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Scott Ludlam’s Appeal to Progressive Politics

March 10, 2014

“Your blank cheque for Colin Barnett’s bloody and unnecessary shark cull has been noted. Your attacks on Medicare, on schools funding, on tertiary education – noted. Your advocacy on behalf of foreign biotechnology corporations and Hollywood’s copyright-industrial complex… noted.”

A speech by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam to an empty Canberra Senate one week ago has now had nearly 700,000 clicks on youtube. It took five days before any mainstream media acknowledged the phemonenon and then it was a Guardian article rather than the ABC, Sydney Morning Herald or other daily print newspapers.

The popularity of Ludlam’s scathing attack on Abbott’s administration proves there is a mass of people ready to engage with or without mainstream media facilitating the message. In the federal election last year voters also endorsed real-deal progressive candidates Adam Bandt, a Green, Cathy McGowan, an Independent and Tanya Plibersek from Labor’s left, all who significantly bucked the trend that left few outside the Abbott camp unscathed.

Adam Bandt was one of few winners for the Greens across Australia where in NSW alone all but six of the 48 lower house candidates ended up in negative territory. The notable exceptions here were again a couple of real deal candidates including stalwart of the mid-north coast, Carol Vernon, who increased the Greens vote in Cowper by 3.3% against an overall slide in vote for the NSW Greens of negative 2.3%. The other significant outlier for the Greens NSW was Dawn Walker who achieved a +1.5% swing in the Northern NSW seat of Richmond.

Real deal progressive politicians share a number of common attributes irregardless of their political party. Most importantly they represent both constituents and community, and their authority to win comes from a place of civility. The success of Bandt, McGowan, Plibersek and previously Tony Windsor reminds us that it’s people who are the basic building blocks of politics, not ideas. These MPs listen, they consider, and they strive to represent a cross-section of community not a fixed personal agenda.

If progressive politics is to start winning again its MPs must be able to represent citizen’s concerns, challenge the status quo and empower the self-organising networks of community resilience.

Scott Ludlam is the opposite of a pundit politician, that ideological tyrant and dinosaur of twenty-first century progressive politics. Whereas Ludlam spoke with humility, the pundit starts with the premise that his knowledge is superior and insists on presenting as the expert rather than talking to one. . He may speak authoritatively but it is only his own dedicated faction that listens. Everyone else heads to the hills.

The pundit MP uses the media at every turn to take the contrarian’s view on hot issues, spinning agreed terms of reference into another sphere. No matter how good the democratic process a pundit politician quickly erodes a general willingness for participants to engage in meaningful political dialogue. For a minor party without institutional power or connections it’s a death-knell, for to be oppositional progressive politics must be able to directly challenge the reality of the political and economic elite. Just like Christopher Pyne has shut down all discussion and collaboration around ideas in his Education portfolio, the pundit from the progressive end of politics works in the same way to shut down activist engagement.

In Canada a few years ago three MPS with PhDs entered parliament. Progressives held their breath in the hope that having some genuinely smart men in charge would drag the national debate from the schoolyard into the classroom. Many hoped this would be the opportunity to have a sophisticated conversation on issues of great national significance. It didn’t happen. These MPs with PhDs failed to bridge the divide between their knowledge and the collaborative consultation that creates the real shared goals and solutions. They failed to understand that politics and governing is about choosing between competing interests.

Senator Ludlam didn’t shout on Monday night. He articulated a vision, an alternative reality and one that represented his audience who shared it far and wide, the benchmark for measuring success of online content. Real deal MPS know speaking loudly and personal attacks never wins an argument. Instead their connection comes through the means of engagement and this process of reflecting the community concern. It’s the opposite to the blustering punditocracy that diminishes democratic participation and not only hollows out public discourse on progressive issues but also reduces political participation within active political membership.

The state-based parties of the Greens whose power comes from local community activism is the party that most critically needs to avoid pundit MPs. As a third party, The Greens only win in state and federal politics when they are supported by the noisy and empowered voice of communities contesting prevailing structures and their definition of reality. (for example the “We need Mining for Jobs” myth).

This is how the social movement against coal and coal seam gas has achieved such powerful momentum in NSW. It was the Greens who initiated NSW’s Upper House Enquiry into Coal Seam Gas in 2012 which brought together expert scientific stakeholders and community knowledge and put an alternative case to directly challenge the government’s mining narrative. This is how the broadbase NSW statewide campaign to prevent hunting in National Parks was facilitated and how Denticare and the Disability Insurance Scheme gained resonance across communities. At the beginning of 2013 when the Liberal-voting areas around Campbelltown got antsy about coal seam gas under their houses and libraries and shopping centres, O”Farrell brought in 2km No Go Zones for Coal Seam Gas in Sydney. The local action scared the pants of the local Liberal MP and broader Liberal party who were terrified their voters might become activists. It was a win for the Greens, the only party arguing for CSG protection but it could never have been achieved if a pundit politician had led the charge.

Pundit MPs may get a personal thrill from sharing selfies and holding up banners but community campaigners get no thrill from any policy or big political wins. Instead progressive politics achieves results when real deal MPs share alternative information deep into the grassroots of communities and empower and inpsire communities to challenge the status quo. A progressive MP is not being oppositional unless they actually challenge the main structure and ideas of the existing order. Real-deal MPs like Ludlam, Bandt and Nick McKim are achieving this by avoiding the pundit’s tone of moral correctness and instead articulating an alternative vision that appeals to a broad spectrum of progressive supporters. This is the future if progressive politics is to start winning again.

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