Australian politics

Speaking To Politicians Didn’t Ease My Fears, It Made Me Angrier

I went to Parliament House looking for answers. I found something else: a bunch of bullshit. But also a little hope. Sort of. Words by Ky Stewart

By Ky Stewart, 7/6/2024

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When I saw the video of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese making Sarah Williams, an anti-sexual violence advocate, cry, I was horrified. What the fuck was he doing? The man in charge of the nation was making a woman cry at a women’s safety rally protesting the murder of 43 women by men. How ironic. Albanese brushed off the controversy by saying it was an “emotional” day, declining to apologise to Sarah, but “wishing her well”. I was furious. 

It was yet another letdown from Labor. I was already feeling hopeless about the state of Australian politics and this only made it worse. The Labor Government was elected on big promises, and they have not been delivering. I felt betrayed on climate action, First Nations equality, adequately addressing the housing and rental crisis, and on our “complicity” in the Israeli government’s attacks on Gaza. I felt like no one in government has our best interests at heart. They’ll tell us that they care, but then do the complete opposite. Or worse, they’ll do nothing at all in the apparent hope the issue resolves itself. So many of us have felt so angry and helpless and I got tired of it. So I took all this anger to my editors. And then we took it to Parliament House. 

I’d already ranted to my editor, Nick, about how hopeless I was feeling; how there’s no one young representing us; no one we can look up to and feel inspired by in government. Nick listened, echoed my concerns and did what most editors do: told me to write about it. Writing is a form of therapy, think of the audience, and all that. I was about halfway through writing the first iteration of this very piece when I thought of a better idea – and broke the news to Nick: his essay would have to wait. See, there was something about watching Albanese squirm his way out of accountability at the women’s rally that compelled me to do more. Too many people were fed up. Me complaining in written form just didn’t feel right. Instead, I asked our audience what they thought; were they feeling that same empty pit of hopelessness and rage? They most definitely were. 

“I didn’t get what I voted for,” one respondent said. “Labor’s complicity in the genocide in Gaza makes me physically ill… we have a terrifying growing issue of violence against women and Labor’s lack of action is woeful and sexist. This country’s treatment of First Nations people is deplorable… racism is rampant and ableism is normalised. The property market is totally unachievable for anyone under 40. Rent is a joke… Labor has been a huge disappointment on climate change and are the standard white male fossil fools like the rest.” 

“I used to believe Labor would make a difference but they feel so Liberal lite,” one person said. “I campaigned for them at the last election and I had so much hope, but it’s been really disappointing to see this term unfold… I feel like they’re betraying the roots of the Labor movement,” another said. If people weren’t disappointed by Labor, they were just thankful that the Liberal party wasn’t in power anymore. “A safer pair of hands than the coalition,” one person said while another said “in a two party preferred system, I’ll always back Labor over Liberal but they’re hardly doing anything inspirational”. And my personal favourite, “[Labor] have a better policy platform than the Liberal [but] that’s a fucking low bar.” 

But what upset me the most was just how many of us see themselves reflected by Australian politics. Ninety-three percent of respondents didn’t feel represented. How disgusting. How are we supposed to have even a modicum of hope if the people in power look and act nothing like us, people who don’t have the same lived experiences as the rest of us? What are we supposed to do with that? 

So I asked that very question to those in the seats of power in Parliament House. Myself and Junkee stormed Parliament (read: we moved very slowly through security and quietly waited for our tripods to be signed in), armed with your responses and our collective anger. I wanted to get tangible responses and feel even a tiny shred of optimism. 

We interviewed nine politicians in 48 hours during Budget week. I don’t recommend it. Not good for the soul. I’m still recovering. We spoke to Federal Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, Federal Minister for Climate Change, Chris Bowen, Leader of Australian Greens and Federal Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, Leader of the Australian Greens in the Senate and Senator for Queensland, Larissa Waters, Greens Senator for NSW, David Shoebridge, Greens Federal Member for Brisbane, Stephen Bates, Greens Federal Member for Griffith, Max Chandler-Mather, Independent Senator for Victoria, Lidia Thorpe, and Independent Federal Member for Kooyong, Dr Monique Ryan. We tried to speak to members of the Liberal party to no avail. 

We met with Chris Bowen at 10:30 AM. “The boss usually sits there,” Chris’s staffer said to us. I sat opposite. Bowen had just voted in the House of Representatives. “You win the vote, boss?” 

“We won it well. It was a coalition of the Greens and Barnaby Joyce against us,” Bowen said as he entered. “I don’t know what the vote was on but if the Greens and Barnaby Joyce are for it, I’m against it.” [I think the vote was on Treasury Laws Amendment (Support for Small Business and Charities and Other Measures) Bill 2023]. 

Bowen’s office was a dusty trophy case for Labor’s glory days, littered with framed newspaper clippings of Labor’s victories over the years. Bob Hawke. Paul Keating. Gough Whitlam. Neville Wran. A lot of Neville Wran, actually. And Obama, for some reason. I didn’t see anything from Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard’s victories. 

I don’t know what it was (pride? arrogance?) but Chris’s energy in our chat felt off as soon as he sat down. He dismissed the impact of climate protests, lectured me on how not all Indigenous peoples think the same, and talked his way around Labor’s Future Gas Strategy. 

“Dialogue is more valuable than holding a placard and yelling,” he said. “That’s not the way to convince people.” This floored me. How could a politician say that protests don’t convince people? Surely history has proven otherwise. How else do people voice their concerns to the government?

Bowen claimed to be more persuaded by a sit-down conversation, but organising a meeting isn’t an easy thing to do with a Federal Minister (trust me). As Tanya Plibersek told us less than 24 hours later, she’s not always in her electorate office — and certainly “can’t be there just at the drop of a hat because [young people are] striking”. The same morning we spoke to Plibersek, there was a mini climate protest outside Parliament House. They were quietly moved along. 

Speaking to the Labor Government, I got the sense that the questions I asked were beneath them. Like they’d heard all this before. But if they really got it, why weren’t they acting accordingly? Why were they approving new coal mines? Why were they planning for gas projects past 2050? Why were First Nations heritage applications being rejected? Were Bowen and Tanya taking these concerns seriously? Or did they think of them as silly and juvenile? I understand that politicians sometimes need to compromise — even the most strident climate advocate may need to toe the party line. But at this point in the climate crisis, we’re well past the point of playing it safe for votes. 

As we were escorted around Parliament House, we learnt that staff lunch packs at “the trough” cost $9. Plus, politicians get free gym memberships. I immediately thought of the $35 I spend weekly for my gym membership in Sydney. ($66 at my previous gym.) And the $120 I spent on one bag of groceries just before I left Sydney. The cost of living crisis probably felt like a vague, faraway concept with those perks.

I was worried this out of touch, dismissive attitude was systemic in Parliament. Then I spoke to Larissa Waters.

When I told her what Bowen had said about climate protests, she was appalled. “I’m embarrassed that any politician would say that they don’t care if people are rioting on the streets,” she said. “It’s dynamite when young people are so pissed off at the system that they mobilise and take action and hit the streets.” 

Stephen Bates was also unimpressed. “If it wasn’t helping, they would tell you to protest,” he said. “The fact they’re saying it does nothing… tells you all you need to know.” 

“Older people need to move aside for young people to run this country,” a typically clear-eyed Lidia Thorpe said. She’s always been a fearless advocate for my people. The one politician I’ve actually admired. Speaking to her in person only confirmed what I always suspected — that she’s compassionate, strong, and won’t take anyone’s shit. “You look at the chamber both in the Senate and the House of Reps, there are a lot of old white men with really old crusty ideas who have no idea what young people want for their future.” 

Lidia actually listened to me, a young person. I could tell from her responses that she genuinely cares about us. I felt that from all of the Greens, to be honest. Sure, they might just be saying everything we want to hear because it’ll win them votes. But I felt a passion from them that I didn’t get from the Labor Government. Even if it’s virtue signalling, they hear our concerns. They’re paying attention. It’s a lot more than I can say for the ruling party and the Coalition, who seem to forget we exist.  

It was validating to feel that there was at least a small cohort of people (the Greens and Independents) who haven’t forgotten why they got into politics. Whether advocating for stronger climate action, less fossil fuel dependence, national rent freezes, more affordable housing, true equity for First Nations Peoples, or an end to violence against women, they were trying to make a difference. They could tell that we felt hopeless. But as Max Chandler-Mather told me, that hopelessness is “deliberately manufactured” by politicians and the media. “What Labor will do, and the Liberals will do, is say, [rent freezes, scrapping student debt, etc] is completely unrealistic,” he said. “The reason they do that is an attempt to crush people’s hope about what politics can achieve because they know that young people across this country collectively have the potential to wield a lot of power.” 

We need to use that power. We already know the system is built against us. Stephen Bates, “Baby of the House”, told us that, in the chamber, someone yelled for him to “quit and come back” when he was older. It’s the same disrespect I felt from the Labor government. “It’s important to push back against that narrative that young people don’t know what they’re doing, which is effectively what it comes down to,” Stephen said. 

I didn’t leave Parliament House completely cured of my at-times soul-crushing pessimism. If anything, I saw how urgently things need to change. But I did, in a roundabout way, feel empowered. Those few politicians who really listened, who made the effort to remember my name, who personally walked us back to the foyer, reminded me that things can be better. And it’s up to us to make it so.

As Adam Bandt told me, “If you push and push and push hard enough, things can change and things can change really, really quickly. Everything’s impossible until it’s not.”

So we keep protesting. Keep applying pressure to whoever’s in power. It does make a difference, despite what some Ministers say. Our voices matter. Our concerns deserve to be heard. We need to be inescapable. Undeniable. Show those “old crusties” what we think at voting booths. 

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and Multimedia Reporter at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

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