The first time I voted in a federal election, I was 19 or 20 years old. The Labor party had been in government for several years, with Hawke just removed to make way for PM Keating. This was Keating’s first time going to election as the PM rather than Treasurer.
No-one I knew was excited about John Howard or the Coalition, but there was a general feeling that Labor had been in power long enough and Keating was too snobby compared to Hawke. At the time I thought my parents voted Labour but I’ve since discovered that both are swing voters.
I was so keen to be a swing voter. No politician can count on my vote, I thought – they’ll have to earn it with good policies! I read the news and watched as much of the ABC’s political shows as I could before getting bored by old men talking nonsense.
I voted at a polling place in the primary school across from my rental share-house. I put Labour first in the House of Reps, and Democrats (remember them?) first in the Senate. I was actually mildly surprised that Howard and the Coalition won. Hadn’t people noticed that the Liberal party policies were kind of mean? Maybe there’s a lot of National voters in other parts of Australia, I thought.
Over the next 13 years I repeatedly checked the policies of each candidate, getting excited as some of them figured out how to build websites so it was easier for me to do my research. I kept voting for some combination of Labor, Democrats and the Greens when they were running in my area. I didn’t always like all of their policies, but the Liberals’ economic theories were dis-proven and a lot of their politicians were sexist. Plus I couldn’t stand Howard, Costello or Abbott just on a personal level. And there was no way I was going to vote for One Nation, who were openly racist and were led by a woman who said she would solve the budget deficit by literally printing more money.
Each election night I hung out with friends or texted them as Howard won again and again. We shook our heads as Howard rescued his failing popularity by lying about children being thrown overboard from the Tampa, then used 9/11 to look like a safe choice to lead us into a war that half of us didn’t want or even think was in the right country. We debated the GST, and whether Costello would ever have the guts to challenge Howard, and complained that selling off public assets isn’t the same as good economic management. We yelled as Abbott tried to make RU486 a government controlled substance and stood by all the child-abusing priests. We swore we’d slap Rupert Murdoch if we ever got to meet him.
I became cynical about Australia. So many people voting based on the promise of a little tax cut, or because they hated refugees. At some point someone suggested I watch Don’s Party, but it was so full of old people doing old-fashioned things it was hard to relate to. Nowadays I’d say it was “peak boomer” material – culturally relevant to a specific moment in time, but treated as if it contains universal truth. Maybe it’s time for a Gen Z reboot.
After a while I wanted to get involved. I still didn’t trust any specific political party, so I volunteered for Get Up instead. We worked to educate people about preferential voting, and climate change, and refugee treatment.
My favourite action with them was one where we showed up on Election Day to hand out scorecards on the top issues chosen from a poll. In among all the vollies from the parties, we wore orange and shouted “Undecided? Come get a scorecard and a fortune cookie!” I had so many people say things like “oh thank god, I know I should pay more attention to politics but I’ve just been so busy”. A few people asked how I was voting, and I told them I was voting Greens but they should vote for whoever best matched their values. Strategic voting just makes you feel manipulated, and no-one’s going to give you a gold star for voting for the eventual winner. I helped them find what was important to them on the scorecard. That year it felt like I’d actually helped people participate more fully in democracy than they would have otherwise.
My next favourite experience while volunteering was during the 2007 election, which was otherwise a pretty crappy day. The vollies from the conservative parties were pretty shitty towards us – we’d always been teased a bit, but it was usually good natured. But I think this time they knew that Kevin 07 was a winner, so they were feeling grumpy and took it out on us. They tried to “debate” us, and assumed we were unemployed or paid to be there. I was feeling pretty worn down by it all, and I wasn’t as confident of Labor winning after so many years of disappointment. Plus the polling place didn’t have any cake stall or community fundraising snacks or even a vending machine. Just a black asphalt car park outside a run-down church. But then a lovely conversation happened that made it all worth while. An African lady came up to me and said, you are wonderful, all you volunteers are wonderful. She’d gone home to get her kids to show them the polling place, and told us where she grew up the elections had to be guarded by armed soldiers to stop fights from breaking out, or worse. But here we were, chatting and laughing and it was safe to bring children. She was a refugee from war, and this was her first time being eligible to vote in Australia. “Oh my goodness” I said “now I’m even more upset that there’s no cake stall for you!” I said to her that next time she should vote at a polling place set up in a school, it’s usually much more fun than this. But I did feel a little bit proud, and it reminded me that we’re so lucky to be able to change government without any guns, just some pencils and paper.
The year I found out that writing on your ballot doesn’t make it invalid, as long as the numbers are clear, I wrote on my ballot. The usual example is that it’s okay to draw a dick, but that’s not my style. I just wanted to take advantage of this little bit of self-expression beyond my actual little vote. So I wrote a thank-you note to the election staff in the margin of my House Of Reps ballot.
Oddly enough it took me many years to acknowledge that I would never be a real swing voter. The more I learned about politics and history, the more I realised that the individual politicians or the policies they announce during election season don’t matter as much as their underlying ideology. And right-wing economics is evidence-free bullshit (harsh but true). Plus they firmly believe in a social hierarchy that puts straight, white, rich men at the top. I just can’t support that, even when I quibble with the personalities or policies of the left-wing parties.
So for me now it’s the Greens with preferences to Labor. I don’t vote differently in the Senate than I do in the House of Reps anymore, but I think that style of voting went out when Natasha Stott-Despoja left politics so I guess I’m not alone there.
I still think it’s important to vote according to your values. We have preferential voting, so you can’t waste your vote. The Gillard minority government was one of the most productive this century – we got the NDIA and Gonski funding for schools, the NBN was begun, and we got what I hope was our first (not our only) carbon price. If more people voted for parties based on who would represent them best, not who they think will form government or who’s offering the best bribe, we’d get minority governments which have to collaborate with cross-benchers to get anything done.
The biggest change in my voting over the last three decades is that as much as I will always try to persuade people to vote like me, I think it’s more important that they vote at all, and that they understand how our democracy works. That lovely lady who was so thrilled that elections are peaceful here always reminds me that we can’t take democracy for granted. We have to work for it to keep it safe, even when the politicians and issues change over time.
And for that reason, I’d probably still try to slap Rupert Murdoch if I met him.