For the 3 Americans who keep up on Australian politics, you can skip this post – and the two posts that will follow after it. For the other 309,999,997 of you, you might want to read this. It’s some crazy shit.
In his book “In A Sunburned Country” (which I just happen to have quoted on the margin to your right), author Bill Bryson attempts to explain how Australian politics and Australian elections work. After reading the few paragraphs he devoted to Australia’s bizarre preferential voting system and all of the name-calling and foul-language that occurs in Parliament, I put the book down for a few moments and thought to myself “It can’t be that difficult.” Now that I’m here and have gone through an election cycle (and watched a few hours of Parliament on the Australian version of C-SPAN), I must say that Mr. Bryson was spot on. Not only is it a bit confusing for me – a political science major who has been studying up on this stuff like I have a big test on it tomorrow – but every single Australian seems to be confused as well, with the possible exception my friend Jason who works for the State Parliament here in New South Wales.
First, I’d like to point out that voting in Australia is… wait for it… COMPULSORY. Yes, that’s right. You MUST vote. You get fined several hundred dollars if you don’t vote. I’m not even shitting you. Doesn’t matter if you are out of the country – you must find a way to vote. Funny enough, the polling station with the longest roster of people punching ballots just happens to be… not in Australia. It’s in London, England, where up to 200,000 Australian expats live. For a country that requires voting, I’m shocked at how little people know about their voting system.
Election night was the same night as my friend Kathryn’s farewell dinner. It was an intimate affair – fondue for just 6 of us. Kathryn’s good friends Tara and Simon were there – a married heterosexual couple originally from South Australia but now living here in Sydney. Simon – the dude – votes for the Liberal Party (bad) and Tara – the dudette – votes for the Labor party (better). As the only Aussies in the room (the other four of us consisted of three Americans and a Dutch girl), I asked them if they would explain how the system works.
Big mistake. Normally, when politics come up, people will fight over whose party or candidate is the better of the two. This can lead to divorce. Not here though. Tara and Simon hardly mentioned their preferences and were very cordial when it was brought up. But I swear the conversation still almost lead to bloodshed as they took turns trying to explain to me how the Aussie preferential voting system works. Tara would explain a bit about how it works, then Simon would chime in and correct her, then Tara would speak up and correct the correction, then Simon would postulate that it works a different way, then Tara would say that may sound right but it doesn’t make sense when you look at something or other, and so on and so forth. Even I chimed in to throw out a few things I had read on Wikipedia. It was getting a bit tense. Needless to say, I left more confused that I already was. Even worse, I was worried that I may have instigated the breakup of a newlywed couple who had the potential to one day breed some very attractive gay offspring.
The next day didn’t bring any better explanations. It was the day I had to fly to Florida, and since I was flying V Australia, the plane was littered with attractive, nice-smelling gay flight attendants who had about the same IQ as a jar of mayonnaise. It’s nice to have the eye candy – and really it’s the only venue where attractive gay men talk to me (“Coffee?”) - but I swear my brain was hurting after listening to two of the cute flight attendants have this conversation in the aisle next to me as they poured drinks for me and my fellow passengers:
Taller cute gay flight attendant: So, who did you vote for yesterday?
Shorter cute gay flight attendant: I voted for Labor.
Taller cute gay flight attendant: How come you didn’t vote for The Greens?
Shorter cute gay flight attendant: I don’t know. Are they better?
Taller cute gay flight attendant: Yes – The Greens are in favor of gay marriage!
Shorter cute gay flight attendant: Oh, I didn’t know that. I wish I would’ve voted for them now. Did you vote for The Greens?
Taller cute gay flight attendant: No – I can’t vote. I’m from New Zealand.
Seriously. The Kiwi had a better idea of what was going on than the Aussie did. Not to say that he had a good idea of what was going on, but I guess having a vague idea of what was going on is better than having virtually no idea of what was going on. Sadly, I think the majority of Aussies have no more than a vague idea of what was going on.
Even two of my best friends here – Ross and Jonathon – weren’t 100% straight on how it all works. To give them credit, they know way more than most anyone I know, but even last weekend when we were discussing it, there was still some confusion on how the preferences worked. Do you pick your own preferences as Jonathan suggested or does the party of your first preference select the rest of the preferences as Ross thought? I had to go home and do a bit more Wikipedia research.
To be continued…