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...