Election issues that matter


Grungy Australian flagAt election times some things don't matter much. They're placed on the bottom of the inside pages of newspapers, while the things that do matter blare from the front page and the opinion pages.

On a typical day in The Australian the things that matter were interest rates, boat-stopping, riotous or dumb behaviour by candidates, company taxes, polls, paid maternity leave, and leadership and the lack of it. Among the things on inside pages that by definition don't matter much were two thoughtful pieces on the most disadvantaged areas in Australia. Most of these areas were Indigenous settlements. Others were on the edges of cities and towns.

Disadvantage was measured by the unemployment rate and the number of unmarried mothers. One might expect these measures to be matched by a higher proportion of criminal convictions and lower educational attainment.

All these things are signs of isolation and disconnection from society. Experience shows that unless children and those who care for them receive support to help them make connections through work and in other ways, they will perpetuate these patterns of disconnection. Disconnection will be an enduring feature of Australian society.

It is hard to imagine that those living in disadvantaged communities would find great personal interest in the things that matter at election time. Interest rates and mortgages, rates of company tax and paid maternity leave are issues for the advantaged. They are problems of managing income that those without it might like to have.

The punitive attitudes adopted to asylum seekers might be seen as welcome because they would divert vengeful attention away from the unemployed who usually bear the burden of electoral antipathies. Leadership might be of passing interest, but neither it nor the qualities of the politicians elected would take away the impression that their needs or desires would not receive much attention under any government. They do not matter enough.

From their perspective, the rhetoric of elections might seem to express disconnection within the wider society. They would note its adversarial and negative character and its preference for abstractions and slogans. It is less about seeking the good of a connected Australia than about managing, in a way that perpetuates exclusion and division.

It can be argued that this is the way elections have always worked. They appeal to self-interest, are adversarial, provide scapegoats and never touch on what matters deeply. Their function is to keep society going.

The argument is true but despairing. Elections are about good management, but they are also times to ask about the quality of the society that we keep going. In a humane society what matters is its people and the quality of their lives. That quality is measured by the way in which it treats its most disregarded members.

The things that don't matter at election time are the things that really matter.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Grungy flag image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Election 2013, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Yesterday morning, I heard a knock on my door. And for one wild moment I thought "This may be a politician spruiking" but no it was two young women, Jehovah's Witnesses, inviting me to a meeting. I declined, politely I think, as I'm from another tribe. I thought back to a few years ago when my tribe was evangelising in the area. In my street, three houses I didn't approach as they were from yet another tribe and I didn't think they'd defect. Those who weren't home I left a message in the letterbox and, of the others, the door was closed, mostly politely. It can be disheartening work - either politicking or evangelising.

Pam | 11 August 2013  

An insightful and compassionate piece, Fr Hamilton.

Patricia R | 12 August 2013  

ABC Radio used the title "Life Matters" for a very engaging and perceptive program which discussed issues of importance to social wellbeing that didn't usually make the headlines. If there were to be a similar program on issues of importance to Australian political parties - speaking generally - it might be called "Power Matters". Politics is concerned with the getting and maintaining of power. How and for what that power is exercised doesn't always apply to the benefit of society as a whole but rather to special interest groups within the spectrum of those that have nothing to those that have a great deal. And how is this to be settled? Not by any set of spiritual principles like The Beatitudes or The Way of Buddha but by the guidelines for political action laid down by the likes of Niccolo Machiavelli and Vladimir Lenin. And yet I don't despair - as long as the poor, the hungry, the uneducated, those at the edges of society have someone (like Fr Hamilton) or some institution (like the Society of Jesus) to speak and agitate on their behalf.

Uncle Pat | 12 August 2013  

To bring about what you suggest in your last paragraph requires genuine leadership, Andrew. I long to see that!

vivien | 12 August 2013  

Thank you Andrew. Explains my deepening disappointment as I struggled to listen to the shameful debate.

PVBouma | 12 August 2013  

Advance Australia Where? I am glad I am not the only one struggling to stay engaged with the election debate.

Jenny Esots | 12 August 2013  

Thank you, Andrew, for an inspiring and moving reminder of what matters most. I really appreciated your concern for the disadvantaged and those living on the fringes of society. And you are absolutely right when you state that, 'experience shows that unless children and those who care for them receive support to help them make connections through work and in other ways, they will perpetuate these patterns of disconnection.' I wish there was a political party/candidate in my electorate that stood on a platform based on the issues you raise.

robert van zetten | 12 August 2013  

Great stuff as usual, Andrew and I have thought a lot about what you have written. Basically the war on poverty is over and the poor have lost. But I wonder about the great words and comments on this site. Are we just involved in some Mobius loop and no different from adherents to shock jocks? We share ideas, reinforce one another's noble ideals, but how does this influence the political world or those we want to pressure? We are a very select group, we can read, can reflect, are educated and smart. But what effect do we have? The companies who tell the government what to do have their own media, lawyers, PR companies and private schools churning out Tories. The neglected people of whom Andrew speaks have the numbers but not the solidarity. Around whom do they rally? Meanwhile we share noble ideas and ideals as anodyne nostrums as our opiates but does it achieve anything? Anything other than convincing ourselves how noble we are that is.

Michael D. Breen | 12 August 2013  

I appreciate the powerlessness about which you write, Michael. But I can assure you I don't feel in any way noble. I feel despair, shame and powerlessness, and don't know a way forward. It seems the powerful have won the day.

robert van zetten | 13 August 2013  

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