The Philistine

Voters, You Just Can’t Trust Them

As every Adelaide schoolchild knows, colonial South Australia had no convicts, had lots of churches, and was “the first electorate in the world to give equal political rights to both men and women” (to quote the National Museum of Australia on the topic). Luckily for them, two out of three right answers makes for a credit in Australia. But a distinction-worthy student would know that South Australia was not, in fact, the world leader in women’s suffrage. That particular title goes to the Wyoming Territory, precursor to the current US state. Wyoming gave women the vote in 1869, a quarter-century before South Australia and half a century before the rest of the United States. Just don’t write that in an HSC essay. It’s best to stick to the party line.

Famous for Devil’s Tower, the Old Faithful geyser, and Federal Reserve Bank retreats, Wyoming is the smallest US state by population. At 50.9 per cent male, it is also the most manly state in the union. The state’s official seal features a cowboy and a miner, with banners that proclaim the state’s muscular industries: livestock, mines, grain and oil. You can almost smell the sweat. But the dominant figure on the seal is a woman holding a streamer that reads “equal rights”. That is, indeed, the Wyoming state motto, and it represents equal rights for women. The territory’s 1869 voting statute assured every woman that “her rights to the elective franchise and to hold office shall be the same under the election laws of the territory, as those of electors”—that is, men.

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The electors could afford to be generous. In those frontier days, there were six adult men for every woman in the territory. Fast forward to 2021, and there are only 106 adult men for every 100 women in Wyoming. The men must be running scared. A mere 106–100 electoral margin is well within the danger zone; the electoral margin of error, if you will. It means that female ascendancy is possible within a generational blink of the eye. Where men and women share similar concerns about jobs, taxes and healthcare, it probably doesn’t matter much if one sex is in the majority. But in those rare cases when a democratic vote turns into a straight-out battle of the sexes, universal suffrage can be a risky indulgence. The first referendum ever held divided on the gender line, and it almost turned out to be the last.

We owe our democratic ideals to the Greeks, and the most ancient of Greeks were the Athenians (if they did say so themselves). The city now known as Athens is so old that it existed before the gods descended from Mount Olympus to demand offerings and mate with everything in sight, perhaps even before the Greeks arrived in Greece. Latter-day Australians might assume that Athena got the naming rights to this particular piece of pre-Hellenic real estate by making a major donation or demanding a redress of the historical under-representation of female deities, but the real story is much more democratic. Athens was named in a referendum. Not a weasel-out postal survey, but a genuine plebiscite. And everyone got to vote.

We have it from no less an authority than Saint Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of Grace, that an olive tree and a saltwater spring appeared one day on the slopes of the Acropolis. Observing these prodigies, King Cecrops (pre-Athens was a constitutional monarchy) naturally sent to the oracle at Delphi to ask what they meant. The oracle answered—in an unusually straightforward fashion—that “the olive signified Athena, the water Poseidon, and the citizens had it in their power to name their city as they chose, after either of these two gods whose signs these were”. So the king called on “all the citizens of either sex to give their vote, for it was then the custom in those parts for the women also to take part in public deliberations”. It seems a three-line whip was enforced on both sides, with the result that “the men gave their votes for Poseidon, the women for Athena; and as the women had a majority of one, Athena conquered”. Vox populi, vox dei.

A highland city might reasonably take its chances with the goddess of wisdom, but a port city that lives off shipping and trade should think twice about crossing the Lord of the Seas. On hearing that the referendum results favoured his least-favoured niece, Poseidon promptly sent a tidal wave (it seems anatopistic to call it a tsunami) to destroy the newly named city of Athens. Thus the real “first electorate in the world to give equal political rights to both men and women” lived to regret it. To appease the angry god, the surviving Athenians stripped women of the vote, restricted citizenship to men, and decreed that children should henceforth bear only their fathers’ family names.

“Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” is the oldest rule in politics, predating “politics is the art of the possible” by three thousand years and “if you want a friend in the agora, get a dog” by a century or more. The overly permissive men who allowed a vote on Poseidontown (Poseidonville? Poseidonopolis?) learned that the hard way. You can’t give people a vote unless you can be sure that they’ll vote correctly. The European Union understands this well, and sensibly restricts popular participation in politics to the bare minimum needed to prop up its democratic facade. China is sensible enough not to bother with a facade at all. Australia, too, is a class act in limited democracy. Its electoral system is so complicated that voters need how-to-vote cards, from which they can select only party-approved candidates.

The sad fact is that voters can’t be trusted, whether male, female, or even Australia’s new gender “X”. The Democrats who gave women the vote in Wyoming were outraged when most of them turned around and voted Republican. That’s gratitude for you. If women insist on making up their own minds, they’re no better than their male counterparts, who have hardly gotten a thing right since Poseidonopolis. Not for nothing did Aristotle consider democracy a “degenerate” form of governance. It was the one thing he and Plato could agree on. Aristotle, Plato, and … Australia’s premier public policy think-tank, the Grattan Institute.

The government-funded Grattan Institute is “independent, practical and rigorous”, and so authoritative that it has a .edu internet address. Among its many self-advertised accomplishments are convincing the government to “shut down hard and fast to eliminate community transmission” of the coronavirus (thank you!), recommending “a tutoring blitz to help school students catch-up on learning lost during the Covid lockdowns” that it recommended (good work!), and convincing government to “boost women’s workforce participation by making childcare cheaper” (and what could be cheaper than caring for your own children while you are home in coronavirus lockdown?). If there’s one organisation that is keen to keep the Australian electorate in check, it’s Grattan.

In this coronavirus winter of our discontent, the Grattan Institute issued a report to warn us that our elected leaders are failing to implement policies that people don’t want. In fact, things have gotten so bad that “unpopularity is now an insuperable obstacle to reform”. That seems somewhat hard to believe, given the policies we’ve seen over the last two years, but there you go. Grattan laments that “politicians from both major parties routinely block [reforms] because they think they will reduce their prospects of re-election”. But there is a solution on the horizon. “The most politically realistic path to institutional change is for independent members of parliament to champion institutional changes, particularly when they hold the balance of power.” That’s right: nothing says “democracy” like an independent senator holding the country to ransom for a pet cause.

“One man, one vote” is a sound principle as far as it goes, but how far should it go? As far as women and X’s, certainly. But should people really get the policies they want, or should fearless political leaders instead give people the policies they need? Do governments really derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, or from the need to protect their populations against the spread of infectious diseases? Should the women of Athens have been free to vote for their favourite goddess, or should the men have laid down the law to prevent a catastrophe? Climate catastrophists, pandemic prudes and the Grattan Institute seem to believe that some (most?) policy choices are too important to leave to the whims of the electorate. But if democracy means anything, it means the freedom to choose wrong. Give me Athens over Poseidonopolis any day.

19 comments
  • terenc5

    Well said, you heretic

  • Peter Marriott

    Good piece as usual Salvatore and entertaining with good insights, thank you. Can’t find anything in my Graves on the women vote for Athena but St Augustine has gravitas and was much nearer the action than me, or Graves… and it’s got a very good ring to it.

  • BalancedObservation

    People are called “populists” these days when they basically fulfill three conditions:

    1.They have considerable support( but it doesn’t have to be majority support).

    2.They hold views opposed to the person calling them a populist.

    3 .Their views are not what is generally regarded as left of centre.


    The most condemned populists are those who fulfill the above conditions and are elected to govern .

    And of those elected to govern the ones who are regarded as a fundamental threat to our very democracy itself are the ones who are successful in office.

  • Ian MacKenzie

    According to Marx a communist utopia will naturally develop through the economic consequences of materialism. There are no voters required in this process, just the operation of progressive social transformation. In fact of course the working class didn’t have a vote when Marx and Engels wrote Das Capital, and communists still don’t see any need for voting even now, unless the results can be falsified to provide a regime with some veneer of legitimacy.
    Faux Marxists, like the socialists at organisations like the Grattan Institute, see the need for elections only to confirm their particular policy prejudices. There is no underlying belief in democracy beyond expedience. If voters don’t want what socialists are offering, then they require leadership (coercion) to change their collective mind. Ironically this kind of paternalism is very similar to that characterising the aristocracy that socialism was set up to dismantle.
    Finally it is worth noting that socialists have only themselves to blame for their current dilemma, having abandoned the working classes for a new aristocracy of wealthy inner city environmentalists and civil servants. When someone like Trump offers something to the working class voters that the Left have abandoned, their reaction is more inevitable than dialectic materialism.

  • Nils McNary

    The Institute known as the Grattan
    Is a think-tank that thinks to a pattern
    No regard for the truth
    Or for rigour or proof—
    It’s an ideological slattern!

  • ianl

    >”The sad fact is that voters can’t be trusted …”

    Salvatore’s rapier thrusts of sardonicism are very entertaining. I have often heard lefties bemoan impending elections for exactly that reason.

    “Those voters are stupid, they’ll get it wrong”. To compensate for that anxiety, we are lied to.

  • Peter Marriott

    The neo-marxist types at the Grattan or anywhere else for that matter are light years away from any aristocracy, in my view. Aristocracy was only real and respected if it came with a cultured knowledge, honour and most importantly a strong sense of the responsibility of noblesse oblige, all of which would be beyond the ken of any marxist worth his salt I think….even if he knew what it meant

  • BalancedObservation

    On the question of our rights in our democracy … if the free movement of unvaccinated people is to be significantly restricted as seems highly likely – everyone who wants to get vaccinated should be given the opportunity to be vaccinated before we open up our country with such movement restrictions in place against unvaccinated people.


    Politicians making the policy decisions have all had the opportunity to be vaccinated. That is certainly not the case with all their constituents.

  • Brian Boru

    Two statements in this article grated on me. 1. “Grattan laments that “politicians from both major parties routinely block [reforms] because they think they will reduce their prospects of re-election”. 2. “That’s right: nothing says “democracy” like an independent senator holding the country to ransom for a pet cause.”
    .
    On the first I agree with Sal’s point of view. On the second I think he drastically discounts the valuable part that independents play. As a supporter of our proportionally representative Senate I believe that it is fundamental that those (often minority) interests represented by independents and minor parties have a say in our democracy. After all there are many more Senators from the major parties but the problem for Australia is that the representatives of the major parties are usually unwilling to compromise.

  • BalancedObservation

    Unfortunately I think the Grattan Institute is going to be proved right on the crucial opening up issue. And the people will agree with them. We’ll see. It won’t be long before we know. It will be before the next federal election and before a number of state elections.


    The Grattan Institute argues that starting to open up at 70% of over 16s ( which is 56% of the total population) is too low.


    What is meant by starting to open up in this context is starting to open up the whole country – like allowing more entry from overseas etc. I make the distinction between that and simply opening up from current lockdowns because in posts in other outlets government supporters try to muddy the waters and imply I’m referring simply to lifting lockdowns. I’m not.


    We are seeing the problems already emerging in Victorian and NSW hospitals. The Delta variant is unable to be contained satisfactorily at our current low vaccination levels – even with lockdowns in place.


    Even after all this time – and the daily glowing reporting on nearly all media outlets (including the leftwing ABC) about how well our vaccination program is going – just under 54% of our population is still unvaccinated. With our poor vaccination performance we are still close to the bottom of the list of all OECD countries ( we’re 33 out of 36 OECD countries).

    There’s already ominous pressure on
    ambulance services and ICUs in Victoria and NSW even with lockdowns in place. We can expect that to get a lot worse if we start to open up the whole country too soon. We’ve been warned by the Grattan Institute.

    There’s a very good chance democratically elected governments at state level will pull the plug on the planned arguably premature opening up targets. There’s already been indications of that in Queensland and WA. And if they do I’m sure they’re going to be re-elected and have the overwhelming support of their populations – going by the recent state election in WA.

  • Adam J

    It’s worth remembering that the word aristocracy comes from the Greek aristos, meaning the best. We don’t have an aristocracy, although they certainly think of themselves in that way.

    As for democratic reforms and independents, I find this all strange. Australian governments have grown lazy and sluggish. That is why there are no reforms, and that has nothing to do with the electorate.
    As for independents, I find hating them to be hypocritical. The Liberal Party has always governed in a coalition. Isn’t that holding the country to ransom? Or should political opinions not be heard unless they come from one of the two major parties plus one’s permanent partner? In that case, where does Quadrant fit in? Why should independents unconditionally support the corrupt party machines that have come to dominate this country? And why are they called independents: because they are free from those political machines, or what?

    It is the slavish adherence to the party and not constituents that has caused such harm. Not the other way around.

  • BalancedObservation

    Adam J


    Some very good points there Adam. Given our resource endowments, our stable political and legal systems, our peaceful country and our closeness to growing Asian markets we should be a lot richer than we are.


    Our poor productivity growth drags us down. It’s been masked by the wealth from digging up stuff from the ground. That can’t last forever.


    Our productivity growth has been held back by the lazy, reform averse governments you talk about.

  • quaestio

    Productivity in Australia was exported to China years ago by politicians of all persuasions. I never vote for an Independent as they are stooges for the major parties including the Greens. Get rid of preferential voting.

  • Salvatore Babones

    Thanks everyone for reading … much appreciated!! S.

  • Brian Boru

    Why I would not want to get rid of preferential voting.
    .
    Preferential voting is used to determine who the majority of voters PREFER to be elected to an electorate. Say for example, there are 10 candidates each seeking election in an electorate of 100 voters and one gets 11 votes and 8 of the others get 10 votes and one of the others gets 9 votes. In preferential voting, the voters who voted for the candidates with the lower number of votes get their preferences allocated. The result is that the candidate who is MOST PREFERRED gets elected. That may not be the person who received only 11 of the 100 original votes.
    The alternative if we get rid of preferential voting is the first past the post system. In the example above, the candidate that 89 of the 100 voters DID NOT WANT would be elected.

  • Maic

    In a genuine democracy some voters will always be getting it wrong because in the minds of other voters they are failing to grasp the truth.
    For decades now we have seen the rage and abuse of leftist elements because they fail to understand that decent people can disagree on social, political and moral issues.
    Can’t trust the voters you say? I’m more concerned about our not being able to trust the politicians.
    Elect them to office on the basis of their oh so sincere
    assurances of governing for the people but soon unwanted policies come out of the woodwork – policies not touched on at all during the election campaign.
    Non left New Zealand voters have found this to their cost with their Labour government pushing through race based policies which most Kiwis don’t want a bar of. It’s a classic case of a political party giving its loyalty to vocal favoured minority groups rather than to the citizens as a whole.
    If you can’t trust the politicians then I say empower the citizens as the Swiss voters did many decades ago.
    With Swiss style Direct Democracy voters can block government legislation and initiate binding referenda under defined conditions.
    Yes, the people could get it wrong now and again but haven’t the pollies been getting wrong from time immemorial?
    So if you have concluded that democracy is not actually happening in your country don ‘t just stand there and wail. Do something about it!

  • BalancedObservation

    quaestio

    There may be many problems relying on China for too many of our critical imports but productivity is not one of them.

    With all due respect you need to acquaint yourself with what is meant by productivity in the economic sense.

    We are certainly not exporting our productivity to China.

  • Peter Marriott

    On preferential voting, as I recall as a scrutineer, it is always restricted to two parties only, i.e. it is called ‘two party preferential’ voting. The counters are instructed by the chief returning officer, based on historical records, which two parties they are, and in most cases this is either Liberal / National and Labor. The allocation of preferences then stop’s abruptly at whichever of the two parties preferred comes first, in the preference numbering on the voters ballot sheet. There is actually no possibility of anyone being elected other than a candidate from one of the two party preferred candidates, and in the context of the times now, that’s why I think we’re ready to consider something that gives someone else a chance, like first past the post and non-compulsory preferential voting. The Greens never get up, but they have power, because we always reckoned at least one in three voters, who give them their primary vote, also follow their ‘how to vote’ slips on first preference, which is always Labor, and Labor knows it, hence their unwarranted power.

  • Brian Boru

    Peter, with respect, I think you have not explained preferential voting as well as you could have.
    .
    It is about which candidate first receives an absolute majority of votes after the preferences are distributed. The candidate with the least number of votes has their 2nd preferences distributed and so on it goes until one candidate has an absolute majority.

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