Just because he’s gone, doesn’t mean he should be forgotten. Particularly not amid another toxic federal election campaign. Professor Stuart Rees pays tribute to a tireless campaigner, gone to soon.
The federal election drags on. Leaders pose in shopping malls, in boats and on commuter trains. Their robot-like talk of the need for economic growth replaces consideration of visions for a socially just and therefore economically vibrant society.
One recently deceased state politician would have challenged Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten and in so doing could have excited voters.
NSW Greens MLC John Kaye died on May 2nd. On May 27th the celebration of his life occurred before an overflow audience in the Sydney Recital Hall.
There is so much to learn from John, so much to be grateful for. He was brilliant. His UNSW first class Honours degree in electrical engineering was followed, years later, by the completion of a PhD at the prestigious University of California at Berkeley.
John recalled that he was the only student in his doctoral years who was not sponsored by the US military. On completion of his PhD, he could have accepted well-paid employment with that military. The personnel making the offers seem to have been unaware they were dealing with a courageous, principled individual who had little time for militarization, who wanted to use his scientific expertise for peaceful purposes.
John’s principles and his commitment to evidence-based arguments could have been an antidote to an Australian election campaign preoccupied with the pragmatics of winning votes in marginal constituencies.
Elected in 2007 to the upper house of the NSW Parliament, John mastered a range of portfolios. He campaigned for public education, for the reform of the system of making donations to political parties, against the privatization of the electricity industry, against greyhound racing. He even revealed false claims concerning the production of free-range eggs.
Key values influenced his advocacy. In every branch of public policy he emphasized the significance of the public. He knew that civil society depended on vigorous, well-funded public institutions, in particular public education. He believed, “We should never let education be traded through a market.”
He would have been reassured by findings from the Centre for Policy Development’s recent report Uneven playing field: the state of Australia’s schools. That report identifies the dysfunctional and socially unjust arrangements for funding Australian schools.
John believed there should be no public funding for private schools or for vocational training. To put that belief into practice, he campaigned for the much maligned technical and further education system (TAFE). He believed, “There can be no jobs future in the 21st century for NSW without a buoyant and optimistic TAFE system.”
John breathed and lived the philosophy and language of non-violence, hence his work to protect a precious environment. He did this by marshalling scientific evidence against carbon-based fuel dependency, and in favour of renewable forms of energy, ‘the post carbon future.’
His commitment to non-violence saw him ally with campaigns to end cruelty to animals, whether in the production of food or as a means of entertainment in sports.
John’s perspectives on domestic and foreign policies were influenced by his commitment to universal human rights. An effective state politician, he was also an internationalist. He considered arguments that local councillors and state politicians should not get involved in international affairs, to be a denial of the obligations of citizenship.
John’s background was Jewish. It took courage for him to argue for the rights of the Palestinian people and for the worldwide, non-violent Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign to support Palestinians’ rights to self-determination. His support for Palestinians was so encouraging to anyone advocating an end to the brutalities on the West Bank and to the cruel siege of Gaza.
Ceasing the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands never left John Kaye’s agenda. In the current Australian election, with the exception of Greens candidates and a few brave individuals from the Labor Party, most federal candidates don’t dare to speak about justice for asylum seekers, let alone mentioning that dangerous word, Palestine.
As a teenager, John rebelled against conservative orthodoxies. He rejected self-satisfied mainstream views which promoted glowing accounts to justify how society is, and how it should be. Instead he allied himself with trade unionists and built principles to respect and achieve human rights.
It may sound as though John was a righteous wowser. He was nothing of the kind. Funny, generous, committed to others’ interests, conversations with him were peppered with self-deprecating humour and with predictions about the consequences of business-oriented policies. He once described the NSW Government’s latest gargantuan toll road building project –West Connex – as an inevitable ‘slow moving parking lot.’
He was a serious scientist who was happy marching for social justice, a scholarly parliamentarian who was also an enthusiastic sailor.
In the early hours of parliamentary sitting days, John would rise by 5am to check the day’s news and the need for pithy commentary on major issues. On the means of protecting Australian politics from corruption by wealthy donors he wrote, “There has to be an end to rich pickings for corporate sharks created by contracting out public services, selling off public assets and sweetheart deals for casinos and motorways.”
Insight and irony fuelled his humour. He never resorted to derision or character assassination. He would have considered such carping as a failure of intellect. An energetic, empowering conversationalist, John remained optimistic even through the last months of a vicious, painful illness.
In his final message, drafted just before his death, he urged his colleagues to secure ‘our critical public services’, those which ‘are now being smashed apart by a bankrupt philosophy of neoliberalism and marketism.’
He wanted policies to be influenced by altruism and by unending efforts to reduce social and economic inequality.
He made a last clarion call to reduce greenhouse gas omissions and to build an economy that “spreads wealth in a way that doesn’t eat up the planet and doesn’t rely on exploiting labour in third world countries”.
The federal election campaign needs to air and promote John Kaye’s views. If that happens, it would be another fitting tribute to this significant citizen. It would also give a vision of a socially just society that could excite all voters and many candidates, not just members of The Greens, the party he represented with such tirelessness and passion.
John Kaye and his brave partner Lynne displayed the same selflessness, the same concern with evidence-based advocacy for justice, the same energy in support of the less fortunate in life’s race.
It is such a tragedy that John died before he reached 60, before some of his cherished goals could be realized.
Yet he lived a full life, was an example to us all, and accomplished so much.
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