimming strokes. To make the final, Travis was faster than 28 other top-level international competitors. However, in the final, he faced a task which looked, on paper, impossible. To win gold, he needed to beat the best swimmer in the world, Michael Phelps. Travis came 8th in the final, while Phelps smashed the field, with the second placegetter more than 3 seconds behind him.
Travis was back again at Beijing in 2008. There was media speculation that Phelps was going to clean sweep all of his events. Like many other swimmers representing their countries at the Olympics, Travis would have looked at his personal best times and compared them to those of the very top swimmers, and realised that there was almost no chance he’d bring home a medal. So what did he do?
He lined up on the blocks and gave it his best shot. On paper, it looked like Travis wasn’t going to win, and guess what? He didn’t. In his heat, Travis came 5th in a time of 4:15, while Phelps broke the Olympic record in a time of 4:07, which he then smashed in the final with a world record of 4:03. There’s no Steven Bradbury fairytale here; it’s how life pans out most of the time. Travis Nederpelt’s an excellent swimmer, and he was Australia’s best bet for the event, but he wasn’t much of a medal chance.
Now, to the Bulletin. For today’s front page article, they’ve asked local parliamentary candidates for the House of Representatives whether they think they’re likely to win in the election tomorrow. The Gold Coast is a stronghold for the Liberals and Nationals, with margins of 10% or more in many seats in the previous election. Unsurprisingly, candidates for a party like the Greens aren’t expecting to win – much like Travis wouldn’t have expected to win against Phelps in Beijing two years ago.
The Bulletin’s slammed these representatives (especially the Greens) for having the wrong attitude and wasting taxpayer time and money for running when they don’t expect to win. Could they be any more off-target? An election, like an international sporting event, isn’t just about winning. It’s about representation of a diverse group. If the Olympics was restricted only to countries who won a Gold at the previous Games, it would rapidly become dominated by a few powerful countries and lose what makes it great – the opportunity for individuals and nations to compete on an open playing field.
Here on the Gold Coast, a Family First representative has no chance of winning my electorate, Fadden, but they’re running anyway. Why should they bother? There’s two main reasons. The first is so that people whose views align with the Family First platform have a chance to vote for someone who represents them accurately. We deserve that choice, even if we know the person we vote for won’t be elected. When people look at the poll results, they’ll see that, say, 60% of people voted Liberal, 30% Labour and maybe 5% Greens. Sure, the Labour and Greens votes didn’t win the seat, but the elected Liberal MP knows what a proportion of his constituents support, and the losing parties know how much support they have in the area.
The other main reason is that if a candidate wins at least 4% of the primary vote, they receive funds from the Australian Electoral Commission. There’s a good reason for that. If the Greens get 5% of the roughly 120,000 votes, that’s 6,000 people who like them the best – a hefty number on a local scale! The funds help them to build their party, campaign harder and compete with the major parties in future elections.
In other words, parties who run are rewarded for offering representation to people who agree with them – which is healthy for democracy. If this didn’t happen, it would be even harder for parties other than Labour and Liberal to gain any traction in the political system, and it would be even more difficult for voters to hold the major parties accountable.
If the Bulletin’s line of reasoning is followed to its logical conclusion, then any candidate who doesn’t think they’re likely to win should simply not run. In that case, you might as well wipe out every minor party from the House of Reps list, and leave us with the option of only voting Labour and Liberal. Similarly, we can streamline the Olympics by comparing personal best times and eliminating all but the top 5 contestants in each event. Let’s keep going: after this year, the NRL and AFL can axe all the teams who didn’t make the finals, because statistics suggest they’re unlikely to win the Grand Final next year. Sorry if you’re a Broncos supporter, but there’s a chance you’ll have to go for the Titans in 2011 if the Bulletin has their way.
The Bulletin has missed the point of the Australian democratic system and attacked people for being realistic about their chances of success. They could learn a lot from Travis Nederpelt – he worked hard, was good at what he did, and gave his best for Australia at the Olympics even when he knew he wouldn’t take home the top prize. In a democracy, we need people to stand up and represent a wide variety of views, and we have a system where your vote will count, even if your chosen candidate doesn’t win. Keep that in mind tomorrow and in the future, and if you hear someone dismiss the importance of their vote, please share this post with them.