Prospects for a progressive agenda

This article was co-authored by Terri Butler MP and Andrew Giles MP. 

20 years ago, Blur’s Damon Albarn sang: ‘I’m a professional cynic, but my heart’s not in it.’ He was singing about a retreat from the world of commerce to a bucolic, gilded cage, trading one set of anxieties for another.

Albarn’s character tried to defeat cynicism with denial. In 2015, progressives in public life can’t afford to make the same mistake.

There’s plenty of cynicism about politics and the value of democracy. The Lowy Institute, releasing the findings of its 2014 survey, said:

“…only 60% of Australian adults, and just 42% of 18-29 year-olds, say ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’. …”

Many have tried to explain Australians’ cynicism: politics is just becoming irrelevant; tactics are making politics seem more trivial; media cycles and social media have disrupted communication; governments have less power than previously, but voters haven’t adjusted their expectations accordingly; Oppositions have learned the electoral value of strongly negative campaigns.

And the Lowy institute found that those who didn’t see democracy as preferable thought there’s no difference between Labor and the Coalition, or that ‘democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority of society’.

It’s tempting to surrender to the idea that cynicism is natural and inevitable. To go with it.

But that’s a surrender our nation can’t afford. Because it still takes politics to make change. Sectional interests know the importance of politics. To serve the national interest, it’s important that everyone else does, too.

With unemployment at a 12 year high, our nation’s social contract being torn up, and the gap between the very rich and everyone else increasing, optimism is imperative.

If people believe there’s no difference between the parties able to form government, or that democracy necessarily leads to inequality, they won’t see the point of politics, and will vacate the field for those who do.

To meet our nation’s challenges, we need to instil hope that change is possible. And it is.

That’s why we should enter this new year backing optimism over cynicism, hope over fear.

Tony Abbott is on the other side of this ledger. His heart’s in his cynical, negative approach to governing. And so in 2014 from reboot, to reshuffle (by way of reset), the song remained the same.

The example of this, par excellence, is the assault on Medicare in the form of the GP tax. In pretending to abandon this, while reintroducing the same principles through the back door, the government took ‘mean and tricky’ to a new low. It’s little wonder people feel cynical.

Amongst Tony Abbott’s roll call of pre-election broken promises is this election night gem:

“I now look forward to forming a government … that is trustworthy and which purposefully and steadfastly and methodically sets about delivering on our commitments to you, the Australian people.”

The most cynical, the most egregious lie of all.

This isn’t just a talking point. It’s fundamental to how our politics works. It’s also the threshold issue for anyone interested in a more equal society. People won’t – can’t – change the world if they aren’t confident of the possibilities of politics.

Recent surveys have found significant pessimism amongst Australians. We believe this pessimism, and the cynicism about our democracy, to be related.

This isn’t just an Australian phenomenon. It’s happening right across the developed world. But that’s no excuse for failing to act. As we recognise the great cost of inequality, our challenge isn’t just to highlight its consequences – it’s to demonstrate that there is an alternative. That we can race to the top, not the bottom.

Last year our nation reflected on Gough Whitlam’s extraordinary life. This year, let’s remember it was his commitment to public life and our democracy, as much as his vision for our country, that marks his enduring influence.

In taking stock of 2014, we can also take heart. We think of the community’s response, opposing the Attorney-General’s proposed licence to bigotry. Of how Australians stood with one another at times of crisis, and denied those seeking to divide our society.

These victories must be celebrated. And their lessons learnt. They can be foundations for an alternative that inspires.

Australians are still strongly egalitarian in their instincts, it’s our task to remind them and to convince them that they have more power to remarry these instincts to their society.

Part of our challenge is to recognise that people have been disappointed by their representatives. We are part of the problem and we must turn this around.

With this in mind we are resolved to make 2015 a year of kindness, generosity and hope.

We may be criticised as naive (or worse). But we look forward to hearing the alternative from those professional cynics who think this is as good as it gets.


About Terri Butler

Terri Butler

Terri Butler is the Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water, and the federal Labor Member for Griffith, Queensland.

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