Social Change Starts With Us

Despite the years – even decades – of sacrificial, generous and thankless work of advocates, activists, academics and artists calling for a more compassionate, welcoming and humane society, Australians overwhelming voted for a government that promised to be harder on asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has wasted little time in proving his credentials by living up to, and exceeding, that promise. Not only did our efforts seem to make little difference at the ballot box, but research released by the Scanlon Foundation last week showed that nearly twenty per cent of Australians were on the receiving end of racism in the last year, while newcomers now place “welcoming, kind and compassionate” last on the list of good things about Australia – down from first place in the year 2000.

We’re not winning. And in this competition it’s not the combatants who bear the brunt of our losses – it’s the pregnant women sent offshore to deliver their babies, the refugees and asylum seekers living in legislated poverty and the people of foreign appearance being abused in schools, streets and workplaces. The pain of the loss is borne by migrant communities and by Australian’s social cohesion and, as a by-product, by our economy, mental health and social services and our international reputation. We’re still free to attend our marches, create our petitions and pump out our clever social media campaigns.

There’s no doubt we’re going to continue doing all of those things, but what might we add to our arsenal if we’re going to avoid a similar analysis three years hence?

1. Imagine if, collectively, we were more interested in outcomes for the people on whose behalf we campaign than in kudos for our brand or income for our individual organisations? Imagine a progressive movement in which our principles existed not as platforms for gathering people to our political parties or mailing lists but to make people’s lives better. Imagine if our belief in making life better for people was so fundamental, so intrinsic to our strategy and practice, that no personal ambition, no inter-personal politics, no focus-group testing and no marketing analysis could override that core value? Imagine if another organisation’s success was as valuable as our own quite simply because they made some people’s lives better? Imagine we worked together, complementing each other’s skills, passion and abilities with our own, uniting in the wins and mourning the losses rather than celebrating the demise of our comrades because it leaves more space in a crowded market for our voice, brand, tenders and grant applications?

2. What would we do differently if we intentionally avoided using the tactics of the opposition we claim to despise? If we committed to never using people as tools to promote our agenda? If we decried hyperbole and the manipulation of data when used to advance our cause as intensely as we do when the other side utilise them? How might the public react if we admitted that we don’t have all the answers? How might our public and political credibility be enhanced if we didn’t willingly ignore information that doesn’t suit our own slogans and default positions?

3. What would be different about an asylum seeker movement with a consistent ethic of life? That could admit that a family drowning at sea is equally as tragic as people being blown up in Quetta or being driven to suicide in government funded gulags? That instead of accusing every political leader of being bereft of basic humanity could accept that we’re all wrestling with a multi-faceted global tragedy to which there are no easy solutions? This is an essential element in opening up conversations with the lawmakers who control the destinies of the people we advocate for – and we’re fooling ourselves if we think a steady stream of abuse opens a door of influence.

4. Perhaps, in our commitment to relentless honesty, we could admit that the major parties are not the same? And that all people in any one party are not the same as each other? That, in fact, no one would-be ruling party of Australia has a monopoly on compassion or good policy. How would that change our engagement with the people who have the potential to make both incremental and radical alterations to real-life outcomes for the people who experience life under the policies and regulations we can’t stand for?

5. What if we could make the people with the power to make these changes want to help us instead of hurt us? What if we learned how to celebrate and congratulate those who do something positive – no matter how small – instead of deriding them for the positive things they haven’t yet done? What if we could treat policy-makers like they too were real people, with feelings and jobs to do? Could we take the time to consider that, perhaps, someone who does something good might like to hear the words “thank you” and that maybe this might play some part in encouraging them to do more good? We desperately want our leaders to empathise with the people their decisions impact – perhaps demonstrating some empathy about the competing pressures they are facing could open up space for deeper collaboration and opportunities to celebrate more wins in the future. It is clear that relentless negativity towards our lawmakers doesn’t endear us to them or build relationships of mutual benefit.

6. Imagine we could stop mistaking catharsis for effective campaigning. Loud noise from the same people who have always made loud noises changes nothing except for making the shouting people feel like they have done something important. We feel a lot better when we’ve picked up the phone to abuse someone we disagree with, when we’ve vandalised a politicians office or expressed our rage with a vitriolic placard… but history shows us that we haven’t shifted either public opinion or the policy position of the Prime Minister whose effigy we’ve hung in a noose.

There’s nothing in here that’s a winning strategy in itself. No silver bullet that sees an end to mandatory indefinite detention or prevents deaths at sea. But perhaps now is the time to pause and consider why, more than a decade after Tampa, we’re not only losing but in a worse position than ever. Australians will largely agree that compassion, kindness and fairness are good things, beneficial to society and their communities. The future doesn’t need to be so bleak and racism doesn’t need to prevail. There is hope for a day when fundamental human rights aren’t seen as the domain of the ranting fringe. We can spent the next three years boycotting Alan Jones, blaming Andrew Bolt and bemoaning News Ltd’s front covers… or we can consider how we can become a united, credible and positive movement of change that in three years time stands with the tens of thousands of people whose lives we’ve been able to improve.


Brad Chilcott is speaking at the Building a Progressive Future conference on November 2 & 3 in Sydney. See the full program.

About Brad Chilcott

Brad Chilcott

Brad Chilcott is the founder and National Director of Welcome to Australia, a national movement of people working together to cultivate a culture of welcome in our nation. Welcome to Australia manages two Welcome Centres (in Adelaide and Newcastle) and has 9 branches in cities and regional centres providing personal and practical support for asylum seekers, refugees and other new arrivals through a variety of programs and public campaigns.

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