In an article in The Age today was a report about a decline in voter participation in Saturday’s November 29 Victorian state election. In a country that enforces voting with ‘supposed’ compulsory voting, it appears some people are not even bothering to register their name/address with the Victorian Electoral Commission while others enrolled simply don’t bother to vote. Moreover there was an increase of some five per cent this year in the numbers voting informally, rendering their vote null and void. Certainly, the decline in voter participation is not huge; from around 95 per cent four years ago to about 92 per cent this year. Personally I find it extremely alarming that even one person does not take our democratic right to vote seriously. There was also a letter in The Age about how valuable the right to vote really is when compared to others countries; in this case, Sri Lanka which has been wracked by civil war, corruption and military rule. It does seem, albeit anecdotally, that too many people take our precious right to vote for granted; assuming they need do nothing to influence, change or affect policies and laws that dictate how we must live. Having once lived for nearly six months in Franco’s fascist Spain and read many books about the pernicious evils of totalitarianism as well as reading too many newspaper articles about undemocratic countries (including Communist China) it is with great disturbance that I reflect on people’s political apathy and indifference to exercise with intelligence and thought our right to vote.
Moreover, on Saturday, I was a volunteer outside a polling booth in the affluent suburb of East Melbourne where I was handing out How To Vote cards for the Australian Sex Party in the Upper House in Victoria. For the past four weeks, I have been ‘involved’ with the party; initially I googled the party to find out what its policies were about as I was increasingly disenchanted with the Labor Party and its many conservative policies. At least for me. I could never vote Liberal though I have read about both parties over the years and what their essential philosophy and beliefs are. Labor has at least appealed as more humanitarian, more attuned to social and economic justice and more aligned with some of my core socialistic empathies. For this election, I tried to explore the alternative Greens party but to no avail as they did not respond to my requests for more information via an email and a phone call from a party officer to my home so I could find out more about the Greens candidate for the lower house in my electorate. It has always been very important to me that I know as much as I can about who I want to vote for; I want to know the policies they stand for and their background to try and ascertain what is their real motivation in chasing power in Parliament – for their own self-aggrandisement or because they really believe in effecting policies to bring about change to enhance our lives. When I was a teenager I used to occasionally contemplate going into politics myself when I got older and even in my twenties living as a permanent resident in the UK I found myself thinking about it more and more. Why? Because I believe that politicians of whatever ilk DO enact the laws that govern our lives; and western democracy, as vulnerable as it is to violations and short-comings, is unequivocally the best form of government I at least know about. Yes, in some situations, it is a farce at times where broken pre-election promises undercut our voting choices but from my travels, experiences, reading and conversations with people from a myriad of countries all around the world, I vote 1 for democracy. I cherish my right to vote and that I have a voice however limited that may be. I studied politics at university and one of my honours subjects included problems with democracy. No system is perfect and it behoves us all to participate in our democratic system. I didn’t ever venture into the political sphere for a number of reasons; foremost being I never believed I could toe the party line (Labor it was going to be), I didn’t have the chutzpah I knew I would need to stand up in Parliament and burst forth about my beliefs, nor the wit and tenacity to withstand the nastiness in the corridors of power as well as in the media but moreover, I never forgot my three month stint as a young reporter in State Parliament in Victoria in 1969. I was only 19 and was disillusioned with the incessant mud-slinging and verbal abuse members hurled at one another in what passed for smart politics. Too many members also, all male, didn’t take me seriously as a reporter either; trying to flirt and at times, cajole me into having sex with them. I was only one of two female journalists then working at State Parliament out of about 25 males in the press gallery and the experience undermined my ambition to be a political reporter down the track. I never wanted to go to Canberra though I did cover some other political stories over the ensuing years outside the parliamentary domain both here and in the UK. Certainly, times have somewhat changed for females (I don’t recall a female MP in Victoria at that time), but even in Britain, women copped a much harder time in politics than men. Since then, I have sadly witnessed the far more rigorous negativity levelled at female politicians with women’s political presence shredded in our political history, the party almost irrelevant. A British political scientist Prof John Keane, now at the University of Sydney, recently published a tome on The Life & Death of Democracy which I am yet to complete reading, but until I do, I still believe that we must all ‘work’ to ensure democracy doesn’t die in front of us because we haven’t cared enough or been informed enough or been interested enough to make it work for us. We will only have ourselves to blame.
So I googled the Sex Party looking for a party I could vote for with conviction and belief. I knew virtually zilch about their policies except that the party leader Fiona Patten was a former sex worker (that was always mentioned in the articles I had read in the media- hm!) Was the sex in the party name a mere joke? Did the party have real policies I could support? To say I was wrapt when I read their policies is an understatement; I could have written them myself as I perused the words about wanting voluntary euthanasia, good sex education in schools, counsellors instead of chaplains, sexual health, public transport, an ETS and environment protection, decriminalisation of cannabis (I did know that one too) and no government funding to private schools et alia. I immediately registered my name as a volunteer to help out on election day and to do whatever I could to get some candidates into parliament. The next day I rang the party to inquire whether there was a party candidate standing in my electorate and was handed the phone to speak to him. I asked him a few quick questions and wanted to meet him; I had two reasons; to see what he was like and I thought I would try and do a story freelance about him and the party’s policies as I was pretty sure most people would be as ignorant as I was but wouldn’t even bother to google it to find out.
The candidate and I sat and conversed for over three hours at my local coffee shop: I wrote the story, sent it to three newspapers in Melbourne and surprise, surprise, got absolutely NO response from any of them. I was disappointed as while it wasn’t a rivetting story, it was pretty good and it outlined the policies and the interesting background of the candidate. I’m not sure why it wasn’t published but at least a couple of weeks later, the party’s launch for the election campaign did make it into The Age- I can only wonder as the party’s publicist/writer is a friend of the journalist who wrote the story. But it was a good story and the party went on to get some reasonable coverage compared to previous elections I was told. I started going into the office to contact other volunteers and the people I met were all terrific. The more people involved in the party I met, the more convinced I became that it should have people in Parliament so I then leafleted post boxes in my electorate for a few hours and was looking forward to handing out How To Vote cards on election day. My electorate candidate was no longer standing for the lower house but with Fiona for the Upper House.
I approached polling day with optimism and hope, knowing the particular booth was in the centre of a probably overwhelming Liberal voting suburb, but my chutzpah to approach people in those circumstances has always been strong and I determined that I wouldn’t be wary of talking to people no matter what their appearance. I was joined by another male party volunteer and we were garbed in black, yellow and red T-shirts declaring Vote 1 for SEX and the Sex Party. I made certain my hair looked well coiffured, I wore make up and it was a glorious sunny Melbourne day. We were there at 7.30am to ready the booth with some sex party posters, a billboard and were greatly overshadowed by about 15 Greens’ party volunteers who had turned out en masse. Labor had about six or seven volunteers, the Liberals a couple, a woman from the Animal Justice Party and another single volunteer for an Independent standing for the Upper House I had never heard of. My sex party colleague and I stood at opposite ends of the entrances to the booth and I had my spiel well rehearsed- borrowed from one of the party members who had addressed the volunteers at a meeting the week before in the party office. Namely, that a vote for the sex party would stop the flow on of preferences to the Family First party. I endeavoured to hand out the cards to everyone who was walking into the booth; asking them at the same time if they had a minute to listen to my spiel, adding to some of them who seemed indifferent to my spiel, do you know the Family First party? Many people refused to take the card at all, so I let them pass, watching as much as I could which party cards they were then picking up. Many of those who refused me were unsurprisingly taking the blue Liberal cards, but some were Green only and some Labor. Many people took cards from all party volunteers. I also told people where I had the time (they didn’t brush me aside) that the party policies were on the back of the card and that they should read them while they were waiting in the queue. Overwhelmingly, I mostly received a positive response from many different people; older, younger, male and female, and surprisingly perhaps on one level, many people who were conservatively dressed. It was a lesson in ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ if I needed that one at all. One man in his 60s I surmised even added as he took the card “I could put a bomb under Family First!’ When I mentioned that party, a few people quickly responded with “you’ve got my vote!” Some people had never heard of them so I told them the party was right wing and conservative. They went “ok” in a mostly positive way. There were a few only sniggers about the sex in the party name and another few actually came out of the booth after voting to tell me they had read the policies which were good but the party should change its name. One man talked to me for about five minutes about the policies. A few young girls who I hadn’t seen as they entered the booth came out and seeing me, said I looked great and they voted for the party. The older women were as receptive as the men, but one woman in her 70s who I started talking to about abortion, said she didn’t agree with pro-choice and then, smilingly added “You’re very brave to wear that” pointing to the T-shirt. I can only say I felt sorry for her that she needed to say that. One couple in their 60s really intrigued me but I had no time to talk to them at all. As I was trying to hand them both a card, the man refused it while the woman took the card saying to me “ He doesn’t like sex!” We both smiled at each other. Another younger woman in her 40s I approached as the day went on retorted sharply at me as I tried to interest her in a card – ‘I’ve read about YOUR party!” and she strode quickly away from me (I was later told by my colleague she came out of the booth and told him I’d been harassing her). What was interesting also was a woman of 92 I saw standing in the street waiting to be picked up by a friend who I started talking to. I had missed her going in but it was late in the afternoon and pretty quiet and she was still holding a Liberal card in her hand. I approached her and engaged her in conversation, curious about why she had voted Liberal. She told me she had lived in East Melbourne all her life and the electorate had never been a Liberal seat. I like their policies and I’m pretty conservative and then I asked her about the late Sir Robert Menzies and she replied: Yes, he was good but I’ve really never been that interested in politics.’ I asked her what if anything she knew about the sex party and she said nothing really so I tried to explain about some of our policies and she said they do sound interesting, especially voluntary euthanasia… she told me she lived alone still in her own apartment on the first floor and needed to walk up stairs. She was a really amazing woman but her disinterest in politics seemed pretty universal from some of the people I spoke to. I did say after telling people to read our policies on the back of the card that it was important to know what they were voting for. Most people I had the time to say this to seemed to appreciate that attitude.
One of the really worrying people I met was a 27-year-old attractive brunette with long hair who was sitting on the fence outside the booth where I was handing out the cards from. She wasn’t voting but waiting for a couple of friends. We started talking and she told me she wasn’t even on the electoral roll because there had never been a party who she wanted to vote for. Indeed, what really staggered me about her choice not to register to vote was she had a politics and business degree from Victoria University. I of course told her about the sex party and some of its policies and she said she had thought about the party and it interested her but she had never pursued that interest at all. We ranged over many topics as I intermittently handed out cards to people and returned to talk to her. I tried to explain that as part of our democratic duty (and I use that word carefully and purposefully) she must enrol for the next federal election and that she had a responsibility as well to ensure our democratic rights were never flouted. She took the card from me and I told her to google the party and read more about its policies. I also took her phone number as we were talking about abortion and I found her really interesting to talk to and said I would be in touch to have her and her three female friends to my apartment to discuss some female issues as well which we had briefly touched on. It is indeed illuminating for me that I also met a couple from my apartment block who were going to vote and I handed the guy (in his early 60s I think, his wife might be a bit younger) the card and told him to read the policies on the back while he was standing in the queue. For a reason that remains obscure to me, I didn’t give the wife a card but at the same time, she didn’t take one from me. I suppose I thought maybe she’d read it after he had read it. Anyway, a few minutes only passed and they were back outside again and they said the queue was too long and they’d come back later. (The apartment block is across the road from the booth). I didn’t see them come back to vote but on the Sunday at my apartment block, they got in the lift I was already in and he told me he had voted for the sex party. He said he had read the policies and they were very good. His wife didn’t say anything. I departed the lift saying good on you and must admit I was a trifle surprised. Exactly what had I assumed about them? Him? Her? I had already mentioned the likelihood of seeing people from the apartment block at the booth to my colleague wondering how they might react to me. I didn’t give it another thought all day (I only saw one other man from the apartment block an Asian guy in his early 40s on the day but I was chatting to another voter and we just smiled and said hello as he passed). I did on reflection it appears think that the man and his wife would probably be conservative voters, but then I hadn’t really thought about it at all really and was just really pleased he had read the policies to make an informed choice when he voted. But I unconsciously had assumed he wouldn’t have voted for the party so was also surprised when he said he did vote for it. Valuable lesson, hah? I don’t know whether his wife voted for us too and she didn’t say anything and it wasn’t my place to ask her who she voted for. I have met them in the lift many times and have always liked them both and chatted to them, too. They have also always invited me into their apartment when I have collected money for the Red Shield Salvation Army appeal (and given me money) which I’ve been doing for the past four years. The only thing I can say in my own defence is that I do indeed try to pull myself up when I assume about anyone based on nothing more than what they look like. I set out on the day not to assume but was doing it anyway even though I handed out cards to all no matter what they were wearing and looked like and only encountered one woman’s hostility.
The day was mostly a very positive one for the party and my colleague told me he too had had much positive feedback. One of the other interesting bits of info I picked up was after talking to the 92-year-old stalwart Liberal voter, I approached the Liberal volunteer who’d been there most of the day too. He told me that booth always returned a majority Liberal vote (I doubt it for this election as the Greens were everywhere and did win the seat) but the electorate had never been Liberal (it was once overwhelmingly Labor years previously but then more recently became marginal) and that he had received a positive response from people wanting to vote Liberal. I guess one of the most telling issues for me is that some people just didn’t really know who they were going to vote for until they got to the booth; the people who took cards from all the different parties and they were the majority of people I saw and watched. At the same time, I did see many people take just one party card. More people with Green cards did take my party’s card more than those with Labor cards and many people with just Liberal cards walked away from me when I tried to hand them my card. I couldn’t help feeling that many people weren’t really aware or knowledgeable about politics but that they had to vote by law and it wasn’t that important to them. I’m clearly assuming again in some ways but if you study the policies of the parties’ pre-election day why bother taking cards from all the parties. I’ve learned this before that many people make up their mind at the booth but it seemed to be true for a lot of people. I have oft believed too many Australian people are ignorant and simply not interested in politics when compared to many British people I talked to where voting is NOT compulsory. I’ve also thought about this a lot over the years as to whether a vote cast in ignorance is worth having? Should we make voting optional and is the 27-year-old girl who hasn’t registered exercising a democratic right NOT to vote? Or those voting informal? I considered this last year before the federal election as a protest and in my disgust at the demise of sensible policies by both the major parties (particularly about asylum seekers and immigration) but even though I was very switched off from supporting either major party, I couldn’t bring myself to waste my precious vote. I’m still out on whether voting should be compulsory or not but I do lean towards making it optional when I consider how ignorant and disinterested most people are in real political debate and discourse.
The day for me only reignited my political passion as it was beginning to sparkle when I first googled the sex party and read its policies. I could have rung the Greens too, but didn’t because it was apparent my vote didn’t matter to them for whatever reason. I am hopefully going to continue to volunteer as much as I can as I feel committed to their policies and their people. The best news so far with the counting of votes (the final result will not be known until December 17) is that the head of the party, Fiona Patten, is ahead with 60 per cent of the vote counted in the Upper House seat and another party candidate Francesca Collins who I haven’t met also is still in the running for another Upper House seat. I would like to know how many people I spoke to actually voted for the party but of course I’ll never know but I do know that some people told me they would vote for the party after I told them about Family First. Another guy who owns my local coffee shop who has told me he is mostly a Liberal voter (his looks, background and attitudes about so many issues run counter to the ‘image’ of your traditional middle-aged Liberal voter – assumptions once more!) but occasionally swings, told me on Sunday he had voted for the sex party after I gave him a flyer to read (he let me leave heaps of flyers at the cafe) and that they had good policies too. Previously, he had already told me he thought the sex party was ‘a bit of a joke’. I was gladdened by another reality I have thought about and that is that people DID make up their minds to vote for the party when they did know and read about their policies. They did make an informed choice and took the time to read the policies on the back of the card so while they may be mostly disinterested in politics, when they do have to vote they are interested enough to make an informed choice. That is very inspiring and even reassuring about compulsory voting and people’s attitude to democracy and their right to vote. On voting day, they do take it seriously.