By Dr Sharon Bessell
As Australia watched its democratically elected government self-destructing in a morass of self-interest and narrow-sightedness, visions of Dorothy journeying through the Land of Oz repeatedly came to my mind.
...I find myself conjuring up images of the scarecrow who longs for a brain, the tin-man who wishes for a heart, and the lion who desires nothing more than courage.
There have long been signs of the Australian public’s scepticism with the direction and nature of politics. Earlier this year, the Edelman Trust Barometer indicated that Australian’s trust in key institutions had declined for a second consecutive year – only 35 per cent of Australians had trust in government.
According to the Australian Electoral Study, which asks people to rate political leaders from 0 (strongly dislike) to 10 (strongly like), no leader has scored more than an average of 5 in the past eight years.
Australians have also turned away from major parties, with the share of votes going to minor parties and independents in the 2016 federal election reaching the highest level in the post-World War Two period.
Australians, it would appear, are disillusioned and seeking alternatives. Meanwhile, too many of our political leaders are alternately – and sometimes simultaneously – failing to provide leadership or leading us instead into increasingly troubled waters.
In scenes reminiscent of the poor, brainless scarecrow’s inability to think, too many Australian political leaders have refused to take seriously the global challenge that is climate change. Curiously, some usually poll-driven politicians cling to the dead promise of coal and carbon-producing energy despite almost 84 per cent of the population wanting a greater focus on renewables.
Young people are more likely to consider climate change to pose a serious threat. And indeed, it is the young who political leaders fail most when they refuse to take seriously the challenge of climate change, because they are the ones who will live with the consequences of today’s lack of leadership.
The political debate around this crucial issue has become as predictable as it is destructive. What is most troubling is not the failure of some political leaders to take account of the polls – it is their flagrant disregard for science and their preparedness to base their arguments on dogma or self-interest rather than evidence.
Like the heartless tin man, some elements of Australian policies and politics are prepared to accept – indeed designed to create – human suffering in the name of ideology or principle.
No example illustrates the point more painfully than that of a desperate 12-year old child on a hunger strike in Nauru, one of many who have resorted to serious self-harm under Australia’s mandatory detention policy – a policy that has been supported by both major political parties.
Australia’s self-image as the ‘land of the fair go’ is under threat when we reject the humanity of some of the world’s most desperate people.
But the fair go is under threat not only in the bipartisan treatment of asylum seekers. Closer to home, there has been a meaner, more judgemental treatment of those on welfare benefits. Again, we see a preparedness to reject people’s humanity, to erode their dignity. The Abbott government’s assault on Joe Hockey’s so-called ‘leaners’ signalled a challenge to values of egalitarianism.
In the past week, reports emerged that members of the federal Young Nationals have advocated that all Australians under 35 on parenting payments should be forced onto the cashless debit card – a misguided indignity that has already been imposed upon many, primarily Indigenous, communities.
This meanness of spirit is not only shaping policy, it is decaying the way in which services are delivered and people are treated.
I remember sitting in a Centrelink office, waiting to interview the head of the branch, when an elderly gentleman approached the counter. I watched in disbelief as he was loudly chastised for having the forgotten necessary paperwork. Told he must phone another office to seek information, he asked if he could make the personal call in private. His request was ridiculed as he was directed to a bank of phones in full sight and hearing of staff and the clients who awaited their turn. The look of humiliation on that man’s face was soul destroying, and a stark reminder that policies designed to belittle have real-world consequences for real lives.
As some politicians take pride in their tough positions, we do indeed seem to be losing the heart upon which egalitarianism is built.
And like the cowardly lion, we collectively crave courage from our political leaders – the courage to rise above blatant self-interest, narrow populism, and a zero-sum approach to politics that casts aside compromise and decency. As winner-takes-all politics becomes the norm, none of us will ultimately win.
Of course, there remain many political leaders who have brains, heart, and courage – leaders who do their best, and do us proud. But political leaders of a different persuasion seem to be on the ascendancy.
After the political drama in Australia’s parliament – a drama clearly driven by a shockingly narrow set of interests – we may well long for a story that has a happier ending. In the final scenes of the Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow finds wisdom, the tin-man compassion, and the lion discovers the courage to stand for what is right.
It is time for Australia to re-write the current political script. It is time for our leaders to earn that title and to earn the trust the nation deserves from them.
Dr Sharon Bessell is the Director of the Children’s Policy Centre in Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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