Australian politics has never felt as far out of step with the rest of the democratic world. While other major democracies openly confront existential crises, politicians in Australia carry on apparently without a care in the world.
Nothing symbolised this gulf more clearly than Scott Morrison in New York last week. As international leaders gathered to debate the acute threat of climate change – and to be eloquently berated by Greta Thunberg – the prime minister decided to give the UN’s climate summit a miss and went to inspect a newly automated McDonald’s instead.
But it is not just the sitting government that appears to be sitting out the crises engulfing the rest of the world. Ever since their shock defeat in May, the ALP has been effectively silent. Whereas most incoming political leaders are now eager to display their authenticity with bold speeches on their core values and motivating ideals, Anthony Albanese has chosen a different path. He is waiting for the results of Labor’s internal review into the party’s electoral failings, before he decides which fundamental identity to disclose.
Some here find this stability reassuring. Few want to cope with the daily chaos of American impeachment, British Brexit or French gilets jaunes.
But scratch beneath the surface and the challenges that animate those movements elsewhere are alive in Australia too. An intensifying divide between rich and poor, the threat of climate catastrophe, the erosion of stable stories of national identity, racial and ethnic hatreds – each of these issues shape the 21st century in every part of the world. They are our realities, whether we live in Athens or Adelaide, Seattle or Sydney.
Australia cannot then continue with the politics of denial forever. We will have to face our own momentous moments of political decision, just as the rest of the democratic world is doing right now. And the longer Australia puts that moment off, the more intense our difficulties will be.
It does not take too much excavation to see that. Social division and distrust in established political institutions – parliament, parties, politicians – as the potential agents of change are deepening by the day. And each make the task of responding to the challenges of our times harder, not easier.
So what is to be done?
We can be certain that the politicians will not change course by themselves. That is expecting too much, even of the good ones. Democratic politicians almost always have to respond to agendas set by others. The short-termism engendered by three-year election cycles makes that all but inevitable.
Nor will it come from those who have done well out of the economic order of the last four decades and have most to lose from policy change, like many of the multinational corporations.
The job of confronting the future, therefore, must fall to the rest of us.
It is for everyday citizens – from all backgrounds, all walks of life – to set the new agenda.
Like many people, I used to think that was impossible. I thought that there was no way that the established powers in modern democracies would cede their agenda-setting role to anyone else.
But not anymore. Because the lessons of the last decade are that breathtaking political change is possible and that it is more often driven from outside the system than from within.
Sometimes this is presented as a phenomenon only of the far right. Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence party (Ukip) came from nowhere to revolutionise British politics, probably for generations. Donald Trump’s toxic mix of celebrity television and white nationalism has done the same for the United States.
But, in fact, as research by my Sydney Policy Lab colleagues Amanda Tattersall and Kurt Iveson shows, progressive forces have been gathering internationally too, especially in cities. In Spain, new citizen-led movements have taken over the governance of Barcelona; in South Africa’s Cape Town, everyday citizens have proposed radical new solutions for affordable housing; in London, charities and young migrant campaigners have worked hand in hand with the mayor, Sadiq Khan, to transform the debate on race and immigration; and, of course, in Hong Kong, citizens have challenged one of the mightiest political powers of all.
All of us eager for change have much to learn by listening to those who lead them, examining their ideas and organising tactics. When we do, we see that they are almost always broad coalitions. Their success depends not on the efforts of one small group but on collaborations between sections of society, many of whom have not worked together before. We see too that these are rarely just protest movements, vital and inspiring though protests can be, as the climate strike has shown. Instead, these are groups that present real, concrete practical solutions and who often get to work on delivering those solutions straight away.
Most importantly of all, though, these are movements of people who realise that wherever we choose to put our energies, we simply do not have time to wait. They know that if established politicians will not act – and the evidence is that they will not – then the rest of society must lead. These international movements, in other words, are united most of all in appreciating what Martin Luther King called the fierce urgency of now. It is time we in Australia show that we understand that too.
• Marc Stears is director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney