Democracy at sea

Published on LEUT Laura Ball (author), POIS Phil Cullinan (photographer)

Location(s): Aqaba, Jordan

Topic(s): Operation SLIPPER, HMAS Newcastle (F06)

LEUT Alisha Withers prepares a postal vote while HMAS Newcastle is berthed at Aqaba, Jordan during the 2013 elections. (photo: POIS Phil Cullinan)
LEUT Alisha Withers prepares a postal vote while HMAS Newcastle is berthed at Aqaba, Jordan during the 2013 elections.

Fifteen thousand kilometres away from the polling booths at Australian primary schools and the smell of the fundraising sausage sizzles, members of HMAS Newcastle’s ship’s company had their say in the 2013 Australian Federal Election.

On 3 September 2013, LEUT Mark Williams of Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) led a small team of Defence personnel, trained by the Australian Electoral Commission, to the Middle East Area of Operations to provide Newcastle’s crew this unique opportunity by establishing mobile polling booths.

Newcastle was in the Jordanian port of Aqaba conducting an international engagement visit, which enabled a polling booth to be set up in the ship’s Office Complex prior to Election Day.

While the Office Complex did not offer the amount of space commonly found in a school’s classroom or gymnasium, LEUT Williams’ team managed to set up and run the polling booth efficiently, so that all could cast their vote before the day was out.

The relative quiet of the office space was a far cry from the usual clamour off polling stations at home and the absence of ‘how to vote’ pamphlets was noticeable as ship’s company lined up to have their say. Office cubicles became impromptu polling booths as members of the ship’s company pondered their choices with privacy.

LSMT Travis Spry was one of those who took advantage of the mobile booth. “It was always a possibility that an election might have occurred while we were away; luckily we have some good resources available in order to allow us to cast our votes.”

ABBM Martin Reay took a few minutes out of his time alongside to cast his vote.

“It was a different experience, but great that we were able to vote even though we are so far away from home,” he said.

LEUT Alisha Withers was eager to have her vote counted in this year’s election.

“Being able to vote gives us the feeling that we’re still in touch with events back home, even while we’re away on operations,” she said. “It’s just a handful of votes all up, but it gives us the sense that we can still have our say.”

Newcastle’s Commanding Officer, CMDR Paul O’Grady, RAN said “Over 150 of Newcastle’s crew voted during the first four hours of the mobile polling booth opening, showing how keen the team were to have their vote count in this year’s election, regardless of being deployed on operations.”

Newcastle sailed from port the next day, commencing her next Middle Eastern patrol. She will hand over to her sister ship HMAS Melbourne in the area of operations later in September and is due to return home to Sydney in October.

Imagery is available on the Royal Australian Navy Media Library at