by Elisa Resce
Who are we, as a Party?
This is an important question that we need to decide.
If we want to re-engage the Australian public, we need to have a very clear picture in our own minds, and be able to articulate it to the rest of Australia. Who are we, and what do we offer?
In the past, we branded ourselves as the Party that would ‘keep the bastards honest’. We became a viable third choice for voters, priding ourselves on the fact that we were the ‘middle option’ – not on the left, not on the right, but willing to work with both left and right to achieve the best possible legislation.
We have been out of the public eye for the last few years. In fact, insultingly, media and others have branded us as ‘dead’. It’s true that we have taken a lot of hits, both from within and without; we lost a lot of our foundations and have spent the last few years trying to pull ourselves out of a dark place. The good news is that we have done it. We have withstood the attacks and discouragement, we have been rebuilding our foundations, and we have been re-engaging. Now, we are starting to see momentum through our social media and through new members who have been excited to join us. Success is looking achievable, and we can all sense change in the air.
So, we need to ask ourselves: who are we?
If we are going to successfully re-engage the public, we need to be clear on how we articulate ourselves – both for the sake of the public, and for the sake of ourselves.
Democrats are diverse. We come from all sorts of backgrounds and have all sorts of views. So what is it that has drawn us together? How do we articulate it, and how do we promote it?
Centrist, Progressive or Other?
When I joined the Democrats, I joined because I was sick of the way politics was being treated like football. A side is picked, your colours are chosen (or perhaps inherited), and from then on – come hell or high water – you stick true to that side. The battle lines are drawn. The ‘others’ are the enemy, and you don’t work with them – more likely you mock and insult them, so that you are more likely to win at the ballot box.
However, I come from a mixed background. My mother’s side are Australian farmers, and conservative Christians. Their colours were picked – traditionally, they would be Liberal voters until they die. My father’s side, however, are Italian immigrants and factory workers. Their colours were also picked – they were union people, and Labor voters. So which Party colours should I inherit?
I differ in a number of views from my family, because of my strong concern for the environment and social justice issues that some people believe are ‘left wing’. But joining the Greens was not an option for me. While I share some of the concerns the Greens fight for, a party that is too committed to ideology can become obstructionist, refusing to engage with other ideas not because they lack merit, but on the principle of refusing to compromise in any way (or ever supporting ideas that are associated with ‘right wing’). This ideological focus can trickle down to supporters so committed to ideas that they judge and mock people with a different view, even demonising them as uncaring and bigoted.
I cannot do this. For one thing, I love my family, so I have a hard time mocking and demonising them, even when I disagree! Secondly, I have a hard time picking a definitive side. I can see that their competing views come from their personal experiences: as people who work on the land, small business owners, or as immigrants with English as a second language, and factory workers. In other words, their perspectives are valid; they sometimes have insight into certain areas that people from other backgrounds don’t have, and there is sense and reason in some of their ideas – even if I don’t agree all the time on every point, or even if I think they are only seeing part of the story.
For me, the Australian Democrats are the Party that I can express this sense of ‘being in the middle’. I want to belong to a Party that is willing to listen to people’s experiences and perspectives and take them into consideration; to engage with them, even if I have a different point of view; and to try and work out a compromise that is going to be in the best interest of everybody.
To describe this approach, I use the term ‘centrist’.
I know this is a word that has many different meanings to different people, so it is important I define my terms: but to me, being centrist means being someone who is willing to listen to and engage with people from all different perspectives, and find a way to move forward, even if that means compromising.
Is this who the Australian Democrats are?
Our record shows evidence of this – regardless of whether it has been a Liberal or a Labor government, our senators were willing to work with whoever was in power to ensure legislation was the best it could possibly be. We weren’t arbitrary road-blockers who gained popularity by self-righteously opposing issues; we engaged, debated, shaped, and worked with.
The difficulty is that some hear the term ‘centrist’ and believe it means: middle of the road, can’t make up your mind, don’t stand for anything.
It is for this reason that if we use this (or any other term), we may need to define what this term means to us, when we use it. Because as open to compromising as the Australian Democrats have been, we have equally been uncompromising about blocking harmful ideas, and fearless in standing up for issues even when they were unpopular. (See the Objectives of the Australian Democrats for more information on what we take a stand for.)
So that brings us to another descriptive term: progressive.
Another reason I was drawn to the Democrats was how ahead-of-their-time we have been on all issues. Whether it be reform of drug laws, understanding of population as an environmental issue, or human rights issues affecting Aboriginal people, LGBTI people and refugees, the Australian Democrats have been decades ahead of the crowd.
I believe the Australian Democrats are progressive because we are sensible people who pay attention to science and evidence, far more than we pay attention to ideology, tradition, or what happens to be popular at the time. It is very happy for us if science and evidence happens to line up with what is popular at the time; however, in many cases it does not!
So are we progressive? Again, if we use this term, we will need to define it. Some hear ‘progressive’ and believe it means, ‘permissive’. For this reason, some have maligned us with the label ‘looney left’ – though we have the last laugh decades later, when the causes we championed in the 1970s-1990s are finally making their way into public policy!
For me, the downside of using ‘progressive’ as a descriptor, is that it is a buzz-word that other parties and independents will market themselves as.
I look at the political landscape and ask myself, what is missing? What are people crying out for?
Some are looking for progressive politics, but traces of this can already be found in a number of political personalities. What is it that makes us different?
It is for this reason that I lean towards describing us as ‘centrist’. I believe what is missing is a Party that promises to inhabit that centre space and engage with people all around them. In the past, we might have said that Labor was on the left, Liberal were on the right, and we were in the middle; but Labor has moved so far to the right, and Liberal even more so, that were we truly to inhabit the centre space on that spectrum, we would be on the left…
Oh dear, I’ve gotten disoriented…
That is why it is important to define what I mean when I say ‘centrism’. I believe we need to look at political ideologies less on the traditional, fixed spectrum of left to right, but understand it is more a circle where people from all walks of life are coming at issues from the left and right, from above and below, and from all sorts of other angles. I also believe that people do not neatly fit into fixed categories. In other words, sometimes we might approach an issue from the left; yet on another issue, we might find ourselves on the right. We are complex individuals, after all.
When I say ‘centrist’, to me it means that I promise to inhabit a space where I am willing to listen to an idea, regardless of which direction it came from.
I still want to apply progressive measures to that idea, weighing it up against the evidence; but I will sincerely engage with it and listen to it, without demonising or mocking the person it came from because of their political colours.
This ‘centrist’ (as I define it) approach is what I believe is missing in Australian politics and, in this era of extremism, is what people are crying out for. This is the approach I believe we, as Australian Democrats, could define ourselves by. It allows us to retain our diversity of beliefs and opinions as individual members, while promising to work together to come up with solutions.
This is only my perspective, of course, and perhaps other Australian Democrats have different ideas. But I humbly put forward this need to define us in the hope that we can discuss and debate it, and come to a conclusion where we are clear in our minds about who we are, how we can articulate it, and how we can market it.
So I leave you with the question:
There is something missing in Australian politics. What is it that we offer, that’s different?
Perhaps you will resonate with the word and approach I have defined, or perhaps you can propose another. Regardless, let’s do what Democrats do best: let’s talk!
Last updated 13 June 2017