I’m reflecting on the afternoon of Saturday, March 27, 1999. Around 3pm, to be precise.
My sturdy, olive-toned fingers hold a black Paper Mate pen midair as I stand inside the makeshift voting booth at Ashfield Town Hall, the epicentre of Sydney’s cosmopolitan Inner West.
I’m eighteen and voting at the New South Wales state election, enacting my civic duty for the first time. I’ll soon start ticking the myriad boxes on the broadsheet white paper marked for the complex Legislative Council. But, though I carry a wide-eyed calling to participate in our electoral process, truthfully, I’m clueless about which camp to embrace.
I slightly twist my diminutive frame to catch a glimpse of the unending line behind me. Restless locals of every hue, newbies and old-timers alike, are waiting for their turn at the temporary counters. I glance back at the gigantic forms and my disoriented reasoning shifts into overdrive.
Should I vote Liberal, the conservative bunch my Maronite Lebanese brood has endorsed for almost a century? Society perceives them as the party of the rich, which doesn’t serve me—the struggling daughter of an absent father and unemployed single mother—too well. I find their social justice beliefs in education, healthcare for all, and a fair living wage are piss weak, too. But before I left home, my beloved grandmother, my Sita, made me promise to back their new state leader, Kerry Chikarovski, and when I asked why, she chastised me. “We only vote Liberal, Simone!”
Maybe I’ll throw caution to the wind and get behind Labor. An undersized, breakaway branch of our extended clan swears by the centre-left party. Their value system better mirrors my own, but their popular incumbent, Premier Bob Carr, is gleefully campaigning with a ‘tough on crime’ policy I deplore. His almost zero-tolerance approach includes shameless racial profiling that’s unfavourably affecting my teenage, male Middle Eastern, Polynesian and Koori friends.
Beads of sweat have started forming on my tanned forehead. The Town Hall’s lack of air conditioning in this warm, late March weather—coupled with my political confusion—isn’t helped by the ballot’s ridiculous size. I’m making every bit of effort to take my suffrage seriously, but the potent compound of an unbearably stuffy venue plus the insane amount of contenders is overwhelming. The slate features an extraordinary 80 columns with group voting squares and 263 candidates. Nevertheless, I attempt to master the king-size form, and my inky brown eyes commence scanning the bonkers list of non-major party candidates, which include:
Against Promotion Of Homosexuality.
Three Day Weekend.
Gun Owners & Sporting Hunters.
Euthanasia Referendum Party.
Stop Banks Exploiting Australians.
Marijuana Smokers Rights.
I chuckle at that last candidate, noisy enough for the woman in the next booth to hiss ‘Shhhh!’ in my direction. ‘What’s Doing?’ is the catchcry of former rugby league player Mario Fenech. The Maltese-born athlete started his bureaucratic movement after becoming disillusioned with local politics, promoting it during his weekly segment on Channel Nine’s The Footy Show. Fenech is one of very few Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds in this race, and I’m considering upholding his uproarious stunt for that fact alone.
There is little wonder politics bewilders me when one considers my extended family. Colours denote Australia’s social movements, illustrating our tribe’s chaotic immigrant milieu.
Most of my great-grandfather Elias Bechara Hassarati’s offspring are in the blue corner. When the handsome Elias first moved to Australia from Bane, Lebanon, in the early 1930s, he settled in Hornsby on Sydney’s Upper North Shore. Incidentally, Hornsby is an electoral district held by the Liberal party from around the same time until today. Soon after, his devoted wife Julia and their minor children joined him from their mountainous village.
With a decent command of English, thanks to a prior stint living in the US, Elias quickly scored a gardening job, tending to the sprawling property of a wealthy Mr Christie. Elias’s daughter, my great-auntie Amelia, says he was in awe of Christie’s success, so her hard-working father took as gospel whatever that white man said. Legend has it, Christie instructed Elias to vote Liberal.
Unaware of this origin story when I was younger, I once asked Elias’ other daughter, my grandmother, Shamouna, why she was hellbent on supporting the Liberals despite the fact that she grew up in poverty. All seven of her children vote for them, too. Her typically dramatic response? ‘I’d rather swim with the rich than drown with the poor!’
On the other hand, Amelia and her kids are now in the red corner. Amelia’s youngest daughter, who I call Auntie Kim, says that as a child she asked her mother and father, Jawad, how they became rebel Labor supporters in our tight-knit community (around 35,000 Bane descendants live in Australia). As working-class members, it was a no-brainer for them, they explained. “We follow Labor as though it’s a football team. It’s just what you do,” Kim says.
An interest in public service progressed well beyond the polls for Kim’s siblings. Presently, my Auntie Karen is a Labor councillor and Deputy Mayor of Strathfield Council. Their eldest sister, my Aunty Zita, even broke through the hearts of our most hidebound relatives back in 1994 when she was appointed Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner. Aunty Zita’s term lasted five years—she was in office during my maiden voting episode—and in that time, she made a vital contribution to educating our country about its racial discrimination issues. I’ve always been in awe of her success, raising our familial connection every chance.
These dearest pugilists of mine happily blend purple. Their boxing ring is a sizeable round table in Amelia’s living room where they’ve played card games of manila, a.k.a. Seven-Up Poker, for decades now. As a toddler, I’d run into that cigarette-smoke-filled room and sit under their legs peskily. Then, when I matured, I’d wait around for someone to chuck me a couple of dollars from their winning pot. For hours on end, week after week, my varicoloured family’s raucous yet loving political mud-slinging has put Question Time in Federal Parliament to shame.
I am flashing back to the afternoon of Saturday, March 27, 1999. It’s now nearing 3:30pm.
After almost half an hour of uncertainty inside my voting booth, I come to a highly questionable decision. I put the black Paper Mate pen down, fold the tablecloth-like paper into a square, and shove it inside one of the hall’s now overflowing ballot boxes. Then, I step outside to meet with my mother, who went in a little earlier and is parked on Liverpool Road waiting for me.
“Who’d you vote for, Ma?” I ask as I get in the front seat of her beaten-up Mitsubishi Sigma.
“Liberal, of course,” she scoffs back, a badly-off single mother of two.
She adds, “You did too, didn’t you?”
“I ended up voting for Mario Fenech,” I say through a sly smile.
She playfully goes to wallop me across the back of the head as I instinctively duck. Switching gears, she then instructs me never to tell anyone I forfeited my say the whole ride home.