Australians go to the polls on Saturday, with the Labor party under Anthony Albanese hoping to oust Scott Morrison’s Coalition government and end nine years of conservative rule. Australian elections always have their vocabulary and concepts, sometimes baffling to outsiders – nowhere else does the word corflute appear so frequently, including this year in an extremely Australian “stoush” over dobbing people in about or flutes. The 2022 campaign has added some fresh causes of potential confusion to the traditional recipe. Here are the main things you need to know.
Who are the main contenders?
To the dismay of American political commentators, Liberals in Australia (the main party in the governing Coalition) are conservative. The lower house comprises MPs, just like in the UK, despite sharing the name of the US House of Representatives.
Australia has been through a lot since Morrison pulled off a “miracle” election win in 2019. Through two years of the pandemic, many Australians were barred from flying in or out of the country, and state capital cities became the most locked down places on Earth. The death rate stayed comparatively low, but many felt that a lackluster effort by the federal government to secure vaccines early, coupled with an archaic quarantine system, meant that the pain lasted longer than it had to.
The nation was also hit by natural disasters, including the recent catastrophic floods and the Black Summer of 2019-20, when Morrison was scorned for taking a holiday in Hawaii at the height of the bushfires. Both fuelled anger over Australia dragging the chain on climate change, the most bitterly divisive issue in the nation’s politics for a decade.
The Coalition has also tried to weaponize China’s bold moves in the region against Labor. Labor has promised a somewhat more ambitious target for emissions cuts, but the main campaign battle has been the cost of living crisis. Inflation hit 5.1% in the last quarter, adding to the economic strain of stagnating wages and one of the world’s most insanely expensive housing markets.
Morrison hopes he has convinced the electorate that it is better to stick with the devil they know, even while admitting his personality is not winning hearts and minds.
Australian opposition leader Anthony Albanese. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
Can anyone break the duopoly?
Albanese is not the only one challenging the government. As a testament to the growing frustration of small liberal voters in traditionally safe large-L Liberal city seats, independents have received huge attention from the media. Most prominently, several cashed-up, climate-focused, predominantly female candidates are threatening to unseat high-profile government members by targeting the “teal” vote, which is the color you get for those who didn’t go to art school when you mix blue and green. These are traditionally (blue) conservative liberal voters who have become increasingly fed up with inaction on environmental issues. If they win even a few seats, it could disrupt the entire power dynamic, possibly forcing a minority government.
The Greens also hope to pick up seats. At the same time, on the right, the United Australia party, lavishly funded by the billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer, has plastered the entire country – and Queensland in particular – with its flashy yellow ads promising voters all the riches of the Earth (or at least an unachievable cap on interest rates). How far it will capitalize on the anger of Australians who feel that the political system has failed them remains to be seen.
Voting – it’s compulsory
In ancient Greece, if you were an eligible voter and missed the ballot, you would be fined and daubed in red paint as a sign of shame for disengaging from your democratic duties.
Australians decided in 1924 that being politically disengaged was more of a personality trait than a constitutional right and made voting compulsory for all. Recalcitrants face a $20 fine and the symbolic red paint of being told to shut up whenever they complain about the nation’s state despite not bothering to vote. The risk of further fines and even court for not filling in a ballot is there to give them that extra little push to get out of bed on Saturday morning.
This has allowed Australia to maintain one of the highest voter turnouts in the world, with 92% of eligible voters casting ballots at the last federal election in 2019. This election may be the most consequential in years, and even though many voters have found the campaign hard going, that figure is unlikely to change significantly.
Sausages for all
For anyone in need of a further incentive to vote, there are carrots as well as sticks. Those carrots take the form of sausages served on a piece of bread with onion by volunteers, often raising funds for the schools that commonly serve as polling stations. The customary election day sausage sizzle, or Democracy Sausage, has become so synonymous with the process that a website, democracysausage.org, exists to ensure your local polling station is selling the goods.
Preferences: it gets a bit trickier
The inclination to clog your arteries with meaty goodness is not the only factor that sets Australian elections apart. Voters are given ballot papers for the lower house (House of Representatives) and the upper house (the Senate). In the quieter place, they must list (at least) their six most preferred candidates. Votes are then counted in rounds where the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and their voices are transferred to the second preference of each voter. This is repeated until a winner emerges from the final two candidates.
Preferential voting means that candidates with no chance of winning the seat can still have a substantial impact, and, more importantly, it is all but impossible to waste your vote.
Voting 101: what is preferential voting, and how does it work in Australian elections? – video
The Australian Electoral Commission – a surprise breakout social media star of the campaign – does not mess around regarding upholding the principle that all votes should count where preferences have been marked. It has been confirmed that votes will be counted even if they are numbered in roman numerals or if a less-than discreet rendition of male genitalia, a regular pastime for some Australian voters, accompanies them.
Our ruling on other drawings: yes, you can do it, but your nanna might be the poll worker counting your vote. Think of nanna.
Writing that identifies yourself would make your ballot paper informal.
— AEC ✏️ (@AusElectoralCom) April 21, 2022
Above the line, below the line
Voting in the Senate is more complicated – if you want it to be. Voters can choose to vote for parties in their order of preference (“above the line”), or they can number each candidate (“below the line”). There are 75 candidates in New South Wales at this election, which is not unusual. This is where a bewildering array of minor parties hope to emulate the achievement of the Motoring Enthusiasts party and others who have previously found a way to get elected with complicated preference strategies despite a tiny level of direct support.
For a challenging voting experience, voters who catch Covid after the Wednesday of the campaign’s final week (and therefore too late to fill in a postal ballot) must fill in their votes over the phone. Good luck to all concerned.
Where do ‘loose units’ and ukeleles come into it?
After Morrison displayed his talents on the ukelele by performing April Sun in Cuba on a “behind the scenes” profile for commercial TV at the start of the campaign, the instrument has been adopted by opponents as a symbol of his often corny attempts to foster an image of the regular suburban guy.
Later, Morrison repeatedly referred to Albanese as a “loose unit” to highlight his lapses in memory and alleged lack of policy coherence. Every person under 25 ears pricked up when they heard the term “loose unit” think Albo is a legend now. What Morrison perhaps did not consider was that in a country where “getting oose” is regarded as a patriotic duty, particularly among younger voters, winning the label of a “loose unit” is, a badge of honor.