A seat at the table
'The right to vote gives you a sense...that the country is [your] own. I'm looking forward to voting for the first time. I'm super excited.' - Ruchika Rawat
In Australia, the ability to vote reflects a longer story of democracy. It speaks to an evolution from a fledgling nation that only granted voting rights to its most privileged citizens to the country that embraces compulsory voting.
We speak to three Australians who will vote for the first time during this upcoming federal election. Ben Nowrojee, a queer youth advocate who’s previously grappled with mental health challenges, believes that the election is a powerful opportunity to shape an Australia he wants to live in – one that puts the wellbeing of young people and the LGBTQIA + community front and centre.
Ruchika Rawat, who immigrated from Delhi to seek out another life for her family, is preparing to swap one set of democratic rituals for another. For Rawat, the right to vote is a chance to determine the direction of her new homeland, what it cares about and invests in. Snezhana Jocikj, who moved to Australia to be closer to her sisters, believes that voting means contributing to a country that’s a backdrop to a new life phase. They explore their relationship with voting – and share what democracy means to them.
Ben Nowrojee, 18, Western Australia
My advocacy within the mental health queer space started out roughly four years ago. When I was in year nine, I had recently switched schools and come out of mental health challenges. I found my way into [an organisation called] Zero2Hero. I started volunteering with them and advocating in my community for the importance of positive mental health.
I [also] started to be involved in my own school, Christchurch Grammar, an all-boys school. I noticed a lot of challenges faced by young folks and it opened my eyes to the lack of education and awareness for how serious mental health issues are for queer people. When applications opened up for the Youth Pride Committee [an LGBTQIA+ youth advocacy organization in Western Australia], I put my hand up and got appointed. That led to me being the secretary and now the vice chair.
As someone who is involved in the queer community and activism, I’ve always been aware of politics. Having the power this year to vote in a federal election means a lot. I get to prioritise the things that matter to me, to see different bills and policies introduced. I’ve spent years now trying to educate others on what best practices and policies should be. Now I have the chance to actually participate in seeing these policies come to life on a Federal level.
Policies are the most important thing to me. I have the ability to choose who I want by what they stand for. I believe that just having an informed opinion on the things that matter to you makes your vote have a significant impact.
Ruchika Rawat, 38, Victoria
I am a physio who was born in Delhi. My daughter was born there.
I wasn’t expecting that Australia was so multicultural. It was a good surprise. When we landed here, I was at the arrivals [hall] at the airport – the officer was looking at the pages of my passport and he asked, ‘Are you here for good?’. I said, ‘Yes, I’m here for good.’ And he said, ‘Welcome home’. Those two words, on my first day here, have remained with me forever.
In India, we have electronic voting machines [but in Australia] there is a paper ballot. [In India] voting is almost a festival; people go in groups to cast their votes. The atmosphere is worth [absorbing]. For me, it's about how the candidate is treating culturally and linguistically diverse communities. For me, that multicultural part is a big pull.
I feel like voting gives you power as well as responsibilities. The right to vote gives you a sense of belonging. It gives you a sense that the country is [your] own. You have that right to vote, you have the right to choose the people who govern you. That’s really powerful and I’m looking forward to voting for the first time. I’m super excited.
Snezhana Jocikj, 57, New South Wales
I came to Australia seven years ago from Macedonia, when I got married. I’m very excited that I’m able to work in Australia [and] live here in this wonderful country. We have a lot of benefits here. I studied English [for] free and took a free course in aged care.
[Now] I’m employed in a nursing home. I would like to see more people be employed in aged care. Right now, the level of staffing is too low. Aged care is a huge industry. Everyone is putting their loved ones in the nursing home, so they should be cared for as they deserve, with dignity.
I can even vote now. I can have a say in the country, in how the country is governed. That’s exciting. As a citizen now, I’m willing to give back to the country [what] the country has given to me.
I have family here, two sisters. They’ve lived here for a long time now. One of my sisters [has been here] for forty years, the other one [has lived here] thirty years. It is not compulsory to vote in Macedonia. But people are encouraged to vote. It is a democracy there now. Before that, my country was the former Yugoslavia Republic. Now it is independent. From the beginning I feel this country is my home. I’m happy to have the power to vote, to [make a difference].
For Nowrojee, Rawat and Jocikj, the chance to vote for the first time arrives at a watershed moment in Australia’s democratic history. On April 18 this year, 214,000 citizens enrolled to vote, representing the single biggest day of registrations on record according to the Australian Electoral Commission.
In an April 2022 report by SBS News, the Electoral Commissioner, Tom Rogers hailed this figure as 'a modern democratic miracle'. So far, over 96% of eligible Australians will vote in the upcoming election, a development that speaks to the country’s changing relationship with the democratic process. ‘The remarkable state of the roll in Australia is something that is simply not seen in most places around the world,’ he said. It also reflects the way a personal connection to voting is evolving – and hints at what it could mean in the future.