Election 2016 and the Sizzle Fizzle

If you are a poet or have a literary bent, do not read this. You are bound to be offended for:

This is the story of how one single mum

Pushed stroller and baby through the campaigning scrum

Queued up in the cold, having braved the fray,

And cast her vote on her first Election Day.

Have you survived thus far? I did warn you about the terrible rhyme. That’s what comes of staying up nights with a teething toddler. Imagine what I could do with eight straight hours of sleep! I imagine Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten are also having sleepless nights. At least, I’d like to think someone was losing sleep over an election that doesn’t seem to have resolved anything. I suspect though that the only person losing any sleep right now is the election commissioner or whoever occupies that position here in Australia.

Yes, I am now an Australian. Newly minted and proud to have voted. I must say that after all the build up to Election Day, the actual morning was quite a let down. Where was the sausage sizzle that my friends promised me? All I was offered was pamphlets and placards. “Bey,” said my toddler son hopefully, looking around for balloons – his current obsession, by the way. But no, my darling M, there were no balloons in sight – not even a flashy bit of bunting.

I was also dismayed by the rather long ballot paper, somewhat akin to a toilet roll, and the open booths. How private is my vote if I can simply watch which end of a sheet a person marks and guess that they must be voting Labor or Liberal? I miss India’s screened off booths and electronic machines. Someone ticks my name off a list, but no one sits ready to dot my thumbnail with indelible ink.

Choices, choices. Few parties to choose from, but many candidates. It is very hard to decide when one has little sense of the history of Australian politics and I find little from either major party on childcare, the one issue I really care about. A quiz on Vote Compass tells me that my sympathies lie 51/49 per cent for the major parties. It appears I am a walking Brexit decision. “The ultimate swing voter,” says one Australian friend who kindly gives me tips on how to vote. I opt to number the Senate candidates below the line, one to twelve, despite recognising few names.

Despite my misgivings and disappointments, I hope my vote does count for something. As another Indian-turned-Australian friend pointed out, they do make you register as a voter before swearing you in as a citizen. I fold up my ballot papers and drop them in the box. Then, with Master M waving madly to the ever-growing queue, we head off in search of sunshine and balloons.

As for the votes? As the ABC puts it, “Nothing is resolved.” They’re still counting.

Neighbours

It’s the name of a long-running soap opera. Still, it is not the Australian thing to do, says a friend of mine, for neighbours to get to know each other. I must have quite very odd neighbours, then. I am glad of it.

My first effort at living alone in Perth was in a large block of flats in Victoria Park. The only permanent resident was an ageing Filipina who scrutinised each new tenant with some misgiving. Which flat were we in? Did we know the parking rules? Had we remembered to turn off the lights in the laundry? Well, it was conversation of a sort. The only other friendly face was that of a little Middle-Eastern boy who used to peep over the adjacent balcony to show me his cars. Boys and their toys – it starts young, apparently.

The second time round, I found myself in a housing complex of twelve town houses near South Perth. You know the type – fairly new, cramped, and within a secure compound. So secure, in fact, that I hardly knew the other inmates, except in passing. Wave – there goes number 9 in his ute. Wave – there goes number three in his coupé. Number ten hurries past with her pram. I had the royal wave down pat by the time I moved out.

Third-time lucky and with a small child – I find myself in a brick-front villa in a complex of six. My neighbours have gardens and garden gnomes. They stop and smile and say ‘hello.’ Perhaps having a baby is a talking point. Certainly, my baby is keen to talk (read babble) about his day to anyone who will listen. His first stop, the patient cat across the way, sitting by the window. Then, his equally patient owner. He toddles along to check Nonna’s garden next door, filled with lovingly grown flowers. He tries his best to chat with the older toddler in number one. He loves watching the man with the lawnmower in the garden across the street.

We are a multicultural neighbourhood – Italian, Scottish, Indian, Costa Rican – it’s a regular United Nations. It feels like home. People stop to chat. We share titbits about our lives. We help each other out. And more to the point, we are all Australian.

Freedom of Entry

“Do we have to pay?” asks my mother. We are trundling across McCallum Park, headed towards the Sunday farmers’ market.

“No, it’s free,” I answer absently, as I contemplate the perils of pushing a stroller past the stalls that have cropped up across the green. Freedom of entry, I realise somewhat wryly, is dictated by where my son’s stroller is able to go. However, the grassy expanse is dotted with other Baby Joggers and Steelkrafts. What is it about being a parent that makes you notice other babies and the brand of pram they are in? I decide the going will be fine.

We pass stalls selling fresh produce and colourful craftwork. No, I explain to my mother who is visiting from India, if it’s fresh and organic it probably costs more. Yes, Coles is probably cheaper. Even a dollar makes a huge difference, especially when you are mentally converting your gold coins into rupees.

We pass the community library. I have recently become a member, as has my six-month-old son.

“Can I go in there any time, if I want to read a book?” my mum asks.

“Yes, of course.” I reply. “You can borrow books on my card, if you like. Everyone is welcome. Entry is free.”

The words remind me of the military parade I had seen in Perth’s Forrest Place a few weeks earlier. I was impressed by the marching band in its the desert-hued uniforms and slouch hats with their characteristic upturned brims.

“It’s the Freedom of Entry parade,” explained one officer. Was the city not free to enter then? It was, I learned, an old English tradition, a granting of permission for the army to enter the city, and an assurance of their protection for the citizens. The battalions were standing at ease, being welcomed by the Mayor.

How were the first British regiments in Western Australia greeted by the Native Australians, I wonder. I do not say this out aloud, of course. No one speaks of these things. Centuries ago others arrived, also by ship and boat. They had freedom of entry but then they infringed on many native freedoms. Today, many choose to enter freely by boat. They are not free to stay.

Freedom of entry is very much in the Australian media and on Australian minds. A recent issue of The Monthly discusses Australia’s refugee policies, particularly concerning the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar who are being smuggled across the Andaman Sea eventually headed for Australian waters on fishing boats ill-fitted for the journey. Were we suitably concerned for their plight? The Abbott government’s determination to turn back boats suggests not.

Nevertheless, Australian is not entirely unsympathetic to those fleeing from conflict. At church this same Sunday morning, we listened as our minister applauded the government’s move to welcome twelve thousand Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, the editorial pages of The Age call for “a reality check.” What of the plight of those who have crossed the border only to languish in detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru, it asks.

Whether those who arrive at Australian borders should be viewed as refugees or as illegal immigrants is a question that has no simple answer. Do we tacitly support discriminatory regimes when we shelter the peoples they wish to eject from their country but do little to stop the discrimination or conflict? No nation wishes to make foreign troubles its own and every government is reluctant to send troops abroad to fight others’ battles. As Obama notes in one speech on the Syrian crisis, a nation cannot embroil itself in someone else’s civil war. Furthermore, it is very difficult for one nation to prevent another’s genocide or maltreatment of minority ethnic groups without threatening the latter’s sovereignty. As Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka have shown us, the law is punitive rather than preventive.

We are crossing a parking lot now, passing others on their way to the shops – Middle Easterners, Caucasians, Africans. I reflect on what it is to live in multicultural Australia. This is a country that has freely given a home to others like myself. Despite the many criticisms for the present government, I am happy that I was free to enter as a student and later as a professional. Freely, I have chosen to stay.