Coming Out from Under:
Fear & Loathing at the Polls in the Tropics

 

Peter Kell & Lorraine Murphy

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As the hot tropical sun rises in Townsville on election day 1998, the plastic election bunting shines and glistens. Black and gold signage warns conservative voters 'Don't Risk Labor'. The bright blue and red of the Labor banner declares that 'Queensland deserves better' as it flaps gently in the morning breeze off the Coral Sea. The obligatory portraits of candidates beam optimistically and expectantly on the voters enticing them to support their quest for office.

The cake stand laid out on trestle tables outside the polling booth has been set up and parents and volunteers gather hoping to raise funds for their small and well presented school. They work busily and purposefully anticipating a day of selling lamingtons and scones. The mood of such polling places is usually festive and communal, being a place where people meet and talk about events and speculate over the outcome of the election. But in this election there is something very different and almost sinister which has changed the atmosphere at this polling place and at many others across Queensland. There is a quiet tension and expectancy about the new group on the block. This is the first time Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party has been to the electorate and this might well be their territory.

The Vincent Primary School booth is in the blue collar battlers' territory in which One Nation's protest message about job losses, immigration, law and order, Aboriginal funding and major party politics is reputed to have bitten most deeply into the voters minds. The school is a polling booth in blue collar working class Townsville where voters from two electorates cast their votes. This is the seat of Mundingburra, held by Frank Tanti, the man whose election brought down the Goss government in 1996. He is now being challenged by a woman Labor candidate with a well co-ordinated grass roots campaign. The other seat, of Townsville, a relatively safe Labor seat, is being contested by a field of seven candidates including a former mayor of Townsville. Labor wins are tipped by newspaper polls, but there are One Nation candidates standing in both seats and there is a sense of anticipation and uncertainty about the impact of the distribution of their preferences.

The Vincent booth is the voting place for a diverse mix of rural workers, soldiers, welfare beneficiaries, public servants and many young people living in the 'six pack flats' that characterise these suburbs. There is also a large number of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who live in these suburbs of Townsville.

The vehicles of the voters reflect their status. There are plenty of four wheel drives, utilities and battered and rusty sedans that draw up outside the school. There are no BMWs at this polling booth and the vehicles suggest that is the home of the 'battlers' that John Howard has sought to align his party with since 1996. This diversity in itself makes the outcome of this contest hard to predict.

The fleeting sense of gaiety and the carnival atmosphere is broken by the arrival of the early voters for there is a sullenness and silent aggression that they bring with them. Most are grim faced, their eyes fixed to the ground. Their faces and actions reflect a simmering anger and resentment which is impossible to deflect. Their reactions to the booth workers display a cynicism and hostility to the political process of voting itself. Many refuse the usual paraphernalia of the election, brushing aside the party how to vote cards. 'I know what I want to do,' say many of them. The sense of political betrayal over broken promises and the hopelessness generated from cumulating job losses and heightening insecurity is directed at some booth workers.

The signs of support for One Nation are generally more overt than that shown towards other candidates. Potential supporters inquire loudly and pointedly, asking where Pauline's mob is. The confusion and anger of identified Hanson supporters has been heightened by the party's lateness at putting up their signs. This potential political revolution will be one that won't start on time, operating instead on what locals call 'northern adjusted time'. However, late or not, it won't be deflected by something as simple as absence.

The eventual arrival of the One Nation team, a group of smartly dressed young men with mobile telephones, breaks the existing suspense over preferences. A One Nation how to vote card is attached to a poster depicting Pauline Hanson draped in the national flag. Unsurprisingly, Labor is allocated the last preference after the Liberal Party and a host of right wing conservative groups that are contesting both seats. In the morning when the voting peak occurs the One Nation booth workers are in full force. Interestingly all are white, confident, young, vivacious, well attired and affluent looking women and men.

As the heat of the day intensifies so does a sense of menace and insecurity. It is heightened by an occasional passing car packed with young men gesticulating and yelling abuse in the direction of the voting place. The most extreme reactions come from the men, both young and old, who burst through the orderly cluster of party workers distributing How to Vote cards. There is a sense that many of them believe that this voting process is an unnecessary extravagance; an imposition on their time. There is a feeling of inevitability that they carry with them; the certain knowledge that whoever they elect will be a disappointment pervades their actions as they demonstrate that they have no time for the candidates or the process of handing out election material. There is a climate of intolerance and impatience that saturates the day.

Women are quieter and more dignified in their refusal to take election material. While men seem more demonstrative and overt in their support to conservative candidates, many women quietly seek out Labor booth workers and inquire how they can put 'that women last'. One passing woman voter looks disdainfully at the Liberals banner, audibly countering the 'Don't Risk Labor' posters by saying that One Nation is a far more riskier proposition than a Beattie government could ever be.

A group of Aborigines squat in the park adjacent to the school, seeking the shade of some trees as they observe proceedings. They send out 'scouts' to see out what is happening. Although they are anxious to vote, they are also understandably insecure and uncertain about approaching this gathering of potentially antagonistic conservative zealots. And when this advance party does cautiously approach the polling place, the pent up fear and anger of one Aboriginal woman becomes too much for her to control and she violently kicks and abuses the image of Pauline Hanson suspended on the fence.

Approaching Labor workers, they seek direction on how and where they should vote. After a short conversation the more confident group armed with information evade the gaggle of right wing party workers and disappear into the polling place. The One Nation party workers did not bother to give the Aborigines a card with voting directions, choosing instead to look the other way. Asian voters enjoy the same lack of attention as the Aborigines, a curious reaction from a party that makes the statement that it is not racist.

In practical terms, too, there is much confusion. Many voters did not know what electorate they were in as they approached the booth. Clearly few people had chosen to read the Queensland Electoral Commission's publicity or the information in the newspapers about boundaries. As the hot day passes by, the confusion of two Asian women over their electoral district attracts particular attention from the conservative parties workers. 'Well they are not used to democracy over there, are they?', they scoff. 'They don't learn these things now that they are here,' add others from a gun lobby group. The ignorance of other voters is conveniently forgotten as these two Asian women serve momentarily as targets for a particularly loathsome chorus of disdain.

The long day draws to a close and the party workers and electoral officials converge in a small school room to count and scrutinise the votes. As the counting for votes in Mundingburra progresses it is clear that the competition is between Labor and One Nation. The Labor candidate, Lindy Nelson-Carr, finds that her support dwarfs the votes of sitting Liberal member Frank Tanti. The Liberal Party Scrutineer grows visibly agitated and pale as the dimensions of One Nation's vote becomes apparent. He turns to the Labor scrutineer saying, 'What is happening is very serious, we have a major problem.. This is odd'. There is, however, no One Nation scrutineer present to witness this apprehension or to comment on the realisation that there is a sea change in the pattern of conservative politics.

While Labor wins both seats, the victory becomes almost incidental to the social ramifications of the day's results. Aside from the rise of this new conservative force, the tone and climate of this democratic ritual appears to reflect a divisiveness and hostility that 'old hands' find new and frightening. A morose and repressed anger has emerged from the shadows on this hot tropical day and found a release. Simultaneously the familiar routine of election processes at a polling station has taken a new brashness and aggression which suggests a rising intolerance of not only the political figures and their supporters but the processes and rituals of elections themselves.

Nor is this mood just a 'Queensland phenomena' as many commentators would like to believe. Rather, it reflects the unleashing of a universal quality of anger and alienation that could just as readily emerge in electorates around Australia; including those in Victoria and New South Wales. The sense of anger and betrayal has emerged in response to a feeling that politics is a remote and detached activity. It comes from the belief that politics is something being inflicted on communities by people who put themselves above them. By people who perceive themselves as Rulers not Representatives. When there is an opportunity to strike back, this is done with malice and vindictiveness. The events at Vincent suggest the swing to One Nation is more than a simple 'protest vote'. It is a display of contempt and loathing at the political process and the sham that democracy appears to have become. Or, in the words of one Pauline Hanson supporter, 'This is a victory for commonsense and logic!'. In contrast, undoubtedly, to expert opinion and rationality administered as medicine by figures in authority. Clearly this is a message that cannot be ignored.

As party workers rushed through the darkness to 'celebrate' or commiserate at election parties in the city, this new divisiveness and intolerance was being etched on them more by the 'incidental' events of the day than by the results from this tropical polling booth - and the hundreds more telling similar stories around Queensland. It now remains to be seen how far this angry mood emerges in other states. One thing is certain. It won't just go away.

Associate Professor Peter Kell is Head of Department Industry, Professional and Adult Education at RMIT University and was observing the 1998 Queensland State election in Townsville.

Lorraine Murphy is the editor of Education Australia.

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