Thursday, September 24, 2015

Deep democracy: a new model for politics?

It's been said often these past few days that Tony Abbott's prime ministership achieved little of substance. But that doesn't mean it didn't leave a legacy.

Adding to the dysfunction of the Labor years, for many it left a deeper disillusionment with politics, a thicker poison. Our disdain for politicians, our fatigue with their combativeness and repetition, remains. We got a lot of blame but few solutions. Malcolm Turnbull's win doesn't yet seem real. Could we really hope for something more sophisticated?

Abbott talked about creating opportunities but shut blinds, narrowed pathways. His pattern of support for powerful interests such as banks and coal mining companies over their customers and competing interests further disempowered the least powerful.

Abbott talked once about looking after "forgotten families" but made us brittle, more anxious and heartsick. However, he didn't kill our interest in politics. For some he did the opposite - he fertilised the fruits of activism. He got us more involved in an attempt to rebuild our democratic process.

Seeing action as an antidote to despair, all sorts of Australians became incredibly active, waging "lawfare" in the courts, blazoning walls with protest art, marching through cities and staging candle-light vigils even as Abbott made those things more difficult.

Now with a new prime minister, restoring confidence in our democracy will require far more than tweaking the way senators are elected.

Keeping promises is vital, as is articulating a vision. Vision leads directly to values. What is politics for? What is the purpose of public life, its meaning, its shaping and guiding principles? And, most important, what is a good society?

But in enunciating a vision, public alienation can only be turned around with something more, something that shifts us from the superficial form of democracy based on voting and majority rule.

The movement is called deep democracy. It treats majority rule as merely a starting point. It engages minorities as well as the majority, seeking out what they have to say.

The approach asks the question: "what would it take for you to come along and join the majority?". The question isn't an invitation for anyone to betray their views. The process is a means of respecting other views so that majority decisions are better. The idea is that after being listened to, minorities are less likely to disrupt the decision reached by the majority.

It's an approach that can be used whenever there's a difference of opinion - in politics, in workplaces, in the home. It changes the atmospherics by acknowledging where people agree as well as where they differ. It mines the wisdom of alternatives and minority views, tries to find grains of truth and common ground. Deep democracy has been used to great effect in corporate South Africa, where hierarchies have been flattened post apartheid and people need fresh ways to get along.

Woody Allen once joked that relationships are like sharks: they need to move or they die. Democracy is a relationship. It needs respectful engagement. Turnbull seeks to connect with Australians via technology, in a way Abbott never did.

Writing on the future of democracy in his book All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies and the Politics of Dignity, American social reformer Robert W. Fuller holds out the prospect of a "dignitarian model of politics". It's another version of deep democracy. Rankism, he says, is a major cause of disrespect and stops us from going beyond the surface. In Fuller's version, conservative and progressive parties openly engage without fear or malice until they reach a common understanding, instead of being locked in stalemate. Australia's adversarial system doesn't support that approach. It fosters conflict; Abbott's war mentality.

Many Australians, including this writer, are fed up with our hyper-adversarial system of politics. If Turnbull is serious about intelligent conversation (as he says he is) he will not only consult with his own but also reach out to others, knowing that the very act of reaching out is important.

In his first question time with Turnbull as leader, Labor's Bill Shorten extended an olive branch, offering an honest exchange of ideas. What if Turnbull took it up? It would build more confidence in democracy than any of the arm wrestles we see in the Senate.

If deep democracy became entrenched in our culture personal attacks would backfire, discrediting their purveyors instead of their targets.

We would still have arguments, but they would be respectful and civil. They would acknowledge agreement as well as differences. They would acknowledge what matters. Otherwise, it's business as usual and history repeating itself, as it often does.

First published in The Canberra Times, September 24, 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Poverty is structural

There's a saying in the outback, when it's very cold it's a two-dog night. This particular Saturday afternoon in Canberra, on the wrong side of spring, it was a two-beanie day.

People were rugged up as they filed into Tuckerbox at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Hackett to purchase heavily discounted groceries. Tuckerbox is a weekly volunteer-run food outlet designed to assist people struggling with their weekly budgets.

It's food that can't be sold commercially due to bad labelling, incorrectly listed weights or fast-approaching use-by dates. Foodbank NSW and ACT collects it from manufacturers and retailers and Tuckerbox "sells" it for a small fee. Reciprocity is important. Customers like it. They are not getting a hand-out.

Tuckerbox is a sign of just how tough things have become for many people in Australia's richest city. It is one of several food banks in our suburbs and surrounds. Last month Anglicare opened Food Fair in Queanbeyan.

Faith communities see them as an extension of the Eucharist. They feed people, many of whom feel excluded. The project is a statement of solidarity.

But they are not a sustainable solution. They are like blankets for the homeless: useful when it's cold, but not able to get them into affordable housing. The more blankets and food banks we need, the greater the evidence that we are not lifting people out of poverty.

A new global report out this week shows a third of older Australians are living in poverty. In the wake of last week's poor economic data and evidence of declining overall living standards, we ought to be deeply concerned about what we are doing to tackle poverty and income inequality.

The Abbott government isn't keen on tackling it directly. Here is its latest slogan: "Backing Hard-working Australians".

To the extent that it does have a plan for tackling poverty it is built around the philosophy of "help trickling down". It believes that if businesses face less red-tape they are more likely to employ people, and so on. If they employ more people with a disability, then so much the better. But the neat theory hides all sorts of barriers to people actually getting jobs and keeping them.

Treasurer Joe Hockey might have his heart in the right place, but he is disconnected from many people's realities. In his world, poor people "either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far in many cases".

They just need to get better jobs. It's easy enough, if that's what they want. Those that remain poor are demonised for apparently not wanting a better job. They lack aspiration. Their communities are full of cultural deficits. Meanwhile, funds for services to help them have been cut. Not-for-profit organisations have been put through a tumbler, losing grants and expertise.

In his new book The Politics of Luck, Canberra politician Andrew Leigh reminds us of the importance of random events. Bad luck is extraordinarily powerful. It can change the course of many lives in an instant. Bad luck – those shifts of fate that can strike any minute – is why we need a safety net.

If our leaders don't recognise it, they end up running self-help movements rather than governments, assuring us that all we need is motivation and implying that poverty is the result of moral failure.

There's a quote doing the rounds on Facebook from Women's Rights News: "If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire."

The words sit over an image of a woman with a baby slung to her front and lengths of timber many times her weight tied to her back.

A word search of the Treasurer's speeches reveals that he only mentions poverty when he is talking about economic growth or trade liberalisation. It's always poverty overseas.

Compare that with New Zealand's Treasurer, Bill English, who has ensured that his centre-right government genuinely tackles inherited disadvantage. He has insisted that all new government spending (such as it is) relate to "social investment".

Children are his major focus. Understanding that poverty is structural, he has targets to wind back the long-term unemployment of their parents, to reverse the rise in child abuse, and sharply cut the rates of school dropouts and the rates of convicted children re-offending.

Australia doesn't have over-arching targets for reducing poverty. And there are no agreed measures of success or progress. It's convenient. It means people in power are less accountable.

First published in The Canberra Times, September 19, 2015