By Robert Wood
It has been with some angst that I have been watching the Batman by-election from afar.
I know the division quite well and lived in neighbouring Brunswick East for the years I was in Melbourne. I was in Batman often. I shopped there, I drank there, I played sport there, I visited friends there, I volunteered there. It is, in the rhetoric of commercial media, a place for bleeding heart, downward dog, chardonnay socialist, latte sipping, mung bean, intellectual elites just like me. And without the Liberals in this particular election, it was a synecdoche for the battle among the left. How galling to watch Miranda Devine, Andrew Bolt and others licking their lips waiting for us to tear ourselves apart. It seemed to them that we could only lose. In this contest, the ALP was set to be pulled off the centrist course needed to form government at the next federal election and the Greens would disenchant their base, becoming even less activist and akin to any other minor political party – 21st century Democrats anyone? But, regardless of the result, the fighting makes the left stronger. Anyone with a basic understanding of dialectics will understand that.
Although there can only be one winner, the question is how can we re-make the culture in such a way that the left provides the natural parties of government? And beyond that, how can a progressive culture give root to a spiritual education that creates a sense of enlightenment in our very souls and nature?
I have met politicians in my time – childhood tennis matches with Geoff Gallop, backyard BBQs with Paul Keating, a birthday lunch with Gough Whitlam, brief encounters with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Teddy Kennedy. I myself have worked for trade unions and NGOs, the bread and butter of the ALP and Greens respectively. I have sat in branch meetings, pre-selection fights, voting booths. I have second-degree friends who are candidates now, people you know on Facebook but do not catch up with in person.
I have been a member of a political party for longer that I have not. I joined the ALP in 1998 at sixteen and though my membership lapsed at various points in time, I was active until 2015 when I joined the Greens for the second time. The first time I was actively involved with the Greens was during Mark Latham’s tenure in 2004, during which I campaigned in the ACT, acted as a scrutineer in the federal election, met Bob Brown and generally made myself heard on questions of the environment. But seeing politics from the inside made me realise I am not built for it – too vicious, too boring, too entitled, righteous, contemptuous. I no longer am a member, and besides, politics is bigger than its parties.
Now, I describe myself as a ‘splitting voter’. I am not someone who goes where the wind blows, not someone who swings depending on self-interest. Instead, I have developed a pragmatic and ideological compass that determines who I vote for. In general, I split my vote between the ALP and Greens to balance power and to combine pragmatic hard headedness with ideological aspiration. The point is that I aim to move the polity in an ideal direction, knowing that one can achieve landmarks along the way even as we must keep going. Recently, the accomplishment of note has been same sex marriage, but as Jed Bartlett says in The West Wing – ‘what next?’ To my mind that is republic, that is treaty, that is bill of rights as much as it is world hunger, climate change, fair pay.
In terms of what I can do as a citizen, that involves contributing to the intellectual discourse around politics here, which must be grounded in local actions that are attentive to local matters. And this is where we return to the role we play as political animals over and above our engagement with parties. For all the votes I cast, speeches I wrote, minutes I took, hours I canvassed, new members I signed up, I do not think I have met a more dedicated local group than the Witchcliffe Progress Association. Witchcliffe is a small town outside Margaret River in the south west of Western Australia and our group’s major achievement to date has been ‘Rails to Trails’, which involved opening up public land to become a green corridor so people can walk or bike between our town and the ones next door. Community groups like the WPA buttress political parties. They form the bread and butter, rice and curry, spaghetti carbonara of everyday governing in this place. Saying this should not discourage anyone from becoming a card-carrying member if they so wish (except of the Australian Conservatives). Rather, it means valuing political activity over and above the party system. The two are not mutually exclusive, and, at the end of the day, form an overlapping commitment to a social good for all of us as everyday citizens.
We must acknowledge that the ALP is grounded in class-consciousness, industrial relations, labour values, and that the Greens focus on ecological consciousness, non-profits, moral actions. Together they can be stronger; together they can shift the centre towards a tax on multinationals, compassion for the marginalised, and gender parity across a range of indices. We do not need new parties, but can retrofit our ideological rhetoric, our apparatus of thought to reflect who we are now. That means looking beyond policy, sound bites, slogan to actions on the ground. When we look there we can see the politics that counts. The everyday here is one of lifestyle consciousness, community groups, democratic needs. That is what matters today because it means continuing to articulate how we might change this place when our elected representatives can’t or won’t. And that is bigger than any result in Batman no matter who comes out on top with the votes.