The Politics    Thursday, July 16, 2015

Watch this speech

By Sean Kelly

A Scottish MP has some lessons for Australia

Stop what you’re doing and go and watch this speech.

I’d been avoiding it, despite its popularity on social media – or perhaps because of it; I can be perverse sometimes – until my mum emailed me and told me I should watch it.

She was right (of course) – it’s fantastic. It’s the maiden speech of Mhairi Black, the absurdly young new member of the British parliament, from the Scottish National party.

Angry about facts that demand anger, compassionate without giving in to blithering sentiment, she’s what most of us want from our elected representatives, whether or not you agree with her politics. Just watch it.

Two things struck me as particularly relevant to Australian politics at the moment.

The first is the way she tells stories about those who depend on welfare in her region. She makes you see them: yes, the cliché that they’re “like you and me”, but more importantly the ways in which they are different, the specific barriers that lie between them and a simple, decent life. She raises them up from their usual dreary existence as sterile case studies and makes you look them in the eyes.

This is important right now, here, because Australia seems to be heading back into a period in which we debate the fate of “bludgers” and “rorters” (though perhaps we never really left that period behind). Scott Morrison has recently talked about “cracking down on those who want to game the system”. Of course those who seek to take advantage of welfare should be prevented from doing so, but when this is made the focus of government rhetoric, and policy, it is a short hop to most welfare recipients being painted as dependent no-hopers of some sort. In case you think I’m exaggerating, it was the PM who not long ago drew a line dividing “decent people” with aspiration from those on welfare.

If you agree with the PM’s distinction, go and have a look at the speech.

The other point Black made that I want to mention is the division between weathercocks and signposts:

Tony Benn once said that in politics there are weathercocks and sign posts. Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they may have to compromise. And then there are signposts, signposts which stand true, and tall, and principled.

There are significant issues being debated by both major parties in Australia right now, issues on which it would be easy to bow to what seems easiest: citizenship and terrorism; climate change policy; same-sex marriage.

In Black’s words: “Tony Benn was right when he said the only people worth remembering in politics were signposts.”

 

Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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