Why advocacy is failing in Australia


The European Union’s new constitution was all but defeated when France voted against its adoption. This is evidence of any number of things and provides an interesting snapshot of politics in France and Europe at the moment. What it emphasises for me is that activism and politics as a whole has a global context in Europe and much of the rest of the world. However this level of understanding seems to be absent from Australian activism and politics.

This is a fundamental problem with activism in Australia. Quite simply, it is too insular and therefore fails to take into account the global forces that are at work. These global forces are a key factor behind the imploding welfare system, increasing moves towards a user-pays education system and much more.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

To add to my interest in this phenomenon, it would appear that the business sector “ particularly big business “ has a very acute understanding of this. There is no end to the talk of ‘global trends’ and an ongoing push for trade liberalisation from the business community.

So why is Australian activism so insular? We would be foolish to ignore the ‘tyranny of distance’ that Geoffrey Blainey explored back in 1966. No doubt a long history of a lack of engagement with our region has left its legacy on the Australian psyche.

However it is more than that. Michael Donnelly (2004) recently pointed out that the careerism of the non-profit sector has managed to conservatise it. He is not the first to either. Both George Monbiot (2004) and Cam Walker (2002) have also drawn our attention to it. Ultimately, big non-profits manage to saturate the ‘third sector’. In doing so, they draw all the funds away from smaller, grass-root and more radical organisations. Furthermore, senior staff at these organisations tend to be quite well paid, often letting their class interests come into conflict with their campaigns.

This leads to a higher level of engagement with corporates and a lower level engagement with their members. In fact it is now the case that many of these organisations have supporters, not members. For many of these organisations, any semblance of being ‘grass-roots’ is long gone.

This lack of a global understanding is a problem for two key reasons. Firstly it means there is major gap in the analysis. Usually this translates into a lack of any systemic analysis. We have a government that is following “ with an almost dogmatic faith “ the ideas that underpin neo-liberal globalisation with a healthy dose of realist self-interest just to make sure our economic relationships are nicely exploitative.

There are several bilateral trade agreements currently being negotiated by the Australian government but very little analysis of this in the mainstream media. What analysis there is discusses the economic benefits for Australia with little attention to anything else. Where is the analysis of the environmental impact? Where is the analysis of labour rights and Australian job losses? Again the analysis and activism surrounding these sorts of things (with a few notable exceptions) is lacking.

The second key issue is that of a failure to engage young people. Every few months there is an opinion piece about the apathy of younger generations who are blissfully ignorant to the troubles of the world. In my experience this simply is not true. Young Australians are considerably more aware and informed that their parents ever were. What do you expect when we live in the ‘information age’? We are more aware of our society than we have ever been.

These young adults aren’t engaged to the extent that they should be because they simply are not harnessed by advocacy organisations. Student politics is a pale imitation of its former self, and activist organisations are clogged up with the same older people “ largely refugees from a time when the socialist revolution had some relevance (this is not to be critical of the amazing work that a lot of these people do).

This failure to engage young people has a lot to do with a dated agenda and an inability to take on the issues surrounding globalisation. Young people might be attracted to the issues surrounding globalisation because No Logo is the ‘in’ book; it might be because of the appeal of large-scale protests like the ones we saw in Melbourne in September 2000 and most famously in Seattle outside the World Trade Organisation meeting in 1999.

However I think this failure to engage young people is because the youth of today are more engaged in the ‘information age’ and are therefore the most aware of the issues surrounding globalisation. Globalisation is the issue that captures the imagination of young people today. We just need more organisations to provide them with an outlet for these issues.

Blainey, G. (1966) The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History, Melbourne, Sun Books
Donnelly, M. ‘How Nonprofit Careerism Derailed the “Revolution”: Greens and Greenbacks’, Counterpunch, 27 Dec, 2004
Monbiot, G. ‘Greens get eaten’, Guardian, 15 Jan, 2004
Walker, C (2002) ‘Getting back to independent and effective grassroots’, in Ecopolitics: Thought and Action, Vol 1, Number 4, Spring 2002, pp 12-16.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.