The muted popular response to the release of the Paradise Papers last month was troubling. Unless we are happy to see multinational companies shift money offshore to limit the tax they pay, it appears Australians have lost hope that their voice will be heard, believing the existing system is entrenched. The absence of indignation and scarce popular engagement on this issue – and on similarly grievous recent events – is telling.
Unacceptable wealth inequality, popular discontent about insecure work and futures with few guarantees is the new Australian reality. There is a creeping feeling that must changed – soon. But recently, economic and fiscal policy solutions have given ground to hand-to-hand political combat designed to divide and distract. Albert Camus once noted there is always progress when a political problem becomes a human problem. In Australia today, there are no human problems – nor even economic problems – but only political problems.
Over a few weeks, Australians became aware of the Paradise Papers – evidence of tax avoidance on a massive scale – which drifted in and out of the news cycle without a hint of public revolt. Australian banks, once pillars of our communities, then posted record profits in the billions of dollars, coupled with half-million-dollar pay rises for their chief executives, and plans to lay off thousands of staff in search of even greater profits. Meanwhile, the South Australian government conceded to a well-resourced lobbying campaign and announced it would withdraw its plans to introduce a modest levy on banks. Again, the public reaction was apathetic.
There was further evidence of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, yet, despite Australia's history of active middle-power intervention and bipartisan support for Asian engagement, we remain unmoved by the Rohingya's horrendous plight. People seeking asylum on Manus Island, ostensibly in Australia's care, were left without protection and support as their camp was closed. Indignation on this issue was evident, but not enough to reflect the level of national shame we should feel.
If politics is intended to be a sublime contest for values, our political representatives should have been stirred into action on each of these issues by an indignant public. They weren't. But frustrated voters will voice their protest at the ballot box. In Queensland, many will fall into the divisive and hateful bosom of One Nation. In South Australia, a more versatile outlet for disparate concerns will be available in the charming vacuity of Nick Xenophon. Many other Australians who have lost confidence in our democracy increasingly consider voting to be a waste of time. Rather than take part in a corroding democratic system, they embrace apathy.
Popular apathy in this moment is dangerous. Concentration camp survivor Stephane Hessel, a German who joined the French Resistance, spent his last years appealing to the present generation. Hessel, who died in 2013, was prolific in his final years. In Indignez-vous!, published in 2010, he argued that the indignation he felt at economic inequality, abuse to the environment and human rights was as strong as the indignation he felt during the Nazi occupation of France. But indignation is not enough.
In a series of interviews between 2009 and 2011, published together as Engagez-vous!, he urged the present generation to get engaged and resist the dictatorship of profit, the coexistence of extreme poverty with extreme wealth, and economic feudalism. He said an engaged public was needed to fight for a truly independent media and for social security. These present-day objectives are consistent with the anti-Nazi Programme du Conseil national de la Resistance. But without engagement, and then resistance, the fight will soon be lost.
The sense of powerlessness in Australia is not all pervasive; not everyone has been reduced to apathy. Sally McManus' leadership has empowered unions, and the outcome of the recent postal survey raised hopes for social equality. Pockets of resistance exist, but more must be done to break existing power structures and discursive inertia.
Reflecting on his adopted country France, Hessel argued that if there was a solid, active minority of young people who found meaning in their engagement, a new French resistance would rise. The solid active resistance in Australia needs to convince a cynical public that engagement is the answer – then develop policies with potential to deliver a just and decent future.
Andrew Hunter is a former speechwriter to South Australian premier Jay Weatherill and former chairman of the Australian Fabians.