Towards reingagement: changing politics to change the world

May 31, 2016

Back in the 90s, poet and political activist Judith Wright (who was born on this day, 101 years ago) had a sticker on the back of her car saying “subvert the dominant paradigm”. Over the last 25 years we have watched our public education system undermined and weakened, the gap between rich and poor widen, workers’ rights eroded, obesity and health problems spiral out of control, greenhouse gases increasing, record losses in biodiversity and native vegetation – the list goes on. And as this year’s federal election approaches, the Australian public’s confidence in their elected representatives and its enthusiasm in engaging in the political process seems to have reached rock-bottom.

There’s little difference between the two parties on issues like humane treatment of asylum seekers and recognising that the end of the Coal Age has to be imminent. Politics would appear to be devoid of any vision, and politicians completely without principles, basing all their decisions on ensuring they are re-elected and securing highly paid jobs in the corporate sector when they leave politics. In a recent edition of ABC RN’s The Minefield titled “Is the Age of positive politics over?” academic and author of Reviving the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Accountability and the Media Professor Julianne Schultz said “there needs to be an articulation of what the vision is… and that’s not something I’m seeing anywhere much. … Finding a language which provides a unifying way of engaging people (is) the big challenge. …It’s just that we haven’t struck a formula that works in the time that we’re currently living in.”

No wonder voters are disillusioned.

But how hard are we looking at what is on offer? Perhaps there is more to discover behind the daily media and “major party”-generated discourse which merely serves to reinforce the two-party system, telling us that, in the end, our choice only lies between the Coalition on one side and the ALP on the other.

Most people who have the chance to think about it would agree that it is a good idea to look after the Earth, to care for the people and other species that inhabit it, to live peacefully and co-operatively and to make sure that everyone is able to freely express themselves and participate in what we know in this country to be a democracy. But this is not always reflected in the governments we elect. At the foundation of change must be a long-term view which does not simply offer bandaid solutions. Such a view recognises that once people have a place to live, can stay healthy and gain a good education, they will be more inclined to switch their attention to addressing the environmental and other challenges we face. Key to this is a properly funded public education system providing access to quality education for all.

With the recognition that shelter is a basic need and even the poorest in our community have a right to affordable housing may come an acceptance of the abolition of negative gearing. We will be able to move ahead together, as a nation, when we can see why it is necessary to weave into our Constitution the idea that actually, people were thriving in this land way before Europeans arrived, and that maybe we need a Treaty, integral to which is an acknowledgment that the original Australians must be able to make their own decisions rather than have them made for them. Surely it is not hard to accept that the very act of giving hope to the people fleeing persecution and war will negate or at least lessen their desperation and they won’t feel the need to board leaky boats, or set themselves on fire. Hope will come once we show that we welcome peace-loving people in need, no matter what their religion, ahead of migrants who want to come here merely for economic or lifestyle reasons. Hope will come when we replace detention centres with offshore processing centres so that people can start their new lives in a safe and timely manner. We can unite with other world leaders, as suggested by Daniel Craig at the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul recently, to ‘start the biggest humanitarian movement in our history’. We must speak out against the daily displacement of Palestinian people in the knowledge that activism on this issue is not about dissing Jews or in any way denying the horror of the Holocaust; it is simply calling it for what it is – another human rights and social justice crisis that must be solved. We need to increase foreign aid and contribute more to peace-keeping than to conflicts, so that people will be empowered in their own countries through access to education and the ability to provide for themselves. Then, the argument for spending less on submarines and defence will be even more compelling than it is already, because we will be helping to create a safer world. We must approach all drugs – legal and illegal – as a health and safety issue and rather than criminalising the addicts of illicit drugs, look at harm minimisation by reducing the opportunity for corruption, profit and death at the supply end.

In order to do all this we need to create goodwill in the community by changing the current rhetoric and reinventing populism. Real leadership will challenge the dialogue surrounding the difficult issues. Real leadership has a small l, not a big P; as long as politics is about personality and power and not about issues and outcomes, we haven’t much hope of improving things. Let political leaders with the capacity for vision shape community thinking, rather than media outlets whose owners are about electing governments that will best meet their personal agenda. Real leaders construct a new language around difficult issues. They bring people with them by acknowledging and embracing diversity. They do not try to make everyone fit any one particular sector’s idea of what is the norm. They help people come to terms with the reality that, no matter whether a person identifies as lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, intersex or transgender, if they want to marry someone, love is what really matters and it is no-one’s business but theirs.

Real leaders might have seen that the end of (traditional) car manufacturing could be turned into the beginning of the electric car industry in this country. They would re-inject funding into research and development, recognising the rewards to be reaped down the track, not just financial but for the greater good. They would not stay silent when the CSIRO stops climate change research because climate change “has already happened”. Real leaders understand that the climate is not in stasis, unfortunately, that we need to keep up with developments all the way along if we are to have any hope of mitigation, and that our scientists are amongst the best in the world and need to be valued. Real leaders recognise that water is essential for life, that we must do everything we can to protect it from the adverse effects of mining and other large-scale industrial activities so that farmers can produce the food and fibre that we need, communities are not displaced and ecosystems have a chance of remaining intact.

Real leaders understand that political correctness is actually about respect, and necessary because of the ongoing inequalities to be addressed in order to level the field, via affirmative action if necessary. They don’t talk about merit alone – they know that women will always get there on merit. Instead, they ask why the number of female candidates for any role, but especially for election to public office, is smaller than the number of male candidates, realising that maybe women want no part of a paradigm that was set up and is maintained by men, essentially for men. Real leaders facilitate the changes necessary to encourage women and all the unrepresented minorities to come forward and be part of our democracy.

Our system is certainly a democracy compared to some countries, but there is still much room for improvement. Let’s adopt fixed term federal elections, such as exists in a number of states, so that the Prime Minister and ruling party are not the only people in the know. Let’s engage people in the political process right from their early school years, so they understand all aspects of the (various) voting systems and why compulsory voting is key to a true democracy. Then, when they come to vote, they will do so because they want to make an informed choice rather than cast a protest vote against any particular party or cluster of parties simply because they do not like them, not because they like the others more. We must give people a real say, not ask them for their opinion about issues without having any intention of taking notice of their wishes. We must publicly fund our electoral system, prohibiting any funding flow to parties or candidates from corporations, especially corporations whose practices threaten the health of people and/or the planet.

What an improvement we’d see if we took the adversarial out of politics and replaced it with co-operative. How productive it would be if politicians focused on addressing issues instead of attacking personalities and belittling those who did not share their political beliefs. Imagine if our parliaments truly reflected the diversity that exists in our communities. Such parliaments are far more democratic than those which have an absolute majority but which have sometimes gained power with less than 50% of the first preference vote. The Gillard “minority” government continues to come under constant criticism simply for not being a majority, but hundreds of pieces of legislation were quietly passed under her watch because those involved sat around the table nutting out the issues first, negating the need for extended debates and arguments on the floor of parliament.

In order to fund the implementation of all the progressive policies which would make our country a fairer one, we can ensure the richest amongst us pay a reasonable proportion of tax. We can penalise those who pollute, rather than paying them to do so. We can ask the mining industry to pay more for the resources they take from the ground, especially when they reap huge profits. We can impose a small fee on money market transactions. And by adopting a preventative approach to health, so that people remain fit and healthy for the duration of their lives, we can save billions in bandaid health funding.

If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, when they try the ABC Vote Compass values test, more and more Australians are finding themselves aligning with a party whose policies and practices are based not on self-interest but principles of ecological sustainability, social and economic justice, grassroots democracy, and peace, nonviolence and disarmament, with the requirement that any decision made now be good for the generations which follow us. It is a party that has had electoral representation in one form or another since the 80s. It is a party that the Coalition describes as “dangerous”, a party that the ALP tries to marginalise by using terms terms like “sideshow”. That party is, of course, The Greens. The Coalition is right, The Greens are a danger, in that if people knew the facts as opposed to the spin, there is a danger that The Greens would enjoy much greater electoral success. For as long as they can get away with it, the ALP and the Coalition, together with the big business interests that largely direct those parties’ policies, will continue to leave The Greens out of leaders debates, spread misinformation about them at every opportunity, perpetuate the idea that we have a two-party system, and not be open and accountable about how and why they recommend preferences.

Political parties keen to hold onto power will often take on the policies of others when they think they are popular – look at what happened in 1996 with John Howard’s new government. Isn’t it about time that a party that actually has the vision to take us forward to a safe and healthy future was given an equal opportunity to talk about the issues that a lot of people care about? For that matter, isn’t it time we heard more from any party with a progressive vision? In the end, it doesn’t really matter who brings about the change we need for the Earth, for justice, for democracy and for peace, as long as that change happens.

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