Political Activism and one Anglican bishop

peoplesmarch2014Originally published by the Canberra Timres. For full article visit  http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/political-activism-not-yet-on-life-support-20140924-10l7h4.html

Political activism, in the sense of community activism rather than insider political lobbying, is somewhat out of favour at the moment. There is a sense in which many of the political causes dear to the hearts of such activists are neglected or opposed by governments in Australia. That certainly applies to action on climate change because the federal government has taken government policy in a completely different direction.

That is why the People’s Climate March held last Sunday was so notable.  It was held before the world leaders climate summit at the United Nations in New York. It was a worldwide event, reportedly featuring 2700 coordinated rallies and marches in 160 countries, including Australia. The biggest Australian rallies were held in Sydney and Melbourne, where 30,000 people gathered. In Canberra 1000 people attended a rally at the Australian National University.

Speakers did include some politicians, including Greens Leader Christine Milne in Melbourne, but also many non-politicians, including, in Canberra, leading ACT Brumbiesplayer David Pocock and the former Anglican Bishop of Canberra, George Browning.

All this has been reported in the media, but what has not been commented on enough is the extraordinary resilience and long-term persistence of some of these activists in a currently unpopular cause. I have long admired the persistence of the long-distance campaigner, whatever the cause. And while many such campaigners are on the left of politics, quite a few are on the right and many would not want to be categorised at all in such simplistic terms.

Persistence is not always recognised as a virtue but derided as stubbornness or ignorance or even worse. Activists can be dismissed as fanatics who redouble their efforts when the hope of success evaporates. They can be labelled innocent fools who are being misled by behind-the-scenes manipulators.

Sometimes there is strength in numbers in convoys or rallies but often campaigning in an unpopular cause is a lonely affair, whether it is selling a radical newspaper on a street corner or saying prayers outside the ACT Department of Health.

Not all community activists stay the course but fall by the wayside. That’s understandable. In all types of political activity, whether movements or organisations, churn is a major factor. Churn means that at any time up to a third of participants drop out of their commitment from year to year.

But many do persevere. Some of those who do are sustained by a fully worked-out personal theory of citizenship. Browning, a long-term environmental activist, is one of those and I was struck by his article in last weekend’s Sunday Canberra Times which explained his position.

Browning combines a commitment to a cause, in this case moving away from fossil fuels, with a belief that “ordinary citizens must reclaim the public space and the national narrative”. This leads him to a determination to “take a public and proactive stand against powerful self-interest”.

More controversially he is concerned that our democracy is suffering because “our votes are far less influential on public policy than the lobbying of sectional interests”. For this reason he may be willing, if necessary, to engage in civil disobedience in defence of democracy and the common good.

His citizenship is global rather than parochial and he calls on the long-held beliefs of the Anglican Church that, if the two citizenships ever collide, it is the citizenship of all humanity that must trump national citizenship. Whether you agree or disagree with Browning, either on fossil fuels or global citizenship, he has expounded a comprehensive position.

Democracy needs people like George Browning and his friend, the former Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra, Pat Power. But they and their fellow activists are in a minority. Surveys demonstrate that the majority of citizens are not activists but passive members of the political community. Activism is not only not for everyone, it is not even for the majority.

Just what the right mix is between active and passive citizens can be disputed. Ultimately in democratic elections the ballot box does not discriminate between the two. One vote one value means that activists are not valued more than passivists.

I come down firmly on the side of the beneficial contribution to society of the lifelong activist. Nevertheless there are three circumstances under which community activism can go wrong.

The first is when it succumbs to the temptation to bypass majoritarian democracy rather than to work within it. For all its widely recognised flaws our system has democratic processes, primarily elections but also constitutional provisions and parliamentary procedures, which must unequivocally come first.

The second is when it becomes so single-minded that it leads to intolerance of other points of view. Activism at its best engages with other points of view even if those on the other side don’t want to engage. Activism should also engage civilly and reject extreme language even if its opponents are uncivil.

The third is when activism is stuck in a rut about the way to engage with the wider community. Mass rallies, demonstrations and convoys can be effective because they attract the media and also because they build solidarity among those who participate. But they should never be the only way. Smaller gatherings, including workshops and dining-room table discussions, are a necessary complement to the bigger events. So is participation in other community organisations, including political parties and churches.

What I’ve read about the People’s Climate March suggests that it was a good mix between the local and the global, smaller groups (including church services and secular gatherings) and mass events, and that it was conducted in a fashion that was respectful of democratic values.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University

John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au

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