Response to 22 July 2019 QandA panel on Australian ABC television

“Why are the symptoms of populism distracting us from the concerns of ordinary and working people?” was the last part of my question on QandA last Monday night.

The 22 July QandA titled “Boris, Brexit and the Black Dog” was focused on populism and I asked why were we focusing on the symptoms of populism, being racism and xenophobia, rather than the cause of populism which is the deterioration of common and working people’s living conditions?

I’m sure every QandA audience member wants to interject after every sentence of response to the question they just asked.

There were some good responses, glimmers of sense, but as the conversation circled, only more questions came to mind. Here are but a few;

  • What are indeed the “real, legitimate grievances that these people have” that Alastair Campbell referred to in response to my question?

  • Why would Nick Cater say that he felt his free speech curtailed but at the same time legitimately choose not say something so inflammatory as Trump did?

  • What is the difference between an “elite” and an “expert” after Alistair Campbell explained the role of an expert? Is that the same thing as the populist anger towards elites?

  • But most of all: if all on the panel admitting that they knew that we were good at defining what the problem is, had nothing to offer, perhaps even an idea, in “finding a solution”?

I found the last question the most troubling.

Can we not muster some cogent idea, something workable even if wonky, to take us forward out of the division and “symptoms” of the problem my question alluded to?

The sentiment was echoed in Nick McMahon’s recap of the QandA evening that highlighted the overarching pessimism with exception by ending quoting Alastair Campbell “there’s got to be that sense of a big future vision...”

I couldn’t believe after referencing the US example, that there wasn’t a hint of such a “big future vision” occurring right before our eyes from across the pond.

We, as Democrats Abroad Australia, watch in disbelief at the current US administration, yet we also see inspiring moments.

Perhaps because of Trump’s presidency, people are realising what power they have in their own hands - and bringing US Americans together amid this chaos. The examples are numerous.

The grassroots and political movement for Medicare for All, a measure which would eliminate financial and psychological ruin due to lack of un- and under-insursed people in the US.

The Women’s March, organised by the ongoing and continuous and consistent attacks on women and women’s right in the United States, are mobilising for transformational social change.

March for Our Lives, organised by the MSD Parkland Survivors, who have had enough of the inaction on the epidemic of gun violence and the failure of both political leaders and society to act for sensible gun reform.

The Fight for $15, and a recent bill just passed the US House of Representatives, would ensure a direly needed wage increase for those facing class oppression in the US.

Last but not least, the numerous global climate marches, mainly led by school children who realise the grave existential threat of climate apocalypse and that the former generations have let them down.

Ironically, all of these movements and more have been the rallying cry of the four US Congresswomen that Trump singled out in reference to my QandA question with Congresswoman Pressley explicitly stating “our squad includes any person committed to creating a more equitable and just world.”

All of these movements show that people are indeed organising around such a “big future vision” as Campbell yearned for.

Yet, they rarely make it through the filter of global news media, if at all - and sadly only as a footnote to the intentional distractions caused by the US President.

The constant ignoring of these and many more grassroots movements, led by ordinary people, erases what is so lacking from our public discourse: Hope.

It is challenging for anyone to make such a point on national media and I add myself to a long, unmoving queue of many who have wished and wish to do so.

The next day after reading Nick McMahon’s stocktake of Monday night that the penny dropped for me regarding the state of our political sphere and the real essence of what I was asking.

An audience member told her loss of her brother to suicide and that she had to take actions in her own hands. This brave and tragic story made it abundantly clear the cognitive dissonance of what real issues lie in our social sphere.

I note that this walks an uncomfortable line so as not to politicise the mental health issue, which Campbell rightly claimed to be empty words used by both “sides”, but this crisis does urgently require a political and collective response. Not only is it stigmatised, it is too individualised.

As this issue is indeed one that affects us all, whether we experience it ourselves or have a close family or friend who does, it is one that cuts across all of us.

It left me reeling that we do not, in her words, have a system that does “love, support and encourage the mentally ill” and that has led to this epidemic.

Campbell stated that suicide is most prevelant amongt young men and anxiety and self-harm most prevelant among young women. Geoff Gallop added that “young people are the canaries” and that politicians “those of us in politics have a responsibility to recognise that factor and to build a better society.”

I will only comment on the US side of this issue and yet it begs so many fundamental questions. Why. Why, has this not been the priority from day one?

Why is it that care for each other, the nurturing of our relationships between each other, are not the fundamental essence of what we define our society should be? Why is this not reflected at every level of the world that we are creating?

It seems indeed a “legitimate grievance”.

I can’t refrain from adding that in the case of men’s suicide, a major root cause seems to be killing off the emotional parts of ourselves that we deny authentic connection with each other.

This begs a larger question: why have we shunned this possibility for compassion between ourselves at every level and why is this not writ into the letter of political law?

Why don’t we have organisations that are meant for caring for each other, on a physical, mental and emotional level? Why have we taken such a divided approach to focus on these single issues when they are all connected?

Why is an economy not built on our collective wellbeing?

Watching the US from afar, there is a yearning that points the finger at lack of supportive structural changes -e.g. safety net, living wages, public services- that would lead to better health, physically and mentally.

Take for instance said US campaign for Medicare for All - where many not only deteriorate without public healthcare but face the emotional trauma of not being able to afford life-saving operations or medicine because of outrageous costs. The solution both guarantees medical and mental wellbeing, but is a plan far more economically sound, that is projected to save the US several trillion over a decade.

Here, thankfully, is an issue which makes it bluntly obvious a political change that is indeed about caring for people over profit. Indeed is an issue with the “real concerns of ordinary people” in mind.

This QandA session sits too uncomfortably juxtaposed for me as working within a political organisation where I see this work as empowering grassroots movements for collective change.

Yet too often, these issues are framed as “internal” and “external,” that mental health if even acknowledged is overly personalised. It seems to me to be all too similar to the “us” and “them” opposite camps we get into in political divides.

I don’t resign to the pessimism of such recaps of this certain Monday evening. Too often are those with the best intentions left overwhelmed and inactive.

It does however require an urgency of which we’re long overdue.

This panel made it clear the connection of our mental wellbeing of that to the society that we want and deserve.

We need to take part in a movement for positive change. The social connection of a cause greater than oneself gives purpose which distracting habits and gadgets will never provide.

We do that in our organisation, we change what we cannot accept in the world.

The world is made by those who show up - and keep showing up. It takes the ordinary person realising that you must be part of a collective change.

Only then will a “big future vision” start to become a reality.

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Kent Getsinger is the National Chairperson of Democrats Abroad Australia

If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 , Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

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