Going to listen to a National Press Club speech is usually all about the menu, and who you might be sitting with. The speech is just an interruption to the table conversation. But on Wednesday 15 March, I heard something I've never heard before at the Press Club.
I expected Senator Richard Di Natale's National Press Club address to cover renewable energy, possibly housing affordability. These were the stories of the day, and the Greens have strong policies on these issues that could be used to react to the Government's inaction in solving these problems. What I didn't expect was a whole new way of thinking about society, government, and the economy, and a very different way of engaging the diversity of Australian voices in creating a better future.
The honesty of the Greens leader in saying that "anyone who stands at this podium, or in our Parliament, and tells you they have all the answers is lying to you" was a wake-up clue that this would be no dull, stuffy speech by another man in a suit. He took it further declaring that "regardless of who is the prime minister after the next election, the big donors will come knocking to collect the rent" and calling for an independent national corruption watchdog. This later prompted Sabra Lane to ask him if he believes there are people on "the Hill" who are corrupt. Richard's response was that corporate donations are absolutely a corrupting influence, and that we need to get rid of the influence of big money politics.
OK, I'm listening now...
Calling out the corrupting influences got my attention. But then he did something I have never seen before at a Press Club address — he stepped away from the podium. After talking about the rise of racist language and the impact it has on everyday people, he announced that he wanted to listen to people, not speak for them. And he handed the spotlight to Nada, a young woman in a hijab. With live national TV cameras focused on her, she spoke calmly and from the heart about her vision for an Australia where we work together to be inclusive, learning from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and protecting our environment. Her optimism and her recognition of the power of acting collectively were infectious, and the room applauded enthusiatically (including cheering from my table at the back of the room, led by a man who had migrated to Australia from Egypt almost 40 years ago).
Providing an opportunity for Nada to speak really goes to the heart of what being Green is about. Most politicians, when given a podium and live national TV coverage, will take the ball and run with it for as long as they're allowed. Richard did something different: he used the opportunity to let us all hear from someone who we rarely have the opportunity to listen to in the media. Ordinary Australians are not just men in blue suits (with brown shoes, if they're fashionable). There is a lot more diversity in our community than is represented in our Parliament. But while the usual suspects insist on holding court to the mainstream media, the rest of us miss an important chance for a national conversation about things that really matter to us. In contrast, the Greens have always been team players, and Richard's generosity with Nada meant that she could be generous in sharing her ideas with us.
Being inclusive matters
Less than a week after the event, the Government is debating watering down our Racial Discrimination Act by proposing changes to the wording of section 18c. That they're doing this on the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination is surely no coincidence, and certainly seems to have caught the attention of quite a few people.
In his Press Club speech, Richard acknowledged that the world today is more divided than ever, with a widening inequality gap and disillusionment in our democratic systems. But he also talked about taking a different path to a better future.
"We have a different path open to us... A path informed by evidence" — Senator Richard Di Natale
Making policy decisions based on evidence, and led by trust, compassion, and respect is far more likely to lead to a future where all Australians have a better life, and our planet is in safer hands.
A whole new world
The hot topic of universal basic income is not only on the Global Greens agenda and in the minds of progressive thinkers. Richard's speech has also brought it into the living rooms of everyday Australians.
Pointing out that the current Government's idea of tax reform is to give a $50b tax break to the wealthiest Australians, Richard instead suggested an economic model that would enable us to spend our time on things we truly value.
"Words are just wind if you say you care about inequality but give a big tax cut to the wealthiest Australians" — Senator Richard Di Natale
The post-speech questions said more about the lack of imagination (and lack of knowledge about economic ideas that are rapidly rising in the consciousness of the general public) with attempts to get soundbites on penalty rates, and young people who want to work longer hours to save for a house deposit. One particularly charming question included the phrase "the poor old employer, heaven forbid..."
Clearly prepared for this, Richard's response was that we have a distribution problem: one in four Australians want to work fewer hours, while 16 per cent of Australians want to work more hours. Clearly the current labour market is not meeting society's needs, so his suggestion is that we look at basic income trials overseas and talk about what might work here.
Richard says that if our Government and Opposition Leaders were being honest with us, they would admit that globalisation and rapid technological change mean the labour market has changed permanently. Up to 5 million jobs will disappear from the Australian economy within the next decade. We will need to look at new ideas to reshape the economy if we want to survive these changes. Health, education, sustainable agriculture, and parenting would all benefit from universal basic income.
"Universal basic income will enhance creativity and help us reset what is meaningful in our lives" — Senator Richard Di Natale
"There is no retreat from the world, we are connected to it," Richard said. While housing affordability and the labour market might seem like Australian issues, they arise from a global economic system, and the ways in which Governments respond have impacts beyond our own shores. Making more environmentally sustainable lifestyle choices, having the generosity to treat each other with compassion and respect, and having the mental space to think creatively about how to solve our problems are all much easier when we're not caught up in a cycle of fear and mistrust.
"It's our system that's broken, not our people. It's not working for our global humanity and we don't have to accept it" — Senator Richard Di Natale
Change cannot come from continuing to support the same old ideas and systems. It needs to come from all of us, talking to each other about what kind of world we want for our children and grandchildren, and then working together to make it a reality.
"Take the time to listen and understand others... As a community, we have become so focused on defining our differences that we have forgotten about the power we have if we work as a collective." — Nada
Emma Davidson is an ACT Greens member and is online @emmadavidsonACT