Housekeeping #1, Sizzle: ‘This is what being Australian is all about'

In the first episode of Housekeeping – the Wheeler Centre's five-part mini-series of short podcast features on Australian democracy – Jarni Blakkarly enquires after the curious practice of voting-booth reviews online.

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

Listen to Housekeeping #1: Sizzle

Thom Ryan, 26, is an unashamed election nerd. He’s quirky, geeky, a little bit shy. He’s also the first person I have ever heard describe going to vote as an exciting experience.

'I just have this real interest in the way in which ... Australia can get together and make this collective decision,' he says. 'I’m interested in the mechanics of that.'

Ryan, along with his sister Rosie, set up a website in 2010 called Booth Reviews. 'It's a way of collecting the testimonies of the experience that people have voting,' he says. 'We're asking people about the vibe of voting day ... I think it's something quite exciting, quite nice about Australian elections – there is all this carnival atmosphere there. You go along to the school hall or the church hall, you get a sausage sizzle. I think because this is something that I haven't seen anywhere else, and to me it seems really sort of notable.'

'Limited, but yummy cupcakes. All round: seven out of ten.'

At the last federal election, the website got around 1500 reviews – each one marked on a map of Australia. You could zoom in on polling stations in your area throughout the day, and see what people were saying about them. People left comments like, 'Massive line up. Met Tanya Plibersek who complimented me on my jacket' and 'Very friendly AEC people, sausages with onion and three types of sauce. Limited, but yummy cupcakes. All round: seven out of ten.'

'Out of the 150 electorates in Australia, we got reviews from 148,' says Ryan. 'We got reviews from a whole bunch of overseas consulates and embassies. We got some from New York, from London, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Geneva, the Hague, Kuala Lumpur. Singapore.'

Election day sausage sizzle at Goulburn St Primary School, Hobart

Election day sausage sizzle at Goulburn St Primary School, Hobart — Photo: Carol Raabus (Flickr: ratinasock / Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0)

Even before Ryan’s site sprang up, there were certain rituals around election days in Australia. The sausage sizzles, craft stalls, entertainment … it all seemed to speak to our self-deprecating Australian sense of humour around serious democratic matters.

Today, it’s common to rate your food, your hotel, the guy who drops you home at night. Booth Reviews arrived just before the wave of mainstream interest in reviewing everything. So, how does it feel now? Is it taking it too far to rate a primary school’s attempts to make our one civic duty a little more bearable? To raise some money in the process?

'It's a way of encouraging, like making people buy in, not just through the threat of a fine, I guess,' laughs Ryan. 'I think it lends a bit more legitimacy or credibility if everyone has the feeling of taking part. And I think you get that through these little things that happen outside of just marking "one" on a bit of paper.'

He adds: 'People often talk about Gen Y wanting to publicise, live publicly and this is a way of doing that with voting. Every review got tweeted, then you were invited to share it. ' 

'Massive line up. Met Tanya Plibersek who complimented me on my jacket.'

Ryan says the thing that most surprised him about the reviews the site received was the frequency with which the Australian Electoral Commission was named and singled out for commentary.

'[It was] either, "the AEC workers are doing a really great job" or "they're not managing the queue well enough, they should have put the line in the shade,"' he says. 'Things like that which indicated that I think people are aware of this connection between the carnival aspect and the voting aspect.'

For most Australians, voting is the only way we participate in our democracy. Not many of us belong to political parties, and we don’t have a big culture of protesting on the streets, like some other countries do. We have this – one Saturday morning every three-and-a-half years. And even then, for a lot of people, casting a vote in the Lucky Country can feel like a chore.

'I postal voted, just came here for the sausages.'

'I'm not going to say that electoral politics is going to solve all of our problems,' says Ryan. 'But I think it's good that we can have our election with some sort of sense of joy.'

I guess Thom thinks you can have your cake, and eat it, too. And if someone’s already left a good review of that cake? Well, even better. The act of voting itself is kind of boring: it’s dull, takes a long time, and sometimes there are up to 100 candidates below the line on the senate paper. But it is important. The music, the food, the stalls, it kind of reminds me of a dentist giving you a lolly pop after pulling out your tooth. A sweet little bribe at the end of a bitter experience.

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Portrait of Jarni Blakkarly

Jarni Blakkarly is a freelance journalist and radio producer currently based in Melbourne, Australia. He's worked in Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia across a range of local and international publications and networks, with a focus on reporting local and international politics, human rights, social justice, migration and refugee issues, religion, culture and the environment.

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