The polling booth near the cricket ground

Apart from cemeteries perhaps, polling booths are the rawest and most brutal of primary source scorecards.

 

I suppose I should know. In 1985 I won 55,806 two party preferred votes at a Victorian State election. That’s a lot of votes. The only problem was my Liberal Party opponent won 57,851.

 

Doh!

 

It hurt. But I came to regard it as character building. Who knows? There’s a fair chance it may have even completed those character building deficiency bits the maladroitly named Sisters of Mercy and Christian Brothers had inadvertently missed many years before.

 

Never mind.

 

Not long after this loss though I had the opportunity to road test one of the great myths of politics, namely, that politics and sport should never be mixed. Hmm, I had always thought that was pious crap in the 1960s and 1970s to justify turning a blind eye to South Africa’s apartheid policy. I still do.

 

But late in 1985 at a remote rural polling booth one hot December afternoon I discovered politics and sport could have some unexpected points where they intersect. It became a road to Damascus experience that reaffirmed my faith in human nature.

 

The Labor Party sent me to Mount Gambier for five weeks to help our South Australian colleagues with their State election. This was common internal practice.

 

Now, there are plenty of worse places to be than Mount Gambier in late spring. Moreover, a five week break away from the usual routine promised to be quite refreshing.

 

Despite visits from then Premier John Bannon and others throughout the campaign though, my undoubted highlight was an afternoon on a small polling booth on election day.

 

OK then, so it all went like this. You see, after the local campaign team had allocated volunteers to all the polling booths, there was one small rural booth which had a particularly high Liberal vote. The reception for Labor Party volunteers there had previously been so hostile that none of the local Labor folk wanted to go there again. But since I took the view all booths needed to be covered I decided I would spend the afternoon there myself.

 

Upon arrival, sure enough, the reception is as frosty as I had been warned. Voters file through on friendly first name terms with the Liberal Party volunteer. Silent sullen stares are all I rate.

 

There are many long awkward silences between the sporadic arrivals of new voters. There would only be about 200 votes cast for the entire day and most of these are already in the ballot boxes well before two o’clock.

 

“What part of the big smoke do you come from then?” asks Bill eventually after one particularly long silence. Bill is the 60 something year old farmer who takes over the afternoon shift for the Liberal Party.

 

Strewth, he’s talking to me after all.

 

“Oh I work in the city but I live in Geelong and travel up each day.”

 

“Hmm, can’t say I blame you. Do you ever get out in the country much then?”

 

“Oh yeah, whenever I can,” I ventured, hoping to impress him with my rural empathy.

 

I then continued to play any other rural cards I could think of to help the mood of the afternoon pass a little better.

 

“I grew up on a farm near Winchelsea. Do you know where that is?”

 

“Yeah, sure I do. An old farm boy eh?” he came back warmly with the start of a friendly smile.

 

“Yep. These days though, my only regular trip to the bush is my annual pilgrimage to Warrnambool for the three day May racing carnival. I never miss it.”

 

At this point, all other business of the afternoon was abruptly broken apart. Bill’s tentative smile erupted into a big generous toothy grin. His steely blue eyes suddenly sparkled and the lines on his craggy weather beaten face started to run in different directions as his whole demeanour changed. He even tilted his well worn old hat back a few degrees.

 

“So you like the horses then eh?”

 

“For sure, especially Warrnambool and the Grand Annual. Some urban folk aren’t too keen on it but I’m certainly not one of them. I go there every year without fail.”

 

“Oh look Roger, that’s great to hear. As it happens, I’m a member here and our big carnival comes up every year a few weeks after Warrnambool.”

 

“Yeah I know. It’s in early June isn’t it? Actually, we were out at your November meeting there a couple of weeks ago. I love your track but what’s the story about that dog-leg turn at the 200 metre mark? That’s very unusual Bill.”

 

The Mount Gambier race track has a curiously placed dog-leg not far from the winning post. Most tracks ensure their final 300 metres, 400 metres or even up to 500 metres are in a straight line so the horses can accelerate towards the end of a race without the need to turn corners. But not Mount Gambier. My new found friend was mightily impressed I had noticed one of the track’s signature features.

 

“You were out there were you? That’s a shame. I could have given you a winner had I known you were there,” he added with an apologetic shrug.

 

“But never mind. I say, it’s bloody hot isn’t it? Do you like a beer?”

 

“Yeah, sure I do Bill but we aren’t supposed to drink at polling booths. Besides, the nearest pub is miles away isn’t it?”

 

“Yes, but I know the boys down here at the local cricket club and we’re playing at home today. Chasing 166 and we were 2/74 just before I started here. There’s heaps of cold beer in the clubhouse so I can bring us a few cans if you like. And anyway, what the busy bodies on the bloody campaign committee don’t know won’t hurt them.”

 

I could see a nearby sporting oval down a small hill where a game of cricket was in full swing. Sudden loud periodic appeals had already punctuated the warm languid stillness of the afternoon. I hesitated for a moment about the alcohol at a polling booth conundrum because it was an absolute no no. But then I threw caution to the wind.

 

“You’re right Bill. Bugger the do-gooders. I’d kill for a beer right now. Go and see what sort of damage you can do down at the cricket club comrade.”

 

“Adaboy! Keep an eye on the joint for me won’t you?” he said with the enthusiastic smile only a man who knows he’s about to pick up a six-pack of cold beer cans on a hot day could possibly have.

 

During his absence, a handful of puzzled local voters drift through. I honour my promise to Bill and give them Liberal how-to-vote cards as well as my own.

 

And so it came to pass that twenty odd kilometres east of Mount Gambier on a scorching hot quiet Saturday afternoon where even the dogs weren’t interested in chasing strangers, the future of my fledgling political career flashed before my eyes only a few months after it had started.

 

What were the chances someone would leak a story to the Melbourne media I handed out Liberal Party how-to-vote tickets while drinking beer at a polling booth? (A well developed sense of paranoia is a mandatory prerequisite for anyone working in politics.) Sure, maybe at a stretch it would be OK for a volunteer to do this but I feared it would be a career ending move for a full time paid State official.

 

My conspiracy theory musings are soon interrupted though.

 

“Where’s Bill?” asks a newly arrived voter.

 

“Oh he just had to sort something out down at the cricket club I think.”

 

Shortly afterwards I breathe a sigh of relief as Bill reappears with the promised booty.

 

“5/144 so they’re not far off now.”

 

Ten minutes later the sight of players and umpires slowly walking off the ground shaking hands with opponents in shorts and thongs confirms the game is over.

 

By the time Bill and I both left a bit later there were probably only a few more votes recorded but the two of us had knocked over half a dozen mercifully cold cans of Victoria Bitter straight off the ice.

 

We had solved not only the problems of the racing industry, but also, a few others to boot. We fixed up Federal and State Governments. We then made a few other core observations about Holdens versus Fords, two irons versus three woods, ruck free kicks and whether the definitively unplayable cricket ball is the perfectly executed swinging Yorker or the perfectly executed wrong’un.

 

It was a bloody good afternoon’s work just quietly. For the record, our vote at that booth remained at its usual abysmally low level. Our candidate lost although Premier John Bannon was returned to office for a second term.

 

But that whole polling booth experience eased my needless internal angst. It confirmed that far far away from political elites normal people play sport. They talk to each other. They share similarities but respect differences. They drink beer regardless of what they’re told otherwise by those who think they know better. They live, love, work and play together in a funny clunky old Australian sort of way where nothing is ever perfect but, whatever it is and whatever it means, it always beats the alternative.

 

It reaffirmed my trust in the value of sport to draw people together.

 

Mind you, I’m still none the wiser about that curious dog-leg before the winning post at the Mount Gambier racetrack.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    A beaut yarn Roger, but why were they drinking VB?

  2. Grand Roger. I’d put Bill and Scott in a tin shed with a slab for the rest of this week so they work on the real issues facing Australia and spare the rest of us the bullshit. Last man standing would get my vote.

  3. Dave Brown says

    Love this, Roger, and heartily concur with your conclusion. Pleased to say that my son’s first game of school footy this Saturday is handily located at my local polling booth. May need to hand out some how to kick cards

  4. Hey Dave, don’t hand out how to kick with both feet cards – you can’t kick very far that way. Being able to kick with EITHER FOOT is a way better option.

  5. Roger Lowrey says

    Variously, thanks Swish. I hear what you say but given how hot it was I wasn’t going to quibble about what came from the cricket club provided it was cold and alcoholic.

    Thank you Peter. MInd you I reckon they’d need more than one slab to make sense.

    Thanks Dave. I hope your son’s team goes well and he loves his footy. A great age.

    You make me feel good Fisho. My friends allege I am an insufferable pedant so it’s nice to know there are more around.

  6. Enjoyed that immensely Roger. Thanks very much. I’ll be in Melbourne Saturday (having been to the Footy Almanac lunch the previous day) so had to lodge a postal vote which was a personal first.

    On a related topic I voted in the 2004 UK general election having been eligible as a resident who paid tax and worked there. Surely this is sufficient grounds to have a say. I’m not a EU or British citizen and was a bit chuffed to express my choice.

  7. Roger Lowrey says

    Thanks Mickey. I’ll be at the FA lunch too so I’ll keep an eye out for you.

  8. OH boy – will I be pleased when all this election bally-who is done and dusted. Those Clive Palmer adds are getting on my quince. Labor and Libs are no better. Most of the commentators on Sky would have you believe that should Labor win it would be the end of the world.

    Labor has lots of ideas, some good, some questionable. For all that, whoever wins will probably have a tough time getting their agendas through the Senate. I think I’ll have to take a couple of panadol and have an early night on the 18th.

    That being said, hope your footy team wins Cheers Gang

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