Cartoon by Natasha Williams-Kovak
AT WORK this week, I had two conversations that left me wondering whether universal suffrage was such a good idea. The first involved a man I’ll call Dave, who had voted early. “But what if something happened in the last few days to change your mind?” someone asked him.
“No worries,” Dave said cheerfully. “My parents were in business. I always vote Liberal.”
I didn’t point out to Dave that he’s been a worker ant all his adult life. Instead I asked what he thought of the Liberal Party policies. “I don’t really worry about that side of things,” he said.
Later that day I was talking to Annie, who’s in her eighties and comes in to work twice a week to wash the dishes. Annie said she liked the atmosphere of election day – “It gives me something to do” – but wouldn’t vote if she didn’t have to.
“It doesn’t matter who gets in,” she said. “We’ll still get up in the morning and have our breakfast and go to work.”
I asked her if she didn’t think the policies were different at all. “I don’t know anything about their policies,” she said. “I vote Liberal. I’ve always voted Liberal.”
“Is that because of your parents?”
“No,” she said. “I think they voted Labor. Labor or Liberal. One or the other. I know they admired Robert Menzies.”
Surveys consistently show that about 20 per cent of us are swinging voters, which means the other 80 per cent of us are dyed-in-the-wool Liberals or Laborites or Greenies or Rise Up Australians, the same way we support Collingwood or Essendon. Most of us vote the way our parents do or did. We believe the stuff our own mob tells us and recognise the words of the other mob for what they are – a pack of lies – and turn the telly or radio off.
“Saint Micky” Savage, late 1930s. It is said that half of New Zealand homes had his photo on the wall. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library
The work conversations made me think of my New Zealand father, who voted Labor religiously all his adult life. This blind loyalty annoyed my mother, who voted the opposite way as a matter of principle. In those simpler days that meant voting for the National Party, so their votes cancelled one another out.
Every three years, on election day, she would make my father an offer. “If you don’t vote, I won’t,” she promised. He never accepted the offer. Voting Labour was his religious duty. There was even a Labour saint: Michael Savage, an Australian, born in Tatong, Victoria, who in 1935 became New Zealand’s first Labour prime minister.
It is said that half of New Zealand homes had a photo of “Saint Mickey”, as he was called, hanging on the wall. Savage dragged New Zealand out of the Depression, so the Labour legend goes, by spending heavily on public infrastructure, including building tens of thousands of new state houses. His was the first government in the world to introduce a welfare state, with old age pensions, universal health care and an unemployment benefit.
My father was only 11 when Savage became prime minister of New Zealand, and 16 when Savage died in the job, so it’s doubtful that he took much interest at the time. He must have learned his reverence from his parents, and it was a lesson he never forgot it. His loyalty to Savage’s political heirs was blind and unswerving. They could have switched policies with National and he would still have voted for them.
Not so different from my workmate Annie voting Liberal because her parents admired Robert Menzies. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a photo of Menzies on the wall as well.
In spite of Dave, Annie and my father, our political thinking does change. Voter surveys consistently show that men become more conservative as they age while women become more progressive. Some people who fill out the ABC Vote Compass are astonished to find they’ve been voting for the wrong party for years.
It can be hard to move on from our first political affair. As in a bad relationship we can’t end, we stick around hoping things will improve, unable to accept that it’s no longer Savage’s Labour Party or Menzies’ Liberal Party. Whether it’s us or the party that’s changed, sometimes we should recognise the irreconcilable differences and move on.
I do know that after my father died my mother never voted National again.