The bitter aftertaste of the ‘democracy sausage’ (or ‘Becoming an Aussie’ Part 2)

Ballot-boxesHaving blogged – to mild interest – about my 14-year ‘odyssey’ to becoming an Aussie, I thought a few words on the by-product of my newly established dual citizenship status – VOTING – should follow.

Funnily enough, shortly after I arrived in Australia in September 2004 at the start of my odyssey, a Federal Election was called, (won comfortably by John Howard’s Liberals) and which I still recall through the imagery of opposition leader Mark Latham’s very vigorous up close and personal concessionary handshake with his diminutive opponent.

I also distinctly remember sitting outside a school somewhere nearby Canberra like an unwelcome outcast (still on a tourist visa), whilst my then girlfriend went inside to cast her ballot. No doubt it was for John Howard (she was quite the fan I later discovered); and not surprisingly we parted ways soon after.

I’ve actually voted twice since taking the pledge at Kyneton Town Hall in October and receiving the customary native pot plant ( a wattle still surviving in the garden).

First there was the Victorian state election in November, where I apparently made the fundamental novice error of voting “above the line” for candidates in the state’s upper house, and then more recently at last weekend’s Federal Election.

I’ve apparently also committed a double un-Australian transgression by voting early on both occasions, rather then on election day, thus missing out on the final pitches for my vote by the competing parties and perhaps more importantly, not taking a literal bite of the ‘democracy sausage’.

For those non-Australian readers out there, it is customary to chomp on the simple pleasure of a barbequed sausage in white bread whilst waiting to fill out your ballot.

While I defend my decision to vote early as prudent (no queues, less hassling from party zealots) perhaps I did miss out on some of the circus-like atmosphere of election day, not least of all the sounds and smells of fatty sausages grilling away and the banter and chatter of this very Aussie ritual.

I did though correct my other ‘error’ – voting above the line – by going ‘below the line’ and giving all 12 of my required preferences to Labor and Greens candidates in the Federal election, six each in the pattern of Labor, Green, Labor, Green etc etc.

(Yes, I am a progressive voter, no mystery there. You’d probably have to hold a gun to my head to make me vote for a Conservative party.)

Of the experience of voting itself, it was quite odd.

While I found the process of casting my ballot about as thrilling as mailing a letter at the Post Office, I closely followed, with some excitement, the results as they flowed in, and was surprisingly elated when Labor won the state election in a landslide.

Similarly voting federally in a vacant shop in a mall in Sunbury was rather uninspiring (I dealt with the zealots and their pamphlet waving with a firm “I’ve already made up my mind’ and purposeful stride into the voting room).

But again, my emotions took hold as the results came in and it became clear the Liberals had surged to a Trump-style victory against the odds. As such a mild depression set in on Sunday at the realisation that another three more years of conservative policies, further neglect of the environment and inaction on climate change would follow.

Wasn’t this supposed to be an election about climate action?

By Monday, I was thankfully back to my cheerfully cynical self, joining in the banter about ‘ScoMo and Albo’ with my work colleagues and coming to terms with our ‘miraculously’ re-elected PM, the so-called #messiahfromtheshire ( Or if you prefer, the #liarfromtheshire,)

Both Aussie voting experiences were quite a contrast to the last time I voted in a national election, 25 years ago, when the emotion of simply casting one’s ballot that day was overwhelmingly wonderful and I cared very little for the outcome, knowing it was basically a fait accompli.

That was in 1994, when a free and democratic South Africa voted as one, with all creeds and colours forming joyous lines that snaked for miles in city suburbs and country hillsides, in a momentous (and remarkably peaceful) day for the country and the world.

Of course, back then there were true political leaders to admire, most notably the global statesman and freedom warrior Nelson Mandela, who went on to become the Rainbow Nation’s first democratically elected leader when his African National Congress (ANC) swept to power.

Compare the stature of the great ‘Madiba’ and all that he stood for with the mendacious, spiteful and dishonest grab for power that categorised this Federal Election, on both sides of the political divide, and it’s surprising I cared at all about the final outcome.

Truly, I must be an Aussie now!

Why I won’t be voting on September 7

Electoral-Commission-Pic

I won’t be voting next weekend because I can’t. I’m not yet an Australian citizen.

When I found out in March, to my surprise, that I was eligible  to apply for citizenship, I was thrilled. Nine years of waiting. Four visas. Enough paperwork to fill a jumbo jet and the moment had finally arrived.

So I printed out the 84 page booklet Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond” that tells you all you need to know about this great land to prepare for your citizenship test and read it cover to cover.

Then I downloaded all the forms that I would have to fill in.

I had this great idea that I’d write to all the different political parties asking why I should give them my valuable vote and then turn that into a story for this blog or maybe Crikey (the editor was keen, “a new citizen’s guide to Australian politics” or something like that was how I pitched it).

But then there came the complicated instructions that are standard with anything that has to do with the Department of Immigration. You read them, read them again, ponder them, but still you’re left scratching your head and perhaps heading for the liquor cabinet.

Once again there’s the obligatory police clearance? I must have gained police clearance half a dozen times now for my various visas, surely they know me better than my own mother? Then’s there’s finding people to sign statutory declarations and certifying documents and photocopying.

And remembering!

Once again, I must account for my movements over the past nine years into and out of Australia. Honestly, its all become a blur: who can remember every trip they’ve taken? To make matters worse I lost my previous passport and the one before that is in a box somewhere in my parent’s home in Johannesburg, which means there’s yet another form I have to fill in.

Further dampening my enthusiasm was news that I would have to send off two forms and $43 to the South African Department of Home Affairs if I wanted to have dual citizenship. Approval has to be gained first from South Africa before taking the oath in Australia or you lose your South African citizenship. And the time to process these two forms – three to six months!

So the end result is that the paperwork lies in yellow plastic folder on the big desk in the spare room waiting for me to summon up a degree of enthusiasm to fill in all the details and painstakingly try to sort out what documents I need and who needs to sign what.

It’s hardly the response I’d expected of myself  because the truth is I’ve always wanted to vote in this country. Becoming a permanent resident was a big deal (I even cherished my pale green Medicare card) and gaining citizenship is even more of a badge of honour.

Perhaps it has something to do with my arrival in Australia almost a decade ago, which happened to be just a few weeks before the 2004 election, the last federal poll won by glum John Howard and his cronies. My girlfriend at the time, her sisters, their partners and everyone else lined up to vote, while I milled about the polling station in some backwater country town eating a sausage roll and getting funny looks from the locals (He’s white, he looks Australian so why isn’t he voting?). If that wasn’t enough, we stopped the car to vote on our way to Canberra for the annual flower shower (the Floriade), a trip which included an obligatory visit to Parliament house and a walk past those solemn paintings of past prime ministers.

But now that the opportunity has come – and I probably could have voted in a week’s time if I’d made a big effort on the paperwork front – I could hardly care.

Who the hell would I vote for? There’s very little to inspire me among the neo-conservative Coalition, directionless and clueless Labor and the loopy Greens. There’s the smaller parties with their eccentric candidates so maybe I’d chose them and preference the bigger parties last, but then what would be the point? A protest vote perhaps?

All quite different from when I voted for the first time in South Africa in 1994. That wonderful sunny autumn day when there was hope and belief and joy in the air and as the newspapers rang out “Vote, the beloved country” with photos of lines of people snaking endlessly down city streets, amongst the leafy suburbs and through country side and hilltops.

APTOPIX South Africa Elections

A queue of voters in South Africa, 1994

It was a glorious moment, history in the making, and one of my finest memories.

But there’s nothing to inspire me now, in fact its far more enjoyable watching the circus from the sidelines (so to speak).

The truth is, I’ll eventually find the time and energy to put all the paperwork together and put my application in because to steal from Peter Allen, I also want to call Australia home (in an official capacity).

Indeed, it will be a proud day when they hand me a tree, offer me a lamington and a tiny tub of Vegemite.

But as for voting, I’m happy to wait another three years.