Standing at the heart of Australian democracy

Gary Zadkovich
Acting President

It was federal election day — July 2, 2016.

The sun burnt the chill from a cold winter’s morning as we took up our positions near the gate to the public high school in Western Sydney. A long queue of people waited for the polling booth to open. I stood and observed the seeming simplicity of the scene before me.

The diversity and representativeness of the people as they lined up so peacefully and respectfully prompted me to think of the greatness of Australian democracy.

It was there in the colours and the characters of volunteers handing out leaflets for the major and minor parties, for the candidates and causes. It was there in the faces and the patience of the voters.

It stayed with me through the day and into the night as results from all around the country were tallied and broadcast on ABC Television. And it remains with me now.

There is a greatness in our democratic process that deserves to be lauded above any particular election result. In a world where billions of people are denied a truly democratic right to vote, that simple act of writing numbers on a piece of paper and dropping it into a ballot box is crucially important.

While the failings and injustices of life in Australia can be readily identified and rightly subject to ongoing campaign action to rectify them, it behoves us as public education teachers to uphold the hope of a better future for all citizens.

It is our responsibility to educate our students to recognise and value the significance of the right to vote, to have one’s say in shaping our collective future, to reaffirm the democratic values, principles and beliefs that make Australia one of the most peaceful, harmonious, just and prosperous nations on earth.

As I handed out leaflets and talked with voters and other volunteers I couldn’t help but think that Australia’s compulsory voting system makes us a stronger democracy.

When compulsory voting was introduced in 1924, the number of voters increased from 59 per cent (1922) to 91 per cent (1925). Since the 1930s, it has fluctuated between 93 per cent and 96 per cent. In contrast, voter turnout for the 2012 presidential election in the United States was 58 per cent.

In the US, where income inequality is much higher than in Australia, non-compulsory voting arguably serves the interests of the rich over the poor. With their greater wealth and income at stake, high socio-economic status (SES) citizens are more likely to act to protect their relative advantage at election time.

Because they are more likely to feel alienated and marginalised by their denial of a fair share of the nation’s wealth and income, low SES citizens are arguably more likely to relinquish hope that a better quality of life can be achieved through the ballot box.

In that queue in Western Sydney, the broad range of Australian citizenry was on show — the young and elderly, the single and married, the advantaged and disadvantaged, the gay and straight, the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, the native born and migrant, all so representative of the many cultures and races of the world … and all participating in Australian democracy.

Turning to the results of the election, the return of the federal Coalition government is challenging for public education supporters. In the national two-party count, 6,287,099 (50.13 per cent) votes went to a Liberal-National Coalition that pledged to allocate $50 billion for company tax cuts and $50 billion for building 12 submarines over the next decade. A total of 6,255,540 (49.87 per cent) votes went to Labor, which pledged to spend that money on improved healthcare and education.

The result provides both solace and hope for the future. With the Turnbull government holding a lower house majority of one seat and a minority of Senate seats, Federation and the Australian Education Union are well placed to lobby politicians in both houses on our two major campaign objectives — to achieve full funding for the six years of the NSW Gonski agreement and secure the needs-based model, and achieve a 70 per cent guarantee of government funding for TAFE to uphold quality public education and training in contrast to the scandal-ridden, private for-profit VET sector.

We should all be encouraged by the hard work and commitment of Federation members around the state who made Gonski a high-priority, vote-changing issue in the election.

This was epitomised for me on election day when I met up with a retired member who had volunteered to hand out Gonski leaflets for the whole day. She did so after spending two weeks handing out leaflets at a pre-polling booth in the electorate. When another Gonski volunteer arrived later in the day, she introduced herself not only as a teacher and parent from a nearby public school but as a former student of the aforementioned retired teacher.

It’s this vital transmission of history, culture, beliefs and activism from one generation to the next that will continue to inspire us as Federation members to stand just where we need to be — at the heart of the democratic process that shapes the future of public education and our nation.

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