Sensational World of Civics – Episode 2 – What’s An Election?

Politics … a total snoozefest, right? Wrong!

How our government works and the decisions it makes reaches into almost every part of our everyday lives. So settle in as we explore in a series of podcasts the history of Australian democracy and pull apart how our system of government works .. it’ll be heaps more fun than it sounds. Promise!

In this episode, we dive into Australia’s political system: what’s an election? How do politicians try to win our vote? How do we elect members of Parliament? And why a political party sadly has nothing to do with fairy bread and balloons.

This special four-part civics series for primary school kids is produced in association with the Museum of Australian Democracy


Last episode, Bryce explored how Australia became a country; why a non-existent town between Sydney and Melbourne became our nation’s capital; and the building of Parliament House. Well, once you have a house, you need to fill it! So today, we’ll learn how Australian elections work: how someone tries to win your vote; what political parties have to do with it; and how we vote on election day. And to guide us on this journey – I’m delighted to welcome to the Squiz Kids hotseat Cameron Hansell, from the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra. Cam, welcome!

Great to be here! 


Now Cam, there are THREE different levels of government in Australia, and every citizen is represented by three different people: you have a local government member; a state member; and a federal member. We’re focusing in this series on federal government… but I’m guessing that all those people try to convince us to give them the job in much the same way that year sixes do for school captain: they want us to believe that they’re the best person to represent our interests.
That’s absolutely right Amanda. In fact, candidates actually have a whole team of people working with them to help convince voters that they are the best person for the job. In the lead-up to Federal elections candidates and their teams go into over-drive!!! They work day and night, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to trying to win our vote

Millions?? What on earth are they spending that money on?

They conduct advertising campaigns, hold events, make tv appearances and travel all over the place talking to potential voters…and I tell you what, its about more than just making their polices known. They want to appeal to us on a personal level. They want to show everybody that they are one of us, that they are in touch with the average person..They love having a nickname that makes them sound like they are one of our friends, like Albo or Scomo. They do tv appeances where we meet their partners and children so we can see the bright and happy family they belong to.

And there’s that stereotype of politicians kissing babies…
They want to show us that they are mothers and fathers, they want to show us that they really care about everyday Australian people.
But you know what? Things aren’t always so positive in the world of campaigning. It isn’t all babies, smiles and handshakes. Politics can get very toxic. To convince us that they really are the BEST person for the job, candidates usually try to convince us that their opponents are the WORST person for the job! As you can imagine this can get pretty nasty at times.

That sounds like we need to use our Newshounds skills… we have to stop, think, and check: why are the politicians saying this?
Exactly! Amanda, I know that your listeners are critical thinkers so I would like to set them up with a challenge in this upcoming election campaign. Squiz kids, when you see our leaders in the media in the coming weeks and months..really ask yourselves why they are there in that particular situation talking to the people they are talking to in a particular way? And most importantly, what message are they really trying to put out there?

Now that is an excellent challenge. And we also know that we can go to reputable sources, who will be working in overdrive to fact check what the politicians are saying.

That’s right. The news media are often thought of as a check and balance in government – they can ask questions, and dig into the truth of what politicians are saying.

Now Cam, in the lead up to an election, we usually see signs on people’s lawns, in people’s windows, on bumper stickers on cars, showing support for one candidate or another. And often those signs tell us that the person is the member of one party or another. And Cam, we’re not talking about the balloons a fairy bread kind of party…

No unfortunately not Amanda. We are talking about political parties. Now, they are similar to a balloon and fairy bread parties because they are still groups of people who have come together for a particular reason. However, rather than coming together for somebody’s birthday, these people come together because they share similar views on particular issues facing the community. Now stay with me Amanda, because this is a tool which makes politics a lot easier to understand… Parties are awesome for voters because it generally allows us to know what kind of views a candidate has based on which party they belong to.

Right, so kind of a cheat-sheet to understanding what the candidate believes in and will do if elected.

That’s right. Some voters are very faithful to a particular party and they will always vote for one of their candidates. This means that when an election comes around they aren’t particularly interested in following the campaign because they already know who they will vote for. Thats all well and good, but the voters who REALLY decide which way an election will go are the ones who don’t always vote for the same party. It’s the ones who look critically at the issues of the day. Its the ones who take note of what different parties are bringing to the table regarding the issues important to them and using that knowledge to make an informed decision!

And what are the main parties in Australia?

Well there are actually many parties. We have major and minor parties, or in other words, big parties and small parties. You may have heard of some of them, our three major parties are the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the Nationals.

And the federal government is made up by the party, or parties, that win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Since 1901, that’s basically been either the Labor Party, or a coalition – that means joint effort – of the Liberal and National parties.

That’s right. The winning party gets to appoint all the ministers – like the minister of defence, the treasurer, and so on – and the losing party makes up what we call the Opposition.

So when people are voting in their community, they’re not just considering who the person is individually, they’re also thinking about which party they belong to, and whether they like that party overall. Got it. So… let’s fast forward to election day. The BBQ is fired up for the school sausage sizzle, the polling stations are ready to go… what actually happens when we go in to vote?

Okay Cam, let’s start with the House of Representatives – the eucalyptus green coloured chamber in Australia Parliament House. It has 151 members, and they’re elected for a three year term. How exactly do we vote for them?

Well, in Australia we have a system which is called PREFERENTIAL voting. Now I know this is going to sound like a little bit of an information overload, so bear with me for a moment… Basically, we don’t actually vote for just one candidate in Australia, here we list ALL of the candidates in our order of preference. Whoever we put as first is the candidate we would most like to see win.

Yep, that makes sense. But why do we have to put the rest in order?

There’s something really special about the system we use in this country. If our first choice doesn’t get elected, that’s not the end of our political voice. The person we put 2nd still has a good chance, thanks to our vote. They may not be our favourite candidate, but we would be happy to see them win if our first preference isn’t able to, and preferential voting makes this happen…So we have a lot of say in who we would like to be elected. If there is somebody we REALLY don’t want to see win for example, we will put them as our last preference. So when the votes are tallied, everybody’s first preference is checked. But if no one candidate has received more the 50% of votes as a first preference, the candidate with the least amount of 1st preference votes is eliminated. The votes for that eliminated candidate are then votes spread to the others according to the 2nd preferences listed, which will hopefully reveal a winner. If not, the process is then repeated until we have a clear winner.

So essentially, the system is a way of choosing the person that the MOST people in the electorate feel comfortable with, even if they aren’t the first choice. Is it the same for the Senate? Which, by the way, is coloured ochre red. It only has 76 members, 12 from each state, and two from the ACT and NT.

Yeah elections for the Senate work a little bit differently compared to the house of representatives. If you’ve been along to an election day you would have seen that the ballot paper which we vote on for the Senate is HUGE compared to the House Of Representatives one. As you said, there are 12 senators from each state and 2 from each territory. This means we need multiple winners in each election, not just one. Senators also don’t need to be supported by the MAJORITY of voters in their state or territory; they just need to receive a set percentage of the votes. Because we decide between so many candidates for the Senate, there usually ends up being more minor parties being represented than in the House of Representatives. Individual senators also serve a term of 6 years which is double the usual 3 years served by members of the house before they need to be re-elected. This allows our senators a full 6-year term, its usually only half the seats which are up for grabs each Federal election.

That is a little more complicated, but it sounds like the goal is to get a good mix of representation across both houses of Parliament. Of course, once you’ve elected these members of parliament, they need to get to work! Next time, I’ll be learning about the different jobs done by the house of representatives and the senate; how laws are made; and what political parties are. And yes, we’ll also learn why it is that sometimes, Parliament sounds like a rowdy primary school playground…