I hate to name-drop, but I found myself in the same breathing space as two former prime ministers a couple of days ago. The first was Malcolm Turnbull, one of the many speakers at the Side By Side conference run by the Wayside Chapel, who had been invited to discuss the crucial role of students in political conversation. And the second was an icon of mine, Julia Gillard, whose “misogyny” speech was voted the most unforgettable moment on Australian TV this week, and who was the special guest on The Guilty Feminist, a stage show of the popular podcast that was on at the Enmore Theatre.
Two Australian politicians from two different political parties, who share a similar vision when it comes to how to measure success and how to improve the way we care for the marginalised people in our community.
You may know that during his time as prime minister, Malcolm was criticised for his privilege – for being a wealthy, self-made man – and for not being a natural communicator when it came to the people. And in spite of his valiant attempts to prioritise climate policy in his party – a view that ultimately led to his downfall – he remained a somewhat elusive personality who the voters were frustrated to never really get to know.
From the other side of the tracks was Julia, our first female prime minister, who became a target of the predominantly middle-aged, white men in her party and the opposition party as a result of her gender. Throughout her stint as prime minister, she was forced to fight the sort of infantile sexism and snobbery you expect to find in an all-boys private school. Nevertheless, she stood her ground against it – hence, that speech – and if the level of applause at her arrival on Friday night was anything to go by, her reputation among Australian feminists is legendary.
How wonderful to see, in this terrifyingly narcissistic period of political history, two such prominent figures (who in spite of both being retired from politics), came together to help the marginalised community in our society.
Malcolm was appearing at the Side By Side conference run by The Wayside Chapel, to which I was invited (I assume) because of my paltry donation of a Christmas lunch to ease my guilt for one of their residents last year. The organisation, which is based in Kings Cross in Sydney, works predominantly with and for the homeless – for those who have hit rock bottom due to physical illness, job loss, mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse and trauma. They are citizens and victims who could be any one of us, who have fallen on bad times – typically through no fault of their own – who are being ignored by society.
The Side By Side conference was about reducing the stigma about poverty and exchanging ideas about how we can narrow the gap between us and them.
But change takes time. As Julia Gillard reminded us during her chat on The Guilty Feminist, it will probably take another century before we see any real equality in terms of female leadership in Australia – whether that’s in the workplace or in politics – and without women in those positions, we remain under-represented. The same is true for the poor. Unless society shows more compassion and changes its priorities, the gap will continue to widen.
What is certain is that to effect the necessary changes we need leaders who have vision and who are prepared to listen to our young people and our experts in the field.
It is not only middle-aged lefties like me who are disillusioned with the direction the western world is heading. When a government prioritises a Religious Freedom Bill over crucial preparations for the annual bushfire season, we have to ask why. And our kids are asking those questions too – which is perhaps one of the reasons so many are struggling with their mental health.
The Wayside Chapel’s conference was a call to action. Progressive, well-known CEOs spoke about how businesses can help donate part of their profits to help bridge the gap between rich and poor and to help protect the environment, and the message that stood out was that if we all become a little less focused on success and more on caring, there is a chance that we can do exactly that.
“Together we can make no ‘us and them,” was the clear message of the event. And they’re right. Imagine how frigging awesome it would be if everyone of us did something tiny that could make a real difference to the confidence of one person on the poverty line. Because, trust me, their situation could happen to any of us, and an increasing percentage of the current number of the homeless population are middle-aged women.
I’m aware that “activism” is harder than just sitting at home on the sofa, watching those heart-wrenching stories play out on the The Project. It requires a concerted “movement of feet.” And even though we’ve had to put our hands a little deeper into our pockets of late, I am certain that there is something that most of us can do. For example, this Valentines Day, instead of buying your partner a tacky card and a sad bunch of dead petrol station flowers, you could donate $20 to waysidechapel.org.au/valentines, or any organisation that helps people in need. That small donation will give someone a shower, a new pair of undies and socks and some toiletries. It’s a much more sustainable way to show someone you love them and it will make all the difference to someone who isn’t feeling the love right now.