A newcomer's view of the New England by-election

Opponents not enemies at the voting booth on Grey Street in Glen Innes. Good humour prevailed among rivals.

Opponents not enemies at the voting booth on Grey Street in Glen Innes. Good humour prevailed among rivals.

Earlier in the year, I stood and watched as aged people waited in long lines to vote in South Korea. These were frail men and women who remembered the years of dictatorship when dissidents were thrown from helicopters by the secret police.

For these people, democracy was something real and valuable. Their wait moistened my eyes.

In our seasoned Australian democracy, it was easy to forget how valuable the vote is. Cynicism about politics and politicians can corrode belief.

So it was refreshing to watch the by-election and see a lack of cynicism.

Last week, the eventual winner, Barnaby Joyce, turned up unannounced in Glen Innes - I mean, unannounced (anyone would think he was trying to avoid a crowd).

All the same, three protesters got wind of it and turned up and barracked him.  In some countries, it would have turned ugly, but in Glen Innes no police got involved. 

It was democracy as it is meant to be. Mr Joyce gave an interview. The awkward squad shouted. Mr Joyce strode off. And the protesters and his supporters chatted.

In 2004, I covered the re-election of George W. Bush. We in the press followed him crisscrossing America in our plane for two whole weeks, with three or four utterly controlled rallies a day.

Everywhere, rallies were made-for-TV and scripted to the footstep. They would be in the corner of airfields in three or four different US states a day, though  in truth I didn’t know what state I was in (except the state of despair). 

This by-election, in contrast, despite its dark moments, was refreshing. A big national figure walked down Grey Street with minimal obvious security. 

But there is one thing lacking in Australian democracy. In Britain, candidates stand on a stage to hear the result. You see the face of defeat when the big beast falls.

It is delicious to watch when powerful people realise they must trade the big black limo for the bus pass. It’s true the fallen do find new careers on chat show sofas. They learn to tango on TV dance competitions.

But it’s not power. Democracy truly is wonderful.