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Re-engaging with citizens: taking an issue to the people on the street

By Anne Coombs - posted Monday, 4 August 2003

Most of us feel incapable of influencing the national political agenda. The action, or inaction, of the Federal government is not something we feel we can do much about. Involvement in such big-picture stuff is too daunting. And it feels too removed from our everyday concerns. It doesn't do much good to exhort people to show greater interest in current affairs or the political process - if someone is feeling powerless and alienated then being told that they should be tackling the government on a matter of national policy doesn't help.

But there is a way to reach them. The way to change their mindset is to bring the issues closer to home. If citizens can be involved at an individual, local, grassroots level then there is a good chance that this will lead ultimately to their engagement with the wider political debate. It may be that the issue itself is local. Or perhaps a big-picture issue can be acted on locally. This is what we did with Rural Australians for Refugees, by encouraging country people to start meeting, talking and agitating in their local community. If a disengaged person is approached by someone they know, about an issue they care about, and asked - say - to help draft a letter to the local paper, then that will engage their interest. It's manageable, not scary. And when they start getting feedback about the letter it is empowering.

But do such small activities really achieve anything? I believe they do. In fact I've seen in the rural refugee support movement the steady multiplier effect of such activities. The first thing is the growing sense in the individual that they are acting as a citizen, that they are not remaining anonymous and powerless but are having their say. I've also witnessed the radicalising effect this can have on people. Once they start speaking out there is no stopping them! They'll tackle their local Member of Parliament; they'll march in the streets. These are examples of everyday democracy. And national democracy is not possible without it.


Apathy is a reaction to powerlessness. In order to engage one has to believe at some fundamental level that the world we inhabit is of our own making. But I fear that the majority of citizenry no longer believes that. They feel it is all beyond their control. This syndrome is at its most poignant in the young, who one would love to see tilting at windmills. Young people sometimes seem so resistant to discussing current affairs that it's almost pathological. Not so much "can't be bothered" as don't want to be bothered. It's as if the world they are entering is not the wide and wonderful and exciting place of my youth but a difficult, dangerous monster that they are only prepared to glance at sideways.

There are times when we all feel powerless, particularly about effecting big-picture change. But change can happen at a local level and that is the place to start. I recently travelled through regional districts of NSW, Victoria, South Australia and southern Queensland. For every town that is "dying" there is one that is fighting back. Most of the ones in decline are doing so through no fault of their own - they are too close to another, larger centre, or the industry that provided jobs has gone. But the ones that are fighting back are a revelation. Sometimes the only difference between a town that is thriving and one that is dying is its citizens. That's a harsh statement but I believe it to be true.

Take Donald, in western Victoria. A few years ago its abattoir closed with the loss of 200 jobs, and this in a town of not more than 1500. It could have been the end of it. But a group of citizens decided otherwise. And they decided that Donald would never again be at the mercy of a single employer. They formed the Donald 2000 Committee and with the help of the local Council started actively lobbying for businesses and light industry to relocate to the town. It worked. The light industrial area now stretches for nearly a mile. There's no big industry, no one employing 200 people, but there are a dozen or so smaller businesses employing a dozen or so people - Kookas Cookies, Aussie Shirts, Donald Steel ... the list goes on.

Donald had going for it a handful of passionate people prepared to be involved, prepared to show faith in their community. And it had its own Shire Council. If there is one argument against amalgamations, this is it. A community needs to feel it has control over its own infrastructure and services. It's that grassroots thing again. Where there is a local Council, citizens will feel they have the potential to participate, to influence decisions. They are more likely to be interested in being involved. And the people of that community will feel that the Council is working for them.

The old "they oughta" syndrome is alive and well in Australia. But acting local reveals to people that it is up to them to "do something", that the responsibility for developing an effective community and getting things done can't be left solely to some higher authority.

As a body politic we are too accustomed to having decisions made for us. Because most of those decisions, even when we feel they are the wrong ones, don't impinge too negatively on our lives, we've been happy for that to be the case. We go along to the polling booths every few years and think we've done our democratic duty. Perhaps we've been too comfortable, too accustomed to mild swings in government policy that are no risk to the bedrock of our democracy. Maybe we've become so complacent that we don't even notice when that democracy is being eroded. Maybe when an entire country is so complacent things have to get really, really bad before the majority of people are moved to protest.


So far people appear not to have noticed the erosion of our democracy - the disappearance of ministerial responsibility, of public service independence, of equal treatment before the law. Indeed, the whole notion that government institutions are meant to be a public service has gone in this era in which we are all "customers". Most Australians appear not to care that our government has repeatedly flouted international law in its treatment of asylum seekers, for example. This government could literally get away with murder and most Australians wouldn't care. And in part they wouldn't care because they wouldn't believe it. We have an exaggerated idea of our own niceness. Nice ordinary Australia. How could anything fascist happen here?

The surface niceness of Australia was on display in 2000 when tens of thousands people volunteered during the Olympics. Australians love to volunteer, as long as it is not political.

What is at the heart of this reluctance to engage in public affairs?

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About the Author

Anne Coombs is one of the founders of Rural Australians for Refugees. She is also a house designer and developer.

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