Senate debates

Thursday, 12 November 2015


Myanmar: Election

6:44 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to reflect on something that is very dear to the heart of everyone in this place and to all Australians. Without it none of us would be here in this chamber this evening. Of course I am speaking about the power of democracy.

Last night I returned from several days in Myanmar—or, as some people still prefer to call it, Burma—where, along with Senator Ludlam and the member for Bendigo in the other place, Lisa Chesters, I was privileged to witness that nation's first fully-contested democratic election in 25 years. As part of Australia's official observer mission, we three parliamentarians were joined by an official from the Australian Electoral Commission, Mr Pablo Carpay, as well as staff from the Australian Embassy on the ground in Yangon.

Australia had a significant stake in the success of this election process, having provided over $4 million to help the Union Election Commission, the body charged with running the election, to build its capacity, train polling staff and undertake voter education campaigns. It is also a matter of intense interest for the 21,760 Myanmar-born people in Australia, the largest group of whom live in my home state of Western Australia, which, at the last census, reported 7,546 residents originally from Myanmar.

It is very, very easy here in Australia, with our long tradition of peaceful, democratic stability, not to mention compulsory voting, to take for granted our electoral process and the right we all share to participate. I think this is sometimes doubly the case for those of us who live and breathe the political process, as do most of us in this Senate chamber. My suggestion, for anyone who catches themselves feeling cynical about the democratic process, is that they spend time amongst people who have been denied democratic rights, because the opportunity to be with people as they exercise democratic rights that had been denied to them for decades was truly inspiring. Australians should count themselves very fortunate to live in a country where the biggest danger most of us face when we go to a polling booth is not being able to get a car park or perhaps burning our fingers on the sausage we might pick up from the traditional polling-place sausage sizzle.

As I arrived in Yangon last Thursday, the local media were filled with reports about the security preparations that were being made and the huge numbers of additional police being recruited to work at polling places across the nation. This is not something that we have had to contend with here in our own country. But I was especially pleased that I had the opportunity to spend polling day in a relatively small place and witness firsthand the real grassroots enthusiasm for democratic reform. On the day before polling day, we drove close to six hours from Yangon to a town near Hpa An in the south-east of the country to observe Sunday's election. After an early 4 am start on election day to witness the opening of the poll at 6 am, we visited seven polling booths across the town and adjacent rural villages. We started and ended the day in the same place, a very small rural village outside Hpa An, where we watched the prepoll preparations and returned late in the afternoon for the closing of the poll at 4 pm and then to witness the vote counting. It was a small place by our own standards, with a total of just 800 votes being cast there.

For those who have been watching the results come in and have wondered about what seems to be the slow pace of the count, the following explanation of the process may be illustrative. This being the first democratic election in a quarter of a century, everyone involved has been eager to ensure the results truly reflected the will of the voters, and thus the process of counting has been a painstaking one. In the polling place that I attended, it took some six hours to count just 800 votes, a task performed under a very dim light bulb, which was powered by a small generator which had in fact been donated by one of the political parties. Every individual ballot paper was held up for careful examination by each scrutineer, was declared accordingly for a candidate, checked for informality and then placed in a basket. This was done for every vote in each of the three contests I witnessed: the upper house, lower house and regional assembly. In some polling places across the country, there were added ballots to elect ethnic minority representatives.

It has been encouraging to see the comments from official observers from the European Union that the elections ran better than expected and the congratulations to all involved from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he spoke of their patience, dignity and enthusiasm. As most of us will be aware by now, the result of the election has been a sizeable victory for the National League of Democracy, the party of long-term pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. Of course, as the constitution currently stands, Aung San Suu Kyi will not herself be eligible to occupy the office of President. The President is elected by members of parliament rather than through a direct vote of the public, so this element of the process is yet to play out. Whether that aspect of the constitution is amended will now also be a matter of the people's democratically-elected representatives.

Australians should of course be pleased that the elections have proceeded in a peaceful and orderly manner. It is also pleasing to hear reports over the last 48 hours that the military regime has said it will honour the election results and cooperate with the peaceful transition to democracy. One hopes these commitments are indeed honoured and honoured in full.

That said, and historic and happy as this experience has been, I think we need to remain vigilant, because the form of democracy that has been instituted is not perfect. The fact that 25 per cent of the seats in parliament are automatically assigned to the military continues to be of concern. It is a structural feature of the Myanmar constitution alien to a true democracy. Continuing regional conflicts and restrictions on citizenship mean the franchise was not universal, and certainly not as wide as it could and should have been. But I hope that this is something the newly-elected government will work to address in no short time.

These concerns should not detract from this moment, however, because it has been achieved peacefully. It was and has been a historic and significant event.

I would like to express my sincere appreciation for Australia's ambassador in Myanmar, Nicholas Coppel, and for Andrea Cole, an official at the embassy who accompanied me on my travels, and to the locally engaged staff that support her, Khaing Aye Nyein and Nguwar Zan. Their professional and exceptional support was much appreciated.

Of course, Myanmar's democracy is not perfect—but then, whose is? The United Kingdom has significant malapportionment issues. The United States continues to experience issues with voting equipment and voter registration in some cases. In Western Australia, indeed, we had our own issues late last year, when the entire state was forced to return to the polls and rerun the 2013 Senate election, thanks to the AEC losing ballot papers during the original count.

All of these things are unfortunate and can be improved, but my point is that democracy is imperfect. It calls to mind the observation attributed to Winston Churchill:

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

Yesterday, we marked the 40th anniversary of what I think was the most tense and testing time in Australia's own democratic experience: the dismissal of the Whitlam government by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, on 11 Nov 1975. I am not going to reflect on this at length, but I want to record my concern at some of the revisionism that seems to be creeping into coverage of this event, particularly over recent days. The Labor Party and others have long been fond of claiming that the events of 1975 were an affront to democracy. The Leader of the Opposition was at it again yesterday in the House when he said that what had occurred was a conspiracy that showed disrespect for the democratic rights of the Australian people and will rightly stand condemned by all Australians.

I think it is worth quoting from the statement of reasons issued on that day by the Governor-General, which I think places these matters in some context. It said:

The result is that there will be an early general election for both Houses and the people can do what, in a democracy such as ours, is their responsibility and duty and theirs alone. It is for the people now to decide the issue which the two leaders have failed to settle.

That is precisely the point. The parliament was completely deadlocked and the government could not obtain supply. In all the outrage and hand-wringing we heard then and still hear today, I have not heard any sustainable argument from opponents of what occurred as to how they would resolve the matter. How the Leader of the Opposition makes the case that the calling of an election amounts to disrespect for the democratic rights of the Australian people, I do not understand. It is not as though the Governor-General's actions were without scrutiny at the time. Labor's entire campaign in 1975 urged people to 'maintain the rage' and 'right the wrong' by re-electing Gough Whitlam. Instead, the Australian people administered to him the biggest defeat in Australian electoral history.

Forty years on, it is time for people to be less hysterical and tribal about these events. In our system the people are sovereign and the people made their choice, and Australians have been forever in their debt for the decision they made in 1975. (Time expired)