Watching the Count in the seat of Batman

For reasons of history, I’ve been most interested in the seat of Batman this election. I lived in Batman on and off for more than twenty years. I was there when Brian Howe was the member, then Martin Fergusson, and finally David Feeney. I was distantly involved in the preselection that chose Feeney, supporting one of two fine women who were running for the seat. Needless to say the factions and the stacked branches decided that rather than a local woman, a certain Feeney would be parachuted in after losing his seat in the senate. This was a major factor in my eventual leaving of the ALP.

So in stepped Alex Bhathal, a Greens candidate who had run in the seat four times prior to the 2016 election. The contrast between her and Feeney are striking. Having walked away from the ALP, I decided to support the Greens.

The contrast between the two parties is striking. The branch meetings I made it to had become dull affairs. Of an official hundred or so members, maybe seven would turn up. I’d seen the members list for the FEA (Federal Electoral Assembly, the group that chooses who will stand for the ALP in a given federal seat). There were some thousand members in Batman, a suspiciously large number of which shared surnames and postal addresses.

The Greens meetings, however, are lively affairs. A huge diversity of people and opinions. And a striking number of former members of the ALP. I imagine the Labor party of old was like this, before it became a machine for gaining power and not a broad-based party of involved members.

I popped in a few times to Alex’s campaign office. My estimate of the average age of the volunteers there was about twenty.

Election day, I was scrutineering in a booth in North Reservoir. The booth was heavily Labor, nearly half the votes cast going to Feeney. I watched sadly as the third place getter, a Liberal called George Souris, had his preferences flow largely to Feeney. Which is not the say they were preferenced high in the order, the Liberal how-to-vote card had Feeney tenth and Bhathal eleventh.

There was a huge swing to the Greens in the seat, over 9%, but it was not enough. As I watched the tallies on the night I knew it was not looking good. To not be leading on the night is never good. Postal votes and declaration votes tend to flow to the conservatives. Which in this case meant they were flowing to Feeney. So despite Bhathal getting more first preference votes than Feeney, she has trailed since the night by around 1.5%. I watched the count with sadness, reloading the AEC page over and over hoping that somehow the lead would change. At the time of writing, the seat still hasn’t been declared, but the ALP has held on.

Why do I care so much? I have an instinctive dislike for Feeney. He’s not a good nor representative local member – indeed he is not even local. His elevation to the seat was not a transparent nor democratic. If it was it’s likely Mary-Anne Thomas would have gotten the nomination. And she’d have been a popular member. But no. He represents what is wrong with the ALP and with politics in general. The machine has spoken.

And once again the Greens, a party who regularly poll 10 to 12% of the vote across the nation, are left with but one seat in the lower house, and not, say, the fifteen they would expect from that level of support. And for another three years there will only be a tiny number of voices in Canberra railing against the offshore detention of children. I despair of our leaders and our representatives, and the callous nation we have become.

Further Thoughts About Election Day

I’ve recalled a few more conversations and events from election day. On top of those I documented a few days back.

While I was handing out how-to-vote cards at a booth I’ve now discovered was called North Reservoir, we were approached by a woman with a very confusing question. She asked me and my fellow Green what would happen if she voted Green and Alex Bhathal was elected – would it still be a Labor seat? For a moment we had no idea what she meant, did she mean that if there was a hung parliament that the Greens would side with Labor to form government? After a few minutes discussion it turned out that she didn’t understand that one electorate has one member who can be defeated by another candidate at the election, from a different political party. After we explained she was most relived, took a flier and went and voted.

I’ve never thought our system of democracy here in Australia was particularly complicated. The nation is divided into seats, each of which is represented by one member in parliament. Every three years or so an election is held, you number some boxes on a green piece of paper, eat a sausage, and the votes are tallied. The candidate with the most votes wins, and represents the people of their seat and their party in parliament. I’m going to suggest to the AEC that they do some kind of refresher course, a broadcast perhaps, just so every knows the basics.

I’ve also recalled more of the conversation I had with that revolting woman from the Australian Christians. We were arguing the merits of the Safe Schools program, which at heart is designed to reduce the bullying of LGBTI teens. I said “You know gay and lesbian teens have one of the highest levels of suicide?”. She ignored me. On the subject of same-sex marriage, I said “You’re effectively denigrating the relationships of some of my good friends.” This also had no impact. In retrospect I should have told her that I am a known donor for two lesbian couples – that would have sent her into a lather. Her arguments all boiled down to a veiled homophobia and a very very traditional view of the nuclear family.

As I said, I felt sad for my cross-dressing, queer, lesbian and gay friends. When it’s getting so people are afraid to show affection to their same-sex partners in public, it makes me feel like intolerance is in the ascendancy. Everywhere should be a safe place. Every school should be safe.

I’m an atheist, but I’m relatively certain that Christianity claims to be a peaceful and inclusive religion, where people are taught not to judge. I might be an atheist, but sometimes I’m a better christian than those who profess the faith. A better christian than those who organise a political party with the sole aim of imposing their beliefs on everyone.

In the past I’ve retained people in my circle who are more to the right of the political spectrum than me. I know where I stand, and I felt the need to hear other points of view, to hear what they other side was thinking. But I was disappointed. To a man, and indeed woman, these people I tried to interact with turned out to be unpleasant and reactionary. Someone would post an anti-Islam picture on Facebook, and I would try and explain why I thought it was wrong. My arguments fell on deaf ears. Islam is bad, that is it, like this was some kind of fact of nature. I had folks from the right making snide and rude remarks when Joan Kirner – a lovely woman I met briefly once – passed away last year. They didn’t say “Oh how sad”, rather there was mocking of her polka-dot dresses. I disliked Fraser, despite his attempts later in life to resurrect his image. Or, it would seem, he stayed the small-l Liberal he’d always been and the Liberal party lurched to the right. Either way, when he died I was sad. No matter how old and no matter their politics, it’s sad when someone passes. But no such sympathy for Kirner or Gough from these supposed adults I knew. And the pattern repeats itself. I had a heated discussion on Twitter just before the election over asylum seekers. A women who was actively proud of her migrant background was perfectly happy that we are locking up children who had dared to try and enter the country. The hypocrisy was extraordinary, but she couldn’t see it.

I like to think the things I believe are based in fact. I like to think that my beliefs are rational and that I can defend them. And, importantly, if someone can show me clearly that I’m wrong, I’m willing to change. If someone can provided clear evidence that the world is not warming, I’ll change my stance. Trouble is the folks I engage with on this that subject can’t and don’t create a decent argument. All one hears is “are you shouldn’t believe anything you read in that newspaper” or “Ah it’s clearly all a conspiracy”. I once got called a Socialist on Twitter, like that was some kind of insult. I was troubled – I quite readily self-identify as a socialist. Or at least someone who doesn’t have a “I got mine, fuck you” attitude. I like to think there are conservatives out there who can muster an argument and defend their point, but I have yet to meet one.

Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the election counting goes on. Meanwhile the current prime minister is sure he can form some kind of government. The seat I put the most effort into, Batman, still hangs in the balance. And the UK has no government to speak of, and some orange-coloured freak in the United States is making disturbing stabs at the presidency. All the while the planet keeps warming, the reef keeps dying, the children and babies are still in an off-shore prison camp, and people continue to be maimed in Iraq a decade after it was “liberated”. It would be so much easier to not care. To just cover one’s ears and go “La la la”. Or the suburban equivalent, sitting on the couch with a beer watching some kind of competitive cooking show…

Election Day was a depressing experience

For political junkies like myself, election day is supposed to be something of a highlight. Actually living through a very long election campaign when you’ve made up your mind some years ago how you’re going to vote is not that much of a spectator sport. I just wanted it to end and for there to be a result – hopefully one that I liked.

But the actual process on election day was depressing, not just because I missed out entirely on a Democracy Sausage. For the first time ever I was handing out how-to-vote cards for a party other than the ALP. Following my decision to leave the party after more than twenty years as a member, I threw my lot in with the Greens. Particularly in the seat of Batman because of a particular dislike of the sitting member, David Feeney, a waste of oxygen from the ALP who was gifted the seat after being dumped from the senate. And a particular liking for for Greens candidate Alex Bhathal.

I was also roped into helping in the seat of Scullin, where I now live. And which is a very safe Labor seat. So for three hours in the afternoon I was handing out how to vote cards at a high school in Lalor. On the plus side, it was a fantastically diverse group of people there voting – I handed fliers to Kooris, folks of African extraction, retired migrants of a Mediterranean background, women in Hijabs, including a large number of feisty young woman, and a few in Niqabs. Lots of folks coming from works in the paint-cover clothes.

But then there was a fair percentage of folks who were completely confused by the whole process. Some were first time voters, tall teens who had never done this before. But a fair number were just perplexed, and were asking us, the how-to-vote folks how to fill in the ballot papers. I’ve always thought the voting process here in Australia was relatively straightforward, consistent between elections and explained a fair bit. But apparently not… We found ourselves explaining the two ballot papers, about how you had to number all the boxes on the green ballot, and who all the parties were. People were saying they’d only ever heard of Labor and Liberal, and were perplexed by all the other parties. I’m not sure what the percentage of informal votes where at the booth, but I suspect it was quite high. Which makes me sad that some folks didn’t get to express their preference.

The more depressing event was the two other how-to-vote folks there whom I ended up having a conversation with. The first was a chap from the ALP, who quite readily told me he was a member of the Labor right. The thing that impressed him the most while we were there was a Mercedes that pulled up. He was telling me how much it was worth. A lot, it would seem, the kind of money I would use if I had to have, say, half a dozen sponsor children.

Then I got into a heated discussion with a women from something called the Australian Christian Party. Her sole concern was her strenuous opposition to the Safe Schools Program. She told me an extraordinary stream of misunderstandings and lies about same-sex couples in general and the Safe Schools program. According to her one of the main creators of the program was a pedophile enabler. I asked her what on earth she was talking about, and she quoted me something from a paper this person had published. To me it sounded like the gist was “Teenagers who are same sex attracted, queer etc. need same-sex adult role models” – a perfectly obvious thing to say. But no, according to this mob that meant they were meant to sleep with adults. Other aspects of the program that made her angry: Role playing as Gay or Lesbians as a learning experience – this was teaching kids it was normal to be that way and no doubt converting them. That being LGBTI was being normalised, while claiming at the same time that there was nothing wrong with being gay so long as she could prevent anyone under twenty from ever hearing about it ever. Because of course no teen has ever been bullied for being out.

As you can imagine, she was vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage. Because, I kid you now, marriage is defined by god and science! She could not explain what that meant. I told that she was denigrating the relationships of some of my good friends, and that marriage was a social construct – which she didn’t understand.

And then the guy from the ALP chipped in that he too opposed same-sex marriage. Apparently all the religions he was familiar with opposed it. Which I would have disputed but I run out of breath and time. It seems words in a two thousand year old book, and indeed a 1300 year old book hold more import than the diversity of the modern world. Here I was reminded again why I left that political party… Which was confirmed firmly when I discovered they’d preferenced Derryn Hinch in the senate!!

I thought of my friends who are in same-sex relationships, or who a cross-dressing or indeed just not gender-bound. And I felt sorry for them, if this is the kind of frankly irrational opposition they face. I don’t have a problem with people being conservative, but I have a strong objection to people holding completely incoherent views that have no solid basis. I’m going to teach my kid how normal this stuff is in a fairly simple way – in fact I largely won’t need to, since he’ll be surrounded by gay and lesbian couples.

I upped sticks from that booth and headed over to a primary school in the seat of Batman. Happily the mood was different there. I stayed after the polls closed to scrutineer. In this seat the contest was been the Green, my candidate, Alex, the ALP and in distant third at Liberal candidate. There as a total of eleven candidates, but in the booth I was at some of them attracted all of eight to twenty five votes each.

They sort the lower house ballots into piles by first preference votes. There was three notably piles – ALP, Green and Liberal. And one other pile of note – the informal votes. This grew depressingly large. I watched the ballots that went into that pile. A number of them were people who clearly didn’t give a stuff, they’d left the ballot blank or crossed the whole thing out. But a large number of them really had tried, but they’d messed it up. Putting a tick or a cross in one box. Numbering only six of the eleven boxes, probably confused by the new Senate voting rules. The informal pile grew till it numbered nearly 10% of the total votes cast. Which depressed the hell out of me. Batman is likely to be decided by a margin of less than 1%, and here was a huge number of people who wanted to vote a certain way and failed.

The next step of the process is to distribute preferences. The three piles were roughly 1000 votes for the ALP, 450 for the Greens and 415 for the Liberals. The Libs were distributed between Green and ALP, because across the whole seat the contest would be between the other two parties. And so I got to watch still more votes head towards the ALP… The Liberal how to vote card had preferenced the ALP tenth and the Greens eleventh. So some 70% of them went in the ALP pile. There I was watching a party I intensely dislike deliberately sabotaging the chances of a party they intensely dislike. I know it’s not sabotage but it certainly felt that they hated the Greens more than they hated their traditional rivals the ALP.

I eventually headed home, despondent, and watched the results come in on ABC. And here I was bummed out yet again. I’ve spent that last three years watching in horror as the conservative government in Canberra has demonized minorities for their own gain, in the process enabling a number of racists to rear their ugly heads. And trying to destroy fabled institutions like Medicare and the ABC and the union movement, repealing working carbon reduction legislation, lying about their being a refugee crisis, nobbling the NBN and… Well, it felt to me like every day there was something new they were doing to get angry about. And here they were on election night in with a fighting chance. Rather than being dumped out office by an outraged nation, there they were sitting almost neck-and-neck with the opposition. Rather than having a prime minster having to make a humiliating speech of defeat, we had smug blue-tie wearing Liberals saying they were hoping to form government again in a few days. I’m not sure what the combination of rage and despair is called but that is what I felt. And to find that the senate is going to be worse than the last term. Pauline Hansen, the prototype racist nutjob is back. Derryn Hinch, a loud angry white man may be in there. Jackie Lambie will be back possibly with a friend. The next three years are going to be grotesque.

I had a fitful nights sleep. I’m going to be spending the next few days refreshing the AEC’s website for results.

Leaving the ALP

This is the letter I’ve just send to Bill Shorten, along with my membership card.

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Dear Mr Shorten,

I am a long time member of the Australian Labor Party, having joined as a young man over two decades ago. I’ve been on branch committees, I’ve met many members of parliament and I come from several generations of rusted-on Labor voters.

However, of late I have found myself questioning my membership, and questioning the behaviour of the party itself. And I’m afraid the time has come for me to leave.

It has been a long time coming. I gritted my teeth when the last Labor government continued to invest in the dramatically late and extraordinarily over-budget F-35 fighter jet that the Howard government decided on for political reasons. I know this because I worked at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation at the time.

I was very angry when our last-but-one Labor prime minister refused to support marriage equality. Thus demeaning the relationships of many of my friends.

And I was incensed when I got to see firsthand the workings of the factional machine during the preselection for Batman on the retirement of Martin Fergusson (and don’t get me started on him!). I watched not one but two amazing local women put their hands up for the seat. Either of them would have been a great addition to the parliament and very representative of the local area. But no, a factional hack was parachuted in, on the votes of the many stacked branches in that FEA. I’ve seen the membership lists, there is no way there are that many Labor members with the same address and the same surnames in that area. So once again a very safe Labor seat is used as a token and a reward in a game that has nothing to do with the desires of the local people and the genuine local members.

I’ve watched with dismay as you and your fellow ministers have wholehearted gone along with this dreadful administration’s fear mongering about national security. Based on the desire to not be seen to be “weak”, you and the federal party have chipped away at our rights and our privacy. And tacitly endorsed the demonising of Australia’s peaceful Muslim community. You can wish everyone a happy Ramadan every year, but it doesn’t hide how this group are being treated as outsiders and as dangerous.

But for me the straw that broke the camel’s back has been refugee policy. Howard found he could win votes from those otherwise inclined to vote for One Nation by declaring those desperate refugees to be “illegal”. I can still hear him intoning, or dog whistling, “We will decide who will come into this country and under what circumstances.”

And what do I find from the party I belong to? A compassionate treatment of asylum seekers? Attempts to build regional consensus about how best to help these people? No. Far from it.

I tried to look away when Keating introduced mandatory detention. I gritted my teeth when Gillard created the Nauru and Manis Island detention centres. No, let’s be honest, they’re prison camps. And I was furious when Rudd then excluded the whole of Australia from the migration zone.

The way these people have been treated is not just immoral and cruel, it’s moved into violations of international law.

So imagine my disgust when I found that one of the worst policies of this current federal Coalition government, headed by a man capable only of parroting the same three word slogans over and over, was being adopted by the ALP at the most recent national conference. I’m talking of course of turning back the boats. Or, to describe it more accurately, sending people away to die elsewhere.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that seeking asylum is not illegal, it is a basic human right. It shouldn’t need stating that this nation does not have a refugee crisis by any measure – more people cross the Mediterranean in a day than turn up here in a year. And let’s look at Syria’s neighbours, who have absorbed four million people, the population of Sydney, as refugees in the last few years.

So it is with great disappointment that I return my membership card. The ALP could have drawn a line and said enough is enough, we will accept these people into our community, we will work with Indonesia and our other neighbours to, say, create a regional processing centre where we can assist these desperate people without them having to risk their lives in unseaworthy boats. The ALP could have made far better use of the huge amounts of money being wasted to imprison small numbers of people in another nation.

You may form a government which reduces unemployment to record low levels. But you will still be locking up babies in mouldy tents.

You may preside over an administration that introduces a working carbon trading scheme which reduces our huge greenhouse footprint. But you will still be putting refugee women in serious danger of rape and assault, and knowingly putting children in danger of being abused.

You may undo some of the extraordinary unprincipled things this current government has done, a list far too long to make here. But we still won’t know who killed Reza Barati, nor will you be able to guarantee the safety and appropriate medical treatment of anyone on the island camps.

You may renew the place of unions in our society, but you will still be condemning already traumatised people to a dangerous limbo, whilst our bureaucracy drag its feet for years, processing asylum claims. Or simply condemning them to some other dangerous part of the world by towing back the boats.

This nation of ours is paradise. It is safe and prosperous, the envy of the world. And we used to be a compassionate nation. We resettled thousands of refugees from Vietnam, who have gone on to great things in their adopted nation. Now, we seem content to use innocent men, women and especially children to political ends, to win a couple of votes in Western Sydney and far north Queensland. The ALP used to be a landmark of compassion, a bulwark against the ruthlessness of the right. But no longer.

Despite the fact that there are good people in the party – Tanya Plibersek, Lindsay Tanner, Daniel Andrews, Jenny Mikakos, Chris Couzens, the late and sorely missed Joan Kirner – I find it is time for me to leave.

I don’t expect to get anything other than a form reply to this letter. In fact, I doubt you’ll read it at all. But know this, despite my utter disgust with the Abbott government, I will vote for other parties and actively campaign against you and your party whilst these immoral and illegal refugee policies are in place.

P.S. I wrote this before the decision to admit an extra twelve thousand refugees from Syria was made. While commendable, this action throws into sharp contrast the extraordinary hypocrisy of locking up thousands of other, equally worthy refugees in off shore camps. This double standard must cause you headaches from the cognitive dissonance.