The hope of politics

Last year my son’s primary school class visited Canberra. They went to see the Governor-General who, they were warned beforehand, would be very formal with them because he was so important. They were to remain silent, speak only if spoken to and call him “Your Excellency” if addressed. Peter Cosgrove strode into the large room where the students had been shepherded. He grinned and said, “Hello kids. Where are you from?” They left the Governor General and went to Parliament House and met the school’s federal local member, Jane Prentice, who also greeted them warmly. Parliament wasn’t sitting, and so they were able to walk through the chambers. The Governor-General was “just a really nice guy,” my son said, and “we met the person who represents our school in Parliament.”

My son had none of the autopilot rage that’s come to characterise online discourse especially about politics and those who serve in public office, especially women. He didn’t hate as a matter of course the people he met in Canberra, neither the Queen’s representative nor a member of the government. My son was happy, proud even, when he came home, to have learned so much about how Australia is governed and how important it is to vote. When the Queensland election came around, he read all the material dropped in our mailbox and spoke to candidates who came doorknocking. He talked about ideas.

Barack Obama came to power in the US on a campaign of hope. “We are not so divided as our politics suggest,” he said. And perhaps we’re not, or perhaps we don’t start that way in life. We start, like my son’s class, believing the best of the people who represent us. We start with hope. Obama may have let go of his belief in a united United States, but he would probably still say that there has never been anything false about our hope. When I spend time in the company of young people, I come around to that view too.  

We relinquish hope fastest when we succumb to hatred, blaming others for whatever misery is in our lives and those in public office are an easy target. Some people think of this as moving from the idealism of youth to the realism of adulthood and maybe they’re right. Some blame the internet for the spite that spews forth in people’s online comments. But spite wasn’t created by the internet. It had to be there to begin with. Watching my son traverse the various opinions he comes across – some of which I wish he never had to see – has taught me a lot. Hope might be a default position in the young but for the not-so-young, it’s a choice we can still make.

The day after the Queensland election, ABC journalist Peter Greste was released from prison in Egypt. We celebrated the fact that we are free to vote for the people we want representing us, to have an opinion and express it. But these freedoms are surely tethered by responsibilities as citizens. Is hope one of those responsibilities? I wish it was. It seems in such short supply at the moment.

If you take the time to talk at length to those who run for public office, you get to see what drives them. It’s invariably something to do with helping others and community service, something to do with hope for a better world, a hope the best of them haven’t lost. When Andrew Fraser was our local state government member, he came each year to the ANZAC day ceremony and helped put war in context for us. When Saxon Rice took over in 2012, she played this role. They thanked the children who sang, recognised the returned soldiers and said something about the freedom we enjoy in Australia that is not enjoyed everywhere in the world. This is what our elected representatives are elected to do, to speak for us, to represent who we are. Both acquitted themselves very well in their role. Both deserved my admiration and respect. Having experienced the bitter taste of internet bile these last weeks, I’m starting to see that my son and his classmates, with their inbuilt hope, are on the right track.