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Best of 2010: Don't wimp out at the ballot box


Ballot box

First published in Eureka Street on 20 August 2010.

At local markets, shopping centres and polling places we stand shivering in the cold. All is quiet until a stranger approaches with a grim, resigned expression, looking at their watch or cursing the weather. They avoid our gaze until the last moment, looking up briefly and maybe acknowledging our smiles and 'Good morning!'s, then slowing as we descend upon them, three or four of us reaching out to stuff papers into their retreating hands.

Most take how-to-vote cards from each of us, then lower their gaze and hurry into the polling place. Others will look at one of us knowingly, winking or giving a pat on the back before leaving. For that one moment, we feel part of something bigger. That moment differentiates us from the telemarketer or street-corner spruiker, and it is enough to warm our hearts and convince us to stick around for another hour making awkward conversation with the volunteers of other parties.

It may surprise 'normal' people to learn that many campaign volunteers have no political ambitions of our own, and stand to gain nothing from the time and labour we donate. Nor are we all starry-eyed university students who have yet to reach an inevitable disillusionment. We're just ordinary folk who believe wholeheartedly in the value of our democracy and the virtue of our party.

Admittedly, this is an election in which it is hard to mount a high horse brandishing party colours. But to us the party is more than a collection of election promises and slogans. It is this that compels us to brave the cold (and occasionally abuse from strangers) in its support.

Even in the safest seats you'll find volunteers at train stations from 5am, declaring the virtues of a candidate they may never have met, all to lose by a lesser margin than last time. Are we mad? Probably. So why do we so covet a vote that you may have little interest in? Especially when it may result in no tangible benefit to our party?

The answer is simple. Party members, like zombies, only want you for your brains.

Let's not kid ourselves. Sometimes, in a safe seat like the one I grew up in, your vote serves absolutely no purpose. The other guy is getting in. You can claim that you're 'sending a message', but the MP doesn't care about your message, as long as he's got the votes of 50 per cent of your neighbours.

But behind the MP there's a party made up of ubiquitous, unelected 'shadowy-figures' — party members, community members. We care because you are one of us, and we want you to see the world the way we do. Not because it'll allow us to implement policy; just because our way of thinking is the right way of thinking.

The motivation is different in marginal seats — your vote decides who governs — but the philosophy is still the same. It's a battle of ideas, and a major statement about the beliefs and vision of an entire nation. It is a chance to align yourself with like minds in a nation-wide show of hands.

In an election of miniscule policy differentiation and very little talk of vision, sometimes this battle for hearts and minds can be forgotten. Such recognisable figures as Mark Latham and the boys on The Chaser are even advising voters to cast informal votes.

In a representative democracy, this smacks of neglected responsibility.

It is typical of the individualism of our age that so many people are now talking of 'making their voice heard' by voting for a minor party representing sectional interests. Presumably this conclusion is reached through a belief that having one's exact policy concerns voiced in Parliament is more important than the chance to build broad consensus and momentum for nationwide action.

Presumably, those voting for minor parties are unfazed by the thought that the 'populism' of major parties actually appeals to a popular majority.

This election is boring because we allow it to be so. If you want to hear more visionary ideas, then speak up. If the policies sound dumb, then say so. There is an old feminist saying: 'don't get mad, get elected'. In a representative democracy, a vacuous election represents a lazy polity.

It would be easy to cast a donkey vote or a vote for a minor party and thus wash your hands of the responsibility for our governance for the next three years. As the economy falters, as civil liberties are denied or as the Earth warms, you can shrug smugly and say 'I didn't vote for this government'.

The more difficult course of action is to take responsibility for the society in which you live, not just on election day but as part of your permanent civic duty. To attend council gatherings, party branch meetings, the AGM of a local not-for-profit or community group, or to write conscientiously to local papers or MPs.

These are hard, time-consuming tasks. You'll not be thanked. But one day, as you shiver in the cold, someone might give you a wink and call you comrade. And that just might take the sting out of another electoral defeat.

Edwina ByrneEdwina Byrne is a recent graduate of Melbourne University with degrees in History and Musicology. She is a volunteer for a marginal campaign in Victoria. On Saturday she will be handing out how-to-vote cards and watching the count with friends.

Topic tags: Edwina Byrne, Election 2010, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, election 2010, liberal, labor, greens



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Existing comments

Our Australian political 'system' needs to be looked at seriously. The right not to vote is also a human rights issue. Why be treated like a child if none of the candidates measure up to anything like a possible representative for the hapless voter?

Grown-up | 07 January 2011  

The election to which Edwina refers is now history. Contrary to her advice, an increased number of us voted for 'minor' parties, on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. So many so that neither of the major parties gained our majority support. Both parties, together with their leaders and platforms, were rejected. The consequences of the vote are most obvious in the Senate results, but they are also there in the House results. Does this mean that those who voted for 'minor' parties were more concerned with ‘having one's exact policy concerns voiced in Parliament’ than having ‘the chance to build broad consensus and momentum for nationwide action’? Or was it a sign that we had no confidence that either major party would, in its own right, govern for all? Was the vote indicative of the ‘individualism of our age’, as Edwina seems to suggest? Or was it a plea for a return to government in the long-term interests of the nation as a whole, rather than the short-term poll driven politics of the past decade or so? I'd be interested in Edwina's post-poll reflections!

Ginger Meggs | 07 January 2011  

The email fro Eureka Street that I got could also be titled "Wimps vote DLP" or "Wimps vote Family First." The email editor needs a good talking to.

Will | 07 January 2011  

As an ex-staffer of a highly respected Independent, I take great exception to the unexamined claim that a vote for a minor party or (by implication) an Independent is a wasted vote. It is advice like this that allows the status quo, where two major parties with a sliver of difference between them, and where the party MPs must vote along party lines even where their research, gut feeling, ethics tells them they should be voting otherwise. It's a bit like ownership of newspapers - a duopoly of voices results in the downgrading of democracy, of accountability and of critical examination of important issues. It removes representation. This is what democracy is "suppposed" to be about. Where would we be if the Senate did not have the minor parties and independents? Perhaps the author should do a bit more research into how the system actually works (or doesn't where people would only have the choice of two parties to represent their lives.) It still frustrates and bemuses me that the claim of the wasted vote is touted without examination. We need greater plurality of representation, not less.

Helen Bergen | 07 January 2011  

I think the answer to Grown-up's question goes something like this : The right to vote is precious, more precious than we sometimes imagine, and with that right goes a responsibility to exercise it, no matter that we sometimes want to write in 'none of the above'. Walking away doesn't solve the problem. That surely is the point of Edwina's penultimate paragraph.

Ginger Meggs | 07 January 2011  

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