Politics is my sports. This year, I get the equivalent of two Super Bowls. Of course, we have the Presidential election in the U.S. (and, boy, has that taken a lot out of me during the off-season), and this year – for the first time – I am voting in an Australian Federal election on July 2nd, thanks to becoming a citizen in 2014.
It’s taken me a few years to get my head around the Australian political system, but just in time for my first Federal election (*fist bump*), I think I more or less have the finer points worked out. So, for anyone who is also voting for the first time in this election, or will be a citizen in the near future, I’ve compiled this completely unofficial guide to what you need to know before election day.
If you’ve already become a citizen, you no doubt know that voting is compulsory for all Australians. You’d be hard pressed to miss that fact. It’s hammered home pretty strenuously in the citizenship ceremony, where you’re required to add your name to the electoral role, and in case you forgot, a follow up letter from your MP a few days later will nudge you in the right direction.
Once you’re enrolled, failing to have your name checked off on election day will score you a cool $20 fine.
That’s almost six coffees. Why would you do that to yourself?
The Lower House and the Upper House
Like the U.S. (or rather, like England, where we all got the idea from), Australia has two legislative houses – the House of Representatives (“the lower house”) and the Senate (“the upper house”). There are 150 Representatives – also known as Members of Parliament (MPs) – who represent local areas and serve a term of up to 3 years (don’t get too comfortable). The Prime Minister is a member of the lower house. There are 76 Senators – 12 from each state and 2 each from the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory – who are elected to serve terms of up to six years (Six years! Settle right in, mates).
The Lower House on a quiet day. The Upper House is red.
The Government and the Opposition
We can split hairs about this, but in effect, Australia has a two party system, and the majority of our officials are either Liberal-National or Labor. The closest approximation I can make in American terms is Liberal = Republicans and Labor = Democrats – though that’s a sweeping generalization that’s probably unfair to the Liberals (#trump).
Whichever party wins the most seats in the Lower House does a little jig and forms the “Government,” and the leader selected by the party is Australia’s Prime Minister. Whichever sad party has fewer seats comes out swingin’ as the “Opposition,” led by the Leader of the Opposition. Its job is to boo at everything Government says.
The Prime Minister gets to pick his most-favoritist Ministers to help him with things like foreign policy, education, immigration, money matters, and all those important things. (S)He appoints a cabinet of Ministers to advise, sit next to him and make faces at the Opposition, and go on TV to say how smart the PM is. Not to be left out – and I think you’re going to agree that this is pretty bad-ass – the Opposition leader also gets to pick his darlings to talk to him about those same issues. These folks are the Shadow Ministers (right?!?), and they basically follow their Government counterparts around and tell them they should get stuffed.
Frontbenchers & Backbenchers
It’s kind of like high school: Gain favor with the leader of your party, often by winning big in the election, and become a Minister or Shadow Minister, and you get to sit with the cool kids on the front bench. If not, you’re out in back bench land with the band kids and the drama nerds.
It’s brutal on the back bench, it would seem.
“Ugh, I never liked it on the front bench, anyway.”
“Yeah, those guys are the worst.”
“Let’s egg their houses this weekend.”
This is one of those phrases I heard on the news a lot, but never exactly knew what it meant. So, I looked it up. The Coalition is an alliance of a few center right parties who, together, form the Liberal-National Coalition. Oh, and here’s something I learned while researching this on Wikipedia – “At the federal level, the Liberal Party leader usually serves as Prime Minister and the National Party leader as Deputy Prime Minister.”
Third parties. There are kind of a lot of them in Australia, and though they don’t hold that many seats (5 in the lower house and 18 in the upper house, in the last election), they can be influential when votes are close, particularly with a “hung parliament,” where neither of the parties holds a majority of seats. As you can imagine, there’s a whole lot of wheeling and dealing with the third parties. “I really like your shirt! Want to sit by me at lunch today?? I really like that thing you said about renewable energy. That was fun.”
They’re also important in elections, and I’ll talk more about that later.
The Greens are the most viable third party, at the moment, though at any time, there can be dozens of others. Some of them are pretty specific AND fun. – like the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, or the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party, or, hey, the Sex Party. There’s also been a recent rise in independent candidates forming their own parties, like Palmer United or the Nick Xenophon Team.
I snapped this photo of part of a ballot from a 2000 state election while on a tour of the Parliament of NSW.
Calling an Election
As an American, this is probably the craziest part of Australian politics to me. While I’m used to officials sitting for fixed terms, and federal elections are always held on the same date, here in Australia, the Prime Minister can pretty much call an election whenever (s)he wants to shake things up around the ol’ homefront.
OK, that’s not completely true – they can’t do it on their own. They have to get approval from the Governor General (who basically speaks for the Queen) for the House and the Premiers of each state for Senate. And, elections for the House must be held at least once every 3 years and once every 6 years for Senators (half of them every 3 years, usually coinciding with the Representative elections).
WHOA! Things just got really crazy in here. A double-frickin’-dissolution is when the Prime Minister says, “I HAVE HAD IT UP TO HERE WITH YOU LOT” and sends them all home to bloody well think about what they’ve done, and only come back if they get re-elected. Everyone. Representatives. Every single Senator. The whole naughty bunch.
That is what’s happened with this election. Basically, Malcolm Turnbull got in a real dither and said that if the Senate didn’t pass some legislation that, I swear to you, maybe 7 people in the real world cared about, that he’d see us all on July 2 (which makes me think maybe it wasn’t *really* just about the ABCC legislation, but who am I?). He had to go up to the Governor General’s house in this very dramatic fashion – the news was full of black sedans rolling up the driveway – and ask permission. And, off we go – see you at the polls!
There have only been six previous double dissolutions in Australia. This video explains the legalities and the tactic really well, if you’re interested in hearing someone who knows what they’re talking about explain it.
Unlike my homeland, where the campaign season lasts for *literal* years, Australian candidates only campaign for a few weeks. The election must be held between 33 and 58 days after the elections has officially been called. Days.
What. A. Relief.
I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse for the indecisive, but on election day, not only do you choose your top bloke or blokette for the job, but you also get to say who you think should have the job if your person doesn’t win. On your ballot, you number candidates or parties by order of “preference.”
Preferences are a pretty big deal because they can sway a marginal (“swing,” as we’d say in the U.S.) seat one way or another. To win, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote, but with a dozen or more candidates on the ballot, they don’t always get it on first preference. Soooo, they then start counting preferences for the lowest ranked candidate, then the next lowest, until someone has 50%.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
How to Vote Cards
All this preference voting can really put a lot of pressure on a person. Luckily, every candidate is here to help with your difficult decision with a “how to vote card.” It’s sort of like shopping on Amazon … “Customers who like Tanya Plibersek, also like…”. I’ve gotten a few in the mail, already, and volunteers stand outside polling places on the day, handing them them out – “Preferences! Getcha preferences here!”
By the way, the people handing those out are volunteering their Saturday to so something they believe in. Be nice to them, even if you don’t like their party, yeah?
Despite the boon to the printing industry that these “how to vote” cards provide, some people still cannot be bothered. They show up to get their name ticked off because they know the value of $20, but they have places to be, man. And so, they begin with the beginning and write “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,” in order, and done. That’s called a donkey vote, and though I think anyone who votes this way is a donkey, I’ve read that people voting can give a small edge to whoever is listed first on the ballot.
Above the Line or Below the Line
In a Senate election, you have two groovy options – voting “above the line” for just the party or voting “below the line” for individuals. Preferences are still important. If voting above the line, you must number your preferences 1- 6. Below the line is 1 – 12. So, basically, voting above the line is easier, while voting below the line gives you more say in who you’re voting for.
Senate voting papers are actually a really long sheet of paper with a literal line separating the two options.
There is nothing more important in an election than the Aussie battlers. They are, ostensibly, the people every candidate wants voting for him/her, and they are also what they all purport to be. An Aussie battler is that person who is just working hard, scraping by an honest living for their family, keeping their head down, and trying to do right. Joe the Plumber, to my Yanks. They get a lot of notice around election time. You’ve gotta get that Aussie battler vote.
THE most important part of an election, just ask any Australian. Aussie polling places have almost a party atmosphere to them, thanks primarily to local community groups and schools setting up “sausage sizzle” fundraisers outside. For a gold coin donation ($1 or $2), you get a sausage on a piece of white bread, on which you can put some barbecue sauce or tomato sauce. Maybe even some fried onions, if it’s a fancy one.There’s even a website dedicated to mapping polling places with sausage sizzles. #snagvote
So, if like me, you’re headed to your first Federal election, don’t forget your gold coins, or the experience of helping to choose your elected officials will simply be incomplete.
And, if this guide written by someone who has never even voted in a Federal election has somehow not answered all of your questions, I suggest checking in on the people who actually know – The Australian Electoral Commission, whose site will answer, seriously, any question you could possibly have.
Want to know who to vote for? Try Vote Compass from the ABC, which aligns your views with those of the candidates.
Seasoned Australian voters – what have I missed?
Are you putting BBQ or Tomato Sauce on your sausage?