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Observations, Politics

Imperfect lessons in democracy

My record on picking election winners is poor at best so I’m happy to leave that effort to others. All I have to do is decide who to vote for. It’s an opportunity I haven’t always enjoyed and one still denied to many people around the world. It’s not always an easy choice, but I’m glad to have it.

Oh! Oh! Emmeline! Mrs Pankhurst off to get clapped in irons again so that one day Your Girl Reporter could do something as ordinary as cast a vote. Thank you, ma'am, and all your bold sisters!

Oh! Oh! Emmeline! Mrs Pankhurst off to get clapped in irons again so that one day Your Girl Reporter could do something as ordinary as cast a vote. Thank you, ma’am, and all your bold sisters!

I came late to voting. Hong Kong, where I grew up, was untroubled by democracy. I did learn about it, not from school of course, but mostly from honorary auntie Leela Tankha, whose kitchen was a magnet for a hungry kid when we visited Cheung Chau on weekends.

Leela was a story-teller but the stories she told were dramas of history – from the Indian Salt Marches to the Suffragettes – all relayed as if she had just returned from the scene and I was the first person to hear the news.

She’d stand at the stove and stuff me with puris and other treats while telling me grisly tales of the force-feeding of Mrs Pethwick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst.

She wasn’t a teacher, she was a sub-editor. And a great cook. Food and well told stories – the pattern was set early.

My first recollection of Australian democracy was the Whitlam Dismissal. And that was the first I’d heard of Whitlam. The only thing I was aware of, out in the colonies, was that a democratically elected government had been dismissed by an unelected imperialist.

I’ve since been assured it was way more complicated than that.

And the first time I heard democracy mentioned in the context of Hong Kong’s future was in the early stages of the negotiations between China and the UK in the 1980s.

I was at a dinner of about a dozen people, all Hong Kong Chinese, when conversation turned to what they hoped, expected and feared for the future.

It was our host who proposed something so startling it took us all aback. Why shouldn’t Hong Kong people decide what happens to Hong Kong?

It’s an idea that’s still catching on.

I moved to the UK in 1987 but didn’t realise I was entitled to vote in that year’s general election.

I cast my first ballot in the next council elections with an air of grave solemnity, the hungry ghosts of the suffragettes crowding into the booth beside me and bringing a distinct whiff of curry.

I was late to the party but quickly became fascinated by politics in a parliamentary democracy. I came up hard against it in 1990 when the Conservative MP for Eastbourne Ian Gow was assassinated by the IRA.

I was working on the Eastbourne Herald and had assigned a photographer to some local opening Gow was attending that morning. “He hasn’t turned up,” was closely followed by the news of why.

The subsequent by-election didn’t seem like any contest. “You could stick a blue ribbon on a dog in this town and people would vote for it,” the Herald’s local government reporter said sagely.

“And that’s without the extraordinary circumstances.”

A Liberal Democrat, David Bellotti, took the seat comfortably by 4,550 votes. Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe said the IRA would be toasting his success.

My first general election was in 1992 and all signs pointed to a humiliating defeat for the Tories.

“There’s no way they can win,” I confidently told the Big Baxter in one of our trans-Atlantic calls. “They stink like rotting carcasses.”

Just before polling day the Herald’s politics reporter returned from his morning rounds in great excitement. He’d seen the results of the Lib Dems’ internal polling and they were showing a clean sweep of the southeast for the minor party.

Midnight Raider - The Current Mr Baxter before he fell under my good influence with a trophy from the 1992 unwinnable election.

Midnight Raider – The Current Mr Baxter (before he fell under my good influence) with a trophy from the 1992 unwinnable election.

That lunchtime three of the Herald’s finest – the politics reporter, the local government reporter and the heavily pregnant business reporter (me) – toured the town looking for a bookie who’d take an accumulator bet on just that outcome.

Not one would.

Conservative candidate Nigel Waterson duly won Eastbourne in John Major’s unlikely victory that year.

That’s polling for you.

I first exercised my democratic duty in an Australian election in 2004. I could have, and should have, voted before then but I never got that particular memo.

In 2007 I jumped aboard the Kevin 07 Express and was deposited with a clutch of how-to-vote leaflets outside a small primary school on the outer edges of one of Brisbane’s leafy northern suburbs.

Its location wasn’t helped by its omission from the list of polling stations in the local paper. It was a quiet day, with electors flooding through the gates at the uninspiring rate of one or two an hour.

My blue-shirted rival was a skinny old guy named Lance who enjoyed an intense interest in political systems of the world.

On hearing that I had grown up in Hong Kong, he revealed that he had once spent 10 months there in the 1980s.

He outlined the makeup of the Legislative Council, both official and unofficial members, at a level of detail with which most long-term Hong Kong residents (myself very much included) would struggle.

Turning his attention to the UK Parliament, Lance described his visit to the House of Commons in the early 1990s. He listed the names of all the MPs he had heard speak and then the names of all of those he had missed.

When he mentioned Winston Churchill’s grandson I attempted a diversion by conjuring visions of Churchill’s granddaughter, frolicking naked at Glastonbury, but Lance was treading a firm path and would have none of it.

I made my escape at around 4pm, tiptoeing past Lance who by now was snoring gently in his chair, blue leaflets clutched to his skinny chest.

And now it’s almost time to exercise my rare and privileged right to vote once more. As for picking a winner, if the nation’s as uninspired as I am it’ll be another hung Parliament – but you’ll note my record in picking winners is undistinguished.

So, will it be the New, Improved Kevin or the New, Improved Tony? Each has spent the past three years agitating for the job with a ferocity which seems to have over-ridden any vision of what either of them will do if they get it.

Not Being Julia seems to be the main selling point for each of them, which is one way to determine the fate of a nation. That, and casual cruelty against the most desperate and vulnerable people in the world.

There’s an air of Caesar about Kevin Rudd which makes me decidedly uncomfortable at the thought of offering him the crown a second time. But I’m also wary of yond Tony Abbott’s lean and hungry look.

And that’s before we even get to the policies.

Good luck, Australia. See you on the other side.

© Sally Baxter 2013
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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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  1. Pingback: Inside journalism | The Sniper - August 29, 2013

  2. Pingback: There’s a lesson from Brexit and how Britain regrets it | Sally Baxter - June 26, 2016

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