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The old tribalism has failed us

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Independents Helen Haines (left) and Zali Steggall (Screenshots via YouTube)

Australian politics needs a new direction with more independents voted in and a move away from tribal attitudes, writes Dr Geoff Davies.

I ALREADY WROTE about the failures of Labor and the Greens and the flagrant partisanship of the media in bringing about Labor’s shock election loss. The trouble is these problems have been evident for a long time (Labor, Greens) and there is little sign anyone in those parties really understands what is necessary.

Nor is there any new party in the offing that might seize the day. The U.S. has Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The UK had Jeremy Corbyn to revive their Labour Party, though he may be sinking into the ancient and corrupt mire of British politics. We have no messiah.

Yet this election has shown us the way forward, if we are open to noticing.

We know what to do about global warming. We are already generating a lot of clean energy and we know how to use pumped hydro to store it. Electric cars and hydrogen fuel are coming. There is abundant clean energy available that industry can adapt to.

We are learning how to farm without degrading the land and, in fact, to regenerate the highly productive native ecosystems of this ancient land. It is obvious what to do about wholesale bulldozing of habitat for ever more suburbs and more low-productivity grazing land. We can reverse carbon emissions and suck carbon back into trees, native grasses and soil.

We can stop the production of harmful chemicals. We already know how to live well — this endless stream of new products is happening not because we want or need it but because it is what competitive corporations must do to survive in the current economic anarchy that is blessed by a baseless ideology called neoliberalism.

We know how to change “the market” so it serves us instead of ruling us. Certainly, we do not just let markets run unfettered; that’s the main problem in Australia and the world. But markets are powerful, they go where the profit is and we can manage the incentives so the profit is in serving people and nurturing the environment.

That only sounds radical because our heads have been filled with garbage. We manage markets all the time, through taxes, subsidies and regulations, it’s just that we mostly manage them incoherently, or perversely for the gain of minorities. Tax the bad things, if necessary, subsidise the good things and prohibit the lethal things. Can we manage a whole economy that way? Well, we won’t know if we never try and the historical alternatives (neoliberalism, Stalinism, fascism) don’t seem to have been working very well.

We can subdue the divisive, fearful, hateful messages spewing out of our politics and media – if we insist – and require some minimal responsibility in commercial media in return for the immense privilege their money and function confer.

We can, as a personal matter, choose to be nice to our neighbours, to lower the volume, to cultivate our better angels instead of submitting to fearful impulses.

All these things are there for us to do, right now. Actually, many people are already doing them — growing healthy food on healthy land, using clean energy, contributing to their local community, avoiding toxic products.

The problem, of course, is these good things are mostly ignored in the current political discourse. The parties are locked into their adversarial combat, focused on tearing each other down. The old parties are also deeply corrupt; they accept money from vested interests and put those interests ahead of what we know the people want.

If the parties won’t change themselves and we can’t force change on them then the only option seems to be to go around them. Is this possible? Could we elect people to the Parliament who just want to get on with all the things we want to do?

Yes, we can. It was done on 18 May.

There will be several independents in the new House. The most interesting are Helen Haines in Indi and Zali Steggall in Warringah. Helen Haines succeeds Cathy McGowan as the representative promoted by Voices for Indi. Steggall’s campaign was modelled on Indi’s.

Some years ago, prompted by widespread dissatisfaction with their major party representative, V4I undertook a wide community consultation to determine what people really wanted. They used a carefully designed system called kitchen table conversations, which was developed in Victoria in response to widespread unhappiness with the arrogant Jeff Kennett regime. They selected McGowan as their candidate and she won twice. Now their new candidate, Haines, has won. These women are in the Parliament to represent Indi, not (just) because of personal charisma or big-money sponsorship or anything else.

Oh, but we couldn’t have a Parliament with just independents, it would be unstable and chaotic. Why? Many local councils and many other organisations operate just by discussing and choosing as a group. Politics, in the broadest sense, is the process of deciding, collectively, what we want to do.

But still, those women are very conservative, aren’t they? Are they just liberals in disguise, or some kind of “tory greenie”? Those are not useful questions, they are just our old partisan habits of thought speaking. The women are not bound by party lines. They are free to consider whatever options are available. They want serious action on climate change. Wherever we’re coming from, we can work with people like that.

Our old politics is tribalised. People identify with one tribe and mostly vote their identity, the group where they feel safe. It has little to do with policy, or competence, or honesty, as we see demonstrated over and over.

The old tribes are failing us, badly. We desperately need a new direction in this country. A great many people agree we need to change. Yet the vote on 18 May was almost completely tribal business as usual. Except in Indi and a few other places. 

We can’t wait for the old tribes, we can’t wait for a new tribe to form and there’s no messiah. And if we get on with it we’ll go much further and faster than a Shorten Government would have. As they say about the climate emergency, we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Dr Geoff Davies is an author, commentator and scientist. He is author of The Little Green Economics Book and Desperately Seeking the Fair Go. He blogs at BetterNature Books.

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