Voting Mathilda: Australians line up at the polls…in Hong Kong

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In Hong Kong’s debates about our voting systems, one question has never arisen: Should our people be allowed to vote abroad?

Voting goes on right here in Hong Kong for foreign potentates by 3-star Hong Kongers (permanent residents). They can vote to choose a leader half a world away, but not for the local ‘mayor’. Remote voting has a long history, stretching back to the Roman Emperor Augustus. In the the 19th Century military, seamen, colonial administrators were the targets for allowing voting abroad.

A rare collection of countries sets up polling booths abroad. But no one seems to do it like the Australians.

Aussie Aussie Aussie! Vote Vote Vote!

The clear leaders in this area are the Australians who are in the throes of voting now in Hong Kong. They have their own electoral station in Hong Kong – and it’s a big one.  The only bigger station is in London, UK with over 16,000 Aussies casting votes in the last election. Hong Kong clocked in at about half that – the second biggest in the whole Australian electoral system..

Vice Consul Sarah Pham runs the show.
Vice Consul Sarah Pham runs the show.

The peculiarities of the Australian voting system have endeared its people to voting even when they don’t have to.  Australians in Australia must vote or be subject to a punitive fine. To make it easier, they have some voting stations that allow people to vote even if they are out of their own districts. It is a sometimes complicated system- but it works.

Australians vote for two houses: The Lower House (from which the Prime Minister is chosen – the real action) and the Upper House or Senate. While a form of preferential is used for both, the Upper House has the more entertaining ballot papers. Voters can choose to vote for one party, trusting the party to them allocate preferential votes on their behalf. The alternative is indicating their preference by ranking up to 110 parties. Missing a single one or doubling up can result in a donkey vote – a disqualified ballot, in Aussie lingo.

[styled_box title=”Aussie voting lingo” class=””]Donkey vote – an invalidated ballot paper.[/styled_box]

Sex, Hemp and Bullet Trains…?

And what choices! While some parties were quite predictable (Labor, Liberal), the proportional representation in the Senate means that some very small parties can get seats, so it is worth it for everyone to take a shot. Ferocious negotiating for allocating second votes takes place and voters must be careful to think where their vote could end up if their favourite doesn’t make the cut. You could vote for the The Pirate Party (anti-copyright) and have your vote go to the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party.  Or vote for the Shooters and Fishers Party (unflatteringly dubbed the Shooters and Rooters by one Aussie wag in Hong Kong; pro outdoor sports) and end up voting for the Sex Party (pro-freedom, marijuana, taxing churches and more). Caveat voter, indeed.

Do Hong Kong votes matter? ‘…they’re going to make a difference’ CG Paul Tighe

‘It’s a communal thing…[you] get that sense of neighbourhood’

In Hong Kong, there was a sensible mood overlaying a quiet sense of pride. The Australian Consul General, Paul Tighe, is new in town, only a few months on the job. But his low-key manner couldn’t hide his pride of watching people going about their voting in an enthusiastic way. While most people fall out of the voting habit while abroad, Aussies line up in droves.

To be clear: Australians abroad are exempted from mandatory voting.

But they do it anyways. As CG Tighe said, it’s ‘part of our political culture. It’s a good culture and one we want to promote.’ Diplomat spoke to a number of Australians coming to vote and they were treating it like a fun day out. The CG reminisced about his family walking down to vote together in Australia.  Apparently there is usually there’s a ‘sausage sizzle’ – a little BBQ party. Newspapers such as the Brisbane times carry articles with titles like, “A voter’s guide to finding the best election day sausage sizzle.” There’s even a website showing the location of these festive BBQ’s on voting day (in Alice Springs: at Gillen Primary School, in case you were wondering).

“It’s almost a party atmosphere. People feel good about coming down to vote.’ Gavin McDougall, Director Public Affairs.

The Mechanics

In Hong Kong, the Consul General officially runs the show as the Department of Foreign Affairs is contracted by the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct the poll. Voting does not require ID – only that voters provide their registered address. They get their ballots and vote. The Australian Electoral Commission sends an officer to train up the contract hires (including some diplomatic spouses) and oversee the arrangements. This time, it’s Paula Anderson who will make sure the polls are ship shape and also train Singapore’s polling staff.  The Assistant Returning Officer, current Vice Consul Sarah Pham, runs the show (see photo).

It’s not guaranteed clear sailing. The Brazilian Consul General was a young diplomat in London when Brazil had its historic first real vote (post-dictatorship) and voting was available for citizens abroad. With voters lined up, the Voting Commission and the ballot boxes and Macedo Soares were ready to go. They entered the lift to bring the boxes up to the voting area and…the elevator got stuck. With voters waiting for their historic moment, the fire department had to be called to rescue Brazilian democracy from a malfunctioning London elevator.

Australia has done this before however. Including the occasional state election (also conducted in Hong Kong), they run elections in the Consul General maybe twice a year.


The Big Day is September 7

AEC's Paula Anderson and CG Paul Tighe.
AEC’s Paula Anderson and CG Paul Tighe.

Votes are sent to Australia after the day of the big vote – on this occasion, September 7th. Diplomat Times readers who head to the Australian Consul General the day after we print can witness Aussie election action as representatives show up to distribute materials downstairs .  We are told it is a festive occasion and the busiest day. Polls open early and close late, running from 8:00am to 6:00pm. Votes are shipped on Monday to Australia. As of Wednesday night, they were running up 20% over the number of votes cast at the same time in the last election cycle.

Diplomat spoke to Mark Chan who suggested the Australian election as a story subject. He will be out Saturday morning representing the Liberal Party – hopeful aspirants to majority. He and his cohort are hotly contesting Hong Kong votes. Independent Australian media outlet Crikey: “Mark Chan, current president of Australian Liberals in Asia, say the overseas citizenry are highly engaged with politics back home. They both cite Australia’s reputation abroad as an issue that resonates with expat voters, but local politics and the local economy also influences Australian voters.”

But does it matter? The Labor Party thinks so. In 2007 they took out a billboard on Cameron Road. Prime Minister Rudd’s face currently graces a billboard in Central placed for epic Hong Kong photos that play well in Aussie press rather than viewers in Hong Kong (see AFP photo). In many cases, local results will be known Saturday night. However, close votes can be decided by votes from abroad and their results may not be decided for a week. People could vote by mail, but they feel keenly the need to put their ballot in the box personally. There is a sense that Australians take their democracy serious wherever they are. They think their votes matter.

And the real sense is: They do matter.

[styled_box title=”Briefing on the Briefwahl” class=””]Herr Andreas Otto, Consul (Culture and Press Affairs) sent Diplomat a note on their upcoming election. Germans vote abroad through the ‘Briefwahl’ or letter vote – the most common overseas voting solution. A query about how they get the word out revealed a lot more German in Hong Kong than Diplomat expected. Channels used included “the German language magazine “inhk” ( The Consulate General has disseminated the relevant information via all German institutions in Hong Kong such as German Chamber of Commerce, our official cultural institute, the “Goethe-Institut”, the German Academic Exchange Service, the German Swiss International School and the German speaking Christian congregations and German academics working in Hong Kong universities.”[/styled_box]