January 28th 2007
Australia Day and the unexpected
Bob Dylan once wrote, "Something is happening here but you don't know what it is - do you Mr Jones?" The line came to mind, last night at the Picnic Bay Hotel, following a much enjoyed Musos' Club special event, when a most unexpected conversation took place. Who would have expected a group of nearly a dozen Aussies, sitting about at the end of a great evening of drinking and dancing to suddenly become very enthusiastically and thoughtfully involved in a discussion about elections, democracy and how "it" all works.
It began when Vani, who had just become an Australian citizen at the big Australia Day ceremony in Townsville the day before, told me she really wanted to understand properly how the voting system in Australia worked. I'm no expert but I had counted votes in a recent election and felt I should explain what I knew and made an observation that the one thing many Australians never seem to grasp is how they can use their preferences to make the most of their vote.
I began to explain how voting "one" for a minor party such as the Greens, who probably will not win a State or Federal seat (I explained what seats were too) actually registers in the system and sends a very important message while placing them second after a major party effectively wastes any intentions you may have had to show the world you think that what they represent is important.
Within a moment another woman was saying "I really want to know about this too". Another soon piped in saying, "I didn't know that." followed with more questions and within a minute or two I found myself the centre of a Aussie democracy tutorial.
I went on, "If you are concerned about the environment, for instance, you can register that by voting '1' Greens. That primary vote is recorded and after all the votes are counted the big parties can see that this issue may have been important to 10 or 20 plus percent of the population. That counts! Place them second after your favourite big party and nobody will know. The thing with preferential voting is that you can still vote '2' for your favourite major party or preference them way down the list after other smaller parties' candidates are registered." Of course in Queensland state elections there is optional preferential voting so you can opt to ignore the rest and just vote '1' for your favourite.
Had there been a barbie this would have been its stopper and I began to think: Is something changing in the mood of Australia? Has climate change, the scary-mad leadership of George Bush with John Howard in tow, new industrial laws, racial tension or, locally, the botched development outcomes now apparent on Magnetic Island, now begun to jag at our sense of what is acceptable? Like Mr Jones I don't know either - the "issues" weren't even discussed but this crew were as good a focus group as any politician's PR guru could concoct and I wondered if, maybe, our pollies might also rubbing shoulders with Mr Jones too!
What amazed me was the remarkable preparedness there now was to find out about and take hold of whatever practical tools were available to them to make a difference. Something was happening here!
Of course voting is just the pointy tip of the democracy iceberg. And the conversation shifted to the importance of simple things like letter writing. As an Amnesty International pen pusher I told of how important a hand written letter can be - slower but better than email as it demonstrates more effort and willingness by the writer to make their point. Accumulated in a politician's in tray they can turn a matter quickly from warm to red hot and, as they say in the newspaper industry; for every letter about a subject you can count there is another ten or twenty or fifty people who feel strongly about the issue but haven't written. This is how matters of importance can rise to the top of the pile and, in Australia, anybody can be a lobbyist or an activist and still have a go without being shot at.
And while there are many who retreat to the old adage "No matter who you vote for a politician always gets in," there was a palpable and fresh energy in this circle and I wondered how many others there may have been around Australia this weekend.
For a proper explanation of preferential voting (read here)
For photos of Musos' Club Australia Day weekend concert at the Picnic Bay Pub (click here)
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