When we compare Australia to the rest of the world, it can feel like we’re a nation stuck in the mud. Political instability has led to paralysis, and no government of the last decade has been brave or popular enough to create meaningful change. Governments now enter elections as if they’re back begging for another term despite their middle of the road ambitions, while opposition parties spend their time kicking political goals in the media, trying their best to not fuck up. Our politics has lost its sense of urgency and given up on fighting for deeply held values.
In the search for an example of political dynamism, we need only look to the other side of the globe, between Scotland and the Arctic, to the small island of Iceland. On April 3rd 2016, the Panama Papers revealed that Iceland’s President Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson had sheltered millions in offshore accounts. Outside the Alþingi (parliament) on April 4, a small circle of Icelanders wrapped in thick coats and scarfs bopped in time with each other and sang. Behind them, between ten and twenty thousand protesters talked amongst themselves and held up placards opposing the President’s refusal to resign. By April 5th, the President had resigned, and a new election had been called.
On 24 October 1975, ninety percent of Icelandic women did not show up to work or partake in any housework or child-rearing at home. One year later, the government passed the Gender Equality Act, outlawing gender discrimination in workplaces and schools. Four years later, in 1980, Iceland boasted the first democratically elected female president in the world. For the past nine years, the country has topped the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index and has this year passed a law to make companies legally obligated to prove they pay men and women equally for equal work.
This kind of sustained commitment to equality makes any progressive Australian melt with envy. Our previous Minister for Women, Tony Abbott, stated in 2012 that virginity “is the greatest gift you can give someone,” and in 2010, began a sentence about power prices with “what the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing…”. In March this year, the member representing the Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, threatened to “name every young woman in Mr Shorten’s office of which rumours in this place abound.” Sexism has a warm and comfortable home in Australian politics, despite a decades-long, rigorous attempt to make parliament a safe and empowering space for women.
On issues like same-sex marriage, environmental protection and Indigenous rights, the Australian government has failed to enact substantive change over the span of decades.
In some areas, our government is not only stalling on widely supported reform but actively regressing. Under both the Abbott and Turnbull governments, Australia’s leading science organisation and leader in climate science research, the CSIRO, has undergone immense funding cuts. In 2016, CSIRO Staff Association Secretary Sam Popovski stated that “since 2013 the organisation has lost 1 in 5 positions or more than 20% of the workforce.” The attack continued in 2016 with a $115 million cut in the federal budget, resulting in another 450 planned redundancies across the board.
In 2018, the leader of the Labor party continues to rule out opposing the Adani mining projects, while the Coalition spruiks “clean coal” and the need to increase coal seam gas fracking. As it turns out, Turnbull’s 2010 promise to “never lead a government that isn’t as committed to climate action as I am,” has been left in the dust, along with any sense of integrity the Prime Minister was once able to project. All significant opposition to further investment in coal mining in Australia has come from grassroots organisations, particularly those in association with Stop Adani, who have pressured the major Australian banks to rule out funding the proposed mine through consistent direct action.
In stark contrast, 100% of Iceland’s electricity is generated from renewable sources. Roughly 20% of the country’s primary energy (for manufacturing and transportation) is supplied by fossil fuels, with the rest generated by either hydro or geothermal power. This dedication toward renewable energy has required little public outcry. To the Icelandic government, investing in renewable energy is common sense.
We have seen some progress on LGBTQI+ rights in Australia with the legalisation of same-sex marriage. While this development was widely celebrated, the national postal survey was a gruelling measure that put the relationships and identities of many vulnerable Australians on public trial for a number of months. The vitriol that our community was exposed to during this time cannot be understated. Furthermore, the percentage of Australians in favour of legalising same-sex marriage has consistently polled above 50% since 2007, according to NewsPoll, Galaxy, Essential, YouGov, Ipsos and Roy Morgan polls. Safe to say, they took their fucking time.
To add to the overwhelming cloud of inertia that sits over Parliament House, the Prime Minister recently turned down a set of recommendations made within the Uluru Statement From The Heart. The proposal outlined a constitutionally entrenched Indigenous voice to Parliament; a recommendation which was established after a year of consultation, followed by a three-day summit that heard from more than 300 Indigenous community leaders and legal experts. In addition to this, there are currently twice as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being removed from their families as there were at the time of Rudd’s 2008 apology. After a decade of disappointing Close The Gap Reports, government promises to “do better” come across as empty deflections of our national obligation to do this land’s Indigenous populations justice. Sovereignty was never ceded, legal systems continue to perpetuate colonial oppression, and our determination to rectify a violent history remains despairingly low.
We need to look to other parts of the world and recalibrate our expectations, not only of our politicians but of ourselves. Australia desperately needs politicians with values and a population willing to listen if we are to have any hope of breaking the surface of our own stupor.