Thursday, 5 September 2013

Sausage Sandwiches, Cake Stalls and How to Vote Cards

This Saturday, two days from now at schools and other designated polling stations around the country about fourteen million Australians will exercise their right (and their obligation under our compulsory system) to cast their vote for the next Australian Government.
For nearly thirty years, my wife and I (and later our adult children) turned up at our local primary school in suburban Sydney – the same school that our children had attended a few years earlier, and where we had been involved with the Parents Association for those years – negotiated our way through the obstacle course of party faithful proffering their “How to Vote” leaflets (they are called cards for some inexplicable reason) and joined the queue waiting in line to vote. We would always plan to vote early and thus avoid the congestion, but somehow we never did, so there was always the same frustration of looking for a place to park and realising we would have been better off walking from our home. Many of those handing out the leaflets were our friends – Tom, the ALP stalwart, John and Liz the Liberals and Keith from the Greens.  We never wanted to offend anyone so we accepted all the leaflets even though our minds were made up. After voting we dutifully handed them back on the way out.  Naturally, there was always a sausage sizzle run by the local guides or scouting group, a cake stall from the P&C and various other charities offering assorted bric-a-brac. Later that evening we met with friends for dinner and drinks while watching the outcome on TV and some of us celebrated and others did not.

This year we’re living in a different town, in a different state – not quite strangers in a strange land. But the local school where we will vote for the first time in our new electorate will still have the sausage sandwiches and there will no doubt be a few orange-clad Emergency Service workers, or the local Fire Brigade to distract us for a few minutes as we join line of voters. This year we are definitely going to get there early and we will walk. 
Sadly there will be no election night get-together with friends, but I dare say my wife and I will open a bottle of red, and sit in front of the TV. It shouldn't take too long this year for if the polls are anything to be believed and unless there is a dramatic change in public opinion, Australia will lurch to the right and enter into several years of conservative Federal Government.  I use the term conservative, rather than Liberal so as not to confuse those non-Australian members of my occasional reading audience.
Depending on how substantial this lurch is, we may well have a conservative majority in both houses of assembly (The House of Representatives and The Senate) and an opposition party so reduced in its ranks and the quality of its parliamentarians that even its leader may have lost his seat and even if that does not happen I’ll be surprised if he hangs around.

So what does this all mean for the Australian people?

Well to put it into perspective, our planet will continue (as it has done for the past four and half billion years) to travel about 150 million kilometres every 365¼ days in its orbit around the main-sequence dwarf star at the centre of the Solar System and as it does, it will also continue to rotate on its tilted axis once every 86,400 seconds.  During this time its only natural satellite will synchronously rotate about it every 27.3 days as the two bodies exert gravitational influences over one another.   As a result of this, the sun will rise the morning after the election and it will set again on Sunday evening.  At some time during the day the tide will come in, and later that same day, it will go out again.  The axis, being tilted such that the amount of sunlight reaching the surface varies over the course of the year means that our seasons will continue to change from Spring to Summer, from  Autumn to Winter and back again to Spring and in twelve months’ time, those of us fortunate enough to survive this sidereal cycle will be a year older, and perhaps even a little wiser – or not, who can say?

Most of us will breathe a sigh of relief that the torture associated with what has seemed a lifetime of electioneering and campaigning, pork-barrelling and fear-mongering will be over.  Our next government will get on with its job of separating intoxicating pre-election commitments into core and non-core promises and the rest of the population – those fortunate enough – will  go to work on Monday morning and get on with their job of trying to make a living.

I grew up in North Queensland in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when the ordinary worker was required to join a trade union.  Occupational health and safety was practically never mentioned or considered.  There was no such thing as superannuation and when a working woman married, she was obliged to leave her job and make way for a frequently less skilled single woman.  From 1964, young men on reaching their twentieth birthday took part in a sortition which required those whose birth date was selected to spend the next two years in full time National Service as part of the Menzies Government’s support of the US involvement in the Vietnam War and the ever present threat of the Domino Theory.
I mention this because even now over forty years later, I can remember the elation that many felt as 23 years of conservative Australian government under the stewardship of increasingly less charismatic leaders came abruptly to a halt with the “It’s Time” victory of Gough Whitlam.  A Labor Government was in power in Australia.  Conscription ended and Australian forces were withdrawn from Viet Nam.  A national health insurance scheme (Medibank as it was then known) was introduced and the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18.  China was officially recognised (it had after all been there quite a long time), and an Australian embassy opened in Beijing while at home focus was for the first time given to Aboriginal affairs and the environment. 
Three years later, it all came crashing down.  Whitlam was dismissed and in the subsequent election Malcolm Fraser won in a landslide which provided eight more years of conservative government until he was beaten by Bob Hawke in the election that ousted Labor leader, and later Governor-General, Bob Hayden said a “drover’s dog” could have won.
Six years ago in 2007 the Labor party under Kevin Rudd, defeated John Howard (who also lost his seat) with as much enthusiasm and triumph (for many of the true believers at least) as those celebrated victories of 1972 and 1983.  Since that time the country has survived the Global Financial Crisis without entering into recession and has an employment rate and a debt level that most of the western world can only dream about.  The country has been slowly reducing its carbon footprint, caring and providing more for its disabled than it has ever have done, improving its education standards and supporting increased superannuation levels which will protect its aging population into the future.
So why is it then, that more than half of our voters will by all projections, remove this government from office?
Is it because the overwhelmingly powerful media moguls (one in particular) want no part of a government which threatens their control of national networks?  Is it because Australia is a man’s country and the idea of a women at the very top was such an outrage that her performance as a prime minister was continually overshadowed by how she became leader? Has the sometimes hubristic performance of our current prime minister reached a point where voters just want to see the back of him now that we no longer emotionally subscribe to the concept of a “Westminster System” preferring to make our choice based on the presidential style of the party leaders?  There is no doubt that Labor did itself no favours at all and Mr Abbott has clearly gone from being the least likely Prime Minister in most people’s eyes a few years ago, to appearing to have a lay down misere which despite the fact that such a hand means it is so poor that the holder is certain of losing every trick played, in Australian gambling parlance is otherwise an “absolute certain” winner.
So much for the rhetorical questioning, cringeworthy as it all is – it won’t matter after Saturday, at least until the next election.

From a personal perspective, I hope most people will vote “below the line” in our complicated Senate election and in so doing will thus exercise their own preferences, not those of the political parties (minor parties included).  Control of both houses of parliament is not in my view a healthy situation for any government and a strong house of review may at least stall some of the more xenophobic and divisive changes which we may otherwise see over the next term of office.

And on Sunday and every day after that for the foreseeable future, the sun will come up and the sun will go down; the tide will come in and the tide will go out and if the theory of plate tectonics is all I believe it to be, Australia will continue to drift northwards at the breathtaking rate of somewhere between 10 and 15 cm every year.

Life here and in the rest of the world will go on and I will continue to remind myself of the comforting privilege of living in a democracy and not somewhere where corruption and violence determine who leads (or misleads) our country.

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