I felt something strange reading Rebecca Huntley’s Quarterly Essay.
It was such a peculiar sensation to feel while reading about modern Australian politics that initially it confused me. I went back to re-read passages multiple times, trying to translate my disorientation. Was it the arguments provided? The history? The data? No, no and no. The writing was lucid, the narrative engaging, the statistics helpful. So why did I feel unsettled?
At first, I classified this foreign feeling as hope. I could barely remember the last time I felt hopeful when considering Australian politics, but the details of where the majority of Australians sat on numerous topics were a pleasant surprise. Despite what political and media battles imply, Rebecca shows that the majority of Australians supported the original Gonski reforms, more funding for the NDIS and Medicare, and reined-in corporate donations to political parties. Rebecca even showed that the majority of Coalition voters (let alone everyone else) say climate change is caused by humans.
This was deeply encouraging, and for a moment I climbed into a boat of hope that, unexpectedly, also had the majority of my fellow Australians sitting inside it. Most of us wanted similar things for the nation! I was not in the minority! In a democracy, the will of the people prevails, so surely these things will be respected by our political leaders!
But quickly I realised it wasn’t hope that I was experiencing. At least, it wasn’t hope alone. Grafted onto my hope was intense frustration.
The very thing that gave me hope – that the majority of Australians wanted good and helpful things – was the same thing that made me despair. Because these wishes were not being reflected by our politicians. Some issues had been kicked under the couch and ignored by our leaders; others had been completely overruled and the very opposite cause aggressively championed instead. Why are schoolchildren going on massive protests for greater commitments to protecting the environment in a desperate attempt to get politicians’ attention, when these politicians already know this is what most voters want (and these same children are sneeringly dismissed by some politicians while they’re at it)?
It feels embarrassingly naive to be perturbed by this, like mine is a childish, simplistic view of democracy. But at its most fundamental level, democracy is meant to be about reflecting the will of the people. While politicians cannot check in with their constituents before they make each and every decision, and while policy change can be difficult and slow, the sheer number of topics Rebecca lists that have majority support but have been dismissed, ignored, overridden or put in the too-hard pile by our leaders is confronting. Self-preservation alone would suggest that politicians should listen keenly to the majority, so as to best reflect their will – and best keep their jobs. Yet on a litany of diverse issues, they aren’t listening. How has the will of the people been so misrepresented? And, more importantly, why?
We can speculate on the reasons: politicians prioritising internal factions and party-room squabbles ahead of public sentiment is one (the same-sex marriage survey may be the most extreme example of this). Politicians wanting to keep large donors with vested interests onside may be another. Myopic self-protection by politicians who don’t want to be responsible for change that will take longer than a three-year election cycle could be another.
That there is support across party lines over a long list of issues that are not being embraced by our leaders should bother us, but perhaps for more reasons than are first obvious.
The neglect of these concerns, and the self-serving dance between politicians and the media when discussing them, has led many of us to believe we, the majority, are actually the bleeding-heart minority. Consistently seeing politicians argue against tackling climate change, for example, creates a cognitive dissonance within us. If politicians are so reluctant to act on (or in some cases, even believe in) man-made climate change, we tell ourselves, then the only explanation is that this is what a large proportion of the electorate wants. Why else would our leaders act in such a nonsensical way, but to uphold democracy? And so, as Rebecca reports, in our minds we triple the number of Australians who reject climate change, assuming it’s 23 per cent when in reality it’s less than 8 per cent.
This is perhaps the most concerning detail to come out of Rebecca’s essay. Politicians’ behaviour is jarring with our understanding of democracy, so to reconcile that within ourselves, we assume the problem is with other voters – that they must be the ones who reject man-made climate change or don’t want to increase funding to the ABC. We project onto our fellow Australians the beliefs of our politicians. What this misplaced blame does to community cohesion cannot be underestimated. We are living in a time of profound social silos and tribalism, and this is being further entrenched by our politicians’ behaviour. They are creating divisions among voters – for instance, by pitting Adani mine jobs against climate change action. And so instead of turning on the politicians who don’t represent us, we turn on each other.
Tolkien warns, “False hopes are more dangerous than fears.” As I consider the hope I first felt while reading Rebecca’s essay and the systematic account of what the majority of us actually want (as opposed to what politicians imply we want), I wonder if that hope is misplaced and thus dangerous. After the recent election result, that would be an understandable conclusion to draw. But as Rebecca shows, while our belief in institutions, religions and politicians is falling off a cliff of resentment, we still believe in democracy. That belief is something we can have genuine hope in. And if our politicians continue to ignore what so many of us want, perhaps it is they who should be fearful.
Susan Carland’s first book was Fighting Hislam. She is the director of the Bachelor of Global Studies at Monash University and hosts the SBS quiz show Child Genius.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 74, The Prosperity Gospel.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY