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The progression deficit: the people and the power

By Brenton Luxton - posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013

I've had many conversations with friends and colleagues about the state of progressive politics worldwide and particularly at home, and time and time again I have been lambasted for not seeing relative gains. "You don't realise how good you have it here, if you travelled more you'd appreciate Australia much more".

On the contrary, I recognise Australia's privileged standing, it is a great place to live, and maybe the best place to live. Our standard of living is world class; we provide free education, some semblance of universal health care, as well as a safety net for those doing it tough. For these reasons I am critical of it. Our standing is revered, our standing should be upheld continuously, and it should guide our actions domestically and internationally. Is it ok to measure our successes against other's failures? Should we be less critical of our own practices simply because they are markedly more supportable than those of Syria or Zimbabwe? I would say with conviction, no. What I hope to do now is highlight the possible causes, factors and actors that fetter the progression of justice and equality in the western world.

The relationship between human nature (humans) and the institutions that govern them isn't necessarily the primary cause of inequality and injustices, at least not directly. To use some contemporary examples we could explore the spate of gun violence in the United States, culminating in the most recent massacre at Sandy-Hook Elementary. You would be hard-pressed to find even the smallest minority (excluding Westboro Baptist) that doesn't completely condemn what took place, and wishes for it to never re-occur. Yet, if Americans feel so strongly about protecting their children and innocence, why did it take place? Was every other violent action and massacre not a precursor to Sandy Hook? The inaction on previous gun violence played a large part in Sandy Hook, not many could disagree with this (excluding the National Rifle Association).


It is here we start to shed some light on the situation. In regards to the National Rifle Association (NRA), it is the 'association' that I'd like to draw attention to. Lobby groups such as the NRA draw their power from associating themselves with the people; whilst the people may be few their association becomes strong as their voices are amplified. Once amplified, they are given the necessary soapbox required to preach to a wider audience. Gun culture in America is rampant, and the scale of debate on gun control and the power of pro-gun lobby groups are often seen as a deterrent to those progressive politicians that realise they can't change things if they can't get elected- therefore causing inconsistencies between the voting public and their governing institutions.

By no means am I suggesting that lobby groups are necessarily bad; they have done many great things in the United States, specifically in areas such as marriage equality. But one must question the actions of a lobby group that wields so much power yet does not fully represent the rights and protections of the American people. The right to not be shot by a deadly weapon should very well trump any right to own a weapon.

Within Australia, there are those who act in similar selfish disregard for the rights and wellbeing of others. The debate surrounding marriage equality is as farcical as it is immoral. The Australian Christian Lobby group pours massive amounts of cash into attacking marriage equality, despite polling indicating the vast majority of Australians are in favour of marriage equality. Yet we have allegedly progressive politicians clambering over themselves in an attempt to prove their social conservatism by denying marriage equality – motivated by fear of a fickle electorate, an electorate that is bought and sold with carefully chosen catchcry campaigns.

Is this fear of the electorate justified? Have the leaders of our country given up on the intelligence of the public; their ability to use logic and reason that works in accordance with our championed Australian values? The answer to both is Yes and this represents the major challenge for progressive politics.

The best example to illustrate the level of contempt Australia's leaders hold for the Australian people would be the sycophantic, hysterical and unprincipled debate surrounding refugee policy. The first time I experienced the ugliness of the debate (unknowingly at the time) was during the Tampa Affair of August 2001. Disinformation fuelled existing fears, leading to an intense flood of anger that culminated in refugee policy being a primary election battleground. I recall overhearing an elderly gentleman cast judgement over the events "Mongrels! Throwing their own kids in the water, should blow up the lot of 'em." John Howard went on to win the election and become lauded and lambasted for his refugee legacy.

Fast-forward to the present discourse, and it can only be described as stated above: sycophantic, hysterical and unprincipled. In 2007, Kevin Rudd's Labor began to unravel John Howard's hard-line migration policy, with policy in line with international laws, norms and expectations. It was arguably a non-issue for quite some time, with Australia's boat arrival intake increasing, but still lower than other OECD nations. Then enters John Howard's old dog Tony Abbott, remnants of a bygone era that "just won't die". Reigniting the vitriol of the past, Tony Abbott spearheaded a campaign that culminated in fear, contempt and a sense of chaos.


What did the primary progressive force in Australia do to combat this? They engaged in a wild race to the bottom of the barrel and beyond. Freshly (I use the term lightly) installed Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard enabled Tony Abbott to make the election about "the boats". Instead of appealing to the reason, values and goodwill of the Australian people, she allowed herself to be consumed by fear, fear of the people. This carried on through the election and culminated in leaving the minority Labor government with little political option but to resume the hard-line aspects of John Howard's refugee regime.

So what is to be taken from this? Is the electorate too uneducated to trust? Are their minds forever captive to venomous shock jocks and superficial current affairs programs? Without a doubt there are a number of voters and politicians alike that harbour these thoughts, it is evident in public and private discussion. By engaging in a race to the bottom, mainstream progressive politics in Australia has proven its distrust and contempt for the Australian public. Instead of appealing to the optimistic, understanding and thoughtful side of the Australian citizen, current debate has either sought to fuel fears (Abbott's Liberals) or attempt to pepper them with understanding (Gillard's Labor).

The critique on the quality of public debate is of course nothing new; influential figures such as Malcolm Fraser, Lindsay Tanner and Malcolm Turnbull have expressed desire for a cleaner and more intellectual debate, yet their wisdom falls on deaf ears. A likely conservative victory in the upcoming federal election will hurl progressive politics into the wilderness, and the primary forces will have to sharply re-evaluate their relationship and associations with the Australian people.

The foundations of progressive politics and its relationship with the electorate should always remain principled and resolute. To allow in perceptions of what is optimistic over what is realistic will ultimately undermine progressive politics entirely. Without steadfast faith in the electorate, the disconnection between politics and people will remain, and the illness in public-political discourse will continue to fester.

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About the Author

Brenton Luxton is a University of Queensland graduate, having completed a Bachelors of International Studies. His study fields were International Relations and Japanese language, with a specific focus on international governance and cosmopolitan ethics.

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