Last night I went to the parliamentary annexe at Queensland Parliament House to see a speech by renowned peace activist Kathy Kelly. Unfortunately, having ridden there, I was told I wasn’t allowed inside because of the clothes I was wearing.
Just to clarify the matter I’ll tell you what I was wearing – a white t-shirt, a little stained, with the words “we can all be rich if we realise there are things we don’t really need” hand painted on it; a pair of grey cutoff jeans, a little frayed around the edges, with a couple of holes in them and again a little bit stained; and a pair of thongs. My presentation wasn’t helped by the fact that my left big toe was a bit of a bloody and scabby mess after an unfortunate incident earlier in the day. Although I was told that my clothes were the reason, it’s possible other factors were my month-and-a-bit long beard and my somewhat unruly mass of dreadlocks that hang from my head.
Admittedly I could have tried a little harder to dress up for this auspicious occasion, but I do only own one other set of clothes, and they’re not much tidier. It wouldn’t have really been practical to wear jeans anyway when I had to ride my bike quite a reasonable distance to get there on a muggy Queensland spring night. I guess I thought that it wouldn’t be a problem at a speech on peace activism.
Now I certainly think that dress codes in general are something that need to be questioned. I mean, clothes are just material – they’re to keep us warm and to cover up parts of our body considered socially indecent. Any worth in clothes other than their ability to do those two things is merely a projection of other values. The idea of a dress code is ingrained with racism and classism; the insinuation being that to be welcome in this place you have to look like us, “us” being whoever the dominant group is in that situation. But it’s not necessarily the idea of a dress code that I find most worrying here.
Let me tell you the reason I wasn’t allowed in. Later the security guard gave the usual spiel about OH&S (because I’m likely to drop something on my foot and sue the place while listening to a speech), but that was after he had already told me I wasn’t allowed in. His initial reaction to me turning up at the door was, and I quote: “You can’t come in wearing dirty clothes and thongs, we’ve got a dress code here. There’s going to be members here tonight.”
The situation isn’t that rare in today’s society. Security, members, dress codes. It could be a nightclub, maybe a country club. The idea is it’s an exclusive clique, and because you don’t fit the accepted norms, you’re not welcome. Except that this wasn’t at some exclusive club where the members pay money so they can decide who’s allowed in and who’s not. This is at our Parliament House, where theoretically the members are representative of and accountable to me, as a voter and a taxpayer. Basically, what he was saying was, “you can’t come in here, we can’t risk your elected representatives seeing someone wearing dirty clothes and thongs.”
Now this was not the case of an overzealous security guard. Because when I didn’t leave straight away, he went and called his superior, and then came back and repeated the order. Not with an apology, but with the kind of firmness that suggested I was out of line attempting to enter such an esteemed place wearing such despicable attire.
I find the language of “members” way too honest here. Because this is what our form of democracy looks like – not something that we’re all a part of in our everyday lives and decisions, but some kind of exclusive club with its own dress code, language and set of prerequisites.
Our parliament is overwhelmingly monocultural. White, mostly Anglo-Saxon, middle aged, mostly male. Mostly lawyers, or other highly paid professionals. They speak their own language of convoluted political jargon, and their own rituals of careerism and backroom power deals. One look at the parliamentary debates confirms the club idea – rather than discussing the policies in question and how they will actually affect the broader population, most of the “debate” is reduced to personal sniping, like playing with the lives and futures of a nation is some primary school playground fight.
And what about those policies anyway? Is the benefit of everyone the concern when essential services are auctioned to the highest bidder? When workers’ rights, and the rights of the unemployed, are trampled on? When military invasions turn into endless wars and countless civilian deaths? When minorities are marginalised and used for political point-scoring? Or when our Earth is chewed up and spat out in the pursuit of profit? When a genuine moral crisis like climate change emerges, is anyone surprised that after doing as little as possible for as long as possible, the only solution offered is a market-based one, somehow believing that the “profit as the only goal” sickness that got us into this mess will somehow fix it.
The idea of politics as its own exclusive club is only confirmed by the fact that the last paragraph could have been the same whichever party happened to be in power at the time. While they bicker amongst themselves to make us believe they are actually doing something, the fact is that both major parties stand for pretty much the same thing. Pursuit of wealth is the goal, so the rich get richer on the backs of everyone else. And not only do they succeed, they do it so well that rather than break up the club, most of us desire to join it, become rich and powerful so we can be the oppressors.
Well there is another option, and right now on the streets of thousands of cities around the world people are fighting for a fairer distribution of wealth and true representative democracy. They might succeed too, but it will require all of us getting active and fighting against the greed and hunger for power that has led us to a world where so few can control the lives of so many. Democracy doesn’t mean an exclusive few in suits making all the decisions while those of us in dirty shorts and thongs are stuck outside trying to get a peek through the window. Democracy means the voice of every single person being heard and valued. The question is, are you using yours? What is it saying?
All of this may seem quite a tangent to be drawn from being denied entry to an event that wasn’t even to do with our parliamentary politics. But that doesn’t mean everything I’ve said isn’t true, and my experience last night shows that the exclusion I talk about is very literal. My values are about as welcome in that place as my dress sense, so I’ll finish with the same thing I told the security guard: “I’m quite proud to be declared too scruffy for parliament house. I might put it on my CV.”