Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ordinary People’s Politics, by Judith Brett and Anthony Moran

The title of this book is pretty much a misnomer. In search of Howard’s ‘ordinary’ Australians, authors Brett and Moran interviewed some 75 people over two periods, 1986-1990 and 2002-2004. The book also includes two profiles from interviews done in an earlier study by Alan Davies in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Hence the first subject of this book was born in 1898, whilst the Aboriginal woman who concludes the book was born in 1980.

I say the title of the book is a misnomer because, even though the authors pursued ‘middle of the road’ Australians, everyone’s story and outlook is so unique and idiosyncratic. This book if anything proves that it is impossible for there to be an ‘ordinary people’s politics’. There is no such easy fit or category. It simply doesn’t exist. A more apt title for this book would go something along the lines of, Different People’s Lives.

Thus the great interest of this book lies not so much in the political aspect, of which there really isn’t that much, but on the absorbing profiles of so many different types of Australians. In this book there are migrants, the established middle class, struggling business people, the Vietnam vet, the Aboriginal woman, the battling suburban family, the unionist, the politically active, the politically apathetic.

When you get to the end of the book you realise how many different little Australias there are in Australia. And how ignorant some people are of other groups within their own society. In the conclusion the authors note how some groups of the people they interviewed, who had strident views on welfare, would not be able to comprehend the plight of one of their interview subjects. This was a young woman who simply could not find work after completing a TAFE course and applying for jobs everyday. By book's end you wanted to put everyone in a room so people could hear each other’s views and life stories.

Some of the stories in the book were very, very moving, especially the Vietnam vet who went through so many complex emotions about his involvement in that terrible war. It was interesting in that he admitted to being full of prejudice against the Vietnamese, but at the same time having a fantasy that some Vietnamese would move in next door so he could have Vietnamese neighbours. You see, he desperately wanted to talk to them, to make a connection. Eventually he went to Vietnam, returning many times, and said it was the best thing he ever did in his life.

The authors Judith Brett and Anthony Moran do a great job of putting all the stories into a political framework, without being condescending or judgemental. They show how people rely on politics, even need politics, despite sometimes being apathetic. This was especially the case with people who had to access welfare benefits, or rely on the state for some type of assistance.

Perhaps the most annoying interview subjects were a tradesman and small businessman’s wife, both of whom were doing very well, but were blind to the wider Australian world beyond what the authors somewhat oddly described as their ‘embedded’ life, a life cocooned away from the wider of realities of Australia. Brett and Moran even called them ‘smug’. (I should note that all interview subjects were sent copies of their respective chapters in the book.)

Ordinary People’s Politics some how left me feeling a bit optimistic. The much favoured political talk of ‘middle Australia’, the ‘mainstream’, is just that, political rhetoric. A neatly uniform, off the shelf, homogenous Australia simply does not exist. What does exist is a very varied Australian population, some twenty million individual souls all struggling with their own individual problems, trying to get along as best they can.

I recommend you read this book to put aside any preconceived idea of what ‘ordinary’ people’s politics is. Read it also to learn from fine authors Brett and Moran how much we rely on our political system to help us out, to redistribute money to those who need it.

In short we pretend to disdain politics as beneath us, but how much we all need it.

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