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Political killjoys smother hope, idealism and a vibrant democracy

By Gwynn Mac Carrick - posted Friday, 22 August 2003

Everywhere in life there are graduates of the school of pragmatism and conscripts of the politics of cynicism but lately in Australian politics these voices seem to have gained the upper hand. These voices promote a general acceptance that politics is a soulless world of "stitched" deals, which is self-serving and thoroughly corrupted, so beyond redemption that we have forgotten even to be outraged, so lacking in connection with its citizens that there is no reciprocal "cause and effect" that might prompt an individual to participate in the political process.

The cynics would have us look through a narrow prism of what is possible and shift our expectations from the "unrealistic" to the "realistic", or from "what ought to be" to "what is." Consequently, for them, idealism and naïvety are equated.

They would have us believe that it is easier to die for an ideal than to live by it.


While there is little doubt that it is difficult to live an ideal existence, implicit in these same words is an acceptance that somehow life conspires against an idealist, forcing compromise and concession. It appears to concede that we will not get through life with an ideal in its purest form, but rather will acknowledge sooner rather than later that ideals must accommodate life. Ideals, by implication, are at odds with life.

I say this view of the world sells the rest of us short. Theirs is a space where idealism in the public realm is a contradiction in terms; it is a "do or be done to" world where conviction and public life are concepts of mutual exclusion.

This view point leaves us cold and in peril of becoming anaesthetised ratepayers. This cynical style of politics, with its unapologetically transparent sleight of hand has subjected us to a sustained period of political demoralisation which has defeated the general will to contribute or engage in public debate.

The general populus are disinclined, because the killjoys have seized the debate and squeezed the life out of human aspiration. They have succeeded in lowering the public gaze from the stars to our navels and have become adept at confining policy debate to the realm of the ordinary.

The battle-weary might be excused, but surely idealism is the province of the young? Surely the extent to which our young generation are tainted is a litmus test for the degree to which Australian society has become introverted ?

As a rule, our youths begin their first steps on the road to political maturation in bold fashion. Unencumbered by inherited institutional rot, they seek out a forum for their ideas by joining a major political party. Machiavellians, jaded party hacks, and political minders circle like vultures, quick to remind the young ideologues that a party in power cannot afford the luxury of ideology. Soon the student politicians learn that that there is choice. Either operate outside the rules of engagement set out by the clerics of the established order or lobotomise conviction as an abstract doctrine, shedding a belief system like a reptile gives up last year's skin.


But while the youths in our society are purged and stripped of any political contribution that they might have to make, in an other place far away, the casting off of ideals is not a forgone conclusion.

I recall a dark night in central Bosnia when young women walk with purpose. Not in groups, so as to draw attention to themselves, but in single file, they made their way to the basement of a school, which had formerly been a bunker: a fitting place to hold an underground meeting of Muslim women activists. These women had gathered to lobby, to speak their minds and to hear me speak on the question of women in politics. In its context this meet was highly contentious, and the beginnings of a silent revolution. One candidate with all the passion that idealism can incite said, "Women, look where the politics of the men have taken us: to hell and back. Surely we have something unique to contribute?"

It is inexplicable that these women find optimism amid calamity when like lemmings our young turks rush to enlist in the politics of cynicism amid relative fortune.

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About the Author

Gwynn MacCarrick is a Human Rights lawyer based in Hobart. She has appeared as Defence counsel before the UN Special Panel for Serious Crimes in East Timor, has worked with the Office of the Prosecutor at the UN Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and in between her domestic criminal practice has taken up various postings with the UN High Commission for Refugees. Gwynn is undertaking a doctorate in international criminal law at the University of Tasmania Law School.

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