Around the world, and also here in Australia, voters are turning away from the political process, alarmed at the capture of political parties by vested interests, and alienated by the fact that the issues which concern and affect ordinary people, are being ignored. Our social and economic system is moving both funds and influence away from people in the lower 60% of incomes and wealth, to those in the upper 10%.
The democratic influence of millions of Australians has been usurped by advocates of the story that unconstrained markets, endless economic growth, small government and “trickle down” theory will solve all our problems. The idea is that selfishness, greed, consumption and competition will reward the worthy “lifters” and stimulate the “welfare leaners” into doing their bit for society. That view is reinforced by political donations and heavy lobbying of our parliamentarians by the 10% who benefit from this increasingly outmoded narrative about progress.
Democracy has in this way, been effectively hijacked from the broader population. Australia is becoming a class-ridden society. Millions of voters in the USA, managed their frustration at this phenomenon by electing Donald Trump as their President. In the UK they voted for Brexit. It would be good to think that in Australia, we could avoid a similarly negative approach, and could use growing concerns about our political system to build a genuine 21st Century democracy.
Perhaps we could do so if we were to embark on a three-part strategy, building on things that are already happening,
British writer, George Monbiot has argued the need for a new social and economic narrative; one that will focus on sustainability, and the kind of life that will benefit all of us and not just a successful few. This, he says, should include activating our altruism, generosity, and compassion, which we have in plentiful supply and building towards community well-being, which he thinks will result among other things from a new focus on community ownership of “the commons”. He says that until the current dominant social narrative changes to a manifestly and widely recognised, better one, the current narrative will continue to dominate. It is a fair bet that a new, desirable narrative will not emerge here until ordinary Australians are actively involved in crafting it and demanding its implementation.
As it happens, a group of Australian idealists have been working with community groups and NGO’s in the past two years to understand what ordinary people in Australia want and how Australia could be “remade” by focussing on a new statement of national aspirations. I understand this group is on the verge of going public with their findings, which could be the starting point for a new Australian narrative.
This could then be supplemented by an outbreak of “Kitchen Table Conversations” and a “Mass Organising” approach to politics.
“Kitchen Table Conversations”, where small groups of 6 to 10 people spend a couple hours in respectful dialogue with friends or neighbours, on issues of importance to them, have been developed and used in Victoria as a highly effective mechanism for engaging large numbers of people in new thinking about the political system. They have changed the fortunes of politicians at both the state and federal level in that state and are now being introduced in Canberra. They could be used to test the acceptability and attractiveness of the new narrative and to engage large numbers of Australians in considering a new approach.
“Mass organising” is an approach to politics that was used successfully by Barack Obama, and also by Bernie Sanders in the USA and by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK to build momentum in their campaigns for election. This was done through face-to-face doorknock discussions between large armies of volunteers supporting the new political approach, who talked with huge numbers of ordinary voters. For Sanders and Corbyn their campaigns fell short but they lifted both men from obscurity to being taken seriously, as Monbiot points out in his book “Out of the Wreckage: A new politics for an Age of Crisis.
So perhaps all is not yet lost and perhaps there is a way we could help most Australians to regain ownership of our democracy.
Certainly we need to act because our politicians are almost completely ignoring the fact that the human species is now under serious threat from a collection of interacting “existential” threats, which demand urgent responses, if our children and theirs are to have a viable future. (www.humansforsurvival.org ). It is not just climate change and not just the threat of nuclear war that are receiving inadequate attention, but also, our profligate use of earth’s resources, the collapse of ecosystems, the poisoning of the air, water and earth on which all life depends, the insecurity of our food systems, the expansion of global populations, the threat of pandemic diseases, dangerous new technologies and self-delusion. While we sometimes talk about these as separate issues they are deeply intertwined and each affects the others. They will only be effectively dealt with if we act collaboratively with other countries and recognise that we are already in dire emergency territory.
But we are not talking about these things and are being told by our political representatives, that the real emergency is our unbalanced budget and the needs of big business for tax breaks so that they can stimulate more jobs and growth. But that is nonsense. We cannot go on growing in the way we are doing and must live within the constraints of the planet.
As one of the richest and lowest taxing countries in the OECD, we can easily afford to collect more revenue to focus on giving all Australians a Fair Go, and on giving our descendants a healthy prospect of survival. And I have absolutely no doubt that this is what most Australians would want, if they could choose. We need to find ways of giving them that choice.
Em Prof Bob Douglas is a Director of Australia21 www.australia21.org.au and a committee member of the Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy www.canberra-alliance.org.au . This is an overview of a paper he presented at a recent Canberra meeting of University of the Third Age (U3A).