I was in San Francisco, living the American dream in a world where fast ideas meet fast money. But in 2000 the election that delivered George W Bush woke me up. We weren’t the cradle of democracy – elections were won with judges rather than votes.
We weren’t the land of plenty – one household in 13 lived in a trailer. So I moved here to adopt the Australian dream, but when I landed, John Howard was telling everyone that this dream had expired with globalisation. I didn’t believe him. I saw people heading for the beach at five o’clock, I saw Medicare, I saw the ABC, I saw people who treated me best when mud and grease covered my clothes. I became an Australian citizen. But slowly, I saw Howard’s icy fingers extend their grip – choking education, welfare, the arts, people’s very values.
Then, one night, in one of my Australian dreams, I saw a thousand people on a beach, and a man on a podium, wearing a T-shirt and Stubbies. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked. ‘It’s the new leader of the Labor Party.’ The
man began to speak. ‘Fellow Australians. In towns, cities and country, I hear much disillusion and anger. You feel our society is getting worse everyday, you feel you can’t do anything to change it, you feel you don’t control your government. ‘You didn’t want to invade Iraq, yet John Howard did it. You didn’t ask to raise university fees. You didn’t ask for a bill to ban gay marriages.
You didn’t ask for a tax cut instead of social services. Yet your government did all these things. ‘You worry that if Labor gets in, I too will take you further away from the Australian dream. ‘I have heard your anger in local elections. I come to you as a humbled man, and I promise you this. I will fix democracy.
That’s easy. ‘Take Iraq. What’s the real issue? Not whether troops get out by next week or by Christmas, but that we went there in the first place. Most of you opposed the war, Howard sent the troops anyway. That’s a democracy problem. How do we make sure we never have this problem again? ‘The problem has one obvious solution. Australia needs a law that forces government to get the
consent of parliament or of citizens before it can invade a country that hasn’t attacked us. The Democrats introduced a Bill to that effect. Labor will support it. ‘The Iraq War is just one of many ‘democracy problems’.
How do we make sure government can never disobey you, whatever the issue — Medicare, the environment, education, work, trade? ‘Suppose we changed the constitution so a million Australians could force an issue on the ballot. That’s the scale of last year’s No War rallies.
With a people’s referendum, if a policy robs you, you will rally, and if a critical mass of Australians feel like you, you will vote and you will win. Knowing you can overturn policies, government will yield in time or make better policies from the start. ‘That means asking you what you want. As Prime Minister, I will engage you in a debate about the kind of society we want.
Do we still want a fair go, an egalitarian society and a relaxed lifestyle? Or do we prefer a competition where losers rot, winners make the A-list and the rest work always harder for fewer benefits? ‘Should America have army bases in our bush? Should we sign a free-trade deal that lets Yale compete for Canberra money? Should logging of ancient forests continue? Should we pamper coal giants, or create an energy policy that taps our solar treasure? Should you pay for dental care? Should the Queen’s man have power to sack your Prime Minister?
‘Fellow Australians, you’re going to decide. We will dream Australia together, and I will help you realise that dream.’ I am awake now – and I wonder. If a politician spoke this way, what would Australians do? How many others left and right would happily ditch the global nightmare to revive the Australian dream?
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