How to describe myself politically? A friend once observed that I was ‘difficult to tag’ and I soon perceived I liked it that way, and have in fact spent the better part of a lifetime resisting group action, at the same time believing it absolutely necessary. This contradiction is largely temperamental but also arises from some bitter past experiences. Yet I let myself be recruited by GetUp! for the recent federal election, for reasons I’m attempting to explain.
Last Saturday brought the fifth change of federal government I’ve experienced since coming to Australia in 1958. I can’t remember ever handing out leaflets at a polling booth before but I once was an ALP member so must have been commandeered. I let my membership lapse, however, sometime in the 1980s when the Hawke government gave the green light to mining uranium. I was opposed to the policy, was berated by no less than Keating strongman Don Russell for being a soft-headed fool, and this did little for my sense of loyalty. Besides, the Black Mountain branch meetings were unspeakably dull and utterly futile, since every motion we managed to adopt was duly ignored by the government. That was thirty-odd years ago and speaks volumes, I think, about the problems the party has been facing ever since.
GetUp! is an organisation I’ve admired but was never really active in before. I’ve donated a little money and signed their petitions, but concede that this is the lazy woman’s way of trying to right the wrongs in our alarmingly imperfect world. What does it cost in blood and sweat to click onto a petition or proffer a few measly dollars? So in a critical moment I responded in the affirmative to their email asking for volunteers. Yes, I would do it. I would wear an orange t-shirt and hand out the GetUp! guide. A further incentive was that this was in Abbott’s Warringah, and the booth I signed up for at Balgowlah Boys High was only a few blocks from home.
People like me who live here are likely to feel beleagured. I’m told it’s the same for progressives across the pond in Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth. These two electorates contain some of the richest suburbs in Australia, going by median per capita income and most expensive housing. How I am a resident is one of the flukes fate sporadically dispenses, but I often wonder how long I can manage to stay.
As election day I approached I was introduced by email to my fellow volunteers, and spoke on the phone with the organiser, Andrew Fraser, like me an ex-Canberran, now studying public policy at Sydney University. But only when I arrived for my afternoon shift did I meet anyone in person. Liam and Jeremy, both young as GetUp!s tend to be, had been there since late morning. Victoria and I, two 'maturer' women, signed on at 2, and Anita came an hour or so after. I studied Liam as he approached voters to discover how to persuade them to take the guide. I soon twigged that assuring we were independent gave the erroneous impression that GetUp! itself was fielding candidates, when the whole point of our being there was to inform electors how the parties stood on certain issues.
The guide was useful, despite being derived from a survey of GetUp! members, and inevitably reflecting their outlook. No surprise then that on most of the issues listed, the Greens came out best. That was fine by me; with things as they were I’d felt I had no choice but to vote Green anyway. Like many a Labor sympathiser and former party member, I had to acknowledge that the political stuff-ups, factional shenanigans and whatever-it-takes philosophy of recent years had rendered the party unacceptable to me. There was no way, however, that this deep discontent could translate into a vote for our muscle-bound local member.
Picture us then, in our bright orange t-shirts, with a couple of orange posters to note our presence, but overwhelmingly outnumbered by the blue Liberal ones emblazoned with Tony’s triumphant grin. There was a Green one with young Will Kitching’s picture on it, and one announcing that PUP was somewhere in evidence. The lone Labor poster was hidden in a corner. Overall, it was a companionable day, a day for democracy; the weather was perfect, the smell of sausages sizzling and carmelising onions wafted over volunteers and voters alike. I made instant friends with the Greens, and the sole Labor man was clearly a kindred spirit. For a time this pleasant geniality even extended to the one female Liberal, though we agreed to disagree on climate change. (‘Did you know that England was warm in the 15th Century?’ she divulged. ) The Abbott men in their panama hats were predictably standoffish and consulted among themselves about the worrisome Y the Libs were given on the ballot. But the truly dark side to all of this came from the voters themselves.
It wasn’t the older ones, or the Botoxed and kaftaned middle-aged women who disconcerted me. They could be expected to wave us, and especially the Greens, peremptorily, contemptuously aside. No need to remind myself then that this was Coalition territory. It was the young ones, some without families, up and coming accountants or aspiring IT executives, and some with kids, preteens straggling beside them, and some with kids in strollers, living the dream and arrogant with it, with seemingly no concern over what’s ahead for those children. For, after all, Abbott has assured them that climate change is ‘crap’, and even if it isn’t the Coalition will fix it, painlessly and competently, and keep the riff-raff from their borders. And apart from a few amazingly welcome exceptions, this is who the electors were, clinging to what they read in Murdoch’s papers and all the meretricious slogans Abbott has repeated ad nauseum, shaking their heads and holding out their palms as they swept imperiously past us and entered the polling both.
I knew it would be like this, but it still made me awfully sad.