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Election Day in an uncertain country

In an election that had the highest number of enrolled eligible voters in history it seems we have affirmation that we live in a country as uncertain of its future as ever.

On May 18, I voted, ran the kids around the school yard, fed them a democracy sausage and called it “lunch”. My stomach was churning. I couldn’t sit still. So I cooked, and as I did over the course of several hours, I would look up from my kitchen bench to see the beautiful grevillea that shelters my backyard, to see my kids and their Dad, laughing, crying and screaming in turn. Beyond, I could see the Dandenongs and I gave thanks, as I often do.

I gave my thanks to elders past and present for caring for Wurundjeri country and each other in ways that meant here, on this election day, some 230 years after violent and unrelenting dispossession that I, an Islander, could stand at her kitchen window and know just a little of the people and land that gives us life every day. To know enough of its stories, of its elders and of mine, to ground me in place and time enough to remember that – deep breath – it was just one more stupid election.

The professional in me should know better than to call elections ‘stupid’. But I’ve written here before of the diminished faith I have in electoral politics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The political system in Australia is not designed to represent us; it’s a simple as that. It’s important to reiterate that it is the system that is deficient, and not the Australian people. It’s important too, to remember that elections are not the end of politics. The fight goes on, no matter who wins, no matter how they win. Political parties just pass the baton of governing. And politics is much more than the baton. It’s much more than the race.

My churning stomach that Saturday was informed predominantly by two anecdotes from my children’s respective grandfathers: an Islander and a Southern European migrant. My father lives in Townsville, in the Herbert electorate that I grew up in, where Cathy O’Toole held the seat for Labor by a mere 37 votes. My father’s words over the years had been brief but clear: this isn’t a Labor seat, young people here cannot find work and they hate being idle, everyone is frustrated. My partner’s father, a partially self-funded retiree and pensioner, lives in the electorate of Bruce. Some weeks ago, he expressed great agitation to us about Labor’s franking credits policy. It took us, two people who both hold PhDs in political science, several long minutes to explain to him that the policy did not apply to him. He was concerned that we were wrong. So, without condescension or judgment, we looked up the policy, read through it and discussed it.

Two anecdotes does not an informed analysis make. Everyone was telling me this was a clear Labor win. Shorten and Morrison wouldn’t be travelling where they were travelling if they weren’t certain or scared. My partner and I talked through the numbers. We looked at the seats in play. The coalition would have to gain seats due to redistribution to retain government. Even accounting for the margin of error in the polls, the likelihood of the Coalition being returned to power was minimal.

Friends, the election outcome was within the margin of error. And the Coalition has been returned to government. The ALP has elected Anthony Albanese its new Leader but, frankly, I’m not sure I’d be able to pick him from Shorten in a line up. In fact, the Australian parliament looks more or less the same as it did in March on the last sitting day before the election. Only 8 seats have changed. The more things change, they say…

A key and important exception to that is that we now have the first Aboriginal Cabinet Minister in Ken Wyatt MP as Minister for Indigenous Affairs. It’s also important to remember that the Coalition will likely hold the House by a slim two-seat majority, meaning that any by-elections over the next three years will – as they should always be – political contests of high-stakes. Neither guarantees change, but it creates space for change to become possible. And, in the case of Wyatt’s appointment to the Cabinet, it creates space that has never actually existed before. This is not everything. But it’s not nothing either.

In an election that had the highest number of enrolled eligible voters in history it seems we have affirmation that we live in a country as uncertain of its future as ever. And while some hold faith that younger, new generations will soon vote in ways that might result in different outcomes, I must profess: I do not. As far as I can tell, school kids are not protesting for climate action in the seat of Herbert. And, one day, those kids are going to vote, too.

Australia is not a country divided, but a country uncertain of itself. A country caught between past and future. A country that thinks we can cut off or run away from the parts of ourselves we do not like. At our worst, we are a country that thinks change looks something like what we have always had – and votes accordingly. Waiting patiently, in a performance of static hope, that our children will save us. But, at our best, when change does present itself, in the small spaces it creeps into, we seize the opportunity and look ahead. We know it’s not a race. We know we cannot wait for our children to save us. And the more things stay the same, the more we must demand change.

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