Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Day After

I learned something about myself last night. I am a geek for politics. I watched the coverage of the Australian election on two channels non-stop from 5:30 until about 11:00 (when I fell asleep with the TV on). In case you didn’t hear, Labor won in a “Rudd-slide.” John Howard wasn’t even able to retain his own seat, which he’s held for 30+ years. I know that my colleagues at UQ will be thrilled with the results, as tertiary education has suffered under Howard’s government for most of the past 11 years. Even though I can’t vote, and I have only lived in this country about five months, I’m quite excited about all the new possibilities with a Labor government. The last time I felt this excited about a national election was in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected and we all sang along to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.”

In the marathon coverage of an election in which I couldn’t take part, I did notice a few interesting things with my American eyes:
  • Legislative districts in Australia are named, not numbered (e.g., Bennelong, Canning, Tangney). And the origins of these names isn't always clear. For example, we live in the district of Ryan, yet there are no geographical features around here with that name.
  • The voting sites are known as “booths.” Most booths were at schools and churches. There was one around the corner from us that looked a bit like a carnival. The place was crowded all day, and there were all sorts of posters and campaigning going on just outside the entrance (in the U.S. there is large buffer zone that puts any campaigning fairly far away from the polling place). In addition, various groups engage in fund-raising at the booth. For example, one of our friends ran a bake sale for her children’s school while people were waiting in line to vote.
  • Some of the network commentators were candidates in the election themselves. This was quite a bizarre sight. Major candidates from both parties sat at the network desks the entire night, rather than hanging out with their own campaign staff back in their districts. Notably, the new Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the first woman to be elected to this office, was with the ABC all night. It was particularly strange on Seven when someone made a concession or winning speech. For example, while John Howard made his dignified speech late in the night, the Seven network would cut to a close-up of a Liberal party supporter at their desk in a split-screen. It was clear that the poor sod was also watching himself looking crestfallen while watching the monitor to listen to Howard’s remarks. I presume that the candidates who were commentators felt very good about their chances of winning, or else they would have risked being in the studio when their loss was announced.
  • “On a knife’s edge” was a phrase frequently used throughout the night. Anytime a race was too close to call, it was labeled a knife’s edge.
  • There's a national tally room in Canberra where all the results come in. Each TV network has a partitioned area around the edge of the room. The room itself was full of party supporters who would cheer each time a sign was updated with a district’s total. For some reason the cheering was so loud that it would frequently drown out the commentators at their network desks. By the way, the tallies were recorded on a massive scoreboard…by hand, in which numbers were exchanged on a board from behind, kind of like a baseball score at Fenway Park.
  • Seven had several other commentators sitting around in another room, which included a former prime minister and two former state premiers. That room had a bit too much testosterone flowing, as heated arguments would flare up between the Labor and Liberal commentators as soon as it looked like Labor was going to win.
  • I saw very little exit polling on the demographics of voters (e.g., how many women voted for Rudd) and why they voted the way they did. This is now a required part of American television coverage of elections, and I missed that.
  • Much was made of the degree of “swing” there was in the vote of each district. On the ABC a meter would indicate the swing from one party to the other since the 2004 election (e.g., “there’s a 6.54% swing in Sturt to Labor this year”). All that swinging seems very important here.
  • The party headquarters for each of the prime minister candidates looked small by American standards. When Howard made his concession speech and Rudd made his acceptance, it looked like each faced a crowd of 200 or so supporters. Maybe everyone else went to bed?
Well, I now have less than three years to wait until the next election. Meanwhile, tonight we get to find out who wins Australian Idol...


lee said...

Hi Eric. I was reading your post and it was really interesting, so here are some more hints about Australian elections:

- our members have electorates, not districts :)
- your electorate was named after a notable Australian (TJ Ryan, a past premier of Queensland). Most electorates created after Federation are named after notable Australians.
- according to our electoral rules, campaigners do have to remain more than 6 metres from the polling site (or polling booth). This is pretty arbitrary however, determined by the officer in charge of the polling booth on the day, and usually isn't really enforced that strongly unless the OIC is a control freak or the people handing out start getting aggro or pissing people off.
- people in Australia are generally more cagey than Americans about who they vote for, largely because the voting is compulsory, so it's not just the hard core who are going to the polls. So exit polling on demographic breakdown isn't as much of a feature when you don't have to get out the vote - there's no likelihood, for instance, of women not voting if they don't like anything that's being said, they have to vote. Also because of compulsory preferential voting, the two-party-preferred number is what's important - and it's difficult to conduct exit polling on how the preferences will flow, which if you ask me would be what the parties would be interested in in terms of gender breakdown.
- And it's the reason we're so obsessed with the swing - because GOTV isn't a factor, the swing between the two party preferred result is what determines the result in each electorate. It's pretty difficult to get more than a 5% swing in any seat from election to election, mostly because everyone has to vote at every election and it's difficult to get people to change their vote unless there is a reason - some of the swings we saw last night were remarkably large.

I had never thought before about having candidates as political commentators, but you're right, it's a bit odd. I can't really remember when it's happened before, incidentally - usually it's Senate candidates (who don't usually have their own victory parties to go to) and party notables, not House of Reps candidates, so the Gillard thing was probably a bit strange on reflection.

As for the size of Howard's and Rudd's parties... well, they're largely full of tired, sunburnt volunteers who have been out on the polls all day rather than dignitaries or what have you and in the ALP it's a point of honour to hold them in the member's local community club. Of course the Liberals, who have more money and a wealthier constituency by and large, tend to hire hotels. An average electorate has forty-something polling booths, each of which will have between four and eight volunteers, and not all of them will end up at the official party. Apart from a bit of media managing and a couple of VIP invites, the logistics wouldn't be much different for the Leaders' events...


The Author said...

I have a tidbit to add... did you know that they vote on paper using pencils? This is what hubby told me after he'd returned from the polls. When I expressed my shock, he said, and I quote, "it's that way in most of the world."

Dobbs said...

I liked John Howard but I don't mind Rudd either. What worries me more than anything are the people around Rudd like Gillard and Garrett.

I do like the mandatory voting law here though. Our politics in the US are so screwed up because each party has to appeal to their most extreme elements because they are the ones that vote.

The campaign here in Australia was no where near obnoxious in my opinion as US presidential campaigns are.

The Prof said...

First, Lee, you're amazing! Thanks so much for all this info. I had asked a few Aussie academics about some of this, and they didn't know the answers. And, I'll be careful to use "electorate" in the future, now that I know what it's called. I do hope that you'll comment again in the future--I could use some of your 'inside' help!

Author, yes, I did know about the paper ballots, and should have mentioned that. What's amazing is that the results were available relatively quickly, so it's a highly efficient system. It makes me wonder about the problems of the hanging chads and Diebold touch screen machines back in the States...

Dobbs, the whole campaign season was so much easier to take here. I can't believe that they STILL haven't decided on the party leaders back in the States! I am not certain yet about my feelings about mandatory voting. I want to research that some more...