I was invited to address the Year 12 students at Ravenswood School for Girls on the theme of “If it’s not right, then we need to put it right”. This is an edited version.
Raise your hand if you believe you could get up here and brief everyone about the following 4 matters of national concern:
- The Government’s stated rationale for why AUKUS is in our national interest.
- Why the federal government wants to make it legal to dump ‘carbon’ into the oceans as part of its response to the climate crisis
- Why we have an over representation of indigenous youth in the criminal justice system and what having an Indigenous Voice to Parliament may do to assist with this
- Why it is now more expensive to study for a university degree in ethics than it is engineering
Precisely. And why not?
- Is it because you’re not interested in reading news about current affairs, because it’s always oppositional game playing, men shouting at each other and generally toxic?
- Is it because you’ve tuned out, having lost confidence in governments to do right by you?
- Are you just so overwhelmed with the powerlessness of being able to make a difference about these matters and your future that it’s safer, to disconnect and dismember from the public discourse?
Could it be that by turning off, not engaging, lacking courage, and resigning to overwhelm, that you are actually part of the problem, when you could in fact be the solution?
And thank you for the invitation to talk with you today.
And thank you for considering my challenge and the questions that followed. I want you to hold onto these until the end of my short talk.
What qualifies me to stand here and hopefully earn 8 more minutes of your time today? I’m not a celebrity and I’m not a sports star and I’m not a social media influencer, although I am trying to do that last one, a bit.
One of the things I am, is a local mum, proud parent of an 18-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son. I’ve lived round here my entire life and went to school in Killara.
All my life I have been concerned about human rights and about what we as humans have been doing to our planet.
About 25 years ago I came to the realization that it wasn’t enough to complain about it. And it took so much energy worrying about it.
If I wanted to change the direction our society was headed, to convince people that change was possible, necessary and urgent, I had to
- learn how the decisions are made that have these undesirable consequences,
- learn to work with the people making the decisions, and
- convince them to make different ones.
I spent some time working in environmental conservation and human rights organisations, also public policy think tanks, in sustainability consulting for all types of Australian companies.
I advised overseas governments, as well as federal and state governments at home on climate change policies for industries such as energy, cement, agriculture, forestry.
And over the last decade I’ve worked in capital markets. It’s where large investors such as superannuation funds, are now channelling workers’ compulsory retirements savings into clean energy investments like solar and wind and away from last century ones, like new coal mines. It’s where some interesting change can take place on housing affordability and landscape restoration.
With Principal Anne Johnstone
But I decided to leave it. Not because what we were doing was not effective, but because it was not addressing what I had come to see as the problem.
It was the government that was the problem and I had to help change it.
That government was ignoring climate change, the greatest challenge bar none facing our species and – super importantly – my kids.
The then government seemed equally determined to do nothing about the treatment of women in Parliament, or integrity.
At the time, I had little idea what to do about those issues. All I knew was that something had to be done.
And I know this sounds corny, but it is true: I had to do something for the sake of my children. Gen X self-interest and inertia was driving me spare.
So it turns out that while I had come to this decision towards the end of 2021, earlier in that year a group of locals had reached a similar decision, and they called themselves Voices of Bradfield, modelling themselves on Voices of Indi, the group that found and supported the amazing Cathy McGowan to take Indi, a federal seat in Victoria that until 2013 was reliably Liberal. Much like this federal seat, but a lot more rural.
Voices of Bradfield were not alone. There were a lot of Voices groups popping up – I think there were about 30 around the country by the time of the election last year and there’s over 40 now – most of them driven by the same concerns.
Unknown to me, Voices of Bradfield had been looking for an independent candidate since August that year. It wasn’t a compelling job description.
- Work 17 hours a day, 7 days a week, and
- Run against the Liberal Party in one of the safest Liberal seats in the country (which incidentally has been held by an anglo man since it was established around 80 years ago).
- With no party support,
- With little to no political experience,
- Powered only volunteers and community donations.
- And for how much pay? None.
- And there’s also the matter of no longer wearing your ugg boots to grab a litre of milk at supermarket. That behaviour was ‘un-electable’
But when a desperate email landed in my inbox one night, an invitation to consider accepting a nomination to be this area’s community backed independent, it all started to make sense in a crazy sort of way.
If it’s not right, we need to put it right. If we don’t, who will? The standard you walk by is the standard you accept.
And all true.
I responded to the email. Voices of Bradfield liked me, and I liked them, and we gave it a shot.
We launched an impossible campaign on 30 January 2022, knowing – like the rest of Australia – that the Prime Minister had to call an election by the end of May.
I won’t bore you with all the technical stuff we had to learn really quickly,
- about how terrifying it can be to stand up in front of strangers who really REALLY disagree with you, and
- about how awesome it is to find that you belong to a tribe of like-minded people, you’ve lived next door to your whole life, but have never really had a conversation about issues that matter to you both.
And by the end of the 4 months leading up to the federal election in May last year, my team and I and our 650 volunteers had turned one of the safest seats in the country to a marginal one. Held by the incumbent on a margin of 4.5%. It was the biggest swing against a sitting Liberal, on first preferences, in the country.
That was worth doing.
I want to share with you something else that I learned, another example of feeling compelled to address something that is not right.
What I learned during the campaign, and in the months since, is that it is not enough to change government.
We, as Australians, need to change the way we govern ourselves, because swapping one party for another party is not a long-term solution.
One of the reasons we failed to address climate change was that political parties got in the way, largely because it was in their interest to do so.
How our elected politicians behave is often awful. It feels like weekly we learn of more morally dodgy or corrupt practices. It doesn’t help that the mainstream media fixates on sensation to up ratings and sell advertising rather than truth and balance.
And one of the reasons why so many young Australians, have lost faith in our democratic system is precisely because they – and by they, I mean you – see that professional politicians too easily choose party loyalty and self-interest over doing the right thing. And it’s getting worse, and it’s getting worse fast.
If we lose faith in our democratic system, if we really start to think “why bother? It’s not gonna change. They’re all the same” then we are in deep trouble.
If we are not informed and engaged, we will more easily be swayed by the most toxic influencer, the most power-hungry crowd-pleaser or the richest social media owner, and they do not have our interests at heart.
And that is not right.
Those topics I prattled off at the start – get to know about them. Ask questions from your local representatives, members of parliament. Ask them why. Hold them to account.
Our democracy is an important power base for you, it should be used to deliver for your needs, and you need to be involved to be heard.
You deserve to be heard.
In many ways your views and interests and priorities count more than someone my age who has just a few years left. You need to live through this century and deal with the mess that my generation has created.
I deeply regret this. It's up to all of us, including you all, to help put this right.
But you’re not alone. There are oldies like me, many of your teachers, your church and others, that want to try. Together with others, we can. I believe this. It’s the hope I am peddling. It’s why I have chosen this role for our community. It’s why I’m running again at the next election. To see if the community will choose me. For our democracy.
And remember, doing nothing is a decision in its own right. It’s deciding not to put it right.
So reconnect. Inform yourself, talk with your friends, family members, ask questions, get engaged, learn about civics, ask of your local member. Read the news from time to time. Question the motives of the people behind certain ads you see pushed at you on social media.
It takes smarts, work and courage but the future is yours to shape, if you choose.
A first step or the next in many already taken.
Let’s start putting it right.