When An Election Day Looks Like This, It's Probably A Good Thing Vote-Dodgers Get Fined

Bondi BeachBondi Beach. File picture by Getty / Marianna Massey

As the polls opened for voting in Australia’s federal election this morning, it was shaping up to be a beautiful day along much of the country’s east coast.

The mercury in Sydney will hit around 30C. It’s beach weather. Many would be thinking of skipping their vote if it didn’t carry a fine.

Sure, it’s only $20, but it’s effective: voter turnout will be, as usual, in the mid-nineties nationally.

Two late polls – Nielsen in the AFR and Newspoll in The Australian – put the Coalition ahead 54-46 on a two-party preferred basis. This is landslide territory for the Tony Abbott-led Coalition, and they will be feeling very confident after running a disciplined campaign.

If voting wasn’t compulsory, there would still be some early nerves because nothing would be assured without the right turnout in the right places.

Labor got a dead-cat bounce in the polls after Rudd returned to the party leadership, but that has been among the only points where it looked like the ALP was competitive. Since the start of the year all the signs have been pointing to Labor facing a trouncing. The only question has been how hard the electorate was likely to kick.

The attachment to compulsory voting is one of the most intriguing aspects of Australian culture. People love it.
Asking anyone if they believe that maybe having the right to vote should include the right not to vote results in a staunch defence of the practice.

Voters will engage with politics at polling places all around the nation today, but it’s worth asking how much attention has been paid to what has been a rather muted campaign, characterised by no money to spend and none of the explosive news stories that enlivened politics in 2010.

It’s also worth asking the follow-on question on a cracker day: how many would really turn out if they didn’t have to?

One friend of mine was frustrated that plans to visit a beach house this weekend were canned because they “remembered” there was an election. And I spoke to another friend today who actually asked: “Do I have to vote?”

Voluntary voting adds another layer of dynamism to politics, as “getting out the vote” becomes an all-important part of strategy: from identifying what issues are going to excite people and turn them into evangelists or activists for the party, to the military-scale logistical operations for getting people to polling places to cast their vote on election day.

Political parties must ensure they keep their base motivated. And politicians even in safe seats have to remain diligent about their local support base.

The more variable environment can produce stunning surprises, too.

The most clever and instructive political campaign I’ve ever seen up close was by a chap called Sean Crowe.

He was a community leader who worked mainly with young people in Tallaght, the working class Dublin suburb where Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce grew up.

As a member of the hardline Irish republican movement’s party, Sinn Fein, Crowe was also inextricably linked in his politics to a terrorist organisation, the IRA.

Crowe was part of a cohort of Sinn Fein politicians that cultivated the youth vote by first getting elected to the local council. That way they could help youths – and their families – get access to whatever services he could get his hands on using the councillor’s access and sway.

The first time he ran for parliament in 1992 he got a primary vote of around 2%. Then he got almost 9% in 1997. He still wasn’t considered a contender. Then in 2002 he topped the poll in his electorate with just over 20% of the vote, a stunning increase.

In 2002 Sinn Fein was gaining some more mainstream credibility, mainly as matters had stabilised greatly in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement. But Crowe had put 20 years work into it and his poll-topping performance stunned everyone.

There was more to Crowe’s strategy than Sinn Fein brand shedding some baggage. Crowe had played a serious ground game. One big part of his vote was that the young teenagers he’d been helping out with their various local problems – access to training programs and the other things that kids in deprived areas need – suddenly became old enough to vote.

He knew everyone, he’d helped them out, he was liked, and he knew their parents. In 2002 he suddenly altered the political dynamics of his seat by working over more than a decade to create a support base for himself.

There are unlikely to be many such surprises for the House of Representatives. Tonight we can expect concession and victory speeches reasonably early in the evening.

The surprises may come as the shape of the Senate emerges – which will give a picture of the scale of the challenge Tony Abbott will face getting his legislative program approved.

But we know he’ll be delivering a victory speech at some point tonight.

Enjoy voting. Enjoy the count. We’ll have live coverage of the news highlights from the count here on Business Insider.

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