Day 32: Look, They’re Voting

Julia Gillard launched her election campaign on Monday but people have been voting for the past two weeks. By the time Saturday dawns, up to two million voters will already have cast their votes.

As the party leaders and the media embrace each other in an orgy of events, pretend debates and a welter of press conferences, out in the 150 House of Representatives seats an election is taking place.

In the 2007 elections, 1,062,339 people cast their votes before election day. They turned up to an Australian Electoral Commission office, most likely took a how-to-vote card from party campaign workers, and voted. Another 706,466 people submitted a postal vote. In all, 13.68% of the electorate voted before the official polling day.

In 2007, 6,072 voters in the marginal Melbourne electorate of La Trobe voted “pre-poll”, 6.89% of the total. Even more, 7,087 people, or 8.04%, cast a postal vote.

So nearly 15% of all votes in La Trobe were cast before election day in 2007. If what I saw at the pre-poll centre yesterday is any guide, that figure will increase this year.

The sitting Liberal member in La Trobe, Jason Wood, was first elected in 2004. In 2007, he withstood a 5.32% swing to hold on by 871 votes out of 85,283, a margin of 0.51%. It’s a seat the Liberals can’t afford to lose and a seat the Labor Party has been desperate to regain after losing it twenty years ago.

The pre-poll centre at the AEC office in Dorset Road, Boronia, is in a small building at the northern end of La Trobe. The door from the street opens onto a small area no more than about six square metres. Off to the right of the elevator are the stairs to the first floor AEC office. It’s a cramped space when more than a handful of people are present.

The Labor Party has provided a card table which is generously shared with the Liberal campaign workers, although I’m told the Greens used it the day before. When I arrive, there are three people handing out how-to-vote cards for Labor, the Liberals and the Greens.

The Sex Party candidate was here the day before but there is no sign of Family First. Their candidate was disendorsed last week after he spoke out in favour of gay marriage. The Liberal Democrat Party candidate is also unrepresented here.

A middle-aged man with a white beard sits opposite the Labor and Liberal helpers. Steve has been here for around three hours. He’s clutching a paperback book in his lap but says he hasn’t had a chance to read more than a couple of pages.

I believe him. In the thirty minutes I spend talking to these people, I act as doorman for about a hundred people who arrive to vote. They’re people of all types. An elderly man wearing bedroom slippers shuffles up the stairs. Married couples with children in tow cram themselves into the lift. Tradesmen in overalls head for the stairs. There is a steady flow of people coming and going. My conversation with the party workers is constantly interrupted.

Some people stop and wait for how-to-vote cards to be offered. Others grab them, eyes down, and hurry on. Some joke about the election. The occasional voter refuses to accept a card from one or other of the parties. There are observations about the weather.

Throughout it all, Steve tells them all that if they return the how-to-vote cards on their way out, they will be recycled.

Steve joined the Greens after a residential development threatened to destroy a local park. He describes himself as a “traditional swinging voter” who’s changed radically over the years. He expects to be back here on Friday and will spend all day Saturday handing out cards at a polling booth.

We talk about the seats where the Greens are doing well. Steve says the NSW electorate of Richmond is one of them. We all know that Melbourne is the one to watch. The ALP woman sitting at the card table says she’d vote Green if she lived in Melbourne. Her rostered replacement arrives before I have a chance to ask her why.

John arrives to hand out the ALP cards. He’s 75, a life-long Labor voter who lived in the Bruce electorate for thirty-nine years. More recently, he’s been volunteering for Anna Burke, the Labor member for Chisholm.

John’s a betting man and a former bank manager. He’s quite pleased that he got good odds – $2.05 – on a Gillard victory. You can only get around $1.28 now, he tells me.

With some pride, John says his late mother overturned a lifetime of voting Liberal and supported Gough Whitlam before she died. He reminds me that Menzies refused to let the Commonwealth Bank set up a finance company. At the 2010 pre-poll centre in La Trobe, banking policy of the 1950s momentarily takes centre stage.

The Liberal Party is represented by a young blonde woman wearing a Jason Wood cap and jumper. She doesn’t want to say anything to me “on the record” and won’t even tell me her name. She spends most of her time tapping away on her iPhone until a man in a pin-striped suit arrives to relieve her.

Tony Holland is a former member of the Australian Democrats. In fact, he was the Democrats candidate in La Trobe at the 2001 and 2004 elections. He polled 7.95% in 2001 but only 1.49% in 2004.

I ask Holland why he joined the Liberal Party and he attributes the decision to Jason Wood’s environmental stance. He says Wood has been involved in clearing up local creeks and other environmental damage. Holland criticises the national preference deal between the ALP and the Greens, saying that preference decisions should take into consideration the qualities of individual candidates.

Holland has no difficulty arguing the case for the man he once ran against. He tells me the Labor candidate, Laura Smyth, isn’t a local and says Wood is very popular in the local area.

It strikes me as too cheeky to ask Holland whether he will nominate for Liberal Party pre-selection in La Trobe if Jason Wood is defeated on Saturday. Wood’s fate is being decided by the people who walk past us.

Holland leaves and the silent young Liberal returns with her iPhone. Voters continue to stream into the building. No-one has any questions about political issues. Few comments are made about the election. One man gruffly refuses to take a how-to-vote card, saying: “I don’t need these.”

It’s hard to tell what any of these voters are thinking and I resist the temptation to conduct my own exit poll. It somehow seems inappropriate.

During a lull in the electoral traffic, John says his son is supporting the Greens because “they’re the only ones who are doing anything for the poofs.”

John and Steve have a spat about money. Steve offers the view that we need to reduce our focus on money and aim to build an alternative, more sustainable, lifestyle. John is incredulous. His banking experience has taught him that money matters. When you’re talking money and you look a person in the eye you get to see what’s really going on inside that person.

John thinks that politicians can lie at the drop of a hat. Why, I ask him, do you then give up your time to help them out? “You have to be part of a team,” is his immediate response.

I’ve witnessed a curious form of political participation that relatively few people take part in. But all around the nation over the past three weeks, people like these in La Trobe have been rostered for long hours handing out how-to-vote cards to people who in the main want to scurry in and out as quickly as possible.

It’s necessary work. There’s an iron law of political campaigns. If you don’t get your how-to-vote card into the hands of voters then you give up a chance to get their vote. Much of the political battle is simply about turning up and being there.

As this final week of the election draws to a close, local campaign managers are frantically trying to plug gaps in their polling day rosters. They will need extra people at pre-poll centres like this as the number of voters build.

Over the next couple of nights, party workers will attend training sessions on how to scrutineer on Saturday night. An army of people is needed for that as well.

I take my leave. John and the silent Liberal sit separated by the card table. Across the way, the man from the Greens snatches a read of his book.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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