In the few days since Election 2019, each time I have walked down the main street of my Sydney suburb I have been stopped by people asking me, “What should we do?” I wish I could give one simple answer. I cannot. But two things about the question bring hope. First is the use of “we”: a recognition that positive social change comes when people place at least as much value on their collective interests as their (deceptively) personal/individual concerns. Second is the recognition that this is a time for skilful, thoughtful action, not cynicism or passivity. And certainly not for despair.
That the election results were disappointing or even devastating for many is an understatement. Genuine social progress on key issues positively affecting most Australians including the most vulnerable – as well as around climate change – was on offer. And was rejected. But if you fear that this is what the “vast majority” wanted, note that a national two-party preferred count (as at 21 May, reported on the Australian Electoral Commission website) puts the Liberal/National Coalition vote at 5,285,313, and the ALP vote at 5,096,259. Add in the national first preference Greens vote of 1,190,754 and perhaps the convey of barges to socially progressive New Zealand could be halted. At least for a moment. The take-out from this for me is several-fold.
1. We need to take better care of ourselves and one another. We cannot afford to slump. Nor can we afford to be persuaded by any toxic elements in the media – and there are many – that this is a “landslide” victory for conservative and Far Right forces. It is not.
2. Taking better care of ourselves will mean different things to different people. But I strongly suspect we have some simple factors in common. In my role as an interfaith minister I am privileged to work with and listen to an exceptionally diverse range of people across Australia and also New Zealand, many of whom have been seriously wounded by fundamentalism in political ideologies as well as in some factions within virtually all religions. Fear is the common weapon – and emotion – in fundamentalism. The outcome is divisiveness. As well as inevitable “othering” of the vulnerable. We can refuse any part of that.
3. Building community around shared values and the common good is more than a social responsibility; it saves our own sanity and wellbeing. There are many opportunities to do this effectively. The crucial element is identifying what moves, even enrages you, then doing something about it. My husband, Dr Paul Bauert, is a paediatrician living in the NT, working for four decades now in Darwin and some of the most remote communities on earth. He is also a national advocate for better health for First Peoples and for all of Australia’s children. I know first-hand from him how vital it is that we support, through staying informed, why the Uluru Statement of the Heart matters; what “Closing the [health and life expectancy] Gap really means; what shockingly adverse social factors keep that Gap wide open; and why it is so vital for our national wellbeing and maturity that we acknowledge and go beyond a long history of active, institutionalised silencing, particularly around race.
4. You and I may be hurting. However, it is the silenced and the shunned most adversely affected by these election results. The ALP took a huge risk in speaking up about removing financial subsidies from some to distribute those increasing billions more widely. Bill Shorten also spoke up strongly for implementing the Uluru Statement and, had they won, promised Senator Pat Dodson as Minister for Indigenous Affairs. The First Peoples of Australia are our primary “silenced”; there are others.
5. If anyone doubts that race is still being used to create fear and entrench profound injustice in this nation, please turn your mind to those women and men still abandoned on Manus or Nauru, or the women, men and children abandoned in detention centres or without security in Australia for the “crime” of fleeing violence and seeking safety. Their treatment is inexcusable by any measure. And the accelerating despair reported by prize-winning writer Behrouz Boochani (No Friend But the Mountain) from Manus is urgent and horrifying. So, let’s ask whether this prolonged incarceration and denial of hope could possibly be dished out to people who were not brown? Who were not largely Muslim? Who were not pilloried and dehumanised by white supremacists? And by powerful sections of the Australian political and media communities?
6. Outrage is not enough. That’s useful as a catalyst but not as a place of landing. Wherever we see injustice flourishing, it’s effective self-informing and engagement that’s needed. There are many organisations more than worthy of our time and money. I support the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. And the International Women’s Development Agency, based in Melbourne but working across the Pacific. GetUp do first-class work in refugee advocacy. There is the Father Bob Maguire Foundation working with the destitute and homeless. And the vital Human Rights Law Centre. You may have a grassroots group in your community, building decency and relationships where it most counts – perhaps around homelessness, disability or children’s rights, or bringing an end to any form of violence. When you support positive actions, we all benefit.
7. In my retreat and ministry leadership, I frequently say, “We will protect what we most love.” Loving our planet more genuinely, appreciating its magnificence, variety and subtlety, we will protect it – and nourish ourselves. Beauty, courage and meaningful care are the qualities that most faithfully sustain us. We can be their expression. Now more than ever.
Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick’s books include Seeking the Sacred: Transforming Our View of Ourselves and One Another.