The last time John Clifford went to vote was when the Irish people endorsed Bertie Ahern for a second term in May 2002. He was an Arts student in UCD then still living at home in Dublin with his family. Today, he’ll leave his house in Manly and walk along the beach to the polling station in town hall, to vote for the first time as an Australian.
John is one of over 4,000 Irish born people who have become Australian citizens since the last Federal election here in September 2010. They may not all have embarked on their journey down under imagining they would take on a new nationality, but by circumstance or intent they’ll be voting today. If they don’t they’ll be fined, as voting is compulsory for Australia’s more than 14 million registered voters. At 32 John has spent nearly a third of his life living in Sydney having moved over after finishing his politics and social policy degree. For John, and for most other Irish people, the path to citizenship begins with a working holiday visa before graduating on to a work sponsorship visa known as the 457. “The really complex and difficult thing is getting your permanent residency (PR),” John muses in his mostly maintained Terenure lilt “after that citizenship is relatively straightforward.”
Although the citizenship test was “alarmingly simple” and “you’d want to be doing something monumentally stupid not to get it” as John puts it, events conspired to make the process far from straightforward. Around about the time he sat the exam in September last year, he found out that his dad had cancer. Then the week before he was due to attend his citizenship ceremony in February his dad took a turn for the worse and John had to hop on a plane with his brother Patrick, who also lives in Manly, to be with their dad in his final hours. John and Patrick returned to Sydney and in April John became a citizen. It had been a traumatic year and “I remembered how family members had encouraged me to stay in Australia. It suddenly hit me that over the years my folks had been encouraging me to stay in Australia, and it was such good advice in many respects, that I had missed a lot of time spent at home with my dad, but that ultimately this is what he wanted me to do.” John found himself welling up as the cathartic nature of the event took on extra significance. “Voting on Saturday will be probably be like that too” he says.
The Labor party has been in power since 2007 but is widely expected to lose to the Liberal & National coalition today. Internal party bickering and a high profile leadership tug of war between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard has largely led to its political demise. Rudd was elected with a landslide victory in 2007 but his popularity quickly deteriorated culminating in a coup led by Gillard in June 2010. The first female prime minister narrowly won the election that September but suffered an almost identical fate with the party losing faith in her this June voting ‘Kevin ’07’ back in. The conflict has ameliorated Labor support paving the way for conservative Opposition leader, and one time Catholic priest trainee, Tony Abbott to take over the reins of power.
The Prime Minister in waiting is John’s local member. “He’s often around the beaches of Manly wearing his sluggos” John caustically comments. ‘Sluggos’ is a colloquial Australian term for speedos, often referred to as ‘budgie smugglers’ as well. What strikes me about talking to Johnny is that the Irish accent and mannerisms that he possesses are mirrored by their Australian counterparts. He casually slides between Irish and Australian terms, vacillating his vernacular from ‘Jaysus’ to ‘fair dinkum’. I ask if he’ll be voting for Abbott and how that makes him feel being able to, in a sense, directly elect the next Prime Minister. He seems ambivalent to the former seminarian, but concedes “having my local member being the PM will make me feel that little bit more Australian.”
Although both Irish, Ruth Golden met her boyfriend Ronan in Sydney. Ruth moved over as a qualified accountant while Ronan came over to do a Masters. Still in their mid 20s enjoying the temperature and temperament of Sydney they decided to stay for a while longer. They negotiated the bureaucratic red tape and spent $6,000 on getting their PR in 2010. After that Ruth says “having come this far, we thought we might as well get our citizenship - it’s the final step.” As I talk to Ruth and Ronan in their comfortable newly built Surry Hills town apartment what becomes very apparent is the pragmatic nature of their mission to become Australian. I ask them if it has changed their identity at all, “absolutely not” Ruth abruptly replies “I’m still Irish.” Ruth explains “there were people at our citizenship ceremony that you could tell it meant a huge amount to them to be there, they had their family and friends there and were very emotional. We turned up after work, invited no one, got our certificate and left.” “It was a strategic thing for us to give us options” Ronan adds “versus the emotional thing that it was for other people. That said we’re not bludgers. We are still here working, paying taxes and voting.”
Ruth has exploited her good financial situation, which has been buoyed by the 21 years of uninterrupted economic growth in Australia, to buy a house back in Dublin. “She’s really taken advantage of the situation” says Ronan “and I’m hoping to do the same. It’d be great if we could go home in a few years making money off two properties, it would set us up nicely.” I ask them if they’ll be voting at the next Australian federal election in 3 years time and they say no. The plan is to return home.
John ponders over the question of where he thinks home is. Unlike Ruth and Ronan being Australian is very much part of Johns new identity. He hasn’t exactly been proselytized it’s more that he shares a belonging to two countries now. He’ll still be cheering for Ireland when they play the Wallabies in November but he acknowledges that going into that polling booth today “will be another little moment that crystallises in my mind the fact that I’m not going to move back to Ireland ever. With each moment that passes like this you become further integrated into Australian society. That’s said I know there’ll always be a bed for me in Terenure.”
Photo Credit: The Conversation