Fight for the hearts rather than the hip pockets

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 31 Oct 2007

Amidst the bounty of tax cuts for working families, benefits for pensioners and rebates for education and childcare, it’s easy to believe that this election is being fought in the hip-pockets of Australian voters. But, there is more to the 2007 election.
Evidence suggests a growing number of voters are looking beyond their own hip-pockets as they decide who to vote for on November 24. For example, thousands of Australians in multiple polls have said tax cuts will have no impact on their vote.
More significantly, we are seeing unprecedented levels of political activism on issues that extend well beyond the hip-pocket. Take the ever-growing movement to Make Poverty History.
Australians have long been known for their willingness to give to those living in extreme poverty around the world. After the Irish, we are the second most generous nation in the world when it comes to personal giving. Yet, in recent years, we have seen an increasing number of Australians deciding not just to give, but to get active.
Enter Make Poverty History in 2005, which exists not to fundraise, but to campaign. This is a movement of people who want to see their own commitment to combating poverty reflected in the actions of their government.
These people recognise that, although aid organisations make a pivotal difference in communities around the world, systemic poverty can only be overcome by addressing deeper injustices such as the rigged rules and double standards of global trade. As Nelson Mandela has said, overcoming poverty is not about charity, it is about justice.
This makes the actions of governments critical. Supporters of Make Poverty History have made it clear they expect promises by governments to be kept and will hold political leaders accountable. Many of them have traveled to Canberra over the past three years to demonstrate the seriousness of their commitment.
What is fascinating is that these are not your stereotypical activists. Rather, they are people of all ages and political persuasions. Or, as Bono has described it: “soccer mums and church folk hanging out with rock stars and activists”.
Not surprisingly, the church folk have been instrumental in securing the attention of some politicians – particularly because, unlike other social issues which divide mainstream and evangelical churches, Make Poverty History has succeeded in uniting a broad spectrum of faith-based organisations.
One has only to look at the parliamentary advocates of Make Poverty History to appreciate how diverse the movement is – there aren’t too many other issues, for example, that bring Tasmanian Liberal Senator Guy Barnett and the greens Senator Kerry Nettle together!
Around one million Australians – the equivalent of eleven entire electorates – have worn the now iconic white bands. Earlier this month, more than 100,000 people across the nation joined with 38 million people around the world to participate in Make Poverty History’s ‘Stand Up and Speak Out’ event.
In their passionate endeavour to raise awareness about extreme poverty, young Australians inspired international rock stars to perform in high-profile concerts, negotiated substantial corporate sponsorship agreements, door-knocked an entire electorate and vigorously lobbied their political representatives.
Earlier this year, Make Poverty History became the first campaign message to be broadcast on the sails of the Sydney Opera House and 1,000 youth ambassadors were commissioned to spread the message in their communities. Most recently, community forums have been held in marginal electorates across the country, enabling local supporters to assess the commitment of each candidate to poverty reduction.
This level of sustained political activism from such a broad cross-section of the Australian community about an issue which extends beyond their everyday lives is, in my observation, unprecedented. I believe it illustrates a shift from an inward-looking electorate to an outward-looking one.
Australians appear to be growing rapidly tired of negative campaigning and small target politics. There is a new sense of wanting to reach out – to each other, to our neighbours, to the poor, to the next generation, to the future.
Time and, of course, votes will tell to what extent ignoring this shift in the electorate will cost political parties. One thing seems clear: it’s time for them to get out of the hip-pockets and into the hearts of Australian voters.
Andrew Hewett
Executive Director, Oxfam Australia
Co-Chair, Make Poverty History
An edited version of this opinion article was published in the Daily Telegraph on 1 November 2007.