School-based elections are a valuable lesson

An advertisement for a newspaper with pictures of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (L) and opposition leader Tony Abbott in central Sydney on Aug 5, 2013. Mr Rudd called a Sept 7 general election on Aug 4, barely six weeks after he toppled former
An advertisement for a newspaper with pictures of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (L) and opposition leader Tony Abbott in central Sydney on Aug 5, 2013. Mr Rudd called a Sept 7 general election on Aug 4, barely six weeks after he toppled former leader Julia Gillard in a party-room vote, ending a turbulent three years in power for the minority Labor government. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Australia has a compulsory back-to-school programme for all citizens over the age of 18.

It takes place roughly every three years, but is not endorsed by the education ministry, does not involve school uniforms or classroom lessons.

And attendance is compulsory.

Those who don’t show up will be slapped with a A$20 (S$22.50) fine. Thereafter, those who do not provide a valid explanation for their absence might be fined a further A$50.

But there’s no study involved in this unique back-to-school programme.

Quite simply, Australian federal elections are held every three years - and because they are always held on a Saturday, polling is always conducted at local schools dotted throughout the country.

Now that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has called the election on Sept 7, the scene will soon be set for the almost festive atmosphere on polling day.

Schools traditionally turn on a fund-raising barbecue early in the morning and the smell of frying sausages wafts invitingly on a crisp southerly breeze.

Because it is the first week of spring, there is no frost on the ground, but the air (especially in the southern states) is cold enough for voters to show up in the colourful scarves of their favourite football teams.

Hungry? No worries. For A$1, you get an Australian staple - a piping-hot sausage in a slice of folded bread. Yes, there’s sauce if you want it. And onions. And mustard. And cold drinks. The money either goes to the school or to local youth groups.

All the parties contesting the election are in attendance. But instead of the rah-rah atmosphere you might expect, their representatives stand silently, forbidden to verbally push their cause.

Lips sealed, they are only permitted to proffer their respective “how to vote” cards,  emblazoned with the colours and emblems of each party.

The vast majority of voters will enter their cardboard polling booth with a voting card, about A4 size, instructing them which boxes to tick. Each voter gets two pieces of paper. Green for the House of Representatives ballot paper, white for the Senate ballot paper.

Officials ask for your surname and address and mark off your name on an electoral roll, then you proceed to cast your vote.

Because you’re in a school environment, it’s appropriate that you must mark your vote with a supplied pencil - and yes, there are people on hand to sharpen them.

After you’ve cast your vote, it’s party time, in every sense.

dmcmahon@sph.com.sg