Optimistic Democracy

The promise and potential of intersectional collaborations to revitalise our vision for a flourishing Australia.

Can I say again what an honour it is to be invited to deliver the Norman and Mary Millar Lecture and to join the Uniting Church’s 34th Synod in session.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and by paying my respects to elders past, present and emerging. Like the Uniting Church, Griffith University acknowledges the wisdom inherent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians as the world’s oldest, continuing culture. We share your commitment to reconciliation, an Indigenous voice in our nation’s decision-making and to working together to ensure all Australians can participate and share this country’s abundance.

I would also like to acknowledge Norman and Mary Millar’s granddaughters, Meredith Ashton and Jane Rodger, who are here this evening. Meredith has travelled from near Albury. Jane has flown from her home in the United States to be in attendance. It’s wonderful that you are both here for this lecture that acknowledges and celebrates your grandparents. It’s an awesome responsibility to be giving this lecture against the backdrop of a bitter and divisive Federal Election campaign. I’ll do my best to explain the enduring relevance of their legacy of courage, faith and community service. I’ll argue that their example, like that of Australia’s founders who imagined a nation that would have fairness at its core, demands that we form unconventional alliances, collaborate across boundaries and embrace our responsibilities as active citizens. 

Before commencing my formal remarks, I thought you might be interested why I am this year’s Norman and Mary Millar lecturer. I met your Moderator, David Baker, at a boardroom lunch last October where Guardian journalist, Gabrielle Chan, spoke about her book Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up. Gabrielle’s book canvasses the political and cultural divide that has developed between urban, rural and regional Australia. She describes the damage to social cohesion wrought by policies that have left many Australians behind — locked out of opportunity by technology, economic and social change. This dynamic of division has dominated this election campaign.

I reflect now that providence drew David and me to last October’s function. Gabrielle Chan lives in and describes the experience of the community of Harden-Murrumburrah. Interestingly, this was Norman and Mary Millar’s first congregation — where they lived from when they married in 1920, until they were called to St Andrew’s Brisbane in September 1924. Their children Mary and Ian were born in Harden-Murrumburrah. Perhaps this gives us a special impetus to keep the plight of left behind people and places at the forefront of our minds as we interpret the election result and consider our role in helping to knit back together Australia’s fraying social fabric.

David and I struck up a conversation about how broken Australian politics had become; what, if anything, might be done about it, and by whom. I have written about these issues, but they are of more than research interest. I sit on the Board of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra. I am also mother to two sons, aged 23 and 26.

Like many of my generation, I climbed the ladder of opportunity that hard work, my parents’ determination that I would get a quality education, and Australia’s framework of social protection, provided. Even with our advantages, I wonder if my sons will find secure work; if they will ever afford to buy their own homes. I lament the growing divide between the haves and the have nots. I can’t understand why more Australians aren’t concerned about the weakening of the egalitarian ethos that once defined us. I am concerned for the future of our democracy, our state and our nation.

Your Moderator and I talked about my work at Griffith University; about how becoming Dean (Engagement) in the Griffith Business School had opened my eyes to the potential for ‘anchor institutions’ — universities and churches, schools, hospitals and others deeply connected to their communities and places, to partner and collaborate to achieve social and economic outcomes. David wrote to me in January, inviting me to be part of the Synod. He, Heather and I had a series of conversations that revealed a genuine alignment of interests and values.

Of course, none of us could have imagined the Synod (and hence this lecture) would coincide with polling day. My husband Chris, who is here, can attest that usually I can’t be spoken to while the count is underway. It’s a mark of how much I admire your Vision for a Just Australia statement, the agenda that you’re working towards over the next couple of days and the potential I see for partnerships between civic organisations like ours, that I’ve broken the habits of a lifetime to be here.

I’ve promised Heather that I’ll offer some analysis as the results start rolling in. I’ve kept my comments short because I hope there will be time for questions and discussion in the context of the choices that voters in different parts of Australia have made, regarding the kind of country we want to be in the future. With that as context then, let me move to the themes that animate this lecture.

The choices shaping Australia’s future

Over the past five weeks, the political parties have attempted to engage Australians in debate over contending visions of our nation’s future. That as citizens we have the right to choose our representatives, to vote for the political philosophy and policies put forward by candidates in safety and under the rule of law, is our democratic inheritance. It is, as the Church’s Vision for a Just Australia notes, both ‘a privilege and a responsibility’. I remind anyone who tells me they don’t want to vote, or that they plan to ‘donkey vote’ because they don’t care about politics, that women and men — including Norman Millar, who served on the battlefields of the Somme, fought and died for this fundamental right.

Whatever choice you made today in the privacy of the polling booth, or perhaps in your pre-poll vote, tonight’s election result will reflect our collective verdict on what the majority of us considers our nation’s best path into a complex and uncertain future. Just as our forebears have done at critical junctures in Australia’s history, our choices will shape the country that our children and grandchildren inherit.

I see parallels between the election and this 34th Synod in Session. You have gathered for a critical dialogue regarding the strategy and approach that will help define the role that the Uniting Church will play in Queensland’s future. The Vision document captures very well, I think, the challenges and choices that you face in discerning the opportunities to bring your community’s gifts, wisdom and talents; your individual and collective abundance to the task of creating a stronger, healthier, more vibrant Queensland community. A community that is centered on people — their hopes and fears, their right to dignity, respect, to be included and most importantly I think, to be heard and understood.

I want to suggest that creating a strong, healthier, more vibrant, inclusive and fair Queensland (and Australia) is a shared task. I strongly believe that we — the Churches, universities and other civic and public purpose organisations, have the capacity and potential to do what modern politics cannot. The qualities and values exemplified by Norman and Mary Millar provide a powerful call to action, not only for members of the Uniting Church, but others, including members of the many and varied communities and networks of which we are part.

I’ve learned that Norman and Mary’s gifts included:

  • a clear and determined sense of mission and purpose;

  • unwavering commitment to their faith and to doing what is right. Norman was a fierce public advocate — he didn’t hesitate to weigh into public debates, including via the now much diminished Courier-Mail newspaper. He took on some powerful adversaries, never taking a backward step;

  • Finally, and importantly, their compassion and care for individuals and communities.

The outpouring of affection when Norman died at my age — just 51, provides insight into how much he was loved and admired; and not just by his congregation.

We know that in aggregate, Australia can be considered an advanced and prosperous country. We have the third highest ranking on the Human Development Index, indicating we have a high standard of living, high levels of education and an average life expectancy of 82 years. We have achieved 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth — underpinned, as we had pause to recall with Bob Hawke’s passing this week, by reforms his government negotiated across traditional boundaries of ideology and class. Australia’s GDP is ranked within the top 20; we also rank highly for productivity. The official national unemployment rate is 5 percent.

However, as we know from lived experience and Gabrielle Chan’s book captures so well, we face a myriad of complex and interdependent issues that impact the lives of many Australians. Persistent long-term unemployment remains a major issue for certain groups of Australians, including young people, the unskilled, and older workers — especially women and individuals with a disability.

Our First Peoples continue to face higher levels of unemployment and incarceration, alongside lower levels of life expectancy and education. Just this week we’ve seen the shocking spectre of children — most of whom are indigenous, being detained in watch houses with adult criminals because our juvenile detention facilities are overflowing.

We know too from longitudinal research, that there has been a dramatic loss of confidence and trust in government, business, the churches, the media, so called ‘experts’ and a range of other institutions and processes. People doubt political, business, religious and other leaders are motivated to act in the public interest, in the interests of local communities, or even of Australia as a whole.

Political fragmentation and growing disparities of income and opportunity exacerbate the sense of disconnection and discontent felt between postcodes, generations, genders, First Peoples, as well as among newly arrived migrants and refugees. If we are to successfully arrest the precipitous decline in trust and address the challenges you started to canvas with Scott this afternoon, we need to build cross-sectoral partnerships; unconventional alliances and coalitions that leverage our respective and collective capacities, gifts and talents in the service of the greater good and purpose towards which we are called.

Like the Moderator and I imagine many of you, I was born and grew up in Queensland. My strong sense of place brought me back here after some years living and working in Canberra. It also explains my drive to try to interpret and explain Queensland to a distant and often cynical media and particularly, the federal government and the Australian Public Service.

The Moderator’s comment about our ‘poverty mentality’ resonated with me. The upside, as he said, is self-reliance and pragmatism. Acknowledging the ‘shadow side’ that he rightly identified, I think these traits can be harnessed for our collective benefit. In my experience, the willingness to collaborate that is often not in evidence in other places, is borne of necessity. That’s a strength we can build on together.

Optimistic democracy

After much deliberation, I titled this lecture ‘Optimistic Democracy’. You might wonder how in the face of the past ten years, and particularly the past five weeks, I can be optimistic. I am because as a political scientist and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Australian Politics which is due to the publisher in August, I understand the strength and resilience of our nation’s democratic and public policy traditions; and of our people. For me ‘the promise of Australia’ is not a vacuous political slogan. It’s an inherent capability; it’s also a historical fact.

Australia has been one of the world’s most successful and enduring liberal democracies. If we acknowledge the democratic practices of indigenous Australians that Bunurong writer Bruce Pascoe (author of the brilliant Dark Emu) has described as the “Great Peace”, it is arguably also one of the oldest. 
At the turn of the 20th century, Australia was known internationally as leader in the practice of democratic politics, as well as in economic and social policy. Our reputation for democratic innovation was won by generations of men and women whose institutional thinking and commitment to political, economic and social inclusion shaped our inheritance. They campaigned across the divides of age, gender, class and geography — and later, race, for the right to have a voice; and to be represented in the places where the decisions and laws that affect everyone are taken and made.

Despite numerous imperfections, Australia’s democracy has delivered stable government, social cohesion, high levels of social protection and an enviable quality of life for the majority of our citizens. But we know that over the past decade and possibly longer, cracks have appeared in our strong foundations. Australians’ confidence in political institutions and processes has declined markedly. Democratic disenchantment is palpable. It has been exacerbated by hyper-partisan revenge politics that has destroyed careers, wasted time, money and opportunities and left the Australian public bewildered, divided and dismayed.

If I put my scholarly lens over the current state of Australian politics, I discern three recurrent themes that explain how we got to now. These are first, economic insecurity and concerns about fairness — the extent to which the benefits of economic growth have been widely shared.

A second theme I think has crystallised yet further in this campaign is that policy-makers need to develop better-informed, more nuanced understandings of the communities they are elected to serve. The community is out in front of politicians on many issues — energy efficiency, water conservation and recycling, for example, the future of work, as well as on many social issues.

A third broad theme, again vindicated by this election and I expect by the experience of many of your congregations, is that ‘place’ is assuming greater significance in an increasingly complex, diverse and spatially differentiated governance context.

It was reasonable to expect after the 2016 federal election, the unprecedented series of by-elections precipitated by breaches of Section 44 of the Constitution, another leadership challenge and a couple of state elections, that political parties would have become sensitised to these themes. The major parties and Australia’s policy elites could have saved a lot of money on focus groups and market research, had they consulted the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia’s (CEDA’s) Community Pulse 2018 report.

Respondents to the CEDA survey cited access to reliable and affordable public services as fundamental to their quality of life; and expressed concern about growing inequality. I was heartened by this, because it revealed the resilience of Australia’s public policy tradition, which was founded on a strong commitment to social protection and to insulating people against vulnerability to exogenous shocks. We used to call this ‘the fair go’. It suggests decades of market-led reform have not weakened Australians’ instinct for more inclusive and distributionally fair policies, particularly those who live outside the nation’s populous and prosperous capitals.

Like growth and prosperity, inequality is not evenly distributed. Poverty and disadvantage are not experienced by people only as members of particular demographic groups and cohorts (e.g. Indigenous Australians, young parents, the long-term unemployed, older single women), but can also be concentrated spatially and associated with a particular place.

Political churn and the relentless drive to centralisation that has characterised Australian politics and public policy in recent decades has, I think, obscured the fact that, at the local level, individuals groups and communities — faith-based organisations like yours; public purpose ones like mine, have the capacity, resources (broadly connoted) and the will to act together to improve people’s wellbeing and to create flourishing places.

I have a cross-disciplinary research team in my group at Griffith working to develop a better understanding of these capacities, and how we can foster and support them. This seems to me a crucial piece of the puzzle in the urgent national imperative to restore confidence and trust in our institutions and reanimate our tradition of civic activism and community engagement.

Partnering to rekindle Australia’s tradition of social and economic inclusion: the role of anchor institutions

Place-based approaches have a long tradition in Queensland, where the challenges of demography, decentralisation and trade-exposed industries have always loomed large. Here, as in other parts of Australia and internationally, there is growing interest in how different types of community capital can be harnessed to create opportunity and wellbeing; and increasing recognition of the role that anchor institutions can play in this development. 
Anchor institutions combine long-standing social connections with enduring capacities to support community development. As discussed earlier, they include universities, churches, local governments, hospitals, schools, or consortia of community groups that serve as enablers and stewards of a community’s wealth and capacity.

Anchor institutions are a form of ‘sticky capital’ in that they are unlikely to close down or relocate from their community. They play important roles in community wealth-building due to their capacity as large employers, their sizeable procurement spending, as well as their infrastructure (including land and facilities) and assets.

Churches have been anchor institutions since their inception, playing critical roles in the economic, social and cultural development of their communities and regions. The Uniting Church is an exemplar of how anchor institutions and the people who comprise them, can support the health, wellbeing and flourishing of people and places. The Millars understood that; and I know many of you do too.

Griffith University has a new Vice Chancellor, Professor Carolyn Evans. She commenced in February and is leading a process not unlike Project Plenty as we try to shape a strategic plan for Griffith Beyond 50. The VC has already discerned three traits that make Griffith unique. She calls them the ‘Three Es’: excellence, ethics and engagement. I’ve been at Griffith for a long time. I’m a tragic for its mission, vision and values. I’ve been impressed by Professor Evans’ capacity to appreciate our role as an anchor institution in the South East, but across all of Queensland, the nation and the Asia-Pacific region.

Some of you might be aware of projects auspiced from Griffith’s Logan Campus that seek to improve maternal and child health and well being, focusing on children from zero to eight years of age. We’re doing lots of things in many other places too. I mention the Logan experience because it has helped us to better understand the University’s capacity and potential to partner in the service of people and places, and to help to address the great issues and challenges that confront our world. Our staff — both academic and profession are absolutely galvanised by that agenda.

I can point people who might be interested to information about how we’ve gone about this; where we’ve succeeded or fallen short and what we’ve learned. Tonight, I just wanted to highlight the benefits that can flow when anchor institutions like yours and mine engage in the mutual and reciprocal sharing of knowledge, expertise, facilities and resources with networks of partners in the community, industry, government and civic institutions. We’re better together than we could ever hope to be on our own.

I’m optimistic too, because while the terminology and concepts might be more sophisticated than Norman Millar might have used in his sermons, you have embraced, successfully adapted to, and positively influenced change in the past. Members of your Church community banded together, got involved, built alliances and embraced the values of tolerance, compromise, fairness and respect for legitimate differences of opinion, experience and perspective. You’ll do that again as you embark on Project Plenty, or whatever name the Synod settles on for this important process of discernment.

As you listen, hear and try to understand the mission God is calling your community to serve, let’s return to Norman and Mary Millar, who this lecture memorialises. They served at St Andrew’s from 1924 to 1938 — an era that has some uncomfortable parallels to our own.

It was a time of disruption, rapid technological, economic and social change. Almost than 420,000 Australians from a population the size of modern Queensland (5 million) enlisted. 216,000 were killed, wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. The newly federated nation bore what has been described as ‘a double burden of grief’, when the Spanish flu claimed the lives of more than 15,000 — mainly young Australians, aged 20 to 40 in 1919. Some historians argue this sapped the nation’s capacity for democratic innovation and set it on a more austere and conservative path.

We know with the benefit of hindsight that more was to come — the Great Depression, the rise of authoritarian leaders and ultimately, although Norman died before its outbreak, the calamity of World War II.

I mention this because we need to keep in perspective the problems that we face. None of us should underestimate the scope and scale of our challenges, nor their rapidity, but the wisdom and institutional thinking of our predecessors has bequeathed an abundance that is available to help ameliorate their impacts and perhaps one day, to solve them if choose to partner wisely and generously; to collaborate unconventionally and keep people at the center of all you do.

Anne Tiernan