Politics as more than a dirty word

It used to be sometimes said that a good thing about Australia not having fixed election dates was it spared us from the endless political theatre of say, the US election cycle.

I say “used to” – all Australia’s states now have fixed terms; while at a federal level we haven’t even had an election date called yet are being forced to endure, like some terrible undeserved purgatory, the faces on billboards, tv screens and newspapers of the men who would be our next Prime Minister.

Plenty of this is self-promotion (especially Clive Palmer’s Donald Trump act); though both contribute by putting their opponents faces up as political bogeymen to haunt us as we go about our lives. Labor say Scott Morrison wants to cut our penalty rates,  Liberals say Bill Shorten wants to rob retirees.

The media meanwhile also work themselves up into a state of frenzy. Freed from the responsibility of actually going out and finding out what’s happening in the world, journalists relish the opportunity to sit at their desks and crank out a mixture of gossip and political propaganda. With glee they publish Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull complaining about their old colleagues. Astonishingly, the right-wing media has been openly and overtly calling for a rerun of the 2001 and 2014 election monstrosities; when politicians with comfortable lives shamefully used desperate and displaced people as tools for a campaign of fear.

Even when not completely sensationalist, the media forgoes a rational analysis. Endless pages are devoted to the campaigns of high profile human rights lawyers and former olympians running for seats of prominent MP’s, as if the state of Australian politics is merely due to a couple of individuals and everything will change if they are voted out.

With stories on federal politics coming thick and fast, there is little time to reflect on how ridiculous some of them are – the CEO of government contractor Helloworld apparently telling his employee “Joe Hockey owes me”; senator Brian Burton having a fistfight with a One Nation staffer then smearing his blood on Pauline Hanson’s door; and the peak – the day a government of highly paid and seemingly fully developed adults wasted an entire day of parliament with pointless speeches and questions to avoid having to deal with motions proposed by opposition parties.

Confronted with this overwhelming barrage, the natural response is to turn away and shield your eyes; maybe lock yourself in your room like Japanese hikikomori; at the very least to conclude that if “being political” means keeping up to date with these happenings, then being political is something to be best avoided.

And that, of all the reasons, is why I hate elections the most. Because the all-consuming spectacle cultivated by those in “politics” reinforces the idea that important decisions that affect society are made by men and women in suits, and the role for the rest of us is to be like fans at the footy – standing on the sidelines cheering and gossiping.

The word “politics”, before it became smeared with these connotations, once came from the Greek “polites” – that is “citizen”. It is meant to describe the interactions of people – that is all of us, not just those shameless enough to end up as MPs. About how society as a whole affects the life of each person, and indeed how the lives of individual people affect society as a whole.

Thinking about politics in this way provides a reason why, despite everything, we should all seek to be political. Because we each do have something to contribute to society, and seeking to do that can provide a sense of meaning to our lives and a very real output for the skills we all have. Because politics does affect us all and by getting involved we could potentially shape society in a way that can make our lives very different. And because we do live in a world where our lives are affected by the actions of others. To “not be political” is merely to support the status quo – the disproportionate influence of those who were born into money and property, and who usually act in their own interests at the expense of everyone else.

While the mass media is engulfed in the spectacle of the election; there are people around the country trying to redefine what politics means – into something that includes all of us.

In central Queensland, people from around the country converged last week in response to our government’s continued inaction on climate change. It’s not just that this summer was once again the hottest on record and one full of the kind of natural disasters climate change is predicted to exacerbate. Not just that Australia’s carbon emissions increased again to our highest ever point. It’s that climate change has already demonstrated the disastrous effect it will have on all kinds of species and people in vulnerable situations. And yet people in power talk about the necessity of action then happily approve new coal mines and even coal-fired power plants.

Those gathered near Bowen, where the coal from Adani’s proposed Carmichael mega-mine will be shipped out, had decided that while not everyone has the power to consign whole species to extinction with a signature; each person does have the ability to put their body where their beliefs are. As such, this gathering of random people from across the country managed to pretty much stop any coal from being shipped out of that port for 80 hours. They did this in spite of an overwhelming police presence designed to stop them doing so. They did it with a lot of ingenuity, co-operation, and courage to face the legal consequences and public vilification of hostile media.

Further south in Queensland, the Yuggera Ugerapul aboriginal people have been for several years resisting the plans of property developers to build a new suburb on the grounds of the old Deebing Creek mission and its cemetery where many of their ancestors are buried. Their attempts have so far not been successful, so like those up north they’ve decided that physical presence is one bit of power we all have. They set up camp on the mission site.

This week police came in to clear out the camp. The Yuggera Ugerapul and their supporters refused to leave – terra nullius this is not. A few were arrested. One young aboriginal man climbed a relic “scar tree” and refused to come down. They performed their culture – singing, dancing, and affirming that aboriginal connection to country is still a living breathing thing. The next day there was a meeting of property developers, police and elders. It was agreed the camp could stay. The crowd, who been forced out of the campsite but had refused to leave the area, started setting up the tents and kitchen again. That struggle goes on.

Around the country, high school students live in the paradox of being told by their teachers to think about their future while they watch it being wilfully destroyed in the name of profit. They’ve managed to learn more about the seriousness of climate change in science class than Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison did in all their briefings with the Department of the Environment.

They’ve decided to take action on climate change, and have encountered a history of people who have been fighting for the same. The result was a mass walk-off of students from school in November to protest, and another one planned for this Friday. But more than that, the result has been a cohort of young people learning that for all the platitudes about “your future”, it is possible to reclaim the future from those who would seek to destroy it – by getting together and working on the things we believe in. The patronising responses of conservative politicians to the initial strike has only acted to reinforce the need for young people to act. And miraculously, for the first time really in over a decade, climate action is on the election agenda.

These are only three examples, I could give plenty of others. Not all dramatic protest either. But of people who rather than resigning their fate to the faces on the billboards, have decided to act on their beliefs and try to change what is in their power. People who see politics as a lived reality rather than something you watch on TV.

As politicians scramble for votes in the spectacle of the election campaign, this is the one message you won’t get from them – that our best hope for a just, sustainable and life-enriching world is for everyday people to get together and talk about what is really important and how we can bring it about. Not on the billboards, the TV ads or the baby-kissing photo ops. But if you look closely you can see that message being spread; if you give it a go you might even find that it rings true and politics can be more than just a dirty word.

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