Rootless, Voteless but Happily Floating
Peter Singer & Renata Singer
The Age, December 26, 2004

Getting ready to visit Australia makes us think about what it is to belong to a country. We joke about our lives as "rootless cosmopolitans". That was Stalinist code for Jews, of course, a sign of how treacherous they were, because they didn't really have roots in the Motherland. But, with globalisation, it's no longer a bad thing to be a cosmopolitan.

In fact, we're far from rootless, and not truly cosmopolitan, either. We seem to take root almost too easily. We lived in England for four years, about 30 years ago, but Oxford and our close friends there are still part of our lives. Recently our tendrils have wound around people and places in Princeton and New York. But Australia, or rather Melbourne, is still the place where we were formed and nurtured.

Our sense of belonging is never to the whole place or nation or folk.

We haven't waved any national flags since we were kids in school, lining the streets to welcome visiting royalty. So when, after September 11, the board of our apartment block hung a huge American flag off the side of the building, we felt uncomfortable. We commented about this to our neighbours, but our discomfort puzzled them. Hanging out the flag wasn't political, it was just patriotic. Questioning patriotism is something no American wants to do.

One reason Americans are so patriotic is that it isn't just George W. Bush who believes that this is the greatest democracy and the freest nation in the world. Most Americans do. That has led to some interesting discussions in an election season in which the deficiencies in American democracy were only too apparent.

When it seemed that the contest between Bush and John Kerry was so close that the votes going to Nader might be enough to give the election to Bush, as they clearly did in Florida in 2000, Americans were surprised to learn that Australians have a voting system that would not lead to this result. It never occurs to them that there could be a better way of voting, one that allows voters to express their preferences about all the candidates, and doesn't just elect whoever gets the most votes, even if they get fewer than half of the votes cast. Students at elite universities such as Princeton may know that some countries use proportional representation - as Australia does for the Senate - but even they have never heard of preferential voting in single-member constituencies.

Americans also take it for granted that the elections in each state will be run by the party in power in that state. So gerrymandering, the creating of congressional electorate district boundaries to serve the interests of the party in power, is just business as usual here, and electorates are flagrantly and ingeniously shaped in order to squeeze in enough voters to ensure that the right candidate wins. If your electorate needs to look like a large V in order to achieve that result, why not? Who'd have thought that, when we left home, we would begin to pine for the Australian Electoral Commission.

It isn't surprising that Americans know nothing of our voting system. Living in the most powerful country in the world seems to go with a lack of interest in other places - they just don't matter all that much. You've heard the jokes about Australians being complimented on how good their English is? It really happens. Others are amazed that, when we go home for Christmas, it is summer in Australia. Some then ask if we have June when they have December - the link between snow and December is obviously too strong to break. Better educated people make appreciative remarks about Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, but most Americans have no idea where Australia is, what language we speak, or how many of us there are, and they couldn't care less, either. Americans learn where countries are when they go to war with them. Perhaps it's best if they never learn where Australia is.

"Expatriate" is not a label we're comfortable with - it's for Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, and Clive James, not us. They've been gone forever and we've been in New York just over five years. And living overseas is very different now, anyway, from how it was when that label was in common use. In the early '70s, when we were away for five years, we came back only once. In the past five years, we've never been away from Australia for more than a year at a time. Air fares are, relatively, much cheaper. It used to be an extravagance to make an overseas phone call. We rarely spoke to our parents on the phone and, when we did, tried to keep it under three minutes. When we went to London, we eagerly visited Australia House to catch up with Australian newspapers.

Now we ring our children whenever we like, talk as long as they will put up with, and read The Age on the web. All of which makes one quirk of Australian democracy particularly irksome.

Since we are not resident in Australia, we have lost our right to vote.

Most other countries allow their citizens to vote, wherever they live, but Australia doesn't. We are not US citizens either, so we can't vote anywhere in the world. We must really be rootless cosmopolitans.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Rootless, Voteless but Happily Floating'