A local network of churches hosted at event for the Chisholm Division candidates at the St Lukes Uniting Church Hall in Mount Waverley one evening last week. It was well-attended and well worth attending. The candidates formed a panel. Each gave opening and concluding speeches and also participated in audience question-and-answer interaction. Those candidates were Anna Burke MP (Labor), John Nguyen (Liberal) and Josh Fergeus (Green). Then a fourth candidate – Phil Goodman (Family First) – declared that he was in the audience. Somehow the organizers had neglected to invite him but there he was and so he was given opening and closing speech rights but forewent Q&A. The fifth candidate – Nimrod Evans (Secular Party) – was absent but I am aware he has been engaging in old-school campaigning in Chisholm.
It was refreshing to see candidates in such an intimate setting. They all came across as persons of sincerity and conviction who were happy to be there. I was reminded that, whatever the ideology, many in politics are there because they want to make the world better (for a given value of “better”). They also are dedicated to nurturing respect between different perspectives. This was an ethos shared by those in the audience. Well most of us anyway.
I cannot neglect to mention the pro-life rent-a-crowd that always visit these events as a handful of agitators. And I want to stress that my problem with them is the vibe they exude and the conduct they practice rather than the position they hold itself (which I differ from but am prepared to discuss). This lot come along and project hate for anyone who dares to think differently. They each ask substantively the same rhetorical question and demonstrate zero interest in the very substantive answers they are given. They tut and snort at the comments of others and then once they have exhausted their role in the meeting they depart. The issue is a sensitive one and such behaviour just makes it more difficult for anyone to form and express an opinion.
The three panel members all gave very honest and brave answers on the abortion issue, given who was asking these questions. It is good to be reminded that issues are complex. Anna Burke noted that abortion is a state issue and the rules are different (and pretty restrictive) in every state. Both Anna Burke and John Nguyen expressed personal opposition to the need for abortion however they also noted that criminalizing it only makes risky ‘backyard’ abortions rife. Josh Fergeus reminded us of the importance of contraception. This discussion made me think that the terminology of “pro-life versus pro-choice” is an oversimplification of matters and that terms borrowed from other issues like “harm minimization” may also apply usefully to the topic.
There was much more to the forum than one issue mind you. There were questions on climate change, nuclear proliferation, pensions, food security and electoral reform. Naturally economics was a key part of speeches. Anna Burke prmoted the timely and bold economic intervention of her government that insulated Australia from global recession. John Nguyen made vague comments that stimulus was necessary but needed to have been done differently (in some way or other). I got the sense from this that the government we have are the best economic managers of the major parties.
Josh Fergeus impressed me as a bit of a wunderkind who in his short life has contributed much to community work and is very much across all sorts of comlex issues. His predecessor at the last election was articulate on many issues but only ever showed passion for old growth forests. Josh is different and shows a concern and understanding of human rights, welfare, development, houseing, environmment...
Many in the audience were interested in refugees and human rights generally. I asked a question on the issue of the current freeze on accepting refugees from war-torn Afghanistan. Anna Burke showed some lack of comfort at the position of her government and also expressed a preference in the long-term for diplomatic action that addresses the problems globally that produce refugee flows.
One thing I found fascinating was how I could feel my own pulse as I held the mike and asked my question. Nothing like this has happened during my participation in online discussions of the election. This says to me that face-to-face interaction still important. It removes the stupefying filter of mass media from the candidates and brings politics to life. You also get to run into familiar faces from your community, like the wonderful Michael Clyne.
Michael is a retired professor of Linguistics from Monash Uni who published a study in the late 1990s examining language diversity in Australia at the postcode level. That research was useful as, at that time, One Nation was in its ascendency and arguing the existence of entrenched ethnic enclaves in Australia, and the data refuted this claim nicely. But I digress.
If you get the chance in this or future elections to engage in any way with a candidate or the campaigners who help them then I encourage you to do so. Discuss things with them respectfully but be prepared for vigorous discussion. Both you and they will get a better sense of why our political process is of value, despite its many flaws.