Australia has all the ingredients for a flourishing, harmonious and inclusive society. We have incredible monetary wealth, with the longest streak of economic growth of any developed nation. We are home to the oldest continuous living civilisation, the source of millennia of wisdom. Our natural landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful, and, despite restrictive migratory policies until the mid-70s, we have quickly made up for lost time. According to the 2016 census, 49% of the population is either born overseas or has at least one parent born overseas. We are the envy of nations worldwide, and rightly so.
Despite this good fortune, however, we are deeply disillusioned with our leadership and institutions. This is not news, and yet when I pointed out the lack of representation at an ANU panel last week, the reaction was nonsensical.
Senator Eric Abetz issued a statement declaring, “If Ms Abdel-Magied thinks our system of government is so bad perhaps she should stop being a drain on the taxpayer and move to one of these Arab dictatorships.”
It seems bizarre that former cabinet ministers would demand that I leave the country for highlighting what is agreed upon by many, including former prime minister, Tony Abbott, who this week released a manifesto to “make Australia work again”.
Voter turnout at the last election was the lowest since compulsory voting started in 1925. Poll after poll shows the population’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the Edelman’s 2017 trust survey indicated only 11% of Australians think the system is working. Millions of Australians today feel like their perspectives are not heard, not valued and not respected by our parliament and democratic institutions. So what needs to change?
We could start by being better represented. That is the role of our parliament, but it currently falls short. While women make up a little over 50% of the population, they make up only 32% of the national parliament.
Two and a half million people in Australia live under the poverty line. If that were embodied in parliament, 25 of our of representatives would have had the experience of being a poor Australian.
Eighteen per cent of the population has a disability. If that were represented, it would mean 42 members of parliament or senators would have a disability.
According to the 2016 census, at least 2.8% of the population identifies as Indigenous. That would look like seven representatives in parliament, and we are still only at five.
Almost 4% of Australian residents are born in either China or India. If that were represented in our parliament, that would be nine people. There is not a single senator or member of parliament born in China or India, and only two with either Chinese or Indian heritage.
This lack of representation is no accident. It is, in part, a reflection of the deeper malaise. People no longer believe that politics is a force for positive change, and are therefore disengaging from the system entirely. Those who are interested in improving society are forgoing politics for alternative careers. They’re not running for office, they’re running their own market places, and operating in parallel realities. This means the talent pool entering parliament has shrunk, the world view of people in power has narrowed, and we have been left with the homogenous and disconnected leadership we have today.
We can do better, and therein lies the impetus for systemic change. Fortunately, the conversation is well under way, as demonstrated by four (wealthy, white) men only last weekend. Leading the charge is Richard Walsh, the author of Reboot: A Democracy Makeover to Empower Australia’s Voters, who is calling for the abolition of the Senate. Walsh is joined by the successful venture capitalist Mark Carnegie, Transfield Holdings and newDemocracy Foundation boss Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and property developer and publisher Morry Schwartz in arguing for radical change to our parliamentary democracy. It is worth noting that these men have profited from the very system they are seeking to disrupt. Thus far, there has been no statement from Abetz requesting these men move to an Arab dictatorship.
Disruption requires difference. Yet all too often when someone outside the establishment contributes to the discourse, they find themselves howled down and ruthlessly delegitimised. This happens not based on the strength of their ideas but on their gender, race, religion, sexuality, class or any other identity that sits outside the accepted norm.
That is not good enough. It is hypocritical, and a complete waste of the talent that we have in this country. The discussion needs to be open to and driven by all Australians, not only ones who look the same or who occupy elite positions of power in society. How do we expect anyone to be less disillusioned if they are not welcome to even contribute to the conversation?
This is beyond simply saying we need direct representation of the population, although that is incredibly important. This is saying that we are not taking advantage of the spectacular array of opinions, perspectives and experiences within our nation, and that is stopping us from realising our full potential.
For public debate to improve, Australia must be a place where freedom of speech is understood to apply to all equally. Where we operate from a foundation of respect and where we debate the issue, not the individual. This is uncomfortable. However, we must not shy away from the uncomfortable. Unless all of us – including our leaders – lean into that discomfort and listen to voices from outside the current blinkered corridors of power, nothing will change.
Australia, we are the lucky country. We have no excuse not to be the best.