Discussion Panel – Emerging #QandA

By Tess Jaeger
EWF

The Emerging #QandA was held from 7:30 to 8:30 pm on Wednesday 29 May at Melbourne’s Fitzroy Reading Room as part of the 2012 Emerging Writers’ Festival.

Taking its title from the ABC television program of the same name, the evening of discussion travelled a predictable path, covering topics from Australian politics to personal ethics. If a discernible link to human rights were to be highlighted, it would seem apt to mention the right to freedom of speech – regardless of opinion. What’s clear from most discussion panels of this nature is that the conversation would be decidedly dull if all parties agreed, which, paradoxically, makes it no less difficult to stomach the persistence of those who don’t share your personal opinion.

The panel included host Sophie Black, editor of independent news website Crikey, and five guests. Tom Elliott, a radio presenter for 3AW; Eyal Halamish, a board member at Our Say, the social media site for democratic spruikers; Fatima Measham and Monica Dux, two Melbourne writers; and Ben Pobjie, a self-proclaimed writer, comedian and raconteur, joined the panel for an hour of animated debate, constructive suggestion, spleen-venting and sometimes rant-worthy lamentations.

… can politics really be considered qualitatively different from any other job you care to mention? At the heart of the issue is perhaps the degree of transparency and accountability we as a community demand of our governments.

Black began the discussion by asking each guest to elaborate on their chosen topic for debate. First off Tom Elliott decried the ostensible descent of Australian politics into a void of one-track career obsession. He explained that politicians are hand-plucked for public service, squeezed through the political sausage machine and promptly churned out hopelessly disconnected from the ‘real world’ – though not in these exact words. Accordingly, the gross failings of some of our contemporary politicians (yes, Craig Thomson and his myriad indiscretions were mentioned) can be explained via the rationale that they have no ‘life experience’ or reference point for sensible decision-making.

I would have to agree with Ben Pobjie’s (hilariously expressed) sentiments that the world of politics still exists within the actual world, despite the cloistered environment Canberra offers politicians working at the federal level. Therefore, can politics really be considered qualitatively different from any other job you care to mention? At the heart of the issue is perhaps the degree of transparency and accountability we as a community demand of our governments. This was addressed, although indirectly, through other topics raised over the course of the evening.

… what role does the media play in influencing the public and their opinions when it comes to politics? In short: a Great. Big. Deal.

For instance, what role does the media play in influencing the public and their opinions when it comes to politics? In short: a Great. Big. Deal. The notion that mainstream media’s appraisals of newsworthiness do not influence people’s choices and opinions is often raised in everyday commentary, notwithstanding its absurdity. The panel discussed the public obsession with politicians’ personal lives and titillating trivialities in this vein. Craig Thomson’s trespasses and Julia Gillard’s gender, style of dress and derrière rated mention here.

The evening’s discussion led to the general conclusion that a principled democracy requires continuous and concerted effort.

Our Say co-founder Eyal Halamish commented on the meaning of electing a first female prime minister in comparison to the success of Obama in the US. Originally from Chicago, Halamish admitted that it was significant for Americans that Obama was elected, regardless of their political persuasions. A country built on a legacy of enslavement and discrimination – that continues to struggle with racism (as we do in Australia) – has a lot to be proud of in the choice of Obama as president.

Democracy … assumes that people will be able to act beyond their own self-interest – a worthy ideal, but a regrettably unrealistic one.

Australians’ reception of Julia Gillard as a prototype female PM appears less optimistic. The public’s evaluation of Gillard as a leader seems inextricably linked to her gender, necessarily creating an environment that makes it very difficult to deconstruct the motivation behind criticisms levelled against her.

The evening’s discussion led to the general conclusion that a principled democracy requires continuous and concerted effort. Democracy is not inherently fair. As Measham rightly noted, such a system assumes that people will be able to act beyond their own self-interest – a worthy ideal, but a regrettably unrealistic one.

Although the panel didn’t shatter any common conceptions or underline bitter truths I wasn’t already (rather reluctantly) aware of, the topics covered were important ones. Perhaps their very elemental nature can explain why, in the face of numerous examples, they continue to be ignored in the mainstream media. Bizarrely, obvious truths are often the easiest to overlook.

 

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