Most Australians will never actually meet one another, yet we possess a shared sense of being ‘Australian’. What being ‘Australian’ actually means may look rather different from say, Waleed Aly to Pauline Hanson. Nonetheless, the concept of being a nation ensures we’re invested – not only in our individual futures – but also that of people around us. Including those whom we have no personal connection with.
Back in the 1980s, Bennedict Anderson described this kind of nationalism as an ‘imagined community’. He argued that the invention of print media was central to maintaining fellowship amongst members of a society. By reading the news, citizens formed a shared knowledge base and better understood what was happening to the broader populous. Access to the same news, opinion and ideas built a sense of belonging within a nation. Alongside that grew an investment in the social welfare of others.
The print media helped keep the population on the same page. Literally.
But not anymore.
The digital and social media revolution has lowered barriers to entry, providing new platforms to voices that were previously unheard. Democratic debate has opened up, become more inclusive of the marginalised and power is less concentrated amongst an influential, wealthy few. That is both a welcome and wonderful development.
However there have also been undeniable, and largely unintended, negative consequences. This new media landscape’s impact on our politics (and in turn, the impact of politics on the new media landscape) has reduced the quality and cohesion of public debate. It’s locking us into siloed castles of singular opinion and experience. Narrowing and cementing our world views, rather than broadening them. There’s no space for nuance and valid uncertainty.
Complex policy ideas aren’t prosecuted effectively in a divided sphere where even the most basic of facts is up for discussion. And so, politicians keep repeating the same five-word slogans, afraid a departure from the talking points will prompt an off-message 24 media shit storm. Voters in turn respond to easily digestible, fast-paced simplicity rather than grappling with the time-consuming complexity of issues. We pay more attention to the drama than the debate.
“Last year, fewer than 41 percent of us reported being satisfied with the way Australia’s democracy is working. That’s down from 86 percent in 2007 and 72 percent in 2013.”
Television news no longer sleeps. And when there’s no news to report, networks rely on hot-take, face-offs between non-experts with no semblance of genuine desire to find common ground. Everyone is talking. All the time. Yet nobody is listening to anyone that they didn’t already agree with in the first place.
It’s not only an Australian problem. The President of the United States has reduced the White House public policy discourse to 240 characters. Traditionally delivered in all caps.
More and more voters are switching off and tuning out. Last year, fewer than 41 percent of us reported being satisfied with the way Australia’s democracy is working. That’s down from 86 percent in 2007 and 72 percent in 2013. The scale and pace of that change is staggering.
Women in particular are more likely to report dissatisfaction with the system. In fact, men are three times as likely to report being content with the state of our democracy than women. This makes sense given that what was once considered women’s inevitable march towards equality, has stalled. Australia slid backwards in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index every year between 2006 and 2016. We’re also falling in the gender equality in politics rankings and the level of shared economic security between women and men.
One woman is killed each week by a man who once told her he loved her, and we continue on as if this is business as usual. Indigenous women’s infant mortality remains double that of the rest of the population and triple in remote areas. On International Women’s Day the Prime Minister dismissed Labor’s new policy for abortion services to be available in all public hospitals as not the time to be talking about it. Excuse me, Prime Minister, but when would be a better time to talk about women’s healthcare?
Fed up with the system, Australia women are increasingly looking elsewhere to make an impact. Quite fairly they don’t see government as the best potential route for making change. Most young women look to the political sphere and would rather eat a box of matches than contemplate a life of parliamentary service.
The experience of Julie Bishop, Julia Banks, Sarah Hanson-Young, Julia Gillard and Emma Hussar, amongst others, serves as a painful warning to future female aspirants. Even when young women retain interest in political life against all the odds, the paths to preselection and elevation remain blocked.
“We cannot check out. Instead we have to lean in to our right to vote.”
Now, here comes the big but. Despite the fragmented nature of our political system and the divisiveness of the media, women cannot afford to exit this space. 2019 is an election year and with that comes an opportunity for women to engage, to run, to win and to demand better. We cannot check out. Instead we have to lean in to our right to vote. Demanding nothing less but depth and detail from our politicians – and listening when it’s offered.
This week Future Women will host a special town hall style event that gives women political leaders, members of parliament and candidates the chance to speak directly with women voters. Through HerVote we’ll amplify the voices of the significant pool of female political talent in this country, while holding leaders to account so that the promises they make benefit women fairly.
It’s something we want you to be part of. It’s something Australia cannot afford for women to not be a part of. This country is at her strongest when there is a sense of unity in our diversity. It’s time to rebuild the imagined community Anderson spoke of, recommitting to a shared investment in the people who live and work beside us each day.
It sounds Pollyanna. Perhaps it is a little. The alternative, however, is allowing our policy debate to become further entrenched, idiotic and angry. The alternative is an eventual Australian Trump. And no woman can afford to risk that.
#HerVote is our new campaign aiming to elevate women’s voices and inform women’s opinions. Join us on Friday April 5 for our first #HerVote event in partnership with Twitter featuring a number of prominent female political voices and upcoming candidates.
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