Tuesday 4 November. Melbourne Cup Day in Australia, Election Day in the US. Each a race that will stop the nation in which it’s run. One I couldn’t care less about, the other I can’t wait to see declared. Many people I know are going to the races today; most others will be at some Melbourne Cup Day event or other. It’s a public holiday in Victoria. A public holiday. For a horse race. There’s so much about what it is to be an Australian caught up in that one bureaucratic decision – to give an entire state the day off for a day at the trots – that it would take me at least this post to unpack it. But I’m sure you can read plenty into it on your own.
I’ve often thought my general disinterest in all things Melbourne Cup makes my vaguely un-Australian in the eyes of my compatriots, but I met a Melbourne couple up in Katoomba who’d fled their city for the duration.
“The so-called ‘race that stops the nation,'” I said. “Bar three.”
“Bar four,” offered our Tasmanian-raised waitress, Emily.
So there you go: representatives from three different states, and none of us give a damn about the Melbourne Cup. I wonder how many more of us are out there. I don’t know the name of a single horse running, let alone the favourite. I don’t have a sweepstake (not much point in an office of one) or a bet each way. I don’t even know what ‘a bet each way’ actually means. But from the frothing hysteria of the media, you’d think we were given our first racing card along with our birth certificate.
A racing card. In some ways not unlike a ballot. Some people even cast their vote in much the same way they pick a horse. There will be American voters who’ve genuinely studied the form of the two candidates, who’ve looked at their Presidential pedigree, their overall fitness, their staying power, their age, their training ground, and their owners – oops, I mean “donors.” For these punters, or voters, if you prefer, the colour of the field won’t come into it. Why would it? Colour won’t give you a better horse. It’ll just give you different shades of horsehair. Then there will be people voting blind, the ‘pot luck’ or the ‘all as bad as each other’ theory. People who want to participate, but don’t really think there’s much difference either (or is that each?) way. These punters head out on Election Day keen to soak up the vibe, whilst believing in their hearts that it’s nothing more than a game for a rich few, with the masses straggling along behind. Then there’s the people who had planned to go, who thought, what the hell, it’s a big day, everybody’s doing it, this is history in the making! The biggest one yet! The race of the century, and it’s only 2008! So sure, I’m going to get out and place a bet, I mean ‘vote,’ and today could be my lucky day. But then they wake up and find it’s raining outside, raining and cold and windy, and it all seems a bit too hard, especially when they can sit home and watch it all on TV instead.
And this is where the compulsory vote in Australia really makes sense. Because here, come rain, hail, or shine, you vote, or else you take delivery of a nice, fat fine. You vote. You can donkey it when you get there, you can close your eyes and play eenie-meanie-mo, you can write obscenities across the top of the ballot if you really don’t want to be there, but you vote. And so we do, and it makes a difference. We determine the outcome of our elections, not the weather, nor the media, nor the polling booth irritants blocking the way with multi-coloured pamphlets and free badges. Voting age Australian citizens. And that is exactly the way it should be.
By tomorrow there will be a new President Elect of the United States of America. It just seems so ludicrous to me – so patently dangerous and absurd – that thinking about Obama’s chances on this final day of the race means accounting for the weather. It’s not the Melbourne Cup, for Christ’s sake, it’s the leader the free world. I don’t know what names Australians will be shouting and chanting and yelling this afternoon as the race is fought and won in a couple of minutes, but I know which one I’m saying to myself, and I’ll give you a hint: he’s the favourite to win.