How to Vote at the Federal Election(???)

We Aussies are now in the midst of a federal election campaign. The date has been set, the arrangements are being made, and pretty much all hell is breaking loose as our politicians seek to overwhelm us  with trite slogans, empty promises, and the nauseating machinations of party politics.


I’ve been wanting to write about what’s been going on in Australian politics for a while now but, to be perfectly honest, it’s all been doing my head in a little bit.

The extraordinary last three-and-a-bit years of Australian politics has been (extraordinarily!) capped off by the events of Ruddivivus (that is, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd becoming, well, plain old ‘Prime Minister Rudd’ once again), and what was looking like a landslide victory for the Coalition has become a proper contest once more. Somehow, the incumbent Prime Minister has been able to position himself as the underdog challenger(!), while the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has had to reframe his own position (due to the fact that Kevin Rudd basically took many of Mr Abbott’s key policy positions swiftly out from underneath him) as the guy who can do what the Prime Minister says he is going to do, only better (all without giving those pesky details about how he is going to pay for it).

It’s all a bit bizarre!

It’s also very disheartening.

This has not been good news in a number of policy areas, perhaps most significantly in the area of asylum seeker policy. The last dozen-or-so years has been really nasty when it comes to asylum seeker policy, and both major parties are now seemingly vying for the most soul-destroying ‘solutions’ their twisted minds can conceive. It’s truly horrible.

I know many people who are totally disillusioned by it all, and who are having a very hard time trying to work out if they will vote, let alone how to vote.

While I am not going to try to tell people who to vote for here (and don’t recommend listening to anyone who does tell you who to vote for), I do want to offer a couple of thoughts that might be helpful to keep in mind as we move forward in this election campaign and edge towards voting day.

1) As a Christian, I must remember that none—not one!—of the parties or candidates on offer represents the fulness of my belief system and the hope to which I hold.

It’s so easy for us Christians to divide ourselves along the familiar lines of ‘right’ and ‘left’, ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive/liberal, and forget that the Christian message of hope stands quite distinct from any particular party platform. As someone who more naturally identifies with the [libertarian-]left of politics, it’s quite easy for me, in the face of what looks like a win for the ‘right’ of politics either way(…), to become wrapped up in the ridiculous notion all the problems in the world would fade away if only a true left–of-centre party was elected. For my friends who more naturally identify with ‘economic-rationalist’ approaches to fiscal policy (and the parties that embody such ideas), it’s easy for them to be convinced that, if only we had a Government that could essentially get out of the way and ‘free’ companies from all that pesky regulation (and responsibility), ‘the economy’ would be transformed and wealth (and therefore happiness) would trickle down to all and create a rising tide of prosperity and rainbows and unicorns and…

Ok, that’s a cheap shot, but you get the idea!

And, of course, it’s all nonsense.

No party is going to magically fix everything that’s wrong with our beautiful-yet-corrupted nation (let alone the world). No merely political movement is going to heal human hearts and end the greed and fear and hate that divides us. No politician is able to ‘save us’ from…ourselves.

As such, when (or, indeed, if) I vote, I need to remember that I am taking part in something that allows me to have my voice heard in the way I think the country could best be run, which is great and all, but it’s not everything. Most of all, no matter what happens on election day, I need to remember that I, as a Christian, am called to embody the hope to which I hold, demonstrating an alternative way of being human through transformative love and grace. To read more on this idea, see my friend Matt’s excellent post here.

And this leads me to my second point (which needs to keep this first point in mind as a kind of context for what I will say next).

2) Taking part in the political process is, nevertheless, an important responsibility.

The first part of this point, as I see it, is that we Australians are privileged to live in a nation where we get to vote, and indeed where our elected representatives are required to meet with their constituents. I have been very fortunate to be able to meet with the federal member for the electorate I live in numerous times over the past five years and, though he and I certainly don’t see eye to eye on certain (well, perhaps ‘most’) issues, he nevertheless takes the time to meet with me and groups that I’m a part of and does actually listen (to some degree) to what we have to say. Compared with so many places around the world, we in Australia are privileged to live in a country where we have such direct access to the political system. As much as the system can still be very frustrating sometimes (and, as I noted in the first point, certainly isn’t the answer to all life’s problems), it is still a relatively good one. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s not bad by world standards.

As such, I’m of the opinion that we, as Australians, should not take it all for granted. We should at least have some idea of how it all works, as well as some idea of which party stands for what. So many people I speak to simply don’t understand how our political system works, and vote for a given party for reasons that have little to do with the party’s actual policy platform. We should know where parties stand on the big issues that effect us as a nation (and, of course, the rest of the world…), and we should take the time to work out which parties best reflect (in the limited way they can) the things that we each consider to be important. We should seek to understand the parties as a whole (not just the individuals who represent them), and we should also look into how each party distributes preferences in elections.

‘Vote Compass’ is a tool recently developed to help people figure out where they most naturally ‘fit’ in the Australian political landscape, and can be found on the ABC website. It’s not a perfect tool, to be sure, and it’s not designed to tell you who you should vote for, but it does use your own answers to important questions to help you figure out just how closely you stand to each of the major parties. I would recommend at least giving it a go.

The second part of this point, as I see it, is the question of whether or not to vote in the first place. There has been a lot of discussion lately from people I interact with on social media suggesting that they are considering not voting at all, or are going to sabotage their own vote by either casting a ‘donkey’ vote on election day or, more likely, leaving the ballot paper completely empty. Of course, in Australia, those who do refuse to vote face the prospect of a fine, because voting is compulsory for all Australians over 18 (and I know my North American friends find this amazing!).

In the light of recent policy decisions, I have actually considered refraining from voting at all, and accepting the fine that necessarily follows, as an act of civil disobedience. The trends in asylum seeker policy, for example, have so disgusted me that I have felt, at times, that I am not able to take part in the system that is used to legitimate the ‘mandate’ those elected feel to pursue such dehumanising policy.

I am a fan of nonviolent action, and I am a fan of (well thought-out) civil disobedience, to make a clear point. Though a couple of people not voting is not likely to have much of an impact, I don’t underestimate the point that could be made if enough people were to refuse to enter polling places and instead came together in peaceful demonstrations against such policy, or even, perhaps, holding open events of welcome for all who make up this wonderfully diverse bunch we call ‘Australians’.

From my comments here, I can see at least a couple of responses.

Someone might suggest to me that I have here completely contradicted myself in the space of one blog post. Earlier in the post I described how we shouldn’t take for granted the ability to be part of the political process in our country, and thus suggesting the possibility that I might refrain from voting altogether would be ridiculous. To this, I would suggest that, though I am reasonable ‘happy’ with the political system I find myself in (at least comparatively), I am under no illusions that it is perfect. There are times when the system itself needs to be challenged, because there are times when taking part in the system as it is amounts to complicity in what I consider to be ‘evil’. With both major parties (that is, the only parties who will actually form Government after the election) pursuing horrific, dehumanising policies in regards to asylum seekers, I have entertained the possibility that it would be better, on this occasion, to break the law, in order to highlight what I consider to be unjust, inhumane policy. If I were to take this course of action, I would be happy to accept responsibility for my action and face the consequences. For me, it may actually be worthwhile, on this occasion, to stand outside the system in order to highlight the brokenness of the system as it is. It would, however, need to be done in the right way, and this brings me to the second point.

Someone (else?) might suggest that my apparent idealism here is totally outweighed by my pragmatism. Will I only take part in the dissident action of deliberately refraining from voting if enough people do it with me, rather than just doing it because it’s the right thing to do? In some senses, the answer is, quite simply, yes. I despise ‘stupid’ protest, which is why I think the idea of casting a ‘donkey’ vote is ridiculous. Going through all the effort of looking like you are voting, only to waste that vote on technical details, is, I think, pretty dumb. It doesn’t actually do much. Likewise, leaving the ballot paper empty is, to my mind, a way of seeking to make a protest without having to face up to the consequences. I am of the opinion that I always need to be able to take responsibility for my actions, so the thought of this kind of anonymous protest, for me, seems like a bit of a cop-out.

In addition to this, if only a handful of people were to refuse altogether to enter polling places and, rather, stood outside with placards (or whatever) protesting asylum seeker policy, I can’t see how the message would cut through. Instead, I think the more likely outcome would simply be that those who care about asylum seekers would be the only ones to refrain from voting (leaving their important voice relatively unheard), and the major parties would still consider their victory to be a ‘mandate’ for such cruel policy. For me, it would be far better, in this instance, to use my vote to place a minor party first on the ballot paper, and then allocate my preferences according to the major party that is least worst over a range of policy issues. At least this option could see the minor parties’ vote increase (which the major parties take more seriously than they let on), at the same time as recognising the fact that parties represent more than just this one issue (no matter how important I consider it to be). At this point in time, this is my default option, unless someone can show me how we would be able to rally enough people together who had chosen to refrain from voting as a form of protest.* I’m guessing we’d need to have somewhere over 100,000 people take part in such action for it to be taken seriously. If you have any ideas, please let me know : )

Anyway, these are just a couple of my thoughts as we head into the election. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the matter.

* I need to make it clear here that I am not (at least at this stage) encouraging anyone to either completely refrain from voting in the federal election, or to lodge an ‘informal’ vote (of whatever kind). It has been said that to do so is an offence, though I cannot (at this point) find information relating to such action in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.


Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

5 thoughts on “How to Vote at the Federal Election(???)”

  1. Hi Josh,
    You have echoed many of my thoughts on the this very difficult choice. While your protest idea sounds appealing I think at this stage I am inclined towards participating in the election and throwing my vote behind a minor party that has slightly more favorable policies and send a message without wasting the blessing of voting that we have in this country.

    When I consider bringing change to the seemingly insurmountable dilemma with asylum seeker politics I have to keep reminding myself that the early church brought change to it Milliue by embodying the resurrection life of Christ in the midst of an oppressive empire not by going up against it. Changing the climate of its Context one life at a time.

    While it seems excruciatingly slow and often feels futile, I am inclined to think that if folks like yourself and I continue our prophetic discourse on the subject, then the hearts and minds of this nation can change, and I have to believe that with time, can reach the critical mass needed to turn political will towards a more humane ideal. (Wilberforce in case ). It may take a life time but its not unthinkable.

    I have found that in my own advocacy on the subject more and more of my friends and peers are shifting there views on asylum seekers and beginning to reexamine the policies in light if their Christianity as a result of my constant harping on about it…

    More than ever our nation needs prophets to proclaim loudly the justice of the Kingdom despite the injustice of the Empire.

    I don’t know if my comments have contributed any, but want to encourage you to keep proclaiming “release for the captives”. You are being heard…

    1. Your comments are very helpful Tarun.

      Like you, my default position (at this point) is to vote for a minor party, using the system as it stands to join with others to make our voice heard. For anyone reading this who is concerned about ‘wasting’ a vote on a minor party, this short comic is really quite helpful:

      I also think you’re spot-on about embodying an alternative way of being. It’s easy to point out the problems of a certain system, but it’s much harder to live out an alternative. I’m greatly encouraged by so many I see who are doing this, and act as a powerful example for the rest of us.

  2. Always enjoy these Josh 🙂

    I am stuck between a rock and a hard place myself. I don’t want to vote for either of the major parties and had considered voting Green until the candidate failed to get back to me several times.

    I do not want to vote at all but seeing as my electorate (Hunter) has been Labor since federation and nothing gets done, I’d like to vote them out. The best chance is voting for the National party candidate, another candidate I am as impressed with as our current member, Joel Fitzgibbon.

    I am stuck with voting out a bad encumbent rather than voting in a good candidate….

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

      You raise a really good point, in that sometimes we can get lost in the idea of voting for the party leader (‘presidential’ style) and forget that we are actually voting for local members to best represent the electorate. Something has been lost in recent years in forgetting the value of a good local member, no matter which party they’re from.

      I sympathise with your choice here, although I am slightly envious that you actually have a choice. The electorate I live in is one of the safest Liberal seats in Australia, so my House of Reps vote is not particularly useful for me.

      I console myself, though, with the fact that votes in the Senate are just as important, even if we don’t talk about them as much. The function of the Senate is extremely important in our system of government, and we need to think very carefully about who we vote in. The best part is that our votes really do count in the Senate, no matter how ‘safe’ a seat our own electorate is.

  3. Reblogged this on Tarun Stevenson and commented:
    Since becoming more vocal about my feelings (or more precisely my disdain ) for our government’s current immigration policies regarding asylum seekers arriving by boat, I am more and more being asked, how should a Christian vote in this upcoming election? Considering how much our country’s treatment of Asylum Seekers clashes with a Christian worldview, the bipartisan position from the 2 major parties, can leave a concerned voter feeling somewhat stuck between a rock and a hard place.
    I’m not interested in promoting one political party over another, but it is something we all should seriously wrestle with.I may yet write my own full piece on this topic, but in the meantime as I continue wrestling with my own thoughts, I thought this post by Josh Dowton was well worth a read…

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