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Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right
– Stealers Wheel, 1972

There’s nothing like an election to make you realise that Australia is not necessarily one country (or one nation, if you prefer).

Berrans went to the polls a week or so ago after five weeks of being officially beaten about the head with electoral puff; unofficially the puff began well before I arrived in the Berra.

And of course, things are different here. Some different things are actually familiar, such as the Hare-Clark voting system, complete with Robson Rotation – I learned about that stuff in the Tasnarnia, for the state election that occurred five minutes after I landed there (sense a pattern emerging?). But other things make the Berra stand out.

For example, unlike every other state or territory in the land of Oz, there is no system of local government here. They make do with the one Assembly for everything from building power stations and closing schools through to collecting your rubbish and fixing potholes. In a practical sense, this means that any sensible discussion about politics can quickly degenerate into a harangue about the placement of public toilets  – not very productive for public debate, which is often quickly hijacked by non-sequiturs. On the other hand, a single level of government is certainly a more efficient use of taxpayer funds for governing a small city.

Secondly, the past four years of majority ALP government have been an historic anomaly – every previous parliamentary term since self-government was introduced has been minority government. Minority government is much remarked upon in other states as unworkable and dangerous; here the Berrans seem to want it back with a vengeance.

But despite these quite large differences, politics as a practice (or ‘paradigm’, or is it ‘narrative’?) is really no more edifying here than anywhere else. All the same words are flung about like so much mud: arrogant, divided, unrealistic, broken promises, loonies, can’t manage a budget. You know the tune. They dance to it here as well.

There are a couple of diverting small differences. In the Berra, it’s perfectly legal to post political signs on crown land, including along roadsides where they’re most likely to distract motorists and cause accidents. It’s not unusual to see clumps of signs belonging to an array of competing candidates at busy traffic points; sometimes you may even see the candidate standing by his or her signs, waving to passing drivers. Really.

How-to-vote cards are a point of some contention that I still don’t fully understand, but here they’re certainly not piled upon you as you run a gauntlet to the booths. At my local polling booth, the  neighbourhood primary school, a few relaxed-looking volunteers politely made as if to offer electoral material as we passed but there was nothing very organised about it.

The school was of course running a fete. This is not so much sporadic opportunism, as a widespread Berran custom. (Even at the tally room housed on the CIT campus in town the students there were running a sausage sizzle, besieging passing pollies, staffers and media late into the night. Huh – as if by this end of the campaign any of the political types had spare change.) The flea market at my local school yielded a couple of results, including the book Boned by Anonymous ($2) (…it’s a novel about women in Australian commercial TV, not whatever you were thinking!) and a Sportscraft silk shirt in brown and black (50c).

Curiously, the school fences were festooned with a kind of bunting that turned out to be a last-minute tactic by the Liberals to discourage casing one’s vote for the ALP. I don’t know if this type of advertising is new to the Berra but it’s new to me. I heard later that at some voting booths the banners and their attempted removal by rival party supporters caused scuffles and perhaps even blows.

From early last week, it’s been clear that Berrans opted to return to minority government, with swings against both Labor and the Liberals. The Greens soaked up much of that electoral dissatisfaction, firmly  snagging an historic three seats and securing the balance of power (the party has only once held two seats in the Berra, in the very first Assembly, and thereafter only one seat per term). And as I write, the 17th and final seat has been decided: a fourth for the Greens. It’s causing quite a stir amongst those who care. As for the two main parties, some might say they look like clowns and jokers now that they’re scrambling to do deals with the party they both roundly derided before polling day. Stuck in the middle, indeed.

So the members of the Assembly are decided for the next four years, even if the minority-rule party hasn’t yet been crowned by the Greens (who only managed to elect an actual leader for their own party today); we continue under caretaker administration. And what an interesting Assembly it will be. Because it’s here that the Berra has shown some new differences from other states and territories. Seven of the seventeen are women – closer to gender balance than any other state government. And a good proportion of them are under 40 – the Liberals leader is just 31.

Oh boy, am I feeling ooooold.

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