My weary eyes open to the dark of an early morning Saturday. Gulping a quick coffee, I douse the frosty car windows with warm water and leap in. Today is Election Day for the entire country, and I'm working at a voting booth. I'm so excited.
I crunch across the gravel of the school driveway, in the crisp early light that only a winter's morning can summon. Swinging open the wooden doors, I shiver into the school hall where others stand, waiting to begin the very long day.
Our Officer in Charge (OIC) briefs us on our duties and completes the paperwork. He'd set up the hall the previous evening, and has already been there an hour. He does not leave the premises for the entire day. The ship he runs is tight and cohesive. Clearly, he is dedicated to a professional outcome for this booth, the Australian Electoral Commission, and the country.
"Five, four, three, two . . . one". The doors swing open, and a couple are at the desk, eager to vote and then continue with their day. I open the electoral roll and sweep my eyes down the alphabetic columns of names. Marking off these constituents, I ask the questions legally required, then give the explanation of how to complete the ballot papers.
I am shocked at how I have to relearn the alphabet to search for voters. Once upon a time, I could open a phone book and adeptly find a name and number. How have I become so habituated to searching online, allowing Google to do my thinking, providing information at my fingertip?
Many of those who sit opposite me are first-time voters; either as recently fledged adults, or as newly minted Australian citizens. Excitement shines from their eyes, and they quiz me closely on how they can ensure their vote counts. Their serious enquiry reminds me of the privilege we so often take for granted.
I rotate to the job of Guarding the Ballot Box. I watch as people deposit their wishes for the future of their country. The green paper fits easily into the slot for the House of Representatives ballot box. It is another story for the unwieldy white Senate paper. Voters fold or stuff the paper into the slot. They look to me for reassurance. "Does it matter how I fold this?" They want their vote to count. I reassure them. As voters leave, hunched into their winter jackets, they catch my eye. "Have a good day," I say. They nod, and move out into the washed winter light.
Now I am Queue Controller. A long and patient line of voters stands in a cold draft, as air straight from the Snowies is funnelled through the open doors. Sadly, the Institution of the Australian Sausage Sizzle is not on offer at this school booth. The weather, and the lack of sausage sandwiches, provides a gentle lead-in to many conversations. I guide as many people as I can indoors, out of the cold, and patrol the line for the elderly or infirm to shepherd them inside.
The atmosphere is one of quiet interest, excitement, jovial patience, determination, duty and acceptance.
"Five, four, three, two . . . one".
Now it is 6 pm and the doors are closed. We reconcile numbers of ballot papers used with ballot papers issued. We stand silently, almost reverentially around the House of Representatives Ballot Box, and watch as the numbers on the box are confirmed and checked. A system. A process. Security.
My heart beats a little faster as the OIC lifts the ballot box to empty its contents. I see the future of our country, the will of our people, green and confetti-like, spill onto the table.
"We need some counters", says the OIC.
I eagerly raise my hand. Our job is to place the ballot papers in preference order, under the name of the candidate. When I hold that first green voting slip, printed with the names of those willing to carry our decision for the next three years, and neatly numbered with the choice of the anonymous voter, I am in awe.
For the next four hours, in a cold school hall with failed heating, we count and tally. Our work is carefully scrutinised by party faithful, held back by rules and regulations to avoid tampering with the wishes of the voters.
The night has closed in as I leave. I crunch back to my car, where the frost has already crystallised across the windscreen. I am tired, but I am inspired.
For me, this is close to democracy's finest hour. This is why I encourage my children to appreciate our parliamentarians and their work, our political system, and our country. This is why I ask my children to vote, and to ensure their vote counts. Because when we lift that pencil to number those boxes to select our representatives, we literally have the future of our country in our hands.