I can’t muster my usual enthusiasm for politics at the moment. Or even for finishing off the two half-done pieces on Gonski that still sit staring balefully at me from my desk.
You see, I’m waiting through a dying. A shitty, complicated and messy dying. One where no one comes out looking pretty in a casket with flowers. And when the dying is done, my friend will be gone.
So, instead of policy analysis, today, I’m pondering a broader political landscape, both the recent past, and what happens next.
While my friend is dying, I’ve had time to think. No internet, no radio. Conversations that once covered the scope of philosophical wonderings, now tapered off to mere murmurings. Time sitting still.
My friend and I talk about politics a great deal. He asks me difficult questions that force me to be able to back up any claim I make.
He is far more radical, politically, than I am; and he was the first to ask me questions about why things weren’t getting better after the election of the ALP in 2007.
Why his friends still couldn’t get their teeth fixed. Why there wasn’t enough mental health facilities. Why his neighbour couldn’t get on the train at Redfern. Why climate change was getting piecemeal attention and action, at best. Why refugees were not welcomed. Why corporates were not made accountable for the GFC.
And that’s what I’ve been thinking about. How policy is not abstract – it is part of the fabric of lives. Of my life. Of his life. And how dis-empowered most citizens are, to the point when one of the smartest political reporters in the country, dismisses that as having excessive expectations of government.
The policy process is so far removed from most folks. The lobbying, the Ministerial wooing, the marginal seat campaign, the stakeholder management, the strategic leaking, the PR guff, the on-message spokesperson, the timely survey, the Facebook fuckup. All part of the current process. All good for those that can do all those things. They get results. For the rest of us? Where are we in that process?
Is it as a political party member? A union member? A GetUp member?
And where are those, on the progressive side of politics, who are working with people to engage them with this process? With government at all levels, and more particularly, to influence policy development. The conservatives understand this – they are doing it right now.
You win the prize. Yep, no one. And yet, it’s only been five years since there was a campaign that did exactly that. A campaign that changed the Government, and changed policy – industrial relations. And what happened to that campaign is a total travesty.
In a rare moment of unity, unions agreed in 2005, to fund a coordinated, strategic campaign. that became known as Your Rights at Work, to change proposed industrial relations policy introduced by the Howard Government. While they used professional communicators to brand the campaign, the real strength of YR@W was the grassroots campaigns that sprang up all around Australia. The YR@W campaign realised the potential of these groups and provided them with resources, training and connected them into the national story that was being told.
As Sally McManus of the ASU says:
“From the beginning these groups were obviously cross-union, they were pretty much rank and file. It was only in 2007 that there was any full-time presence at all in terms of union officials in most of these places. They had limited formal structures and didn’t have position holders, anything like that. So the decisions they made then about how they were going to campaign were completely controlled by those activists in those towns and suburbs. The fantastic thing was that this produced very effective campaigns, because the decisions they made were based on their local circumstances.”
One organiser described her experience in the campaign:
“The reason I got involved in this campaign was after eight years of a bloody Federal Liberal government, I was sick of screaming at the TV and sick of feeling powerless. So then I got involved and then discovered true democracy … It’s about getting our community back again and about the people. … [In the past] I wouldn’t have talked to anyone about this sort of stuff but I would have been screaming at a family barbecue about it. But now you go and have the conversation with thousands of people, it’s fantastic.”
Most of the people involved in this campaign had never done anything like it before. They learned how to get active in their communities, how to engage with the media and how to communicate effectively about complex policy issues.
So what happened after the 2007 election? Despite spending millions of dollars building the most effective marginal seat campaign that had ever been mounted, the ACTU abandoned its trained, capable, engaged and motivated YR@W teams and they drifted apart. A few in NSW reactivated in 2008 to fight against the sell-off of electricity assets, but it was sporadic and under-resourced.
It’s as though the fight was over. That these coordinated teams of experienced community activists weren’t needed any more now that the ALP had won.
Was anyone else interested in picking up these groups; of understanding the vast resource they represented? None that I know of.
Instead, with its usual mystifying lack of political timing, GetUp chooses, in the week of yet another sunken boat, to campaign about a big fishing boat. What a fucking waste of the best progressive email list in the country that could have been turned into a campaigning machine.
The ACTU’s Secure Jobs campaign is a good one, but I’m yet to see any sign that it is engaging as broadly within communities as the YR@W campaign.
The danger is that if progressive organisations don’t start getting out there and campaigning, Abbott will be the next Prime Minister. Changing votes is harder than a few ads on telly and some reTweets. It requires people on the ground. At BBQs. Handing out at train stations. Talking about issues at work.
The greatest tragedy of all this is that at the end of 2007, there were teams of motivated, trained people, ready to continue to campaign. They could have been enlisted for the original CPRS, or even better, for the original mining tax. How effective would the mining corporates’ campaign been if at every suburban shopping centre there had been a stall of locals, known from the YR@W campaign, talking about what the tax meant. I suspect much less.
But the ALP hacks didn’t understand the YRAW campaign. And the unions disbanded it. And GetUp ignored it.
Is it too late to reactivate this network? To put tools in the hands of community members so they can campaign about progressive issues in their areas. To engage away from the shrill wails of the petty day-to-day dirge that is what passes for political debate.
I don’t know, but I promised my friend that I would at least try to find out. He won’t be around to see the outcome of the next election, so I’m glad he’s still up to asking me some last few difficult questions.
Organise, or die.