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Elections? Here's How You Do It, Mate

You may have heard of John Howard -- until recently, he was our second-longest-serving prime minister. A shortish, balding, bespectacled conservative who looks like Dick Cheney in an indecisive moment, Howard was in office for just over 11 years, 8 1/2 months. On Nov. 24, he was defeated in a landslide by our new prime minister, Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd. Like his predecessor, Rudd is a bespectacled economic conservative, but unlike his predecessor, he vowed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and pull Australian troops out of Iraq -- although neither was a major issue in an election that was all about economic management. Kevin Rudd is also 18 years younger than Howard and has slightly more hair (think Dick Cheney with Anderson Cooper's do).

Before he could be seen as a serious contender, all Rudd had to do was to take a short trip to the United States to seek the blessing of the most powerful man in the world. Fortunately, Rupert Murdoch liked him, and Rudd was on his way. His six-week campaign was enlivened by revelations that he had attended a strip club on a boozy night in New York with one of Murdoch's editors. Party officials went into damage control, but no need: Rudd's already high poll numbers actually went up -- "Good onya, Kev!" It may or may not have helped that Murdoch controls 70 percent of Australia's press.

It certainly helped that in Australia, there's no choice when it comes to voting, either; it's compulsory. So rather than be fined $20, about 95 percent of Australians turned out on Election Day. It also helps that our elections are always on a Saturday and the sausage sandwiches served off hot plates set up in the parking lots are pretty tasty. We also have only one kind of ballot for the whole country, instead of leaving the design to state or local governments (Florida, you listening back there?). Because everyone has to vote, there's no need to spend a billion dollars to inflame passions and divide the electorate just so that people will pick a side and care enough to fill in a ballot come November.

Sure, we had our share of annoying election commercials -- about $60 million of taxpayer, party, union and business interest group ads. There was no inspiring or visionary rhetoric, but no Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, either. It was like two slightly dull accountants competing to do your taxes for the next three years.

Dull, sure. But there isn't the same polarizing effect as candidates try to "appeal to the base" and turn out the vote. Interest groups and "voting blocs" have much less influence in Australia than they do in the United States. So much so that in two weeks in Iowa I learned more about the views of each of your presidential candidates on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage than I did from John Howard in nearly 12 years.

And as for what Kevin reckons? Well, it just doesn't matter. If ever an issue such as stem cell research or the "morning-after" contraceptive pill RU-486 should come before parliament, the law is determined by what's called a "conscience vote." All members of parliament are free to vote as their conscience dictates; they aren't bound by the policy of their political party. The prime minister's vote has no greater value than the most junior local member's. And there's no power of veto. Majority rules -- and because we all voted, fair enough, mate.

On the last night of the Iowa State Fair, the kids from "American Idol" came out to perform. It was also the day of the Democratic candidate debate at Drake University. And that's when it hit me: You Americans have turned your elections into a talent quest. It's a reality TV show -- "Presidential Idol"! George Stephanopoulos is Ryan Seacrest!

It all made perfect sense: eight Democratic contestants up there singing crowd-pleasers like "Let's Get Outta Iraq" and the evergreen favorite "Health Care for All." Rep. Dennis Kucinich even took a stab at that old Broadway showstopper "Hooray for Gay Marriage!" And Mike Gravel delighted the crowd with his uncanny impersonation of Grampa Simpson.

And they'll all keep right on going until the folks in Iowa start voting them off the show in January. Then they'll gradually get whittled down by the home viewers, until the grand finale in November when we'll have our winner. But there's always that moment, when you're down to the final two performers with their perfect hair and their perfect teeth, when you kind of miss the one who used to slide off key or dance like your dad.

Compared to this grueling two-year talent quest, our Australian election wasn't so much an election as a trade-in. Which is why, come January, I'll be back in the United States. We may do things smarter, but "Presidential Idol" just makes for a much better show.

barron.john@abc.net.au

John Barron hosts a daily national news program on the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s NewsRadio and is working on a documentary film and a book about the U.S. presidential election.


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