There’s a week and a bit to go until Sausage and Cake Day comes for us all. That day where mostly reluctant Australians take themselves away from whatever they are doing and visit their local primary school or community hall. The day where we steel themselves to avoid the sometimes hundreds of election posters, banners, plastic sheeting as well as the people handing out bits of paper emblazoned with carefully planned messages, photos and numbers suggesting to people How To Vote. It would be of little surprise, however, if some of the people reading this have already taken themselves down to a prepoll centre and done their democratic duty without being bothered by a phalanx of people handing out those bits of paper. Those bits of paper known to those who hand them out as HTVs. And the numbers of volunteers ready to hand them out seem to be dwindling.
Possibly because I’m insane or just a politics tragic, I have been one of those volunteers handing out bits of paper since 1981. Though not every election since then, I’ll hasten to point out. In 1981, I was a 9 year old son of Liberal Party members who were also handing out HTVs. It was a day marked for me as being my first ever exposure to rugby league, listening to the old fashioned Labor men with their transistor radio, cheering on Newtown in their defeat of Eastern Suburbs. They were friendly blokes, being kindly to the Liberal – me – on this particular gate. The reason they were cheering on Warren Ryan’s team was that this was Parramatta country – they envisioned an easier grand final the next week. They also envisioned a predictable election result. Greystanes Public School was in a seat with a massive Labor majority in those days – held by Jack Ferguson, father of Laurie, Martin and Andrew. It was not all the long after the “Wranslide”, where the Government actually increased their majority in their second term. These days, however, that polling booth is in McMahon, Chris Bowen’s seat, which isn’t exactly as safe as once was the case. House prices do interesting things to electorates.
I then didn’t hand out again until 2007, when I was starting to get interested in the inner workings of politics again and I handed out HTVs at Mt. Riverview Public School, this time for the ALP’s Phil Koperberg, the former Rural Fire Service chief who became the ill-fated Member for the Blue Mountains. That was a strange election, where voters didn’t seem to know who was leading the Liberals and didn’t really know a lot about Morris Iemma, the Premier. There wasn’t much chatting going on between the Labor and Liberal volunteers, though everything was pretty calm and friendly enough.
Things changed for me in the 2010 election, where I saw David Bradbury on a navy boat and the local Green candidate, Suzie Wright, got front page coverage in the Penrith Press criticising him and his government’s craven bowing to the paradigm set by John Howard. I rang the local Greens campaign the next day and signed up to help. As a result, I had the chance to stand at Jamisontown Public, the nearest booth to Preston Towers, and hand out for the Greens. Next to Lindsay’s candidate, Fiona Scott for a while. Things are friendly and affable – we weren’t regaled with the election day visit of Tony Abbott – that was Penrith South. Nor did we see the Green shirted Bradbury volunteers who were handing out fake Greens HTVs because the Greens of Lindsay had decided to issue an Open Ticket – that is, explaining two possible ways to vote. I got along well with the Labor people and I even had a long and animated chat with a young Liberal volunteer who was also a committed evangelical Christian. He was a pleasant, gawky 17 year old who lived in a polite bubble who was still interested in the points of view of people like the Greens. While all of this was happening, the Christian Democrats stood slightly apart from the three of us – as, I have discovered, they usually do – with the exception of the occasional chatter between them and the Liberals.
The point is that being a volunteer handing out HTVs is that it’s not a scary experience. I even count my time standing next to Jackie Kelly as being three of the more fascinating hours I have spent in my political life. My fiancee, didn’t agree with that assessment of her time. I can see her point. Generally, voters aren’t interested in having a go at the volunteers, instead looking to walk in, vote and walk out. And maybe take the HTV from you. Most of the people who vote are, in my experience, polite – even in booths in “Houso” suburbs, which may be shocking to some. And yet so many who count themselves as politically interested, even partisan, are reluctant to go that next step and publicly support the political party that best represents their point of view. I understand this as being someone who has rung for volunteers on the day. Often something else on, a problem with a policy here or there, or just reluctant. This is why I wonder for how long the booth volunteer will exist, or maybe disappear altogether, as they have in ACT elections.
For those who believe that people handing out pieces of paper make no difference to a political party’s vote – that most people “already know who they are voting for”, they are wrong. A significant number of people avoid elections like the plague and turn up not wanting anyone or confused about the options. There is evidence also that when parties don’t staff booths, there is a drop in the vote in that booth. This is especially the case for smaller parties such as the Greens, who don’t have the pool of volunteers that can be relied upon by the Liberal and Labor parties. Just look at a pre-polling booth that will have a Lib or Lab volunteer. They might be staffers from either party, retired people who have always supported their party, someone from a union or business that can afford to take the day off. You often won’t see a Green, because most of them are at their full time jobs, which is not working for their party. In addition, once you go outside those inner city areas where the Green vote and membership is at its highest, you will find many booths where there’s one Green volunteer, standing there alone, all day. That will be me this election day. I don’t say this to elicit sympathy (though you can have sympathy if you want to), more to lay out the reality for supporters of smaller parties. It’s one people do because they are committed. Or need to be committed.
This is not, however, a problem just for smaller parties. I vividly remember the same two people who handed out for Labor in the 2011 state election in Cranebrook. That was true commitment, considering the mood of the electorate that day. Unions run campaigns begging members to go to various seats. The Liberal Party frequently ship out volunteers into various western suburbs electorates because of the paucity of local membership in various areas. It’s fun to try to engage them in a conversation about local issues, just quietly. There are parties who have paid for such helpers in the past.
So, on election day, if you really want to learn about the mood of an electorate, help a party by offering to help hand out How To Votes, even for a couple of hours. You will soon learn what people are interested in, who they are voting for plus you’ll meet some interesting people. If you’re really adventurous, offer to help out in a safe seat for the opponent of your philosophy. See what others think. Plus, if you hang until the end, you might score a souvenir. I have posters of Julia Gillard and Kristina Keneally in my shed. My fiancee made a Tony Abbott plastic sheet into a fetching hat for the post election party. In terms of helping out, I’m not just talking the Greens – I’m talking the ALP, Liberals, Nationals, whoever. If you are handing out for the Shooters and Fishers, though, you seem to need to have a fishing hat and gear ready to wear, like the bloke who shunned us all in Cranebrook in 2011. No, I have never seen anyone hand out for the Sex Party. One can only think of what gear their volunteers would wear.