Zali Steggall MP has a favourite saying:
“I am only one but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still, I can do something.”
It’s one from Edward Everett, a United States politician from the 1800s who was known for his oratory.
As in most things on my quest to fix local democracy in Warringah, I made one up, and though it had none of the rhythm or eloquence of Zali’s, it did the job. I sometimes uttered it despairingly to my family and friends:
“If no-one does anything, nothing is going to happen!“
So, do something I did.
This is my story of how making the simple decision to do something saw me play a pivotal role in one of the greatest political victories in Australian history.
OUR DEMOCRACY IS one of the defining things about our nation, but I think people have become so comfortable with the idea that Australia is built on democratic principles that too much trust is placed in the idea that ‘the idea’ alone will serve us well.
What I’ve learned is that to make democracy work for you, you have to work for it; and I don’t mean spending your time thinking up witty raconteur for Twitter. You have to do something! Do nothing and before you know it your community will be represented by a politician who does not represent your community’s values, and things will be done in your name that make you unable to sleep at night.
By a serendipitous coincidence, given who is publishing this piece, my wake-up call came in 2004 when I happened to be working in a bookshop in Manly. Margo Kingston had just written what was to become a successful book, Not Happy John? Defending our democracy, and was doing the obligatory book tour.
We organised Margo to speak at an event one wet evening in Manly. I had three little kids at home, and although the topic interested me greatly, if I wasn’t working that night I wouldn’t have ventured out.
Margo argued that John Howard and his government had profoundly undermined several cornerstones of Australia’s democracy.
I had always taken a keen interest in politics and had grown up in a family that discussed politics and religion around the dinner table every night, so I didn’t think anything Margo said that night would surprise me.
I was feeling pretty happy with myself for being there – it was a good turnout of mainly middle-aged-to-older men and women, not much diversity. The more confident engaged in strident discussion of the issues, then Margo just told us straight: (I can’t promise these were the exact words, but this is certainly what I remember).
“Look, it’s okay for you white, privileged, North Shore types, to come along here and listen to me speak about my book, and argue the finer points, and it’s great you made the effort, but, at some point, you’re going to have to get off your arses and actually do something!“
I put those words in my back pocket. I stewed on them. I read the book. I ruminated.
Fast forward to 2011.
My local member is the Opposition leader Tony Abbott. He has defeated Malcolm Turnbull in a leadership ballot fought over Turnbull’s support for an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), the policy touted for Australia to deal with the issue which was, in the 2007 words of Kevin Rudd, “the greatest moral challenge of our generation”: climate change.
My local MP leads an aggressively negative attack on the ETS he successfully re-named a “Carbon Tax”. This, for me, is the beginning of the worst period in our political history. My kids are aged 10, 13 and 15 and I’m going to bed at night wondering about the future I would be leaving them. I am powerless.
I can’t accept that feeling.
“Great Big New Tax!”, “Wrecking Ball to the Economy”, “$100 lamb roasts”, “Whyalla Wipeout!” are just some of the slogans my local member and his Coalition shouted at voters on a daily basis.
Next minute an ad campaign starring Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton is on the telly.
“Say ‘yes’ to big companies paying when they pollute the skies, say ‘yes’ to less carbon pollution, say ‘yes’ to creating jobs in green technologies, say ‘yes’ to clean air and better health for our kids!”
I join a couple of friends to organise a local branch of the campaign. “Say Yes – Northern Beaches!” was born.
Little did I know where this small action will lead me.
Ten people around my table, sun shining in, are writing letters to our MP and local and metropolitan newspapers, drinking tea, eating cakes and discussing our next steps. Just like I’d patted myself on the back for going to Margo’s book event, I am thinking what a great thing I’m doing hosting this letter-writing event.
My friend Dave hands out the paper and pens, suggests the things we could write about, puts a timer on and generally takes control, much to my relief. All I have to do is ensure the tea is hot and write something. Easy!
We decide to organise an event with a giant inflatable planet Earth that was travelling around the country. I volunteer to make a sign.
The pics are to be shared on Facebook. “Well,” I say, “I’m not on Facebook and I have no intention of joining!” Next thing, I start a Facebook group and an email list and invite every politically engaged local I know to attend.
On a beautiful sunny day, 20 of us meet at the Duke Kahanamoku statue in Freshwater; plus Dave, who has the giant globe. My youngest and two of his friends climb the statue and display the handmade “Say Yes” sign and the rest of us hold up the words “Northern Beaches”. Dave takes a photo and a video and asks me to be quoted in a press release to The Manly Daily. I have deep concerns about being quoted in the paper. I’m a very private person. I’ve kept my political views within friends and family. It was impolite to talk about politics in other circles in Warringah at that time, but I say “yes”.
Exactly the sort of person
Back at my letter-writing table, Dave suggests we ask for a meeting with Tony Abbott. I’m the only one who agrees.
I email Tony’s office and ask for a meeting to discuss climate change. After emails to and fro for months, each one from him asking for more details of the questions I’d like to put to him, I put it on the backburner.
During the Christmas holidays, January 2012, I read my diary’s list of to-do’s. The Clean Energy Act, which encompassed the “Carbon Tax”, was enacted the October prior. I cross “organise meeting with Tony Abbott” off my to-do list and give myself a little pat on the back for even having the thought I would meet him.
I return from holidays relaxed, turn on the answering machine and nearly faint when I hear the message from Tony’s electorate officer asking me to call back to arrange a time to meet with Tony, 15 months after my request.
I write up questions, adapted for Tony’s new slogan “Axe The Tax”. He’s also running “Debt and Deficit Disaster” and as a small business-owner I’m upset at the effect this is having on the economy as confidence and business plummets.
Wendy Varney and I meet for the first time, someone has organised for her to meet Tony with me. I take an instant liking to her.
I suppress the butterflies in my stomach as I hold the notes I’ve been working on for days. I know my stuff and quiz Tony in a way that I wished the media would do.
“Why are you running this scare campaign when you are on video suggesting a “simple carbon tax” might be the answer to climate change?”
“Why are you constantly spreading fear about the deficit when people from the International Monetary Fund and banks are adamant the amount of debt is small compared to other OECD countries and good economic policy? These are your people, Tony, they are not Labor people, or ‘lefty’ people, they are the banks!”
He puts his hands up in front of his chest with his palms facing me, slowly shakes his head and says in his stilted way: “Louise, Louise, you and I, we, ahh, have very different ways of looking at the world.”
“How do you know how I look at the world? You’ve just met me!”
“Tony, I went to the same school as your daughters. I come from a Catholic family, my husband and I have a mortgage and three kids. We are small business owners and we employ five young men who live on the Northern Beaches. I am exactly the sort of person you should be representing!”
It doesn’t matter what I say. He doesn’t feel the need to justify his position. He thinks saying we are different is all he needs to do.
I know I cannot not let this lie.
That day, a bee planted itself in my bonnet.