Dear Senator Carr
It was with great interest that I heard your recent publication described by your publisher as “a clarion call to the next generation … the generation sceptical about traditional parties and particularly cynical about parliamentary politics” written “in the style of Lenin”.
“Give me just one generation of youth, and I will transform the world” – this famous quote from the man himself (Lenin, not you) was responsible for countless youth being drawn to the revolution. Recently, it is more likely to have raised the heart rate of aging politicians searching for reassurance that their work will be continued in the hands of young acolytes.
I turn for inspiration today from a lesser known pamphlet of 1895, What are Our Ministers Thinking About?
In this pamphlet Lenin laments the attempts of the Russian imperial ministers to keep education away from the workers:
“Workers! You see how mortally terrified are our ministers at the working people acquiring knowledge! Show everybody, then, that no power will succeed in depriving the workers of class-consciousness! Without knowledge the workers are defenceless, with knowledge they are a force!”
Albert Metin, just six years later, wrote of Australian political debate at Federation that “the word ‘socialism’, pleasing to many European reformers because of its philosophical and general connotations, displeases and perturbs Australasian workers by its very amplitude”. A hundred years later, little has changed. As we have yielded the high ground on education, we have allowed the discourse to be occupied by scaremongers and charlatans.
Why do I write to you with words of a century ago when I claim to represent my generation, the “generation next” of which you write? Why wouldn’t I just tweet you instead? Perhaps instead I should share the link to your book on Facebook – right above the infographics that party office has disseminated to help us win the graph argument on debt?
I write to you because I want to start a conversation. The most important ideas are not simple. They cannot be sloganised or info-graphed. When Lenin emphasised the importance of education he understood that power belongs to those who understand the world that they live in, and can comprehend the structures that keep them in their place. To win an argument you need not only to know your talking points, but to understand your opposition and the context of the debate.
You and I both are dedicated members of a party that has brought more social justice and equality of income and respect to Australians than any other force in our nation. Yet you are also the Minister for Higher Education in a government that is taking funding from higher education in order to better fund schools. The Gonski plan, while I support it as I support anything that makes an attempt to increase education opportunities for Australians, ignores something important.
The subsidising of social privilege in the form of private education is a scandalous avoidance of government responsibilities to a society that could grow stronger with education of all its members.
I won a scholarship to an elite private high school after having done my primary schooling in a high socioeconomic area with parents who thankfully had the inclination and money to provide for my intellectual interests. Not everyone can be so lucky. The disparity between our top and bottom schools (rankings now easily accessible thanks to this government’s surrender to the discourse of competition) is growing to our detriment. I applaud the Government’s attempts to address this, but to do so without addressing the funding to private schools is comparable to patting yourself on the back for loaning out stepladders whilst slipping a cheque to those on the escalator.
You began from humble beginnings, and (with apologies to Lenin), “any boilermaker’s son should be able to lead the country”. We are no longer a nation where this can occur. But to bring this fact up in debate is to learn the everlasting truth of Metin’s assessment of Australians afraid of being seen as having an agenda other than “10 bob a day!”
We perpetuate this fear because of our inability to educate our youth to the systems, the structures and the inequities of life. Members of the political class are increasingly members of the upper class. There are no civics classes, no requirement to learn why our nation is the way it is, let alone to learn the fact that any person can write to their local member or visit their office.
We lament the “dumbing down” of debate, and yet make no effort to educate people to the level required to take part in the debate we desire. We allow the political consciousness of the nation to decay, and then scratch our heads in bafflement as politicians run entire campaigns on three word slogans. That "Peace – Land – Bread" galvanised a nation of destitute peasants was inevitable; that "Stop the boats" did the same for Australia is inexcusable.
Politicians in the dusk of their careers plead with young people to become involved in politics via books that no member of the public outside of their own party (or the press corps) will ever read. How can we elevate the quality of debate to a place where we are not afraid to tackle the basic inequities of our society when the people who are most imprisoned by those inequities are excluded from the debate through lack of education?
I talk to more people about why they should become involved in politics than will ever read your book, Senator.
“A basic condition for the necessary expansion of political agitation is the organisation of comprehensive political exposure.” With my fellow young Labor members across the nation we attempt to recruit to the Labor party by demonstrating that being part of the Labor movement still means something – that there is power in your membership.
I tell them that with their motions at sub-branches, their resolutions, their ballots and conferences will all be paid off by helping formulate the platform and the policy of the greatest political party in our history. I tell them that their door-knocking, letterboxing, call-outs and arguments with neighbours will all be worth it because they will have a greater voice in the government.
And then our parliamentarians ignore or actively undermine the platform and grassroots representations.
Increasingly, the conversations I have every day about the importance of youth involvement in politics are concerned not with recruiting to the movement, but with convincing people not to leave.
Now, I tell young Labor party members that reform is coming — that things will change and their voices will be heard. I can only hope that this is true.
If you are truly interested in involving the next generation in politics you will do two things:
• You will listen to those who are still actively involved in the party (with little or no indication as to why we still should be);
• You will admit the fact that for many of our generation their disillusionment comes not from a lack of interest, but an education that has left them incapable of understanding or leveraging the power necessary to contribute to the debate.
When I speak and act in support of the Labor Party I think of those who came before me: those who fought for union rights and union power; who fought for rights for all people regardless of if they owned property or business; those who fought for the dignity and respect of all peoples. I think of those who thought that politics was not the reserve of the rich, but the battlefield of the many. Those people were Labor people.
And yet so often I am unfortunately left wondering: “what are our ministers thinking about?”
Yours in solidarity,
National Young Labor Left Co-Convenor
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