Australian Viewpoint

On the contrary

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

I was on the edge of a rather hairy deadline when disaster struck. Tired of being cooped up in an office, I had determined to complete the home stretch down at the local public house. This turned out to be somewhat unwise when a half-full schooner of golden ale spilled mercilessly over my laptop (a function of innate clumsiness, not inebriation, I assure). The resilient machine didn’t falter immediately: indeed, it soldiered on for almost 24 hours before the dried amber locked up its keyboard and, eventually, shut it down forever. I got a free refill courtesy of the bartender, but as far as silver linings go that’s certainly grasping at straws.

My new laptop came with Windows 8, the latest and greatest version of the operating system which enriched Bill Gates beyond the realm of the imaginable and has dominated personal computing since 1995. This incarnation has replaced several traditional features with a new system of ‘apps’, presumably designed to resemble the system used by your smartphone. Familiar features, including the ‘start’ button, are gone, while pesky new additions make using Windows 8 almost a foreign experience.Even the relatively young can be alienated by technology. My first step was to ask others how I might go back in time and revert to a desktop tried and tested. I was informed that upgrading to Windows 8.1, a downloadable update in response to massive consumer demand, would at least return the beloved start button. Overall, responses on Facebook were overwhelming in their derision of Microsoft’s latest effort.

Which makes you wonder why they bothered. And in politics, as in technology, change for change’s sake is often the approach de jour. It would be a mistake to think this only happens on the progressive side. It is perhaps at its most visible in the recent actions of conservative state governments, indulging unfounded concerns about bikies or alcohol-related violence by rushing through heavy-handed law-and-order reforms. We are painfully familiar with the stock-and-trade responses to moral panic: mandatory sentences, lockouts, move-on laws, limits on freedom of movement and association. This stuff is change for the sake of being seen to enact change. And it is hard to think of a worse basis for policy-making, other than perhaps a dartboard, and even that would be a close contest.

Philosophically, though, it becomes more difficult on the progressive side. As someone who passionately believes our future is better than our past (thinking otherwise seems counter to evidence), I always err on the side of change. I give it the benefit of the doubt. For example, there are myriad problems with legal euthanasia when you get down to actually legislating it — but in principle, it’s where we’re heading, so you mitigate those problems as best you can. And I want governments to be ahead of the curve, rather than limping pathetically behind.

But there are two necessary building blocks for positive, lasting change in a democracy; a cogent argument around how it will improve people’s lives or achieve some other goal, and convincing voters of that argument’s merit. That’s not to say that all governments should be hostage to public opinion or the electorate’s grasp of an issue, but in a broad sense, when you want to embark on change, it helps to bring people with you. This is the same proposition you hear from Labor types when they want to take a crack at the Greens. Labor is a party of government, they say, not just protest. Labor builds consensus by advocating incremental change. It’s annoying because they can’t help sounding like spineless sell-outs whenever they say it. But they have a point: without those building blocks, change can be precarious and fleeting. The ALP would understand this best on the issue of climate change, where a broad base of support for action has eroded, largely because of the Left’s inability to sandbag the consensus and entrench the reform.

Seen through this prism, I’m not sure the weekend’s ‘March in March’ demonstrations achieved all that much. Certainly it’s vital to rally the troops, and with some suggesting a national turnout of up to 100,000, you can’t deny that success. Trying to paint the protest as a fringe event, the Right gleefully pointed to the results of that weekend’s state elections, where Labor was defenestrated in Tasmania and lost its majority in South Australia. They too have a point, for it’s precisely those voters that the Left will ultimately need to win back. Will the hodgepodge of grievances aired at the March in March, combined with its aggressive signage and attitude, contribute to that goal? I doubt it, and contend that it may even be counter-productive. I don’t for a second argue it was wrong, or inappropriate — how could a peaceful protest ever be such things? But proponents of serious social change will always need to come back to that central question: how do we take people with us? And it was not answered on the streets last week.

Microsoft, meanwhile, might want to make the same introspection. I’ve begrudgingly come to accept my new laptop’s eccentricities, but I bear malice, especially since the old beer-soaked machine cranked back into life after about a week (everything old is new again). Next time a mishap befalls me in the pub I might just make the ultimate break for change and buy a Mac.

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