Learning from Abbott’s Downfall

Tony Abbott never got it.

The day he was toppled as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott looked confused and crushed. And in shock. His leadership had been suddenly snatched from him—and he did not understand why.

He could not see that creating a macho government of socially-conservative white men and governing in the interests of a small clique of conservative, rich, white men would ultimately be seen for what it was.

He could see nothing wrong with generating fear and bigotry, and exploiting the divisions he helped create. He could not see that while he vilified, bullied and threatened those who disagreed with him—his way, or no way—he alienated those who were hoping for his promised ‘adult government’.

He could not see that in breaking ‘rock-solid’ promises not to cut spending on health, education, housing for the poor, pensions, and public broadcasters, he lost the trust of middle Australia.

No matter how often he appeared with his loving daughters, no matter how many crack-of-dawn lycra-clad bicycle rides, he could never win back that trust. People long ago stopped listening to his simplistic slogans. He stopped the boats but, at the same time, the people stopped the votes.

Malcolm Turnbull waited patiently while his Party colleagues came, finally, to see that 30 opinion poll defeats in succession were showing them that the people had withdrawn their consent and wanted a different way—perhaps a way back to what Turnbull claimed was his territory: the ‘sensible centre, socially progressive but economically conservative’. It remains to be seen if Turnbull means what he says. And who will benefit from this new direction.

The idea that power cannot be sustained without the consent of the people is as old as Magna Carta—and remains powerful today. In the twentieth century, the axiom ‘Nihil de nobis, sine nobis’ (‘Nothing About Us Without Us’) has been adapted and adopted by a variety of human rights advocacy groups.

The expression was first used in political life in 16th century Poland—and lives on in Poland today. Recently, students at the University of Warsaw used that slogan again when protesting against high-handed changes imposed without consultation—and without proper regard for the impact on students.

‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ was the theme for the International Day of Disabled Persons in 2004. The focus was on the active involvement and participation of persons with disabilities in the planning of strategies and policies that affect their lives. 

Women from around the world gathered in Lima, Peru in October 2013 for the World Conference of Indigenous Women under the title ‘Nothing about us, without us. Everything about us, with us’. Subsequently, more than 300 women’s organisations from around the globe endorsed a statement which read in part:

We count on UN Women and member states to stand with us in ensuring our seat at the decision-making table so that we can make sure that nothing is discussed about us without us. 

And so it continues with refugees and asylum seeker, youth groups, indigenous organisations, the aged, and others.

What drives this movement?

To a large extent it is an expression of the politics of identity—those feeling dispossessed, oppressed, rejected, abandoned want to articulate their experience through a process of conscious-raising within the group. They do not want that experience mediated by outsiders, however well-intentioned. There is a consciousness that the only people who can be trusted to speak up for the rights of a group are members of that group.

In her 1989 book about people with disability, Diane Driedger invoked the civil rights movement:

If we have learned one thing from the civil rights movement in the US, it’s that when others speak for us, you lose.’ (The Last Civil Rights Movement: Disabled Peoples’ International. New York: St. Martin’s Press 1989, p. 28)

This statement goes to the importance of both self-conviction and agency—confidence in your capacity to take charge of the decisions that affect your life.

Many people who grew up in the ‘care’ of orphanages, children’s homes and foster families developed, and maintain, an enduring mistrust of all authority.

They have a growing disenchantment with academics and professionals who see the ‘Forgotten Australians’ (not a name chosen by the group) as clients to be serviced or passive subjects to be surveyed, interviewed, focus-grouped and power-pointed. Care leaver childhood lives are plundered as a treasure trove of victims’ tragedies. Consent is sought from academic ethics committees, but not from the objects of the research.

As children authorities claimed what they did for us and to us was for our own good. But they never asked us. We had no say in what was done to us. Now we can have a say. If academics and other professionals are to win our trust and approval, they must listen when we say: nothing about us without us.


One thought on “Learning from Abbott’s Downfall”

  1. This is an excellent post Frank. For all Abbott’s attempts to seem a man of the people, when it came down to it he was an elitist. Jesuitical, used to telling people what to do, unused to being questioned or negotiating or consulting and incapable of inclusion. We can only hope there will be a shift to a new political culture, and that will flow through to government policy. The stuff we’re doing isn’t working.

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