Meanwhile in Australia

Last week I talked about our electoral system. Because there were five Mondays in April, that was an extra post. Ironically, that post makes this one look like the additional one, but it’s regular. Perfectly regular. (And all puns are entirely intended, at all times.)

I’m writing this on Saturday for posting on Monday because I have a lot else to write this weekend and a community expo to do volunteer work at. My volunteer work is helping at a single table – that of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild.

Sometimes I feel Australia runs on volunteerism.

I’ll talk about my Saturday in a moment (which will be twelve hours at my end) for it’s a fascinating event. First, the role of voluntary work in Australia… I could write an explanation, or I could explore some of what it achieves. Today, given I’m doing some volunteer work myself, I choose to explore.

That thought made me look through Twitter and to see if there was anything happening locally that was under-reported, for the many hours we all spend keeping things running is most certainly unreported.

Something struck me. The result of so many Australians taking unpaid community responsibility and enjoying our compulsory vote, is that we have a strong sense of civic duty. Today, tens of thousands of young people took that strong sense of civic duty and went on strike.

These strikes are happening around the world, but in Australia, they have immediate impact.

Firstly, there were record young people enrolled to vote just a few weeks ago when the electoral rolls closed for the current election. Because we have an election now, in the middle of the climate change action by young people, that action has an immediate reaction locally. When there was a much bigger street march, but no election, the press pretty much ignored it.

Secondly, those who are striking are cleverly targeting local candidates and their offices this time around. So many voters look at the media and see that the current Prime Minister had his screens rolled down to keep the children out and had two rows of police fiercely guarding his electoral office. Shutting children out is not a good look, and I’m watching now for Morrison to come up with a reason for it that doesn’t include distrusting young voters.

Thirdly, politicians are reacting to it (again, because of the election) and suddenly we find one who suggests that one way to solve climate change locally is for Fijians to move to higher ground. I wonder how many people are suddenly looking to see which of the candidates on their ballot are that stupid.

Fourthly, and this is the big one, volunteerism in this country starts young.

This whole generation has just drafted themselves into working to make things happen. They’re not simply volunteering, they’re making political decisions using that volunteer ethic. The next thirty years will be different to the last thirty years because of this.

The last time this happened in Australia was in 1972 and I was one of the generation who was inspired by the big changes and whose life was shaped by political dreams. That’s my generation:  the time we discovered these things about ourselves were declared ‘the Whitlam years’ and the Whitlam chant for the future was “It’s Time” and we were the young people who discovered politics through a left wing prime minister being sacked after a lot of political games to put him in a position where this could be done. We need a name for now, for the current generation. These children are earning a name so very ardently and they’re so much bigger than a single politician.

Not all of these children can vote yet, but all those who can (who are over 18 and have enrolled) are a new element in our election. They’re honest and their votes are hard to predict. What’s more, they’ll remain in our system. A teacher-friend says they’re not as educated as they look, but I see the climate change action and wonder if it’s simply a different education to the one we expect of them.

Our system will have to change to accommodate them, whatever their choices are. I don’t know how much it will change – maybe Labor will stop ignoring the public? – maybe the Greens will play a stronger role? We have to wait until May 18 to find out that specific short-term outcome.

The long-term outcome will be fascinating. In a nation that rests quietly on the shoulders of volunteers, we suddenly have a large group of volunteers who are telling us what they will work on and how. This will change other aspects of Australia. Again, which aspects are hard to predict because we don’t know which traditional volunteer groups will miss out on these amazing children who are finding their own paths.

Australia is in a moment of great change. I admit, I love it that our young people have taken up some of the leadership.

Volunteering in itself, as I said earlier, is not a new thing. I’m now back from the CAP Expo and I chatted with people whose free time is spent organising dance and dance events (I always spend a few minute with the folk dance groups, for they are particular friends), dragon boat racing, many types of sport, so many service organisations, public speaking organisations, gemstone work and other crafts, re-enactment, role players, musicians and much more. As these groups and I cross paths over the year, I might talk about them a bit more: I talked to stall holders for well over a hundred groups and there wasn’t a single boring person.

It was part of my own work for the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. I handed out biscuits and leaflets and chatted and the whole time I thought to myself “These are the people who are maintaining the fabric of our local society – I need to find out how that fits with the thoughts of the children.” Today wasn’t the day to find out how it all connects. All I could do today was visit each stall and offer them a biscuit and have a bit of a yarn.

CSFG always has enough people sitting at the table to explain things to visitors, so every year I stay up late the night before and make snacks. It started the year the CAP Expo was a couple of days before Passover and I had yeast and flour that needed finishing. It was a running joke at every stall I visited that they were doing me a big favour by nibbling, and the visitors to the Expo loved the tiny bread rolls. Today the running joke was that I had no idea what to call what I’d made, because I’d invented them the night before. I have none left and those tomato-y snacks still have no name. The people I saw were full of biscuit and I am now full of thought.

I see some of the same need to bring one’s own needs and loves into the world around in the older volunteers today and the children on Friday. The idea that we are equal and, because of this, have rights and responsibilities and that we can bring the two together is related to those needs and loves.

I was given, in thanks for the biscuits, trinkets. I’ll bring them to the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin in August. Almost every table had someone who has been told by non-Australians that Sydney is Australia’s capital city. I have over 100 trinkets from various stalls in response to this. Or maybe Canberrans wanted to share their home with the world. There is a love of the city and a love of what they do in this volunteering.

None of this love is without price. We talk often about time sinks and pressure, but the odd price for volunteering and it is to be discounted at certain times and in certain ways. At Worldcon I shall celebrate these people and what they do to create and sustain community.

I need to think about this some more. I also need to reassure all of you that, although the lucky dip at Worldcon will be chance, if you really want something from this weekend and you find me at Worldcon, I will delve into the lucky dip and bring out something specially Canberran for you and tell you about the volunteers who work in that field. Australia isn’t the only country that has people who care, after all, and this is one way you can meet each other indirectly. August, in Dublin. Ask me.

In the meantime, I shall enjoy watching just how much young people who live in a society where unpaid work for passion and people matter affect the coming election.



Meanwhile in Australia — 8 Comments

  1. A lot of things are done by volunteers in the States, too. In fact, it often seems to me that a lot of the work that really needs doing is done by volunteers. Not just the work caring for those who need help, but also the social change work.

    It makes me think that such work might be the foundation for the next economy, at least when I’m thinking in science fictional terms.

      • I keep reading on the subject, trying to figure out what I think the next economy could look like. Everyone I read is very good at pointing out the flaws in our current system and much less good at coming up with ideas on what happens next.

        • We’re really bad at framing options. It’s one reason we are where we are right now. Our narratives are limited.

          One thing I’ve been thinking about is how the most successful regions worked in the Middle Ages. They didn’t have entirely a cash economy, and handled credit and ownership differently. At its best, all kinds of work and all kinds of trade goods became currency. We don’t know enough about how this operated, because historians for the longest time focused on coinage, but we do know it worked. It worked as a very hierarchical society, though, and we’re moving towards that and this makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to rely on the goodwill of someone for my food if I’m on the edge.

          Maybe a bit of the medieval success, based on a welfare state (no-one should be homeless, starve or be without health or education) with a taxation system that supports this? Some of Australia operates like this, and I’ll talk about it sometime, but the current government has stripped our welfare system back and people haven’t even got the money to pay for a single room to live in.

          • If we can truly have a post-scarcity economy, people ought to be able to spend their time doing what is now considered volunteer work and still be able to have everything they need, because we won’t need everyone to be doing the core work of maintaining a society. But that means a new way of dividing up resources and income. Also, there’s the problem of growth. We can’t keep growing economically, especially when growing causes more climate change. But we don’t have a system based on staying stable, much less de-growth.

            We’ve got to come up with something. The contrast between the people living in tents in a public park and the lifestyle of the Silicon Valley elite around here is getting to be way too much to bear. At least you all are doing better with healthcare.