The day after the election, Hume City Council hosted a community cultural picnic. Hundreds were in attendance, representing over 25 nationalities. Many small-business holders who strongly support the Liberal government’s economic record and promises were amongst the crowd. Many of them came to this country as refugees. They were there to celebrate difference and the power of community, and put on a fine spread as every culture shared food from their native home. It didn’t matter how they had voted the day before.
Many left-leaning commentators claim to be disenchanted with the values of the majority of Australians but they are arrogant and wrong. Refugee-advocate Julian Burnside has threatened to leave the country, considering the election result. Phillip Adams, Kenneth Davidson and Margo Kingston all weighed into the mess, questioning Australia’s collective moral capability.
But the Left needs to mobilise the community. There is much to gain by continuing to promote community relationships and engage those who currently feel isolated. Julian Burnside has demonstrated this by his commitment to speaking to grassroots refugee movements across the country. His visits have fuelled passions, provided information and encouragement. Australian communities need his continued support, not threats of abandonment.
Before the footy finals in my parents’ northern suburban community, the local football club’s number one supporter - a local man with an intellectual disability - had his bike stolen. He used his bike to ride to every game. The following week, a collection in rooms provided enough money for the club to buy him a new bike and train fares to the finals.
In a friend’s workplace, the office Kris Kringle tradition has been transformed into a fundraising effort to support TEAR International. During Christmas, everyone regularly donates a portion of their wage to provide their own small contribution to foreign aid.
Australians may have voted for surplus budgets in electing the Howard government for a fourth term, but we have not lost our spirit of generosity and our concern for those who need support. Howard’s election success does not necessarily mean Australians exclusively share the conservative values of the right.
Last year, Australia’s most popular television show Australian Idol had four finalists representing the broad spectrum of Australian diversity: a musician of Indonesian descent, a country boy from rural NSW, a Greek-Australian woman and a young woman with Islander heritage. This year’s final two contestants are a young Italian and a generously proportioned teenage girl. Australia does not even have that spectrum of choice when voting for the major parties at federal elections. Yet, in a television popularity contest, diversity wins out.
In the coming months, kindergartens and schools across Australia will elect new committees of management and school boards. Thousands of Australian parents will give their own time to help run the organisations that educate their children. Thousands more do similar jobs in community health centres, neighbourhood houses and community groups every day. They do this in every electorate: Liberal, Labor or otherwise.
At a federal level, Australians need to believe that they can have what they don’t think is possible. Labor should develop workplace reform and national childcare and family policy in a way that sets them apart. Labor needs to support Australians who demonstrate concern for their community, replacing the bicycle of a fanatical footy fan or working to keep their local kindergarten functioning.
Australians want more time with their children, but are stuck working 40-hour weeks. Australians want to lead engaging and healthy lives but are highly stressed about work and employment. There is room for significant reform here, particularly taking the aging population into account. A combination of labour reform, greater childcare planning and investment and policy that supports the engagement and value of parenting would give Australian families time to invest further in their community.
Workplace policy that supports volunteering in place of recreation leave during the week will connect office workers with their community. This is being trialled in the Department of Victorian Communities with much success. Family-friendly work policy can be structured to be less tokenistic, and actually support its uptake through shifting our society’s attitude towards work.
Labor must increase the responsibilities of, and funding to, local government, in order to support the level of government most accessible to communities. Local government already runs a range of health and community services. Giving them more responsibility for community health centres and social support infrastructure and services would further strengthen community involvement. Labor needs to empower local government to make decisions that are not a one-size-fits-all affair across a state or nation, but specific to their communities’ needs.
Australians’ values are strong and humanitarian. The Left needs to build on these, and continue to support the communities in which they thrive. By expressing disenchantment and disgust with Australians, the public voice of the Left is further distancing those they need to listen to.
It is in community that the Left was born - it is community to which it must return.