For years in London, my Australian wife waxed lyrical about election day in her home country. In one memorable conversation, my take on compulsory voting rotated 180 degrees. She convinced me of the power of the law to make people engage with democracy, even if simply to destroy a ballot paper.
"It's an event back home," she would say as we walked back from exercising our civic right at a dingy portable in south-east London. Always held during the week, a UK election is almost an apologetic affair, where a turn-out of two-thirds suggests a high level of motivation. On some dismal local election ballots, less than a third of people bother to take part.
It gives a great sense of community, it's a great thing we've got. For me, the whole notion of democracy is for democracy to be near the peopleBrett Millott, principal Yandoit Primary School
On Saturday I finally experienced the Australian way, as a voter and as a reporter covering the electorate.
Taking travel tips from a friendly Australian Electoral Commission staffer, I drove to Yandoit Primary School, one of the most far-flung and scenic polling stations.
Here principal Brett Millott was wielding the tongs at the sausage sizzle. "It's a little bit for the money but mostly for the event," he said. "It gives a great sense of community, it's a great thing we've got. For me, the whole notion of democracy is for democracy to be near the people."
Teacher Kerry Carmen agreed, telling The Courier the day had given her the chance to meet a family that recently moved to the area. "Their kids made friends and were making cubbies out the back of the school," she said.
With a huge leap in pre-polling in Ballarat, the number of polling stations has shrunk. At this first stop outside of town, I already had a sense how losing one might affect a small, remote community like Yandoit. In Ballan too, they were feeling the effects of pre-poll, with sausage sizzle takings down - partly due to a rival BBQ outside IGA - but also, they thought, due to people who had already cast their vote.
Polling day had been good for business, however, back at the Blackwood Hat Shoppe at the foot of the town's polling station. Voters had helped a brisk day's trade, I was told. "Everyone wants their democracy hat," said owner Karen Bruno.
Up by the polling booth, Brendan Hehir was doing a roaring trade of a different kind, with his "do it for Bob" T-shirt. "He's had at least 35 hugs wearing that," his co-worker said.
Not from Matt Spiteri, however, who passed by with daughter Holly. "I don't trust any of the politicians," he told me.
Over in Trentham, staff at the St. Mary Magdalen's Op Shop were delighted with the passing trade from the primary school poll opposite. They were particularly excited about a newly donated Bob Hawke biography, even though it had 46 pages missing.
Politics today is just seeing how much dirt you can dig up on someone else.
"I wonder what happened in that bit," wondered Renata Andrews. "Hawke was charismatic and worked with different people," her colleague said. "Politics today is just seeing how much dirt you can dig up on someone else."
Across the road, there was a good-natured banter among volunteers. "It's not my fault," protested Helen Frost of the Liberals, as Devan Tisdale (Greens), and Peter Parsons (Labor) ribbed her about the Liberals' second-preferencing of the United Australia party.
"Have you got [a how-to-vote card] for Clive?" asked the woman, unaware of her timing, as she passed with her daughter. "Well, that's a first," said Mr Tisdale after she walked on.
In Glenlyon, solidarity among the volunteers handing out how-to-vote cards in front of the shire hall was almost as striking as the fiery autumnal glow of the street-side trees.
Greens volunteer Lisa Brophy practically grabbed the card from her Labor counterpart Judith McNamara to hand to a passing voter. The Liberal lady would do the same, although she felt too wary to be photographed together. They wouldn't like it in Daylesford, she told me.
The spirit of co-operation across the political divide was heartening stuff. But, like the sausage sizzles, the volunteers role' is less secure than before. Across the spectrum, they reported voters walking past, preferences already ordered on their smart phones. "They're doing us out of a job," one said.
Perhaps pre-polling too has dulled the election day dazzle. I couldn't judge. But even if the result rankled for many in the electorate, for a newcomer the atmosphere was cause for cheer.
So too for the volunteers gathered at Ballan as the sun set on the polls. Anita Garth and her daughter, Eden, were dashing to vote just in time ("Saturday's always a busy day"), while the volunteers were demob happy.
"We've all had a lovely day," Rose Delacruz from the Greens told me. "But I am looking forward to a glass of wine."
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