That grey bar. Grey in that we don’t know who it represents or what they stand for. Nearly one million people, only a few less than the number who voted for a third-term National government, make up that grey bar. It’s a bar of people without faces or names but they are the people who truly decided this election. National did not win this election, democracy lost it.
This year I went door-knocking for the first time. I was between jobs — and between countries. I had a few weeks in NZ before coming to Melbourne to start my new job. I wanted to help the Green Party campaign: they were a party I saw as having integrity, clear and smart long-term thinking, and a desire to really make New Zealand a better place for all.
I was door knocking in Mt Eden: a very wealthy part of Auckland made up of people who own million dollar homes, mixed with renters living in old, cold flats that their landlords are sitting on until they decide to cash in. Of those people who were home, it was a mixed bag: people who were voting left, right and a bunch who didn’t want to tell a stranger on their doorstep either way.
One conversation really stuck with me. It was clearly a rental properties rather than the pristine villa with the manicured gardens to boot. The person enrolled to the address was someone with what looked like a South Asian name – maybe Indian or Bengali. When I knocked at the door, I was greeted by about 15 people laughing and half-covered in paint, doing some minor renovations in the lounge. They all fell silent and looked curiously at me, clearly a little nervous as to why this person was knocking on their door on a Sunday afternoon. Few seemed to speak English, but one of them told me the person I asked after no longer lived there. I asked if they were all eligible to vote, in which case I could leave forms for them to enrol or update their details. They all looked at me blankly. One finally said that he thought they were eligible, as they were permanent residents. I waited for them to ask for the forms I was waving around but they waited in silent discomfort. I took a bunch of enrolment forms and meekly said how it would be great if they could enrol and how important it was we all vote, and then left. They looked relieved.
I left feeling like I was out of my depth. These were people living only a few hundred metres from my old flat in Mt Eden but they lived in a completely different world. I realised how ridiculous it felt to tell someone why they should care about this election. Me, a stranger off the street, saying you should enrol to vote because I said so, and expecting that would work. I realised this house of eligible voters would be unlikely to vote – and if they did, it wouldn’t be because a complete stranger asked them to.
A few weeks later, I arrived in Melbourne. I remained completely engaged with what was going on “back home” – politically and otherwise. I tried desperately to engage with the state and federal politics happening around me. I got an Australian friend to sit me down and explain Victorian state politics. I made myself visit The Age each day to try and familiarise myself with the players and the issues. One day, I walked past a news agent where the paper’s headline screamed at me about some kind of scandal in the Victorian senate. It wasn’t until I’d walked a few blocks that I realised how disinterested I was: I had no buy in to this country and no real, deep interest in its direction.
I thought about the house of people in Mt Eden, people who are likely to be part of the grey bar. To them, what happened on September 20 was of little relevance. The people making decisions in Wellington did not look or sound like them. They didn’t understand the issues of new migrants because few of them – if any – have been new migrants as adults. They didn’t see anyone that represented them, as voters, and so they didn’t see themselves as voters.
I have thought a lot about civic engagement over the last few years – especially since last election, which had the lowest voter turnout since full enfranchisement. I wrote about how civics education is no silver bullet – and even if it is, our schools are actually doing OK on that front (at least from a comparative point of view).
These things don’t change overnight. One call, one doorknock – especially from someone who doesn’t seem to represent you and your community – one orange man on the back of bus, doesn’t make someone enrol to vote.
To me, voter participation is about community building and inclusion. More and more we live siloed existences: we interact and engage with a narrower, more select group of people than we have ever been able to do in the past. We build our lives and circles with even fewer points of entry for people with different perspectives and lived experience. People talk about bubbles but these are groups that are all but impenetrable from the outside: they are tightly walled. Everything from self-checkouts to the way Facebook mirrors back to us those we engage with most mean we become more and more cut off from what occurs outside our own worlds.
People who live in communities that don’t look and sound like those seeking to be elected are no different. It’s hard to imagine when you wake up and scroll through an entire feed of crying sad face emojis, but a large part of that grey bar probably woke up to a feed without one mention of the election – let alone sadness as to who was elected. On the other hand, some people would’ve woken up to an entire feed of people celebrating victory. Others would’ve woken up to a feed with only one or two posts in English, let alone about the election. Others woke up and don’t think about ‘their feed’.
There’s a lot we need to do to turn that grey bar into people who vote – whichever party that may be for. Going out and asking that they engage with a process that bears no relevance to them and their lives is not going to inspire engagement. Turning up at their door as a stranger with a bunch of enrolment forms won’t make a difference.
I think about that house in Mt Eden and I bet that if I was their neighbour and we had shared eggs and I had minded their children and I had learnt about where they came from and what they do in New Zealand, and then I had asked they enrol and vote: they might not be part of the grey bar. Similarly, I think about my own situation in Melbourne: until I feel a part of this community and country, it’s unlikely I’ll stop and buy the paper decrying the latest scandal or instance of corruption. I care about my community, which is still very much New Zealand. The challenge for those who want to break down that grey bar will be to make those nameless and faceless people feel the same.