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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 8

‘Australia the Beautiful’: A Dangerous Myth

David Mejia-Canales

It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors.

Alfred Deakin, 12 September 1901

(Prime Minister 1903–10)

The Arrival

I arrived in Australia in late May of 1989; my first memory of arriving in this country was how vast it felt and how crisp the late autumn air was, particularly since we were so underdressed. I arrived as a refugee from the Salvadoran civil war. My old home was slowly being devastated by death and chaos; by ceasefire a fifth of the population would be murdered. It’s no surprise that in comparison it felt as if I had arrived in a new Eden. This was Australia the beautiful.

I’m not sure when you actually stop being a refugee. Under law there is a point where you cross the threshold from persona non grata to citizen, but a legal definition is too blunt a tool to use to encapsulate the experience. Furthermore, using a strict legal definition can never really even begin to describe or address the multi-generational trauma that follows war. I didn’t even begin self-identifying as a refugee until being a refugee in Australia was something you did not want to be. If the personal is political then I chose this label as my one-man protest to reclaim an identity that was being demonised by government rhetoric for political gain.

When my family first arrived, with all of our remaining worldly possessions in cardboard boxes, government agencies saw us as people that needed intensive resettlement, care and assistance. The government itself saw us as a welcome addition to the country. That’s what it felt like to me, and that’s what I need to believe for my own comfort. The promise of boundless plains to share can’t be rhetoric alone because to admit that it may be would feel like peeking behind the curtain to find that the Wizard of Oz was just an angry and scared old white man.

My whole family was housed in the Migrant Enterprise Hostel in the outer South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Adults were provided with English language classes, information sessions on dealing with government agencies and support through the practicalities and technicalities of living in a foreign country. As kids, my siblings and I were supported through the school enrolment process, we were given toys and clothes for the Melbourne winter. The idea behind all of this support was simple: you’re new here so we’ll get you on your feet.

I used to hold the hostel as proof that we are a nation of the ‘fair go’ that welcomed those that come beyond the seas with boundless plains to share and that our current policies of mandatory detention for asylum seekers are just an aberration and a deviation from our true nature. I think I can also point to the hostel as the start of my gravitation towards the Labor Party. We did come to Australia and were living in this peculiar building on the other side of the world under the administration of a Labor Government after all. Who wouldn’t gravitate towards someone promising freedom from death in a war?

Detention centre or not, the Migrant Hostel was a wonderful place for a child. If the Tower of Babel did exist, it would have been in Springvale. At the hostel, you had a multitude of people who wouldn’t choose to live together. In fact, none of us would have even have had the opportunity to meet. I had never seen an Asian person before, or anyone from the Subcontinent and definitely had never met a black person. Now not only was I living next to them, underneath and on top of them, we were all playing a part in probably the most formative and transformative experience of our lives.

It wasn’t until I was researching this essay that I found out that the Migrant Hostel I upheld as a model of ‘Australia the Beautiful’ was actually converted into a detention centre only some months before we arrived. This conversion happened under a Labor Government.

I don’t believe that we were in detention ourselves because we were allowed to move freely in the community. I need to believe that I was not a detainee; it’s the foundation myth I must hold to. I am living proof of the bounty this lucky country can expect to reap if it treats its asylum seekers with kindness. The idea that I may have been a child in detention, or at least a child living in a detention centre wounds me. Replacing my foundation myth of a generous Australia with a xenophobic one strikes at something that is so fundamental to my identity.

The media may repeat ad nauseam the largely empty platitudes of Australia being the ‘lucky country’, but for me as a boy it felt like the lucky country. This is why any thought to the contrary is so painful. The sunburnt country was so vast as to feel almost borderless, the generosity of my new home felt limitless and the safety from war it ensured was priceless. While we were incredibly homesick, we were also unbelievably grateful. During moments of melancholy my parents, my mother in particular, would tell us that we always needed to be thankful to Australia for giving us opportunities that we could never have imagined.

When she could understand enough English to watch the television news, she would say that Bob Hawke was ‘her prime minister’ because he had brought us here. By the time Paul Keating rose to the top job, my mother would feel the same way about him whenever he sauntered onto the television. You often hear about families that have supported one political party over another for generations, maybe this is how that alignment is made. Somewhere down the line, someone felt that the government of the day did something right by them that was so monumental as to cement an undying loyalty reproduced and shared through exchanges like the ones my mother made to the television.

When you’re a child your parents are like Greek gods, they’re all knowing, all powerful and magnanimous and yet still capricious, prone to bias and preferences. As a kid you soak up everything your parents do or say because you don’t really have much of a choice and also because they are like deities that must be obeyed, or at least placated for life to continue running smoothly. I grew up with my mother telling me to thank this country in so many ways as well as her praising Labor leaders she will never meet for giving us a better life.

How could this not have an effect on me? How could this not have an effect on my political alignment? It did then and still does today; I’m yet to meet someone whose early personal experiences haven’t shaped their later politics. I’m no exception, although my example of being a refugee is probably a lot more acute than most. As a refugee, now a citizen, I am acutely aware that the success of my integration and contribution to Australian society is a combination of personal fortitude, administrative fairness, luck and bountiful kindness from all manner of people. Too many to ever thank or even count.

However, despite how it pains me to admit it, Australia is not and maybe never was as welcoming as I once thought; neither was the political party I aligned myself with. This is devastating because it flies in the face of everything I’ve experienced and believed about Australia as a young man. I’m under no illusion that this country is perfect. The way we have treated (and still treat) First Peoples is a glaring example of our shortcomings.

‘Australia the Beautiful’ is becoming more a myth than a truth. As I’ve got older, I’ve begun to question the perception I have of my country and even my power to change it – not because I’ve let it decay or left it behind, but because every day I feel like Australia has left me.

Learning to Clean Toilets

The objection I have to multiculturalism is that multiculturalism is in effect saying that it is impossible to have an Australian ethos, that it is impossible to have a common Australian culture. So we have to pretend that we are a federation of cultures and that we’ve got a bit from every part of the world. I think that is hopeless.
John Howard, January 1989,
(Prime Minister: 1996–2007)

Multiculturalism as a celebrated government policy is still only a couple of generations old; especially when you consider that we have spent more time living under the White Australia policy rather than free of it. This means that we are still bit players in the great multiculturalism experiment.

I know all of this logically but because I’m emotionally invested in ‘Australia the beautiful and welcoming’ I believe that she has always existed and was actively hunted by our leaders for their own political advantage. Because I am the product of an Australia that opened its arms to refugees and saw them as future Australians, I will staunchly defend multiculturalism’s success. Having said this, it took me a long time to pinpoint why politicians attacking multiculturalism were repugnant to me and that’s because it felt like an attack on me personally. I remember watching Pauline Hanson give her first speech to Parliament, that infamous bit of prose that warned of the perils of multiculturalism, and thinking to myself: ‘who is going to be left to clean your toilets?’

Despite growing up in a household where my parents were actually, or at least seemingly, quite apathetic at the administration of government in Australia – despite my mother constantly heaping praise on whatever government policy allowed us to live here safely – I inhaled any and all political news and commentary. It’s only later in life that I have acknowledged a need to be kinder to my parents’ total lack of interest in everyday Australian politics. I was very young during the Salvadoran Civil War, I do remember martial law and the power blackouts, but my lived experience of it is fuzzy and that’s largely because of my parents’ protection. My parents did not take part in political demonstrations or other manifestations of political life in El Salvador because those that did often went ‘missing’. It’s not until later in life that I have really understood that their being actually or seemingly apathetic to politics in El Salvador was for our survival and not due to a lack of commitment. This extinguishing of desire to be involved in politics never left them I guess and maybe that just saved us from experiencing worse tragedies in war. Perversely, their political apathy allowed me to develop a voracious appetite for all things political.

The first federal election I took an active interest in was the 1996 contest between Paul Keating and John Howard. Having become a full citizen of the Commonwealth some five years earlier I felt a sense of duty to inform myself about the election and the issues surrounding it. In truth, taxation reform and Howard’s brand of conservative values did not interest me in the slightest; I was more interested in whether his well-known views against immigration would poison the well for me and my family.

I remember tuning in to a current affairs show the morning after Howard trumped Keating and I heard one commentator state that: ‘The Liberals have now come to power and people will find that the sky hasn’t fallen in’. Frightened, I rushed outside to look up at the sky to make sure that it wasn’t collapsing. I had never heard that phrase before and I was scared that in Australia, like in the country of my birth, upheavals always followed an election. The sky was blue and still in its rightful place, like it has been after every prime ministerial changeover.

This peaceful transition from one person to the other using nothing but the combined weaponry of hundreds of thousands of Australian Electoral Commission pencils was what progress looked like to our family. This is what freedom was, this was civilisation, and this is how you do fairness. In El Salvador, the outcome of an election was not the end of a national conversation but the beginning; the end would come when whoever got control of the army would take over. I remember thinking to myself that Australia was the greatest country in the world because the sky was still there, it was still blue and it was not rearranging. This is where I wanted to live because democracy was alive here. I love the country in which I was born, always will; but this Commonwealth was to me the perfect place to grow up because everyday people could influence the political process and be confident in the process unlike where I was born. I once overheard my parents talk about electoral fraud in El Salvador because apparently some distant relatives had voted in an election just after the war had ended. This alone is not cause for concern, what was concerning is that these relatives had been long dead before election day.

I tried to pass this zeal for politics to my parents with very little result. ‘They’re all the same’ they would say, ‘be thankful for what you’ve got’. I wish I had the maturity back then to understand that political apathy was how my parents did political involvement. However, around the 2001 election I had a very interesting exchange with my father. He told me that he would be voting for Howard because of his economic credentials and his attitudes towards immigration.

While I’ve always known that my father is a deeply conservative man, I just always assumed that he would vote for the Labor Party because after all their party was responsible for our refuge when they were in government so I just assumed he would vote for that party and not for the man who was actively against multiculturalism. I erroneously thought that as working-class immigrants we were all destined to be Labor-leaning, at least for the foreseeable future. While I saw my family as the epitome of the working class, my father had other aspirations. I think to my father Labor represented the workers, the proletariat, the many which is what we did not come to this country to be. We came to this country to flourish, ergo it’s the Liberal Party that deserved his vote. I do think the Liberal Party owns the language of opportunity and entrepreneurism better than any other; at least they did it well enough to woo my father.

Despite my father’s aspiration both then and now, to many people we will always just be working-class immigrants or worse still: the aspirational classes. My immigrant working-class background is something that I am extremely proud of. It has entrenched in me an impeccable work ethic. As an immigrant, I learnt early on that if you want anything, anything at all, you have to work extremely hard. There were so many people that had very low expectations of a refugee from El Salvador growing up in the suburbs of outer Melbourne; but growing up as an immigrant in one of Melbourne’s most disadvantaged communities was responsible for shaping the work ethic that has seen me defy a multitude of soft expectations. Nothing that I have or have had was gifted or bequeathed to me, it was all earned through hard work and dedication and I genuinely believe that this fighting spirit and drive to never be recumbent is due to my working-class background. What’s more Australian than valuing hard work, dedication and zeal?

My parents also had very strong work ethics; in fact, both were professionals in their past life. Despite my father’s training and my mother’s previous work experience, in Australia it meant nothing. They couldn’t even speak a word of English let alone work in their respective fields. When we arrived, my mother became a stay-home parent and my father worked in the now defunct Nylex Plastics factory assembling car parts. He would come home smelling of all sorts of acrid chemicals, always with burns to his hands. I will never forget that smell of burning plastic mixed with superglue and sweat. His clothes were always covered in that smell even when clean. The smell seeped from his marrow.

The only concept I had of Nylex Plastics was the large Nylex branded clock I would see from the windows of the train pulling into Richmond station. I always assumed that’s where my dad went to work every morning at 3 am. I remember being incredibly proud of him working in the city centre like all the other white people. I was so proud that he was already working in the city like the people on television, despite not being able to speak more than five words of English. I was devastated when I found out that the Nylex factory was actually in the industrial suburbs of Melbourne’s east and the clock was just a clever bit of product advertisement.

My parents would take my brother and me to ‘la cleaner’ with them under the guise of learning the value of a hard day’s work but also because the work was punishing and many hands made it easier.

I would try and deflect with any excuse to avoid going, to no avail. I didn’t have to go often but the times I did go I was surprised at the speed at which my parents worked, always in a really uncomfortable silence. My parents may have wanted company to help them in the gruelling task at hand but cleaning warehouses, offices and printing presses taught me the high admission price my parents paid for our safety.

While (I imagine) most children and young adults are taught how to carry out domestic chores with a slack tutorial by a parent so their child learns some basic life skills, my father taught me how to clean a floor by cleaning the floor of a shopping centre. I learnt how to clean toilets by cleaning them in an office block. I learnt how to vacuum by vacuuming a warehouse. I’m proud of this because it taught me the value of hard work and the value of my own work. If the Liberals owned the language of opportunity and enterprise and wooed my father that way then the Labor Party wooed me with its language of fairness, hard work and mateship. I guess this is why I found it hard to believe my Father defected to support the Liberals, because we had cleaned other people’s toilets together.

I remember once cleaning the offices of a multinational health company when I asked my mother if this is what they had come to Australia for. I asked her if my father’s anger, which often manifested itself in numerous beatings for us all, was because in Australia he was earning a living cleaning an office and in El Salvador he would have been the boss. I could tell the question shattered her but also gave her some sort of perverse comfort because it showed her that I acknowledged the incredible sacrifice my parents had made so that we could prosper. As an adult, I have never had to work in a factory or in the manufacturing industry, partly because my parents held the bottom of the ladder making it easier for me to climb. Yet, because of my background and my story, I definitely identify with the working class, even if that identity doesn’t relate to my life today. While I may be well educated, well travelled and well remunerated I’ve also cleaned plenty of public toilets.

As a lawyer working in academia, I resent the amount of time I spend in an office, but that’s not because I’m cleaning it. I’m acutely aware that this role reversal came about through sacrifice and hard work and not entitlement. I may not ever work in a factory, at least for the foreseeable future but I certainly relate to those that do, regardless how many rungs of the ladder I climb.

I sometimes joke with close friends that it’s hard to find a Salvadorian immigrant that isn’t (or wasn’t) a cleaner. While I hate that stereotype (it promotes the bigotry of soft expectations), both my parents worked several casual cleaning jobs from time to time cleaning offices in industrial parks or factories and shops. Much like any reclaimed language or stereotype, I feel I can joke about being a migrant. I find that self-deprecation in particular makes people feel okay to ask questions or talk about race and class issues; however woe befall anyone who uses the Latino cleaner stereotype to laugh at me and not with me. Self-deprecation, what’s more Australian than that?

The Labor Party

This is a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy, that we are what we should be – truly the land of the fair go and the better chance.
Prime Minister Paul Keating, 10 December 1992
(Prime Minister 1991–96)

It was because I learnt to clean toilets by cleaning other people’s toilets and because I flourished with free education and free healthcare that aligning myself with the self-professed party of the workers felt natural. In fact, as a lifelong progressive it almost felt expected. At the time I aligned myself to Labor, Kim Beazley was its leader and while I had no warm feelings for him, it was the party’s values that I connected with. Even though the decision to align myself with Labor felt easy, it wasn’t without challenge.

The elevation of Kevin Rudd to the leadership with Julia Gillard as deputy was refreshing, particularly after 11 years of Howard’s strident conservatism. That feeling magnified a thousand fold when the Labor Party came to office. Rudd competently steered the nation through the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, he closed the offshore detention camps and he apologised to our First Nations Peoples for the stolen generation.

Behind the scenes, chaos was taking hold in the Rudd Government, the history of which has been repeated and examined ad nauseam. For my part, I maintained my loyalty through Gillard’s premiership and I became a member of the party in 2010. It was no coincidence that at this time I also began working for a Labor-aligned law firm where joining the party while not required, was gently encouraged and definitely welcome. I felt that I could forgive Gillard’s unexplainable and silly opposition to same-sex marriage and her administration continuing the Northern Territory Intervention in Aboriginal communities started under Howard, albeit under the sinister-sounding name of Stronger Futures.

I felt that the party and its values were more important than the leader, I also think I was extremely forgiving of Gillard’s many mistakes because I genuinely liked her after having met her when she toured my law school. That same forgiveness did not extend to Rudd’s second iteration as leader. Interestingly, my mother’s appreciation for whatever Labor leader happened to be Prime Minister had also run thin. She would refer to Rudd as ‘that man’, her words thick with venom. ‘Have you seen what that man has done to La Julia?’ I think that my separation from Labor gradually over time would not surprise Labor strategists but it certainly wouldn’t please them. I was then an urban twenty-something, recent postgraduate living in inner Melbourne. My demographic were probably seen as collateral damage in the great Labor Civil War of 2007–13; but not my mother. My mother was a working-class woman with a seemingly undying loyalty for ‘the party that brought us here’. If Labor could lose my mother, and people like her, then as far as I’m concerned it’s a sure sign that they’re in trouble.

It was Rudd II’s 2013 revised policies on immigration, refugees and asylum seekers that finally saw me sever ties with the party and led my mother to ask me: ‘who do I vote for now?’. I’m aware that a Labor government first introduced mandatory detention but it was under the Liberals that it became deliberately crueller so as to be a deterrent much later. In fact, it was Labor under Rudd that closed the offshore detention camps and it seemed for a while that compassion would be reintroduced to how we dealt with asylum seekers and refugees; at least that was before the Labor leadership wars. Postbellum Labor was different, postbellum Labor was more interested in burning its own house rather than burning the ‘light on the hill’. I cut up my membership card.

I know that I was not the only one dismayed that the party that has given Australia great economic and social reforms was now playing an unwinnable game with the Liberals just for a chance to hold on to government. Labor deserved to lose the election particularly as it blatantly used asylum seekers as pawns. I refuse to say that I left the Labor Party, the Labor Party left me. Whether it’s because of its behaviour towards itself while in government or its failure to be any sort of opposition once out of government it appears to me that I’m not the only one abandoning that ship.

The Labor Party has also betrayed Australian progressives in two ways: they were too concerned with fighting each other than governing this country, and they’re so intent on being a Liberal Party Lite that they are happy to vacate progressive politics. It appears to me that Labor is progressive only when compared with the Liberals. What Labor is offering progressive Australians like me is a reprieve from the Liberal Party, not a remedy. This vacation of Labor from the left – in fact I would go so far as to say that it is a dereliction of their duty to provide a forward thinking, socially focused agenda – has left progressives with three choices: disengage completely, support micro parties or support the Greens.

The Australian Greens

From now on, any asylum-seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees
Kevin Rudd, 19 July 2013
(Prime Minister: 2007–10, 2013)

I first became aware of the Australian Greens through Bob Brown around the Tampa affair, when John Howard deployed Australian combat troops to intercept the MV Tampa from offloading refugees to the Australian mainland it had rescued at sea. As a senator for Tasmania, I always just assumed that they were exclusively a Tasmanian party, and it was a fair assumption to make.

I started considering supporting the Greens at the 2007 election, after Adam Bandt became my local member of parliament. Labor’s Lindsay Tanner before him was very popular but given his retirement, as well as his crucial role in the Rudd–Gillard wars, my attention began to wander elsewhere. The Greens seemed to be putting forward the kind of ideas I wanted my elected representative to espouse: legalising same-sex marriage, health and education spending reform, a strong social safety net, sound environment policy and most importantly for me, the humane treatment of asylum seekers.

After deserting Labor in 2013, I joined the Greens. Publicly as a protest against Labor, though in the secrecy of the voting booth, I voted for the Greens in 2013 while still being a Labor member. It was my silent, secret protest against everything Labor now stood for. The Greens made me feel better about my progressive politics and they were and have become even more of a real threat to Labor. Supporting them gave me the feel good factor of knifing Labor in the front. Despite this, my alliance and allegiance to the Greens gives me some concerns, not just about the party but about progressive politics in Australia broadly.

It’s true that in Richard Di Natale they have the only leader of a major political party in Australia that has (and has ever had) a non-English speaking background; yet the parliamentary seats it occupies and the policies it espouses feel at time too idealistic, impractical and geared to appeal to urban, twenty-something undergraduates. Even though demographically speaking I am no longer working class, that’s my background. Being working class has made me so I often default to seeing things through the lens of my background; my family’s background. If people talk about having ‘the sniff test’ or the ‘pub test’ to determine the veracity of something then when it comes to politics I feel I use something that I’m going to start calling ‘the parent’s test’: ‘would my working-class parent’s benefit from this policy?’.

I want to be clear that I don’t think the Greens policies need a major overhaul per se but they do need challenging. A competition of ideas is how better ideas are devised and better policies implemented. The Greens are the only left-leaning progressive party in the ring and while this is better than no progressives in the fight, it’s dangerous. A party without competition becomes lazy, sloppy and then entitled. A progressive party without competition becomes the Labor party of 2010. A competition of ideas will not only benefit progressives but our politics as a whole. A strong, clear and well-explained progressive counterpoint to conservative thinking gives us all choice but not only that it gives us hope.

Labor is no longer representative of the left, even if they still would like to claim they are. They are chasing a Liberal Party to a middle that keeps on shifting to the right. To say that the Labor Party is a credible choice for progressives is a complete lie. My Labor-aligned friends disagree and point to a suite of achievements of parliaments past and a smattering of left tinted policies of today: Gonski funding, teaching children to code or making entrepreneurism visas available. Worthy policies as they may be, they’re safe. Labor’s policies are not revolutionary; they’re not even evolutionary. Compare Labor under Bill Shorten to Whitlam’s Labor at its high-water mark. Claiming the Labor Party is a viable option for progressives because if elected they would legislate to teach coding in schools is like me passing myself off as a doctor because I can apply a bandage. Labor may have good people but it seems to me they’re lacking in imagination.

When I jumped ship from Labor to the Greens, I did so without looking back. Deep down I felt that in time I would return to Labor if or when they could stand up for progressive social policy with tenacity and fearlessness. I don’t know how long I expected my absence to be, but the person that ensured that absence would be a lot longer was Bill Shorten.

I first met Bill Shorten at a reception at Victorian Government House, hosted by His Excellency the Governor for World AIDS Day in 2013. I approached Mr Shorten to congratulate him on being elected leader of the party. I shook his hand and made the smallest of small talk with him. He seemed so incredibly disinterested in what I had to say which totally compounded his total lack of charm. Not only that but he was appearing to scan the room looking for someone much more important than me to speak with. The photo I took with him speaks volumes; if he could have stood any further away from me, he would have been out of the frame. No sooner than the photo was taken, he turned his back and began talking to someone presumably with a title a lot loftier than mine.

As I was leaving the reception, a little despondent after my interaction with Shorten I bumped into Christine Milne, then leader of the Greens. She was in a frightful hurry, needing to catch a plane back to Canberra. I asked her for a photograph and despite her haste, she was more than happy to oblige. She asked me questions about my life and what had brought me to that event; the photo I took with her also speaks volumes. In it, she is giving me a great big hug and grinning from ear to ear. I like to think that I’m beyond emotional manipulation and can’t be swayed just with a smile. My love for Labor had been long lost by then but with that bear hug Christine Milne cemented my support to the Greens and validated my joining.

I like to think that I make decisions based on reason and after a lot of analysis, and that my capacity to reason and think critically outperforms my feelings and emotions. How could I be swayed by something as simple and innocuous as a hug? Wasn’t the policy and the vision more important than how I may feel for a fleeting moment at a state function taking place in a room so hot people fainted?

I often decry the notion that our politics has turned away from people that have conviction and is moving towards leaders that have charisma. It’s great if the leader of a government has both, but in an era of selfies and Facebook, likeability is an important measure of respectability instead of the other way around.

I don’t think that Bill Shorten’s lack of charisma would matter as much if he appeared to be emotionally intelligent or have strong convictions about something, anything. I also don’t think Christine Milne’s charm offensive would be so charming if she didn’t have sound policies that provided an actual progressive alternative. The rational side of me says that the best person to lead the government should be the most intelligent and not the most likeable. However, it is a complete fallacy to say we make our decisions based on reason and logic, we don’t otherwise Australians would be the most savvy policy wonks in the world. If we were logical and reasonable, we would rake through every party’s policies and discuss them on their merits. Like every other human, we make decisions based on feelings and on how someone makes us feel. Are we asking too much of our politicians, to be intelligent as well as charismatic? Possibly. Did an emotional connection to me as a fellow human being by Christine Milne win me over to the Greens? Absolutely.

The Australian Equality Party

The Marriage Act is appropriate in its current form, that is recognising that marriage is between a man and a woman
Julia Gillard, 30 June 2010
(Prime Minister: 2010–13)

In early 2015, I was looking to elevate my political involvement and start campaigning for a candidate for the next federal election. I joined the Australian Equality Party and took a hiatus from the Greens. This move wasn’t so much ideological but rather practical and self-interested as I wanted to be involved as closely as I could to a candidate’s campaign and involvement in campaigns for the Greens seemed incredibly crowded with very young adults more concerned with being a staffer in Canberra than effecting change.

The Australian Equality Party is a single-issue party whose main reason for existence is for legalising marriage equality. While they profess to be in favour of a whole suite of policies that would benefit gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Victorians, their campaigns and communications are exclusively targeted towards achieving marriage equality.

The Party bills itself as a new voice that will act as a reminder in Parliament that we the people own the political process. The lofty ideas do not match the reality, the Australian Equality Party is a micro party led by very kind people without any political know-how or strategy. The leader of the party is a kind man with good intentions but good intentions are not a currency you can cash in at the ballot box.

I think, if anything, the Australian Equality Party is a barometer of the current mood regarding politics in the nation. People feel that they don’t have an effective choice between the two major parties and the Greens are seen by some as too radical, so this is fertile ground for any person that can muster the numbers to register a political party for their cause. I expect the Australian Equality Party will suffer the fate of the Australian Democrats but with a lot fewer runs on the board.

Keep Australia Beautiful

We have a great objective: the light on the hill, which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.
Ben Chifley Labor Party Conference, 1949
(Prime Minister 1945–1949)

It’s very easy for progressives to feel anguish in our political climate, even after the arch conservative Tony Abbott has been replaced by a moderately conservative Malcolm Turnbull, making it the fifth prime ministerial changeover in almost as many years. While the language that comes from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet is a lot more measured and less prone to sloganeering, at the time of writing there hasn’t been a significant change in policy to accompany the change in prime ministers and this has gone largely unchallenged. In fact, Australians as a whole feel so ambivalent towards politics and politicians that our desire for political stability may cost us if we decide a stable prime ministership is more important than scrutiny and oversight.

Are we in some sort of free-fall or careening towards despair? No, but I think we’re changing as a society in a way that seems dangerous but not unavoidable. Our government is increasingly giving itself broader powers in the name of national security; it is eroding human rights protections for the most vulnerable while simultaneously seeking a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Requests for oversight of how we treat asylum seekers and refugees are shut down with the three words: ‘on water matter’. Whether knowingly or not, we are trying very hard to sacrifice community harmony for something as cheap and disposable as political advantage.

It’s too easy to blame politicians alone for disillusioning us from being active participants in the political process. We need to take responsibility as individuals and as a society and accept that we have either explicitly or by omission made a mutually beneficial deal with our government: they will make us prosperous if we don’t question their actions and motives. Visions for the long-term future of the nation have been replaced with sound bites. We’ve gone from ‘The Lucky Country’ to ‘Team Australia’, and somewhere, at some time, Chifley’s ‘light on the hill’ was snuffed out or towed back to where it came from. All the while, I can’t let go of the idea of ‘Australia the beautiful’ because even if it isn’t true, and even if it never was, I believe that it can be, but only if we want it to be.

‘Australia the beautiful’ must be true because my brother and sisters have all gone to university. I too have been educated by the taxpayer and in fact am the most educated member of my whole family both immediate and extended. Some of my siblings have married and are raising the next generation of Australians, some rent, some own their own home and both my parents are now retired and no longer have to clean other people’s toilets. ‘Australia the beautiful’ exists friends, or at least it has done because I am living proof of it; my family is living proof of it and to deny that, is to deny my existence.

As a political progressive, who has moved from one party to the next to find the most perfect fit, I feel stuck, helpless and increasingly disappointed and isolated because our country is being slammed to the political right aided by a Labor Opposition that is not actually opposing. My own country increasingly disappoints me when it ratchets up its populist, cheap and nasty rhetoric on human rights, asylum seekers, the environment and particularly the xenophobic discourse on immigration.

Maybe the united, pluralistic, multinational county that welcomed my family as future Australians only existed in my mind. Maybe I created it as a salve for the wounds of the war we were fleeing. I need to believe that this country is welcoming and our current attitude to asylum seekers, human rights and government transparency is just an anomaly, an aberration in a system that largely works and has done for centuries. I need to believe that even the son of two professionals-turned-cleaners can become a lawyer and the highest educated person in his family and flourish with the help of and not in spite of the government.

I don’t think the progressive cause in Australia is lost. It is fractured, not coherent, and in some cases begging for a champion; however this is where I come up empty because I don’t have a simple solution to begin the repair process or maybe I just don’t have the will at this moment. I dare say I’m not the only one feeling battle weary, disengaged and powerless. I take comfort in knowing that I will not feel like this forever.

Regardless of how we propose to either create or rebuild ‘Australia the beautiful’ I know that it has to start with one simple premise: we must never be scared of our government but rather, we have to give it plenty of reasons to be scared of us.

My parents still don’t talk about politics; they only really pay attention to what’s happening when they have to vote and usually by asking their children who they should vote for. They always vote, not just because it’s compulsory but because I think to them it’s a symbol of what’s possible. Once my mother came home after having cast a vote at the same time her local member was casting his amongst a small throng of media. She was so proud that her vote was worth the same as her MP’s. She even asked the local member for a photograph and she scanned the local papers to see if she had appeared in them somewhere. She said to me: ‘Australia, isn’t she beautiful?’

Isn’t she?

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer