Money before people?

Australian Parliament House rises majestically above the skyline of central Canberra. The national flag sitting atop the 4-prong spire above the pond outside the front entrance, and the lush green lawns that flank the walls up to the roof top is an image of synergy between natural and built environment. Of national pride and international inclusion. The home of our democracy, where people representing every corner of our land come together to work towards progressing our society in this ever changing world.

Falun Gong Protest

On this day in November, the lawns before Parliament House are, as is often the case, occupied by protest groups. On one side, hundreds of people kneeling on mats in perfectly aligned rows wearing bright yellow shirts indicating their support for Falun Gong. Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, is a Chinese spiritual practice in the Buddhist tradition that combines meditation with gentle exercises and a moral philosophy based on compassion, truthfulness and forbearance. Silently they sit until the small speaker on the grass plays the sound of a gong and the practitioners seamlessly move into a new hand position.

The peace and silence gives a palpable calming energy as I stand with my Protecting Childhood colleagues, Gabbie and Jonathan, and other observers, who look distinctively like political advisers or lobbyists in their suits and ties. It belies the horrifying reason for their protest. In 1999, with Falun Gong rising in followers to a number almost equalling the ruling Communist Party, the Chinese Government outlawed the religion, and began arresting them at will. Even worse, rumours abounded that they were tortured, their bodies tested and their organs harvested to fuel China’s burgeoning organ transplant trade. These rumours were proven true in 2006 when an independent international investigation found compelling evidence, including statements from Chinese doctors complicit in the operations, that this was actually happening.

Aware of the magnitude of this abhorrent abuse of human rights, we are left aghast.

“Are you a senator?”, asks one of the protest organiser of Gabbie, to our amusement. The organiser explains that they want the Australian Government to make a motion to call for China to cease the live organ harvesting trade and stop persecution of the Falun Gong on the basis of religion. They want any member of parliament to come down to the lawns and meet with them to discuss their plight. So far they had not been successful. “Could you please tell them about us when you meet them” she asked, after we explained we were there to meet Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Labor MP Milton Dick and Xenophon Team Senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore to raise awareness of our own cause.

I can’t help but cringe as I recall that some members of the 45th Australian Parliament are calling for a ban on immigration of Muslims, effectively our own persecution of people based on their beliefs.

The silence is broken as one of the political advisers nearby makes a call on her mobile. “There’s 20 or 30 here,” she says, though when I look at the numbers there’s far more. It was then that I noticed she was looking to the other protest group across the lawn – a group calling for a Royal Commission into the banks. Jazz music is playing, and a middle aged man is dancing enthusiastically to the tune.

The juxtaposition of the two protests is inescapable.

One, a loud, vibrant, relaxed group calling for an investigation into alleged crimes against money; the other silent, peaceful, calling for an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity.

As we made our way back up to Parliament House, the familiar flaming red hair of Senator Pauline Hanson approaches in the other direction, flanked by her controversial adviser James Ashby, and two other staffers. Could she be going to meet the Falun Gong? This would be an unexpected action for someone who has, for 20 years, operated in the political arena under the “what about us” rhetoric for, as Ms Hanson puts it, “real Australians”.

Of course she wasn’t. Stealthily she was guided behind the Falun Gong protest to avoid being noticed, and swiftly moved into the Banking Royal Commission group, shaking hands and smiling. After all, these are the “real Australians” that are her focus. People who are paying too much interest or too much in fees and feeling financial stress.

Indeed these are real issues, things that all three of us feel to varying degrees as well – myself, in a single income family with a mortgage; Gabbie, now without her teaching job that had been a rock for 16 years before she resigned last year, and Jonathan, retired and with only the income from his excellent professional development workshops for teachers on top of his pension. Here we were in Canberra out of our own pocket, giving up our own time, without any funding from lobby groups or vested interests, to advocate for the well being of Australian children.

Our economy is so dependent on our trade links with China – the country whose government allegedly is inflicting these horrific crimes against Falun Gong followers – and so their plight goes with minimal recognition by Australian parliamentarians. Money before people.

And there was Pauline Hanson, putting money before people.

Money before people.

Inside the foyer of Parliament House, the peace and serenity for the lawn gives way to raucous, echoing energy. Lobbyist groups in suits and ties, led by political advisers with their mandatory ID badges, and school groups excitedly taking in the experience of being in the home of Australian democracy.

We are excited too. Our determination to affect change in our school system for children now, their development as they grow up and become critical thinkers and contributors and innovators in our society in the decades to come will be initiated here. Within these walls, with the support of those we give the trust of our votes every 3 years, change happens.

Our excitement tempers slightly after calling Senator Hanson-Young’s office and initially being greeted with “who are you?”. Oh no! They didn’t forget our meeting did they? But no, they were simply on the hop, and the Senator was delayed but would be down as soon as possible. After a short wait, the senator’s adviser greets us and apologises that the Senator will not be able to join us.

Meeting the Greens’ spokesperson for Education and Early Childhood was the primary purpose of our trip. So to not get the opportunity to meet and connect on this very human issue was deflating.

We explained who we were and what we were about to Kate, who dutifully made notes in order to “brief the senator” later.

“What are your two key asks that you want done?” she asked.

This question was anticipated, but sadly not at this early stage in the conversation. Asking to give two “asks” to fix the ills of the Australian education system is like asking for two things to solve the Climate Change problem. It’s simply not possible. “Stop publishing NAPLAN results on MySchool, and lift the minimum starting age to 6″, I said. Noted. Without further discussion.

Kate went on to suggest others who we’d be better off talking to, and quick as a flash she was “off to a 1.30”.

While the loud hum of the Parliament House cafe continued, the three of us sat in silence. What just happened?

Kate also suggested we check out the view from the roof of Parliament House, so we took that advice from Senator Hanson-Young’s Senior Adviser. The silence again returned. The symmetry of Parliament House looking up Anzac Parade to the War Memorial, which in turn sits at the foot of Mount Ainslie again revived that feeling of energy and national pride. Indeed the building and its surrounds are spectacular, and a wonderful monument to our democracy which is lauded around the world as one of the strongest and most durable.

We make our way down to the buzz of the foyer to ring Labor MP Milton Dick from the security desk. A host of lobbyists are here checking in, with political advisers buzzing around, as seems to be their primary role. I notice a suited young man that had the look of a political adviser trying to find someone he didn’t recognise and moved in his direction. “Chris?” he asked, the serendipitous looks of confusion leading to a correct conclusion. The formalities of identification complete, we make our way through the halls to Milton’s office.

Milton Dick isn’t a new face. I had met him several times during the election campaign, and I wasn’t surprised by the firm handshake and broad smile that greeted us in his office. Clean, quite minimalist in furnishings, but clearly well utilised over the years by members of parliament before him, there are book shelves with the Rules of Parliament. Huge, thick volumes dating back 20 years or more in some cases. I thought to myself “I wish I knew what the rules were.”

Flying to Canberra to meet my local member of Parliament wasn’t part of the plan, but despite tireless efforts, Labor’s own Education spokesperson and deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, was not able – or perhaps willing – to make time for this unknown “lobby group”, which we seem to be categorised as, and as such treated with suspicion.

Mr Dick listened to our case again, and heard Jonathan and Gabbie’s stories before having to interrupt our meeting to give a 90 second speech in support of the Jindalee Bowls Club – just down the road from my home – that was robbed.

I keep checking the clock as we wait for Mr Dick to return, and realise that I need to leave to get my return flight to Brisbane. I wouldn’t meet Senator Kokschke-Moore either. Gabbie and I leave Jonathan and make our way out – dodging what seems an endless line of lobbyists and advisers.

Exhausted mentally, I’m still wondering what just happened. We had come to Canberra to look for a champion for our cause. Here I was, empty handed. No disrespect is intended to the people we did meet, but it wasn’t the outcome we were looking for. Why couldn’t they see what our obsession with standards and data was doing to children?

We had come down to Canberra for the big game, and we weren’t playing by the same rules. The rules of the game seem to require a lot more resources to earn your right to get to the right people. Earns your right to make the right people see your truth.

Money before people.

Protecting Childhood is all about ensuring we have a school system that fosters the development of life long learners. This was a learning experience for all of us. It was a learning experience for me. It seems a core skill of advisers and parliamentarians to separate emotion from fact. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s defence of his linking the entire Lebanese-Muslim Community to the 22 individuals on terrorism charges by stating “it’s the truth”, absolving himself of the emotional damage done to the thousands of innocent, law abiding, hard working Lebanese Muslims who contribute to our society in so many ways is, as an infamous senator would say, empirical evidence of this condition.

That juxtaposition of the protest lawn, Falun Gong’s struggle for human rights, up against the Banking Royal Commission group’s struggle for money seems truly reflective of the nature of Australian Federal Politics.

I/We just have to get better at playing their game.

By Chris Cox – Protecting Childhood

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