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"Flood the zone with sh*t": ABC legend Kerry O'Brien tells Orange about his fear for democracy

(L-R): Kerry O'Brien, Cathy McGowan and Ashley Bland. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

By Peter Holmes

More than 200 people piled into the Canobolas Hotel this week to hear former ABC journalist and host Kerry O'Brien, former independent federal MP, Cathy McGowan, and independent candidate for Calare, Kate Hook, speak about the state of democracy in Australia. Ashley Bland was the moderator.

We have collected some of the best bits from the 90-minute forum, where topics ranged from Clive Palmer's fancy biscuits, saving trees on Anson Street, young people returning to the regions and compulsory voting to plastic bags, flooding the internet with lies, Australia's shift to the right over the past 40 years and Bob Katter's deli meat platters.

The comments have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Kerry O'Brien - Australian democracy

"We are enormously privileged with the democracy we have, believe it or not. Even with the state it's in. We are part of a very small percentage of the global population who actually have this kind of democracy.

"We still have some real anchors in the people's voice. We have the rule of law. We have the Westminster system of parliament. We have separation of powers where the judiciary by and large, even though judges are appointed by governments, there is a fairly rigorous process. There is a level of integrity we can have confidence in broadly speaking in the judiciary and the separation of those powers."

Kerry O'Brien - the media

"We have, believe it or not, a free press. Whether it's a vigorous free press, whether it's a healthy free press, is another issue."

Cathy McGowan - young people

"We have terrific engagement from young people - in Indi the deputy mayor is a social worker, 28-year-old, unmarried, three kids. Major issue? Child care. Get young people involved so they are participants in society.

"I don't know about your young people, but they were the biggest export from Indi. And now they're coming back. They're bringing their creativity, their music and their art.

"Yackandandah is the town nearest to me: it was old, it was lost, it was dead, and now it's the funkiest place you'd ever want to go to. They're creating their own sense of what rural Australia looks like for that generation. As an older person, you actually want to hang around.

"The reason I put my hand up was a group of young people who lived in north eastern Victoria said the phones don't work, the trains don't work, there's no jobs, we're not going to come home and live in the country unless you guys do something. They called us out."

Kerry O'Brien - compulsory voting

"You actually have to front up, or you pay a fine. There is an acknowledgement that that is a responsibility you have. Every now and then on one side of politics someone sticks their head up and tests the waters to see if there's a possibility they might be able to persuade the nation to jettison compulsory voting. Don't you ever let that happen."

Kate Hook - plastic bags

"I feel very deeply when something is intrinsically wrong. A friend of mine reminded me recently of a time when we were teenagers, about 15, and I was saying to her how terrible it was that Australians use 6.3 billion plastic shopping bags every year and discarded them into landfill.

"She was looking at me and she said, 'You feel the actual pain about this, don't you?' And it's true. I described to her this whole strategy in my head - supermarkets simply create cloth bags and pay for them by having advertising on the side and we launder them and reuse them and we never have to use plastic bags again.

"I thought - the grownups have got this, surely? Twenty years later, nothing had changed and I very much regretted not translating that pain into action."

Kerry O'Brien - Steve Bannon and the damage to democracy.

"One of the reasons I'm here, and have been going to these forums - not to endorse any representative, not to try and persuade people how to vote, but to talk about what I see as a worrying decline in our democracy, which is being matched by a decline in the quality and capacity of our media, which is in parallel with this kind of separate universe of the internet, where powerful people are actively engaged for all the wrong reasons in nobbling our capacity to distinguish the truth from falsehood.

Kate Hook speaking. Copyright: Orange News Examinet.

"Steve Bannon, who for about two years sat at the right hand of Donald Trump, actually said in a candid interview in early 2018 - boastfully - 'We flood the zone with shit. We start the lie, we put it out there on the 'net, we follow it with another lie'. You flood the zone with lies.

"As the mainstream of media in America and here and in Britain and in Europe, struggles in a climate where all those traditional media models have gone out the window, with weakened newsrooms, they are unable to keep up with those lies and do their job to expose them.

"This is a deliberate subversion of our democracy."

Ashley Bland - responding

"Well, that's a rosy picture."

Cathy McGowan - no bludging

"Democracy ... is participatory. If you're a spectator, you get what you deserve. Perhaps deserve is too hard. But if you're not an active participant, the fact that the ship's off course is ownership on us.

"I come from north-east Victoria. We were a very, very safe [LNP] seat. What we were able to do in Indi was to say to the people, 'If you participate, you can make a difference. And hopefully a big enough difference to get me elected'."

Cathy McGowan - electing an independent

"[After I was elected] we started getting things. Things like better mobile phone coverage. It's not perfect in Indi, but it's much, much better than it was. But do you know what we really got? We got a community that actually got a sense of its own power. We'd never won things before. We were always forgotten.

"I believe [our democracy is] off course. I asked someone why they were here and they said they don't recognise Australia anymore, it's moved that far. That's a feeling lots and lots of us have."

Kerry O'Brien - two-party system

"We gradually settled into a two-party democracy, with occasional surprises here and there. Then there was the DLP, the Democrats and the Greens. And not to denigrate smaller parties, but it was fundamentally a two-party system. Very rarely [post WWII] did we find ourselves close to, or in a minority government, until quite recently.

"The nature of the way politics is practiced has changed. I've been a journalist for more than 50 years and I've been watching politics particularly closely for 40. The two major parties, it's not that they've become complacent, but they certainly have in seats like Indi.

"Broadly speaking, they don't take power for granted so much, as they just settle into a kind of routine internally in their parties. And as much of their energy goes into what happens inside their party as goes into what happens in the parliament and their interface with the broader community.

Cathy McGowan, bottom right (black jacket), talks to locals ahead of the forum. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

"Where once upon a time even within a reasonably organised party - let's just say in government - nonetheless there was some room for individual expression. There was some room for genuine debate and discussion around policy.

"You might still get a bit of that now, but I don't believe it's anywhere near as vigorous or real or healthy as it once was."

Kerry O'Brien - a shift to the right

"The Labor party has moved from a centre-left party to a centre-right party, and the Liberal party has moved from a centre-right party to a right/far-right party. And I suspect a lot of people are here tonight because they might see themselves as traditional conservative voters who feel as though ... they're no longer being represented.

"The moderates in the Howard government often were marginalised. And I know any number of them who certainly felt that way. A number of them paid a harsh price. You get the sense sometimes of the tail - that far (right edge) - wagging the dog."

Cathy McGowan - the Nationals

"I think the National Party have failed us. They don't represent the issues. Imagine if Albury-Wodonga, Orange-Bathurst, a few others, imagine if we had that strong voice for regional Australia in parliament. Independent voice. It would turn the economics, the whole social environment, the optimism of the community changes. It's as simple as winning an election."

Kerry O'Brien - low quality of leaders

"The quality of leadership has declined. The chances that from leader to leader you'll get something somewhere within a reasonable band of quality, I don't believe that's the case anymore.

"I think the parties struggle to find decent leaders at the state level and the federal level. And even if you do stumble into a decent leader, the chances of that leader being followed by another good leader are pretty remote. That's the sad fact of it."

Kerry O'Brien - factions

"The factions in both major parties are atrophied. Their role has changed. I remember the factions of the Labor party in the Hawke-Keating years: there was three factions - the right, the centre-left and the left.

"And they used to have quite rigorous policy debates within their factional group, they would then take their three different positions into their party rooms, they had another discussion about it, then it would go to the Cabinet. So there was some element of democratic discussion going on. For a long time they ran a pretty efficient government.

"What's happened with their factions, and this is true of the other side as well, those factions are much more focused on grabbing the dominant position inside the party ... on fostering your mate's careers.

"The price we see being paid and that we pay as citizens, we see the failure in the capacity to actually attack the most challenging policies that confront us, and the most obvious is climate change. There are many others. The failure of policy stares us in the face."

Kate Hook - community politics

"I feel that change is possible. Now that we have all this information [about climate change] and we're feeling what we're feeling, we need to ask ourselves: 'What are we going to do with it?'

"Cathy's given us quite a lot of clues ... We're going to decide to not vote for the same old things, the same old dissatisfaction, the same old cynicism. Together, we can make politics work for people and for communities. We can make it something that is available for people to participate in.

"We can make it something that is transparent so people know what is going on with the political decisions that will impact their lives.

"We've seen [people power] here in Orange. Not long ago one beautiful street in Orange, Anson Street, stood to lose all the shady trees that had been there for years and years, and created this cool, shaded street. Sanity prevailed.

"In Rylstone the community came together to protect their area from a coal development. There was a room full of people impassioned about a development that was on the table there. It was another example of people being stronger together. What we're doing here is important. We know that politics in Australia needs an overhaul.

"You might have noticed there is a wave of independents in the federal election. We've seen community-based politics work in Indi over successive elections. [A] highly engaged, highly aware community that we can all be part of. I believe we can change the Australian landscape electorate by electorate."

Cathy McGowan - Peter Andren

"You've had such a good example of it. So why wouldn't you want it again? {And] do the work to make sure you keep getting it.

"When Peter Andren died, it just reverted [to the National Party]. We all watched it around Australia, and we saw with great sorrow that change."

Kerry O'Brien - Peter Andren

"My memories of Peter Andren, what caught my attention in the first place was he kind of came from nowhere. He was a newsreader in the electorate, I'm not even sure what motivated him to run, but he did. And he won. The next election he increased his vote, and the next election he increased his vote again.

Tech crew overseeing a live feed of the forum. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

"The really remarkable thing about him for me went to the integrity of this man. On an issue like refugees where, without leadership you ... I believe, and I've seen the evidence of this, that it is in most of us to do the decent thing. Compassion is a natural attribute.

"Peter Andren took a stand there, he eyeballed his electorate. Keating said the two things you need to be a leader are courage and imagination. Peter Andren certainly had the courage, and he had the integrity.

"Peter Andren proved them wrong. Peter Andren found the better selves of a great number of people in this electorate, and they rewarded him for it. That says a great deal."

Kerry O'Brien - independents

"I wrote in a book more than four years ago talking about the failures of the two-party system, and that if they could not get their houses in order we would see an increasing number of independents. I explored some of the options of multi-party systems that work elsewhere in the world. And they can. There is no reason it can't work here.

"We are in a process of change, and unless the two parties pull their socks up and get real then we will see the landscape change. I don't think there's a doubt about that."

Cathy McGowan - learning to lead

"I was very enthusiastic, but ... certainly wasn't strategic. [In the Australian Rural Leadership Program] I discovered there are skills to leadership that you can learn. Not just public speaking, but you can learn how to engage with the community. Facilitation skills. Organisation skills. Lobbying and advocacy skills. How to build networks.

"The first thing you have to do is agree on your values. If you don't have a values agreement you're going to have big arguments. So we spent months arguing on what were our five key values that we would commit to.

"When we ran the [first] campaign [in Indi] we'd done the hard grunt work. And then the rule was you couldn't sign up to become a volunteer unless you actually signed up to the values. What it did was, it brought the tribe together. We had a huge amount of difference between us, but we had the values."

Kerry O'Brien - independents winning Indi and Warringah

"These are the crown jewels, these seats. Warringah in Sydney was part of the inset of the crown jewels for the Liberal party. That was a really serious moment in the changing face of politics in Australia."

Ashley Bland - quality of politicians
"I look at some of these people who come up through the ranks and think 'what sort of community spat you out? How did you get there?' Is the default that we spit out sociopaths?"

Kerry O'Brien - in response

"I don't think it's as clear cut as that at all ... The pattern that I have seen with politics, relatively recent, in Labor you had, after Keating lost in '96 ... we had on the Labor side Beazley, Latham, Crean, Beazley, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Shorten, Albanese. That's an average of less than three years per leader.

"On the Liberal side after Howard went we had Brendan Nelson - do you remember Brendan? Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison. In a far shorter time.

"[Post war a] leader used to be in their jobs for at least two elections, sometimes three ... even in opposition, to give them a chance to develop into the job, to prove themselves."

Kerry O'Brien - decency

"There is a place for decency in politics. Many people arrive in politics with the right motives but they very quickly fall for the culture. The very first lesson before they even walk through the door is learning to do what you're told.

"Learning to only speak when you're spoken to. Learning to only say what they tell you to say. Not saying what they tell you not to say. Learning to avoid questions [from the] media. It's a corporatist approach. This is not politics. It is not democracy as it is meant to be."

Cathy McGowan - parliamentary culture

"I was terrified of the reputation of politics. I really didn't want the job. I'm very happy in my own life. I didn't want to win. I hoped we would, but then I hoped we wouldn't.

"I wasn't in a good frame of mind when I got to Canberra. I was scared. Quite frankly terrified of how I would do the job, and then I'd said we were going to do all these things like engage the community - how was I going to do that? And then I'd heard how bad it was.

"I was totally surprised how it wasn't like that. My boss was my community. As long as they cared for me, and they did, I was safe. As long as I made sure they were my priority, I didn't have to pay attention to what was happening in the [major] parties.

(l-R): Ashley Bland, Cathy McGowan, Kate Hook, Kerry O'Brien. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

"My background is community building ... [something] most country people are really good at doing. When I got to parliament, I looked around for how was I going to make my way. Like a newcomer in a town. It was potentially very lonely, not much socialising, huge corridors.

"I thought OK, first thing I've got to do is find some friends. So I held a morning tea and I invited five or six people. I put on homemade cake, and said 'How does parliament work?'. We didn't talk politics. It worked so well. They said they'd never had a member of parliament have a morning tea. In June 2014 we thought we'd have a mid-winter soiree between 6 and 8 and invite more people to come.

"We had 50 people. My next door neighbour was Adam Bandt and I said 'Adam, you can come'. He's from Melbourne, so he brought some vegan-type [food]. The next person down the corridor was Clive Palmer. We found what we had in common ..."

Kerry O'Brien - in response

"... Lamingtons."

Cathy McGowan - continued

"... And we did some incredibly good work. He ended up coming with a big box of those macarons. Bob Katter came with platters of prosciutto and platters and platters of meat. It was the weirdest party you could have.

"I got to meet all these people I never would've. I had to find another way of finding out what goes on. Because of our friendly nature, the cleaners would come in and say, 'Cathy, we've just heard this and this and this'. The person who delivers the mail: 'Cath ... have you heard there's going to be an announcement of such and such'. We were gossip central.

"I'd get my hair done every Monday morning, all fluffed up, and the hairdresser would chat like hairdressers do."

Cathy McGowan - the downside

"There is a lot of bad things that happen in parliament house, and a lot of bad people. I don't want to take away from how incredibly abusive that workplace is for a lot of people. But on the cross bench, it is not like that. All of us were clear that our job was about communities."

Kerry O'Brien - ABC funding

"Public broadcasting has been under the most appalling attack, on and off, going back to the time of Fraser. In 1976, when I was a journalist, Malcolm Fraser had come to power, he had been elected after the coup and that was the first of the budget cuts I experienced.

"The first Howard budget, despite the most stark pledge that there wouldn't be any cuts, cuts to the ABC. The first Abbott budget - an even starker pledge, no cuts to the ABC. Cuts to the ABC. Over the nine years of conservative government this time we have had recurring cuts."

Kate Hook - the potential in Calare

"It seems to have been squandered. While governments have been having debates about climate and technology, Calare is extraordinarily positioned for the uncertain times we have ahead of us, because we have such a diverse region. One of the best sets of conditions in Australia for the transition to renewable energy, which is already underway."


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