It’s easy to feel like achieving change is impossible. After all, the federal government just delivered another $2.6 billion in post-budget handouts to the fossil fuel industry. Despite promises from the Attorney General, Australia still has no federal independent anti-corruption commission. The national vaccine rollout is way behind schedule and the Prime Minister isn’t in any rush to fix it; and nothing of substance has changed in federal Parliament since Brittany Higgins first came forward about her alleged rape. It is understandable to feel despondent under such circumstances.
Many of these issues are what my colleague, economist Richard Denniss, likes to call ‘downhill battles’ but that doesn’t mean they don’t require effort to win. So, let’s take a moment to celebrate some of the hard-fought battles activists and advocates have recently achieved.
Firstly, the Federal Court has delivered two big wins for clean air and water. It found the Government has a duty to protect young people from the climate crisis (duh!) in a case brought by eight teenagers and a nun in her eighties; it also overturned a key approval for water use at Adani’s huge coal mine, in a case brought by the Australian Conservation Foundation.
In NSW, survivor-advocate Saxon Mullins stood next to Attorney General Mark Speakman to welcome affirmative consent laws in NSW—a huge reform for survivors of rape. A few years ago a NSW court found that Ms Mullins had not consented to having sex, but her assailant was ultimately found not guilty because he had ‘no reasonable basis’ for thinking she had not consented. It was just last year that change seemed impossible because the NSW Law Reform Commission failed to recommend affirmative consent laws. Nevertheless, Saxon Mullins persisted. And, thanks to her and hundreds of other advocates who never gave up the fight, change has come.
Australia has amongst the world’s most concentrated newspaper, TV and radio markets in terms of media ownership and hundreds of newsrooms have closed in recent years. The Australian Associated Press (AAP) provides news content to hundreds of newspapers, websites, TV and radio stations—especially in regional areas. Think of it as a kind of wholesale provider of news. Last March, AAP was dumped by owners Nine and Newscorp and its loss would have been devastating for media diversity, had not a consortium of philanthropists and investors signed a deal to prevent its closure. AAP now runs as a Not-For-Profit organisation and this year’s federal Budget contained $15 million over two years for AAP, recognising its role as an important piece of democratic infrastructure (incidentally, CEO Emma Cowdroy is the only woman anywhere in the world running a news agency right now). The federal government’s world-leading News Media Bargaining Code also keeps delivering, with ABC’s Managing Director David Anderson telling Senate estimates that it had signed letters of intent with both Google and Facebook under the code, which “will enable the ABC to make new and significant investments in regional services.”
This does not fix or absolve the Coalition Government’s decision to gut ABC funding over many years. Nevertheless, these are two huge wins for public interest journalism and democracy in Australia.
The federal government announced several improvements to the Pension Loans Scheme (PLS) in the budget. The PLS is a form of reverse mortgage offered by the government that enables individuals over pension age to boost their fortnightly income by borrowing against the equity they have in their family home. The scheme is voluntary and the government aims to improve scheme’s uptake by allowing participants to access up to two lump-sum payments each year and by introducing a No Negative Equity Guarantee so borrowers will not have to repay more than the market value of their property. The PLS can help retirees boost their own incomes at nearly no cost to the budget and the only problem is that not enough people know about it, something the government is wisely intending to remedy.
It has been many years since the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act was voided by the federal Parliament. But in 2019 Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying laws finally came into force. Tasmania and South Australia have come incredibly close to passing similar laws and just this month, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk introduced a Bill to the Queensland Parliament. The ACT and NT Parliaments are still forbidden by the federal Parliament to pass such laws, but change has begun, with ACT MP Andrew Leigh pushing to restore the Territories’ ability to legislate for voluntary assisted dying. Australia Institute research shows more than 3 in every 4 Australians support the Commonwealth allowing the Territories to legalise voluntary assisted dying within their jurisdictions.
Finally, and most importantly, we come to the unfinished business of this country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are part of the oldest continuing culture on Earth. A living culture that dates back more than 65,000 years while the rest of us have been here for less than half of one per cent of that time. Unlike most other colonised countries, Australia has no Treaty with First Nations peoples.
Four years after it was written, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize this week. The Sydney Peace Prize described the Statement from the Heart as a “powerful and historic offering of peace”.
“We meaningfully and consciously gave the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a gift to the to the Australian people,” said Pat Anderson who, along with Noel Pearson and Professor Megan Davis, accepted the award on behalf of all the First Nations people who helped create it. Anderson described the Statement as ‘a gift of healing and love’, but it’s a gift the government has snubbed. It is incumbent on all Australians to accept this invitation and to support the voice to parliament, treaty-making and truth-telling.
It is important to remember that these changes went from impossible to inevitable because those fighting for change never gave up.