It’s remarkable how fast you can fall off the back of a wave you’ve been on for a while. Not long after leaving the Senate, I realised that it was halfway through a parliamentary sitting week and I had no idea what my friends and colleagues were working on, or even that they’d been sitting. Now, with fresh eyes, the caffeinated jumble of intensity, boredom, skirmishing and hilarity that makes up a Senate sitting looks incomprehensible. Worse, what little of the life of that place that does bleed into mass consciousness tends to toxicity. This is representative democracy at its ugliest: the ritualised intelligence-abatement known as question time; the calculated menace of national security fears, cultivated and exploited; and the hyper-partisan messages of the day, crafted only for repetition, contending for margin-of-error vibrations in opinion polls.
No one bothers to feign shock at people’s increasing repulsion from this festival of mediocrity, but disengagement is a dangerous and self-accelerating thing. We need to amplify the opposite. That place belongs to all of us. It is one of the most important institutions we have. It was established at great cost, and it is listing heavily and taking on water. It needs fresh ideas and fresh faces.
Because, sometimes, you can make good things happen. In mid 2005, Greens senator Bob Brown spotted an opportunity to elevate the tragedy of petrol sniffing in Central Australia, casting it briefly onto the front page and into the centre of national attention. Reading the mood of shock and shame at the human cost of this avoidable public-health scandal, the government waved through a Greens motion for a Senate inquiry. That’s where Senator Rachel Siewert took it up with months of patient evidence-gathering, hearings, research and quiet behind-the-scenes collaboration across party lines. She helped land a unanimous committee report recommending the rollout of “unsniffable” Opal fuel, which set off another round of sharp media commentary and gave advocates a unified set of demands. Months later, the then health minister, Tony Abbott (yes, that was a thing that really happened), announced that the government would begin mandating unsniffable fuel across Central Australia.
I’d been one of Rachel’s staff members for a year or so by the time the team got this over the line, and watching it happen at close quarters was a revelation. This was during that baleful spell when the then prime minister, John Howard, had a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and wins of any kind were rare and hard-fought. A combination of skilful media work, cross-party consensus-building, and taking the time to actually show up on country and listen to people had delivered an outcome. We hadn’t needed a Greens–Labor Senate majority to pull it off either; just for a change, politics wasn’t a numbers game.
It occurred to me that maybe this place was more complicated than the irredeemable shit-show it appeared to be from the outside. Naturally, I was hooked.
My own experiences over the decade from 2007 bore out this early intuition, and what I’m about to say may shock you. There are good people in there, on all sides of the chamber. Sometimes, the system works. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself in a committee room where the evidence tendered by passionate and experienced witnesses is being weighed up and solutions sought, and everyone has left their party affiliation at the door. You’ll sit in mild disbelief as amendments are proposed and accepted without a fight, and you’ll know by the end that your close-knit little team helped make the law kinder, or fairer, or smarter. When the system is working it barely makes the news, but you can hardly blame the press gallery for failing to report on those times when your elected representatives are behaving like adults.
The nerd in me is still utterly fascinated by what parliaments do in the abstract sense. Here is a physical place structured to make and justify binding decisions, an architecture of choice and consequence. On induction – well after election but well before you get to take your seat – you get three days of Senate School, conducted by people who live and breathe the building’s sombre role as a brake on tyranny. In the opening pages of the 12th edition of Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, there’s a quote by economist Scott Gordon:
Historical experience … is not an unrelieved record of failure to deal with the problem of power. A number of societies have succeeded in constructing political systems in which the power of the state is constrained. The key to their success lies in recognising the fact that power can only be controlled by power.
My political theory – that we should all just be nicer to each other – was dashed before I’d even started. I’d have to recollect everything I’d forgotten about the taut relationship between the executive and the parliament, which hadn’t featured strongly in my quiet suburban upbringing.
I have a vivid memory of tracing my way to one of the more obscurely located committee rooms, with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” floating through the corridor and the irreducibly cheerful clerk assistant, Cleaver Elliott, waiting for his bright-eyed inductees to arrive. The Senate, he puts to us, is a binary decision-making machine: at any given moment it is in the process of deciding yes, no or whether to put that question off until later. Sequences of nested A/B decisions that spool out for days or months, generating, among other things, legislation that shapes communities, ruins lives, binds or unbinds powerful economic actors, and transfers vast blocks of capital from one place to another. The DNA of a country, being assembled and edited, thrashing around on stacks of A4 paper right in front of us. Something about that still feels deeply strange.
On a good day, these totemic scripts are issued after careful committee deliberation, on the best available evidence and the most diverse points of view – and maybe after crossbench and Opposition numbers have improved a good decision or blocked a harmful one.
On a bad day, and there are plenty of those, a law written by the mining industry gets bashed through on weight of numbers, and you know people and places a long way from this building are going to get hurt because you couldn’t prevent it. Committee reports and dissenting views are shouldered out of the way, crossbenchers are bought off, or the Opposition caves in and reduces the rest of the performance to a shell. Literally, going through the motions.
You’ll know one of these zero-sum decisions is imminent when a thin, reedy buzz saturates the building from every electronic pore. A discreet red or green square begins to blink on the ubiquitous clocks. Division. It doesn’t matter what deadline you’re on, what conversation you’re in the middle of, how good your fresh cup of coffee smells … go, now, before the attendants lock you out of the chamber and you face the risky humiliation of missing a vote. You have four minutes.
There is something compelling, and probably mildly addictive, about the frantic real-time assembly of a Senate majority on something you really care about. Thirty-eight votes to block something. Thirty-nine to pass something. Put it up on a whiteboard. How far short are you? Who else do you need? People will have been on phones marshalling support all morning, and key crossbenchers will be intercepted on their way into the chamber with last-minute pitches. On a tight vote, with the whips standing up the front and the clerks crossing names off, half a dozen informal counts will be going on as people across the chamber try to figure out what’s about to happen. Photographers up in the gallery aim long lenses at this chatter, snapping the nuances and body language of this elaborately banal spectacle. Wave at the school groups watching from behind plate glass, because it never fails to delight when one of the captive specimens acknowledges those on the outside. The president calls the place to order, shutting down the buzz of conversation so as to announce the result of the vote. Sometimes, you win.
This convoluted machinery of lawmaking is generally occluded by parliament’s other principal role: as a platform for public argument, for shaping social norms, for making your case and being tested on it in front of live microphones. As long as you remember that a segment of the press gallery is there principally to amplify its own commercial interests and cultural obsessions while cutting down anyone who gets in the way, you’ll be fine. Many of them are thoroughly decent, if heavily overworked. This tier of your democracy is in trouble too. Commercial pressures and management culture are disembowelling the Fairfax mastheads. The ABC lies permanently besieged by circling predators, some of them now well inside the gates. The net effect of depopulated newsrooms and nimble new online players has been to further polarise and accelerate the pace of everything, such that even the concept of a 24-hour news cycle now feels kind of quaint. Somehow, the audience itself is gaining a measure of power in this attention-deficit economy, but as yet it remains a fickle and feverish kind of power.
Maybe you’re thinking of coming to work in this place as an elected representative? That’s excellent news. Please check your citizenship status immediately. If you’re considering running for One Nation, keep an eye on your wallet and maybe don’t bother. Otherwise, I applaud your decision, as long as your determination is not such that you’re elbowing other people in the face in order to get preselected. This job is an unforgettable, irreplaceable, exhausting and exhilarating mind-bend. It is also just a job, and it has its limits. We’ll get to that in a moment.
First, there is the small matter of an election. These are becoming increasingly frequent as Australia’s self-devouring political ouroboros coils ever tighter, so chances are you won’t have long to wait. Once campaigning begins, watch your life dissolve into a slew of public meetings, doorknocks, social-media posts, press releases and endless teleconferences. At the end of the campaign, ground zero: a suburban high school wrapped in acres of plastic; a queue of good people who’d mostly rather be somewhere else, scoffing democracy sausages and awaiting their turn to number all the boxes in the order of their preference. People have died, and continue to die, for the right to swap out their executive governments in this strangely endearing way.
If you’re successful, abandon immediately the idea that you’re going to be able to do the job alone. You can always judge the quality and effectiveness of an MP by their staff and advisers. Every speech, press conference, public meeting, intricate itinerary or policy initiative bears many authors besides the one whose name shows up in Hansard. The smooth running of an electorate office is a miracle of complexity, given that no one ever got preselected for their staff-management skills. Only hire people smarter than you – it worked pretty well for me.
Another thing: throw out any ideas about needing a law degree or a policy doctorate or an apprenticeship in student politics or any other stereotype. Up to a point, you can do this thing your own way: just contrast Bob Brown’s iconic style with Christine Milne’s policy smarts, or Rachel Siewert’s tenacity and attention to detail. There are formidable structural barriers to participation at this level, but slowly, through thousands of acts of personal determination, the parliament may come to more closely resemble the society it claims to represent.
Now, be ready to fight a daily battle of attrition over your to-do list. The prime minister gets up and decides to call a press conference in front of masked killers hefting automatic weapons – that’s your day taken care of. An innocuous-sounding bill targets Aboriginal families to host a radioactive waste dump – that’s 2012 done. You can’t not show up for these fights: that’s what you’re paid for, and it’s where your heart is. But getting enough space from such daily emergencies to craft your own agenda is an enduring struggle. If you want to engage with something as heavy and deep-rooted as our housing affordability crisis, you’ll need to not do other things. In a sitting week, some malign time dilation runs all the clocks way too fast, and days smear together in jittery fast-forward. If you ever visit Parliament House, check out the photographs of your representatives in the public foyer, and then contrast these youthful, eager visages with the greying stress-wrecks you see going bald on the evening news. This is a place that can be peculiarly unkind to people.
Against this, you have a campaign toolset to die for. In my former life as an environmental campaigner, I could barely have dreamt of the agency that the senator’s job provides: a focused team of staff, the ability to travel to flashpoints almost at will, a parliamentary library full of subject-matter specialists whose only job is to help MPs be better at what they do. You’ll access the procedural levers and accountability systems that support the Senate’s role as a brake on an increasingly malicious executive government: questions on notice; orders to produce documents; committees of inquiry with the ability to get out of the Canberra bubble and call for evidence and compel witnesses if necessary.
Three times a year, budget estimates sessions unfold over long hours in windowless rooms, and these sessions really matter. Here, the top echelons of the public service reluctantly lift the lid on their department’s finances and activities, or they sit mute and watch while senators brawl and snipe at one another. In what other job can you ask the secretary responsible for immigration to account for the taxpayer-funded torture islands he runs, or bring in the people responsible for the next generation of mass-surveillance technologies to explain what they think they’re doing. One reason the federal police raid on the Australian Workers’ Union late last year blew up so viscerally on the government is that it took place during the October estimates sessions. Your Senate at work.
Among other things, you get to wedge open the door of this place to ordinary people, campaigners and activists for whom parliament might otherwise seem distant and impenetrable. This is one central tension I found in the work: with one foot you’re breathtakingly free to travel to where you need to be, set priorities, try out new ideas and push boundaries, but the other foot is nailed to the floor – locked into the Senate sitting calendar, committee hearings and the other obligations that come with the role. Add the walk-ups, the people who come to you with reasonable expectations of getting help, then stir in that increasingly frenzied electoral cycle. You look up and suddenly it’s March.
I learnt quickly that the things parliament chooses not to do are just as significant as the ones it does. Maybe this should have been obvious at the outset, but it still came as something of a shock. I was fresh to the job and barely able to find my way to Aussies, the edgy little coffee shop tucked just out of sight of the public. The 2008 Senate intake saw the departure of the last of the Australian Democrats, whose achingly slow-motion self-destruction had long been a source of superstition for Greens organisers determined to avoid a similar fate. Outgoing senator Andrew Bartlett had left behind a bill drafted with the help of the widely respected clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans. The bill, when passed, would demand parliamentary approval before Australians could be sent to war, transferring this daunting power from the prime minister’s whim to the hands of the parliament, for public debate and a vote. This is already the case in most democracies. With the bloody consequences of the invasion of Iraq still haunting the Middle East, it seemed like common sense to me. Any act of armed aggression that you couldn’t even persuade half of your own parliament was a good idea was probably not a good idea.
I eventually lost count of how many times we lost chamber votes on this “War Powers” bill, under four successive prime ministers. A majority of parliament is choosing to not democratise this responsibility.
Or consider this: the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties is responsible for analysing whatever the government signs us up to overseas, including trade deals, UN treaties, bilateral and multilateral agreements on everything from fisheries management to military alliances. I served on this valuable and collegiate committee for six years or so, but here’s something I didn’t know when I started out: the committee doesn’t get to analyse the agreements and pronounce its view until after the government has signed up. We still go through the motions of taking evidence and hearing from witnesses, but the executive branch of government stopped paying much attention long ago.
I slowly realised that this goes for nearly all foreign policy and defence decisions. Anything that greatly affects Australia’s role in the world is decided in the cabinet room or the prime minister’s office with the blinds pulled down. They can trust the Opposition will stay mute as a matter of bipartisan convention, no matter how diabolically counterproductive the latest directives from Washington might be. Anything related to US military bases and the increasingly vague blank cheque made out to the national security state is treated the same way. Presumably this is what happens in any subordinate diplomatic relationship, but Australian politicians do seem to have taken the practice to excruciating lengths. We once had a freedom of information request returned to us with sections of publicly available Hansard blacked out, which is funny but also pretty fucked up when you think about it.
It was quite deflating for this shiny new senator to realise that parliament’s clunky but essential democratic machineries are routinely made inoperable through the two largest parties’ standing agreement to make it so. As we’re slowly habituated to endless, borderless wars and an increasingly weaponised internet’s seepage into every corner of our lives, this calculated paralysis of democratic agency becomes ever more dangerous.
The other way the two major parties quietly collapse into a one-party state is on questions affecting powerful economic incumbents. The contamination of the body politic begins way upstream of parliament’s chambers, through relationships forged way back in elite private schools, an IV drip of campaign donations, or the revolving door between ministerial offices and industry peak bodies. On any given sitting day, parliament hosts a swarm of lobbyists distributing prefabbed opinion polls and economic modelling proving that any attempt to tax or regulate their patrons will cost jobs and cause the Earth to spiral into the Sun. These campaigns are coordinated with dismally repetitive front-page assaults in the Murdoch press and ad campaigns targeting nervous reformers in marginal seats. A full-court press like the one that defeated the mining tax can cost you the prime ministership if your hold on power is sufficiently unstable.
Watching these people at close range, operating to tilt the table of democracy, was a jarring experience. I came into the Senate on the intake that swept the Rudd government to power in 2007, and in the months that followed, that administration made overtures to tax, regulate or otherwise curtail the power of the mining industry, gambling interests, the nation’s largest telco, the financial sector and media corporations – all at roughly the same time. The resulting siege was predictable but still surprising in its brutal efficiency, as corporate Australia went to work on Labor’s internal fault lines. The instability spawned in this period continues to cascade, with disposable leadership tenure now measured in successive negative Newspolls. In a bitterly ironic twist, the same corporate leaders who battered Labor into a self-destructive stupor and paved the way for Tony Abbott’s brief, carnivorous reign now issue futile demands for stability. It would be funny if so many people weren’t getting hurt.
Sometimes, the influence of predator capitalism on the armatures of democracy is subtle; sometimes, it gets waved right in your face. “It has been such an honour to represent the Australian mining sector over the past year,” Senator Matt Canavan told the internet in mid 2017, without irony. The shambling self-parody known to the world as Senator Ian Macdonald, worried people might mistake his allegiance, wore a hi-vis “Australians for Coal” shirt into the Senate one night in 2014. Tony Abbott’s farewell speech to former industry minister Ian Macfarlane made a blunt call on the mining industry to “acknowledge and demonstrate their gratitude to him in his years of retirement from this place”. Ex-Labor premiers and ministers mutate effortlessly into lobbyists for banks and casinos, diffusing the line between government and industry ever further.
How, you might reasonably ask, does anything ever get done in such a poisoned and compromised environment? How do the lights even stay on?
Most day-to-day matters of governance are handled by the administrative back-brain of state agencies and departments, laid down in earlier times, just getting on with the job. Beginning in 2010, Belgium went 589 days without an elected government while potential coalition partners bickered. At the time of writing, Northern Ireland has been without an elected devolved government for about a year, and Germany just went through four months of executive paralysis.
Then there are the times that an initiative negotiated between executive government and parliament is so respectful that it flies right under the radar. Last year, the then veterans’ affairs minister, Dan Tehan, proposed a raft of potentially contentious bills in an attempt to update the department’s ancient record-keeping and compensation claims processes. One of the bills opened up the possibility of a veteran’s private information being released in order to fight political campaigns, as the then human services minister, Alan Tudge, had infamously done with blogger Andie Fox’s Centrelink records earlier the same year. With this abuse still fresh in people’s minds, veterans’ advocates and civil rights organisations raised concerns, which we were able to put directly to the minister. A few days later, the government circulated amendments deleting the offensive provisions. Without any fanfare, the bill was passed into law. It is hardly going to make its way into political science textbooks, but it sticks in my mind as one small example of how goodwill and common courtesy can occasionally prevail.
Sometimes, a combination of factors delivers a genuine breakthrough when realpolitik and the public interest come into alignment, and the right people are in the room to take advantage of it. Sometimes, the opposite happens. Nowhere has this been more starkly and tragically demonstrated than in the three-act catastrophe of Australian climate policy.
Act One begins in 2009, when the Rudd government commenced negotiations on the centrepiece of its climate strategy, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Prime Minister Rudd figured he didn’t need the Greens’ five Senate votes to pass the bill and had no interest in playing us into the conversation anyway. He froze us out of negotiations and designed a scheme that would instead persuade the Coalition and their coal and gas patrons that the bill was no threat to business as usual. The scheme that emerged locked in steep emissions growth, as you’d expect of a bill designed to appease the fossil-fuel sector and its parliamentary proxies. At the time, Greenpeace described it as “a monumental fraud being perpetrated on the Australian people”. Nonetheless it was still too much for Tony Abbott, who seized the moment to depose the then Opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull. To this day, the Greens’ refusal to vote for Rudd’s “monumental fraud” still embitters a small cohort of Labor folks, but in a curious twist they wouldn’t have to wait long for Act Two.
The stage was set poorly. Julia Gillard, new to the prime ministership, made the widely panned decision to abdicate climate policy in favour of a vaguely titled “citizens assembly”. The landscape changed yet again after the dead-heat 2010 federal election. Gillard’s government, hanging by a thread in the House of Representatives and contending with Greens MP Adam Bandt’s presence in a shared balance of power, accepted a proposal by Greens senators Brown and Milne for a novel circuit-breaker: a multi-party committee representing MPs from across the parliament and a small panel of experts in climate science, economics, industry and social policy. Abbott, predictably, boycotted the whole process, leaving the committee to function as intended: to come up with a workable scheme that could actually be debated, amended and passed by parliament. By the end of 2011, Australia had a world-leading carbon price scheme. It was designed to hit the largest industrial polluters hardest and raise enough revenue for a fairer tax system for people on low incomes, a biodiversity fund, energy efficiency schemes, and assistance for clean-energy projects.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the model of cross-party consensus-building, and expert and community input, to come up with something workable. The executive, and most of the parliament, worked collaboratively for a few months on one of the most daunting issues facing us, and it delivered. On the night the bills went through, you could feel the ship turn, perceptibly, away from the looming iceberg.
The awful rending sound coming from below decks was, of course, Tony Abbott and the Minerals Council of Australia setting up Act Three.
You know how this one ends: with the perfection of a crude and highly gendered attack on Prime Minister Gillard and the numbing repetition of the “great big new tax” mantra, amplified out of all proportion by a section of the media that had cast aside all pretence of neutral reportage. Most of the Clean Energy Act 2011 was repealed by Abbott’s government in 2014, leaving only the hugely important renewable energy funds stubbornly investing billions of dollars a year in clean technology despite all attempts to demolish them.
The whole campaign was pure bullshit, of course. The promised $550 household savings never materialised – sorry if you were led to believe that someone was going to send you a cheque. Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, caused a minor stir early last year when she admitted that mis-labelling the Clean Energy Act as a carbon tax was no more than “brutal retail politics”. By then, the damage had been done.
We’ll need every megawatt of policy smarts, movement building and political rat-cunning to write a triumphant Act Four, because the theatre is starting to smell of smoke.
What the hell kind of lesson should we draw from these dismal episodes? Smarter people have attempted to answer that question: for me, it is the most important recent example of how deeply industry incumbents have infected the machinery of democracy, using the hollowed-out shell of the Coalition in concert with commercial media platforms to delete an unwanted cost to business while attempting to break the spine of federal Labor.
Australian politics is so saturated with these clammy strands of patronage that sometimes it’s an effort to recall where it all began. Fortunately there is a reminder close by.
Just down the hill from the graceful curves of Parliament House lies the low-rise patrician form of Australia’s original parliament, circa 1927. Grainy photographs show sheep grazing a dusty landscape of sparse trees and monolithic white buildings: Canberra, back when it was mostly lines on paper. Old Parliament House today is a superb museum for the ideals and practice of Australian democracy, but its most important feature lies out beyond the forecourt, on the far side of a windy car park.
You’ll smell the wood smoke first, and the warm fragrance of eucalyptus leaves. A scatter of pavilions, tents, vans, banners and flags frame the sombre lines of the Australian War Memorial across the lake. This is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, established in 1972 as the land rights movement gained pace and determination. One word is spelled out across the wide lawn, in letters three feet high: Sovereignty.
This word speaks to the dark, foundational lacuna in our history. Colonial Australia began as an armed invasion, followed by two centuries of violent dispossession. There are no memorials along Anzac Parade to the frontier wars, no moments of silence. Our cities still light up with oblivious fireworks every January 26. Two hundred and thirty years on, there are still no treaties: no formal legal recognition paid to the sophisticated network of nations whose people never ceded their sovereignty over country.
It’s coming, yet. Until it does, our parliament, its rituals, its pronouncements, its physical mass of marble and wood and concrete, will sit uneasily on Capital Hill. A brittle simulacrum of genuine democracy is masking the asset-stripping of an ancient land.
So maybe you don’t have the interest or capacity to spend years living out of a suitcase or pounding your head on the walls of this place for years at a time, and instead you just want your elected representatives to do something positive, productive or at least less heartbreakingly evil. That makes you much more consequential than senators and MPs, so congratulations. What happens outside the parliament intimately shapes and conditions what can happen within. More than this, it changes the scope of what’s possible.
No social movement that mattered was ever started or led from inside Parliament House. I have longed to see a modern prime minister stand up and take a fucking risk for the public interest: Whitlam on Vietnam and Pine Gap, Keating in Redfern, Howard after Port Arthur. I’m not convinced those days are completely gone, but they are so vanishingly rare they come to resemble the exceptions that prove the rule. Maybe we should snuff out the “great leader” candle we keep alight for some politicians and start thinking harder about the architectures that work so efficiently to neutralise people of goodwill.
One example, if I may. In 2009, I was thoroughly suckered (and, to be fair, so was the Nobel committee) by President Obama’s beautiful Prague speech, which laid out his vision for nuclear weapons abolition. In the end, the slow-moving machinery of state combined forces with the bloodless workings of the arms industry to quietly defeat their commander-in-chief. He ended up initiating a trillion-dollar upgrade of US nuclear stockpiles instead.
These bitter ashes helped nourish the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the network that refreshed the global disarmament movement so effectively that a substantial majority of the world’s governments instituted such a ban last July. ICAN, which was founded in suburban Melbourne, needed courageous diplomats, MPs and prime ministers around the world to put signatures on paper. But make no mistake – the driving force came from outside the comfortable environs of national parliaments. This will also be the case when Australia ratifies the ban treaty. It will be thanks to those organisers and volunteers who make it sufficiently politically safe for some near-future government to sign on, even though it won’t be those campaigners’ signatures on the document. By campaigners I mean, of course, regular people who care enough to reach out and make common cause with those who share their hopes and beliefs. (In a wonderful act of symmetry, the Nobel committee recently rectified its earlier misstep and awarded its most recent peace prize to ICAN. Sometimes, recognition does fall where it’s due.)
The same goes for any powerful social movement you care to name, from the foundational achievements of the trade unions to the campaign for women’s suffrage to marriage equality to the insurrection to shut down Adani’s subsidised coal atrocity. Volunteers and community organisers do the heavy lifting, parliamentary majorities come later. I don’t want to contribute to the malaise of low expectations that already besets democratic assemblies around the world, but the work that gets done on the outside largely sets the boundary conditions for what happens on the inside. We still need to elect people of courage, and I’ve been fortunate to spend time among the very best of them. But we have to give them more to work with.
So, now that you’re planning on contacting or visiting your local MP to help give strength to their better instincts and shift that balance of numbers, here are a couple of quick things to bear in mind. The adviser you talk to on the phone may well agree with you, may be friends with your neighbour, may have just done a 12-hour day. They’re not the enemy. The politician you get to meet with may be mildly jet-lagged and catatonically busy. They may also have spent years working on exactly the thing you’re lobbying for, and it’s going to gently piss them off if you don’t already know that. They are going to need a simple one-page brief on the thing you care about, and one or, at most, two simple, verifiable asks: things they can do for you, and things you can call back later to check up on. They are not the ones with the power; you are. You, and everyone you know, will decide every few years if they get stripped of their nice office and all its entitlements. An occasional reminder never hurts.
With these basic courtesies established, show no quarter. A majority of the current parliament supports the incarceration and torture of people who have committed no crime, in Australian-run suicide camps in the Pacific. A majority of the current parliament supports continued coalmining and gas extraction despite the warnings screamed at us by increasingly violent weather. A majority of the current parliament is content to go along with perpetual war in the Middle East, complicit in illegal US drone assassinations and a dystopian global surveillance regime. Signing a petition is great. Calling an electorate office is better. Staging an occupation and inviting TV cameras along is better yet. Large-scale determined organising to make these atrocities politically untenable is best of all. If your age, health, home circumstances or other adversities make participation of this kind impossible, it doesn’t make your opinion any less valuable: we see you online and in the letters pages, and in the handwritten messages of suggestion and encouragement.
The democratic space we take for granted can close fast, however – just ask the Catalans, or Venezuelans, or, increasingly, our friends in the United States. It requires continual maintenance to resist the centripetal forces of state power and our government’s ugly drift into bogan authoritarianism. But it’s there. Many of us in this country have the agency and capacity to work collectively that people in West Papua, Palestine or Myanmar could only dream of. We have to make better use of it.
There are better ways to make decisions at scale than crunching numbers in a late-night sitting. There are emerging practices of participatory budgeting, where diverse juries of ordinary people manage finances rather than leaving it to two smug bastards with cigars. And deliberative forums where regular people take expert evidence on the wicked problems that legislators, captured by narrow interests, have ceded their ability to solve. Parliament House won’t necessarily be the place we look to find these more -evolved forms of deliberation: its decision-making processes are baked into its architecture. But other forms are out there, processes that aggregate the wisdom of the crowd in more consensual and less adversarial ways. The internet must surely be a huge part of it, but so too is spending more time face to face, actually listening to each other.
Parliament is a formal setting in which to conduct a very old and dangerous argument. It’s a walled pressure cooker in which some of the rules of power, economic distribution and personal agency are set. We’ve slowly ritualised the big disputes that in other places and times were resolved with machetes and guillotines; instead we use how-to-vote cards and attack ads with menacing voice-overs.
The trick for all of us is to throw off the tranquilising belief that this is as good as it gets. Things could be worse. They could also be much, much better. Working in an adversarial system, in a state of permanent siege and countersiege, means you rarely get to lift your eyes beyond whatever emergency has barged its way onto your to-do list. And so, when the late-night call came through with a polite query as to how certain I was about my citizenship status, it dawned on me over the course of the following days that it might be time for a change. Nine years in that place is a good haul, and I loved (almost) every moment of it, but it wears you down in peculiar ways. It’s a weird luxury now, to have time to think without bracing for the next chaotic sitting week, and I’m reminded that there are many other creative ways to make trouble.
Whichever side of parliament’s palisade security fence you find yourself on, it turns out sometimes even falling off the back of a wave can teach you something new.
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