St Matthew’s Albury Lenten Address
On March 17, Helen addressed St Mathew's Anglican Church in Albury as part of the 2019 Lenten Lecture series.
Thank you for the invitation and your welcome.
I acknowledge the tragedy that has unfolded in New Zealand (on March 15) and I stand with you this this morning in grief and solidarity. I especially extend my heartfelt compassion to our friends from the Islamic Association of Albury Wodonga who join us here today.
I am pleased to be joining with a range of speakers – local, regional and indeed national – to share some reflections on transformative change. It has been suggested that we might consider using the example and witness of Mahatma Gandhi as a jumping off point, in this the 150th anniversary year of his birth. Gandhi in his time and circumstance spoke to change that began right where each individual was. Change in the individual and household attitude to large and potentially overwhelming issues and powers. Encouraging a very large number of people to do things differently together. The results were remarkable.
Any reflective reconsideration of approaches and priorities sits very well in the context of a series of addresses held across the Sundays in Lent, within the Sunday gathering of a community of faith. After all, the readings just heard have spoken of challenge, of reassurance, of inspiration, of wonder - but all finally pointing to big things that are to be done right in the midst of all the pressures of life. Down from that mountaintop of startling vision to the place where those insights might start to be lived out. Making a difference. Changing our views of what might be possible or necessary. Doing something about it.
People of faith and, more broadly, all people of goodwill and a generous vision, can certainly come together in a shared hope, living out values, working together for the common good, where necessary doing things differently. And certainly any such renewed approach can and will mean resistance or pushback, challenge or retribution. Mountain-top visions can be costly. The steady progress of this part of the liturgical year leading up to Holy Week and Easter makes that only too clear.
I was asked to speak to the theme: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. What a fine challenge that is!
But some of those changes have already happened for me. This good Catholic girl who grew up on a small dairy farm now finds herself speaking on a Sunday morning in a big Anglican regional parish church on St Patrick’s Day – the feast day of the greatest saint in the Irish Catholic Church. This nurse, midwife, educator, academic, is now an Independent candidate for the seat of Indi in the Federal Parliament in the forthcoming election. There is more than one surprise in that short biography.
But the point is, maybe this is just the right time for some surprises. There is a strong stirring of concern, of disappointment, of disillusion, but there are also glimpses of determination, of grit, of hope. We all have some basic questions. How are we to respond?
In a society where some of the most trusted institutions are failing, where we have huge issues regarding the natural environment, resources, the social safety net, health, education, security, values, priorities, the qualities of those who lead us; is our individual and collective response to be fear, despair and anger, defensive and inward-looking? Or are there alternatives to be actively explored?
This I consider is the challenge of our time. This is the challenge we face as a nation, but also right here in our own region. Certainly, there is a huge community response that I am seeing and hearing. Individuals acting on their own and for their own interests will not make positive change happen. Highly motivated, connected, values-driven large community groups just might. That has been our experience in Indi.
Many of you will know this story, some of you may not. In 2012 a small group of local citizens met purposefully in a side room at the Wangaratta Public Library to discuss what they saw at the time, as an all-time low nationally in Australian political discourse and closer to home, a style of representation in their Federal seat that did not reflect their values, nor their sense of the broader values of their communities.
Over a few more meetings they incubated their ideas. They decided to test if their gut was accurate. They agreed they needed skin in the game so they opened a bank account, each contributing a modest but significant enough sum of money and called themselves Voice for Indi. They designed a series of Kitchen Table conversations inspired by the Purple Sage methodology of the Victorian Women’s Trust and Gloria Steinem’s Talking Circles of the US feminist movement. The word spread. The conversations were collected and thematically analysed. Local issues were recognized. Most importantly though a preferred style of democratic representation was identified – respectful, inclusive. A representative who listens, who turns up. A representative who pursues a two-way communication with the electorate. The concept of being a ‘safe’ seat where nothing will ever change was challenged as a ‘Truth’.
The report was respectfully shared with the then sitting member – “People in Indi are not interested in politics" was the prophetic response. A grass roots democratic movement was born. In the 2013 Federal election Cathy McGowan burst on to the national stage, winning the seat of Indi with the narrowest of margins –the only Liberal or National held seat to fall in that election. She was hailed by the media as the ‘Giant Slayer’. The nation was impressed but perplexed – how could this bunch of amateurs from rural Australia have pulled off the biggest electoral defeat in recent history? Must have been a fluke! They must have been underwritten by some experts.
The expertise lay in clearly identifying what change looked like and it looked like optimism when faced with pessimism, it looked like action when all around was reaction, it looked like listening when all around was shouting - it looked like ordinary people coming together to do something extraordinary. Be the change you want to see in the world.
And so we seek to grow that change even further. As a group of committed people united by a vision to “do politics differently”. This year Voices for Indi took upon the task of finding a successor to Cathy McGowan and of course that was done differently too – not a preselection but a deliberative forum. A process of discerning a successor through consensus. Be the change you want to see in the world.
There was a recent article in The Age’s Good Weekend magazine about Elizabeth Broderick AO Australian lawyer, Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner from 2007 to 2015, women’s rights campaigner, UN Independent Expert (Special Rapporteur) for the Working Group on Discrimination Helen Haines: HH St Matthews Lenten Lecture March 17 2019.docx / 3 against Women and Girls, and founder of the global Male Champions of Change initiative. Broderick is a high-profile woman leader; however, she describes her strongest leadership skills as her so-called ‘soft’ ones. Her ability to listen sympathetically and without judgement. Her knack for bringing together people with wild differences. Her skill for getting people to find common ground.
She says: ‘If I can agree with one small bit of what you're saying somewhere, and if I can do that I can open up a chink", "because if I demolish your view right off the bat, I demolish the life experiences that have shaped you to hold that view.
Empathy, compromise, listening: such unshowy, traditionally feminine skills are rare, and even unfashionable, in contemporary public discourse, which seems increasingly shouty, confrontational and divisive. Broderick says: “I try to explore why you hold your view.”
In reference to the chaos and ideological wars of contemporary Australian politics, the article proposes that Broderick in her quiet-but-daring mission to emphasise what we share, rather than what we disagree on, may just be the greatest counter-cultural warrior Australia has right now. Broderick is highly critical of the culture of our Federal parliament - It is a workplace where we need men and women to thrive equally. She asks – “How do we get to that place in an institution which is founded on an adversarial system? How do we bring respect and dignity back into our political process”? How indeed she might ask could we be more Gandhian?
The change I seek is for a kinder politic. A vigorous contest of ideas of course. I seek a strong but HEALTHY debate. I am tired of poor debating behaviour being described as ‘robust’ when it seeks to tear down ideas only to replace them with division and exclusion. I seek a Federal Parliament which draws in the richness, the potential and the incredible skills of cultural and gender diversity.
I speak to you a week on from International Women’s Day. I am a woman seeking a representative place in an institution that is still predominantly male. Across the whole parliament the percentage of women is 32 per cent. Feminist Anne Summers said if the numbers of women in parliament were determined on merit, then there would be a larger cohort of women in public life. “It would happen automatically because merit is evenly distributed between the sexes,” she said. In a critique of the Liberals and Nationals, Summers contends there is no evidence of a merit principle being applied but there is evidence of a “mirror principle”, where men select other men, and not only other men, but men from similar background.
The other four candidates so far announced for Indi happen to be male. Each of us brings our background, our life experience, our personality, our skills, our connections and yes, our vision. I am running for parliament for many reasons, one of which is indeed as an agent of a vision for equal representation of women.
A vision based not just on equal members for its own sake. Women need to be involved in decision making at Federal level not just because they represent 50 per cent of the population, but because good policy depends on it. Tanya Plibersek recently argued that very few government policies or decisions are gender-neutral. Mistakenly thinking they are is how inequality becomes embedded in revenue and expenditure decisions.
If we are to achieve a gender balance in our parliament and develop public policy that addresses the needs of women and girls, public policy that recognises the potential of rural communities such as ours to thrive not just survive, public policy that is formed through thoughtful, evidence-based discourse, then we need a balance of men and women in our Federal parliament. And importantly, women and men from a range of backgrounds. As I said at the beginning that a renewed approach can and will mean resistance or pushback, challenge or retribution. Mountaintop visions can be costly. As I stand here now Helen Haines: HH St Matthews Lenten Lecture March 17 2019.docx / 4 in this 2019 Federal Election race as an Independent, as a Citizen Politician, I am acutely aware of my vulnerability and I am often afraid.
Gandhi's ideas about women and their role in public life was a departure from those of the 19th century reformers. He saw women as a potential force in the struggle to build a new social order. He consciously attempted to articulate connections between private and public life in order to bring women into the struggle. And so from Gandhi I now seek inspiration and courage from a modern Indian Activist, the former President and CEO of the Global Fund for women Kavita Ramdas:
We need women who are so strong they can be gentle
So educated they can be humble
So fierce they can be compassionate
So passionate they can be rational
And so disciplined they can be free.
And in the last 24 hours if ever we have seen the embodiment of that quote we have seen it in the great woman leader who is Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.
I would encourage all of you who are attending this series of Lenten addresses to respond with hope to this challenge ’To be the change you want to see in the world.’ As a woman I am convinced that transformative change is indeed not only desirable but likely, when whole communities are motivated and inspired to action. It can start right where we are, whoever we are.
Thank you again for this opportunity.
Dr Helen Haines was one of seven guests invited by St Matthew’s Anglican Church Albury Archdeacon Peter MacLeod-Miller to participate in the Lenten Lecture 2019 series.
March 10: Dr Hugh Mackay AO, social commentator and author
March 17: Dr Helen Haines, Independent candidate for the federal electorate of Indi
March 24: Justin Clancy, Liberal candidate, and Lauriston Muirhead, Labor candidate, for the state electorate of Albury, NSW
March 31: Hon. Sussan Ley MP, Member for federal electorate of Farrer
April 7: Hon. Fiona Patten MLC, Member for North Metropolitan Region and leader of the Reason Party, Victoria
April 14 (Palm Sunday): Rod Bower, Anglican Archdeacon of the NSW Central Coast and social justice campaigner