Meanwhile in Australia

The weekend of 18 May is a very important one for Australia. Usually, it’s not.

Let me be honest. Usually around that date we complain about the incoming cold and are upping the pressure of work to meet all the issues related to the end of the financial year on 30 June. I’m writing this on 11 April, however, and an election was just declared for 18 May. It’s the Federal election we have all been waiting for.

It’s a late declaration. Our normal campaigns are six weeks long and this is less. We’ve known it was coming sort-of-now for so long. There has been a fake campaign for months and we’re already suffering from election weariness. By ‘so long,’ I mean a few months. US election timelines make many Australians want to bury our heads in the sand.

18 May is a good date, because it’s also the end of Eurovision.

Australia is totally addicted to Eurovision. We think we’re European most of the time and this time of the year it shows. It really, really shows. We play drinking games specially designed for Eurovision.

Some people settle down with beers to watch the vote counts on a Saturday night. Our elections are on Saturdays – religious Jewish voters always have to vote ahead, but otherwise it’s a lot easier than a weekday election. (Australia is not that good at making provision for minority religions. We’re pretty much expected to deal with things rather than be part of everything.) This year it will probably have to compete with the repeat of the Eurovision semi-final versus vote counting.

Drinks will be an issue. The drinking games for Eurovision use spirits or mixed drinks. Elections are more about beer or wine. Australia used to take vast amounts of alcohol in its stride, but we’ve changed and we tend to drink moderately these days. I suspect a lot of us might simply replace all alcohol with tea and coffee.

We’ve changed in other ways, too. This election is a litmus test of how the changes we think we’ve made affect how we vote.

Eurovision this year is also a litmus test. Australia has its share of antisemitism and Eurovision is in Israel.

I shall be watching Eurovision on the big screen and the election count on my computer and my personal quest will be to find out what it all means. Are we as left wing as our shouting makes us sound, or as far right as our politics currently suggests?

We have a history of being both. Women have been able to vote here since 1902, but Indigenous Australians were not given clear political rights until the 1960s. We listen to the outside world more than some countries, and in ways that cause us to take a sledgehammer to our own feet. We can be incredibly astute politically and exceptionally imbecilic. We are relaxed and friendly and happy… and bigoted.

Australia is not what she appears to the outside, but she has elements of that. The Castle is an accurate film, emotionally, and so is The Dish, and so is Looking for Alibrandi. We watch our films and tell ourselves that we care about the fair go, that we’re easy going. Our statistics tell us that we overwork and have major problems with discrimination. We’re good on guns but don’t always watch out for those who are disadvantaged. The environment is important even as we destroy it with mining. We worry about all these things incessantly.

All of these elements are critical to these coming elections. Because the Morrison Government came into power in such an odd way (we joked for a while about leadership changes happening every day with no elections to prompt them) and because it’s so disliked, we find ourselves trapped in a phase that reminds me of the seventies. In the seventies, Australia changed. That might happen this election.

While many Australians care intensely about working to reduce climate change, on having a much better welfare system and on minimum wage, immigration is a vexed issue. I wish it weren’t, but we’re not good to all immigrants and we never have been. We have a long history of preference for white immigrants, but not the US definition of white. I’m off-white, I tell people, because I’m Jewish. (Jews were regarded as Honorary Black during our White Australia policy.)

This election is the moment when we find out how far our deep biases extend. We know we still have them. Indigenous Australians are still having to work a lot harder every day than any other group. They cop a lot more prejudice.

Racism is one of the subjects we’re already talking about for this election. Do we want to keep people like Fraser Anning and Pauline Hanson as senior representatives of ordinary Australians? Each of us will make up our own minds about local candidates on the election ballot and we’ll see. It’s going to be a very exciting vote count.

This year we have a new factor in the whole campaign business. An organisation called GetUp! has developed a big following and is encountering angry opposition. Last weekend the positions between GetUp! and its opponent became hilariously clear.

GetUp! is a grassroots organisation, set up by centre-left and left-wing Australians. This includes key Labor, Greens and union members, but also includes many who may or may not be aligned. It’s been active political for a while, but now it’s joined in the election campaign.

When it began, it would send emails and tweet links to as many Australians as possible and then base its action on the opinions of all those people. A million Australians is one of the counts I’ve seen, by a group that dislikes them intensely. We were asked to participate in this campaign or that campaign by signing petitions or by donating or by volunteering.

It’s an interesting organisation and I’ve been following its email trail for a while. It does what it says it does but… it has developed a policy line based on all the input over the last little while, and that policy line is to pressure voters to remove extremists from parliamentary positions. It asked all the people on its huge email list “Who do you want us to target?”

The politicians being targeted this election are a mixture of the more right wing politicians and key members of the ruling party. One of my local Senators (I call him Senator Zed and make Superman jokes, for his first name is indeed Zed, which would translate to the US as Zee) has been targeted, so I get to see how it works in my own electorate. So far it’s polite targeting, carefully confined to permissible political lines. In Canberra,  there are stickers and ads saying “Dump Zed!” for instance.

A right wing group is not happy with this. They’re not grass roots, so I can’t join the email list and follow as closely: I only know this end from the media. The media is having a field day with them, however. Our media ought to like them, to be honest. A lot of our media tends to support the right wing rather than the centre or the left. But…

“Advance Australia” is sending a superhero around to the electorates that GetUp! is targeting. Captain GetUP has an odd accent, kind of American, but not quite. He is possibly copyright-infringing in a number of ways. Twitter instantly fell in love with mocking him, but we don’t know yet how most voters will respond. Will they listen to him ‘explaining’ all the problems caused by GetUp!’s campaign, or will they continue laughing?

So much of this election currently depends on the Australian capacity to decipher laughter. So many big issues are at stake. The direction Australia will go in the next twenty years is at stake.

When big things happen, Australia often falls back on mockery. There will be a lot of laughter in this election, and if the political parties are not wise in their campaign strategies, they will turn the laughter into anger and bile. Right now, we’re a country full of rage and laughter, equally, and most of us really don’t want the rage to win.

Watch this space.

Next time I’ll explain our electoral system, so that you can see why our elections appear to be in a different universe. I might also explain the importance of the democracy sausage.


About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren't funny at all.


Meanwhile in Australia — 5 Comments

  1. Fascinating post, Gillian. I’ll be very interested in your next. I thought I understood how the Australian system works, but I would very much like to read about it from an Actual Australian’s perspective, rather than the bland generalizations of a history text.

  2. Thank you, Gillian, for an introduction to what’s going on in Australia. I’ll look forward to your next post.

    (Also happy to hear about magpies, which you mentioned on Twitter as demanding attention. We have their kin, but no magpies here.)

  3. Magpies here are no kin to magpies on Europe, if that is any consolation. In September I shall report on this and I will probably be cowering in fear.