Coalition of the willing needed to take the fight to Tony Abbott and co

Of all the things this country needs to do right now, it’s this one thing. And we need to do it urgently.

It’s all very well for us to have the Coalition in government, where conservative politicians can band together trying to dismember the Australia we want. Now we need to build a coalition in opposition as well.

Yes, when I say we should build a coalition in opposition, I don’t mean capital O opposition. That would marry me – and anyone else – to so many of the outdated policies of Australian Labor.

I mean a coalition of people who have progressive ideas and who believe in a fair Australia. Building coalitions is difficult. We all have our patches we want to protect.

On the right of politics in Australia, there is a desire to protect privilege and promote elitism. That’s a self-selecting group, who have that fortune in the first place and want to keep it that way. Or the sad wannabes who think that supporting those policies will mean they, too, will be part of the elite. You’ll also find the corporations, supporting those who share those values. And, of course, most in the Liberal and National parties.

In the centre and on the left, you’ll find myriad groups built around individual passions: refugees, climate change, gender equality, marriage equality, employment protection and workers’ rights. You’ll also find the unions and, sometimes, the Labor Party and the Greens.


But somehow it’s come to be that it’s easier to build a coalition around greed than around fairness; around those who want to replicate their own good fortune than around those who want to share their good fortune and give others a helping hand.

Lyn Farrand decided she was going to reach out herself. She’s a 64-year-old retired social worker who has been very distressed by what she perceives to be the failure of the fabric of fairness in this country.

She writes letters to this newspaper and others – but more recently she has connected with the authors of the People’s Commission of Audit. It’s her attempt to  build a relationship with others who feel that the country, as Farrand puts it, is “going to hell in a handbasket”.

“I expect a broad stroke egalitarianism and I can see it just being dismantled before our eyes,” she says.

But short of us all operating in the only way we know how – reaching out to individuals – what other advice can we find if we want to build a coalition?

Michele O’Neil has some advice. O’Neil is the national secretary of the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia. She is part of a group which built the enormously successful Fair Wear campaign, which worked to stop exploitation of those producing the clothes we wear. It’s been working for 16 years and is still popular, still robust; and having positive effects on the industry.

She says that it managed to engage everyone who embraced the cause – from consumers to nuns to student activists.

“Students might be happy to take their clothes off in a shop window but not everyone would do that.”

O’Neil has revolutionary ideas for someone who works in the union movement. No one, no group, no institution, can successfully impose a strategy or campaign on a biddable populace.  

“I don’t think that works any more in 2014,” she says.

Instead, we all have to be mobilised about what we are passionate about. We need to work together to share our views but not necessarily the way we plan to make it happen.

“You can’t control every activity and how people are involved . . . if you want to engage people broadly, you have to recognise that what will suit one person, won’t suit everyone.”

She sees the struggle as discovering what will galvanise different groups – and O’Neil says it is often a fight for justice (in the case of Fair Wear, it was about justice for clothing workers). But too often, an organisation will want to impose control because those who have a lot invested want total control.

But as O’Neil says: “It kills a great campaign for it to be controlled by one entity.”

All the good campaigns have many hands making fight work. There is still co-ordination and still a plan but those are derived from shared ideals and experiences.

“My experience of unions is that we often get fearful of not being in control,” she says.

Instead, the new wave of progressiveness must include a process whereby we can make our actions personal to ourselves but aligned with a strategy. Engage with others but make the actions our own.

Lyn Farrand puts it well: “Our nation and our democracy is being ‘privatised’ so a few can assert their influence . . . how unseemly that our Prime Minister is so closely allied to some journalists and so critical of others.”

Ariadne Vromen, associate professor of politics at the University of Sydney, says coalitions needs to be sustainable over time and not just specific to a particular event. “Coalitions need personal connections, good information distribution and a shared commitment to an idea or a cause.”

If the Prime Minister is all #teamTony, the rest of us need to be #takebackAustralia. Your time starts now.

Twitter @jennaprice or email