Sera Mirzabegian

Post postal: Where does our divided country go from here?

With the results official, the real challenge is what comes next. While the postal vote split us, it is our responsibility to return as one, to debate.

 

 

The marriage equality vote is officially over and the results are in, but the million dollar question is: where to from here?

 

 

As media outlets scramble to cover the plebiscite result today and commentators issue their edicts on what this means for Malcolm Turnbull’s tenuous grasp on power, there is an elephant in the room that looms large. How do we, as a society, move forward now that we’re on the other side of the vitriol this vote has unleashed? How do we pick up the pieces left shattered by a vote which caused division and hate in so many ways?

The so-called “debate” on marriage equality was a textbook example of the continued decline of the nature and quality of public discourse in Australia. As Magda Szubanski recently said on Q&A, there was “viciousness on the extremes of either side”. Elements of the No campaign used the debate to peddle hurtful lies about the impact of marriage equality on children. A person who put up a frame on their private Facebook profile picture saying “it’s OK to vote no” was labelled homophobic and got the sack.

Public discourse about refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island has been similarly fraught. When it was suggested to Greens leader Richard Di Natale that Adam Bandt’s description of Peter Dutton as a terrorist might not be well-received by the electorate, Di Natale was reportedly unfussed, saying it was necessary to “cut through in a more crowded media environment”. Peter Dutton has consistently taken a similar approach, most recently claiming that many of the men on Manus “were ‘involved’ in drugs and some had threatened to rape local wives and children.”

No wonder there is widespread apathy in our community. No wonder we’ve stopped listening.

 


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Public debate is a vital element of a well-functioning democracy. If properly conducted, debate produces a back-and-forth dialogue, which helps develop views by encouraging opposing sides to rethink, change or refine their perspectives. This process can’t work effectively though without three critical ingredients. Each side must be free to say what they think; each side must say what they think respectfully, and each side must listen to the other.

Without those three things, the process fails and we end up in a sea of overwhelming noise.

 

 

There is no doubt that we’re living in a time of great turbulence and uncertainty. The answer to the current political malaise is not to empower the person who shouts the loudest nor is it to vilify and silence those with opinions different to our own, no matter how unpalatable or hurtful they might be.

Instead, we need to engage with each other. It is true that in the current political climate, buoyed by the 24-hour news cycle and the lightning speed of social media, this is much easier said than done. It is also true that as the little people, we have little or no say on how our political leaders frame public debate and in some ways, we take our cues from them. But with every post and tweet, with every poll and vote, with every seemingly innocuous chat around the water-cooler, we have a choice in how we participate in public discourse.

We need to talk and listen to each other – openly, honestly and with empathy, something that we’re yet to do.

 

 

One side may have won the day, but now we must look to tomorrow.

 

 

 

Sera Mirzabegian

Sera Mirzabegian is a barrister who has acted for major Australian and international companies in a variety of industries, individuals in politics and business as well as asylum seekers, victims of domestic violence and indigenous community groups. She is a news and politics junkie. In her spare time, Sera writes about politics and co-hosts an online panel talk show about political, social and media issues called The Third Rail.

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