We Australians in this bushfire summer have abundantly demonstrated our courage, resilience and ability to work together to do what needs to be done.
Not just firies on the front line but parents swallowing their own fear as they get their kids to safety, even if it’s only a beach with flames raging close by. Armies of other volunteers feeding and supporting emergency workers. People coping with many weeks of threat and uncertainty, people evacuating two, three, five times, refugees taken in. People piecing their lives back together, others supporting them in whatever way they can, floods of donations. In so many ways we have shown how we work together in adversity. Australians are not unique in this way, most people pull together when times are dire, but it’s a feature of human behaviour that we might be more mindful of.
It would be nice to report also how our parliament quickly put aside rivalries and worked to do whatever it could to support communities and emergency organisations in a time of great need.
It would be nice to report that the political class quickly recognised that the destruction of large areas of farmland, the loss of vast areas of essential, iconic and often unique ecosystems, the lack of a safe place virtually anywhere in our desiccated landscape, the loss of town water supplies and the severity of climate conditions generally constituted obvious and immediate threats to our national security and wellbeing.
Sadly, our political culture remains resolutely adversarial and petty, dedicated to seeking advantage over rivals regardless of the larger cost to our society in lost opportunity. It remains dedicated to buck-passing, spin, distortion and outright lies, with many of the media fully involved or leading the way. It remains gridlocked by the demands of special interests, by historical feuds, by long-obsolete images and rhetoric, by defunct ideologies and by psychological denial and myths.
A lack of empathy has been widely remarked. Not just a Prime Minister turning away from a distressed woman, but the brutal and vindictive policies of recent years. Selfish competition is a core value, in politicians’ daily infighting and in their misguided ideology. They don’t get working together, don’t know how to do it, don’t even seem to recognise it when we do it in front of them. The absence of leadership is also widely remarked, and we might add, if we look honestly at the record, a startling incompetence.
Worse is the corruption. There are not just the recent flagrant examples of rorting for partisan political advantage or private profit. There is the deeper, systemic level in which money is accepted by political parties and policies are torqued to the advantage of the donors. This seems to have become so routine that it is regarded as quite normal, the question of propriety never even occurring to anyone involved. How else can we explain the obsessive support for coal and other fossil fuels in the face of a clear public wish for a rapid transition to clean energy?
A recent report by Greenpeace and Michael West details how many of the Coalition ministry and ministerial staff are former mining executives. This is not just government for mining, it is government by mining. The Labor Party would be only marginally less captured. This is not just the work of the local mining billionaires, the global mining industry is working to keep our quarry open for their business.
So is there a way we might begin to create a political culture that is worthy of us, a way that does not involve begging the powerful? Yes there is, and it has already been shown to work.
We can find, nominate and elect quality Independents to parliament. The electorate of Indi has shown the way, and a few others are following. The key is to work with the grass roots to determine what people really want, and to provide grassroots support for the candidate so they don’t depend on corrupt big money. If there were a dozen such Independents it would shift the dynamic in parliament. If there were more it would begin to change the culture.
Personally I would place only two requirements on a candidate. One is that they have demonstrated an ability to work with communities. That would help to filter out ideological and psychological fruitcakes. The other is that their top priority is to seriously address the linked climate and environmental crises that pose an existential threat to our society.
To make it work we need to put aside long-held habits of thinking in terms of political tribes, loyalty, identity and so on. The present incumbents routinely exploit those habits to keep votes and preferences flowing. Instead we need to think about the values, priorities, integrity and competence of potential candidates.
The result would be members of parliament who can represent and govern. That would be refreshing, would it not?