• P.O.V
  • By Emma Brain
  • Leverage

In conversation: David Cain + Kieran Wong

Ouroboros, rezed up.

David Cain (Executive Director, Communicare) and Kieran Wong (Partner, TheFulcrum.Agency) are old friends who don't need much of a prompt to chat! In a conversation that oscillates between unwieldy and profound, Dave and Kieran workshop politics, the state of social services and making an impact.

Kieran: There’s an interesting story that I heard about an architect who worked in Indigenous communities. After a while he realized that to make meaningful change he had to go into government to effect policy. He then realized he couldn’t affect the change he wanted there and went into the private sector.  This way he could form an alliance with government and deliver greater change.  He moved through these different structures to try and effect changeand ultimately ended up back in architecture again.

I often wonder whether I am being useful… You’ve gone through a few different steps on your journey in this space. Given your interest in politics, where do you think the most meaningful impact can be made?

David: Well, I think there are multiple areas in which we can have impact. I do think that it stands on the individual; I think it’s really important to engage people and encourage them to think and challenge their concerns. Not just think about them but to try and connect to them. To find ways we can cascade and amplify effect.

I also think it’s about looking at the global capacity of your organization and your broader connections. How can you connect or advocate or amplify or agitate? But ultimately, it’s about having a constellation of people that work together to achieve the things we need to achieve. And, having spent six years in government as part of my journey, you help to shape policy, you have an impact and you change things.

But progressive, broad scale change in ways that are seminal, I think are sort of above and beyond all of us. I think that we need to be pushing and agitating for change in different ways and that work is incremental.

A great example for me was the last federal election and the whole range of criticisms about the position that the Labor party put together. It was complex, it was poorly managed, but it was a comprehensive suite of reforms for Australia. And it was rejected. And so, I think it shows we have to be able to bring people along.

Kieran: I agree. I think one of the challenges is that this idea of a progressive reformist agenda might underpin a lot of things people think about when they’re in their 20s and 30s and that the edges startcoming off in their 40s.

Snakes and Ladders

David: Yeah, I read something the other day… this is an epiphany actually – sorry to cut you off - about research around the way people move through progressive to conservative views from 20 through to 50. For so many people it’s a trajectory.

Kieran: That’s right, yeah.

David: You can sort of see that it happens. People get comfortable in their life and the status quo suits them.

Kieran: Yeah, they want to protect it.

David: They protect their resources and those kinds of things.

Kieran:Yeah, also in Australia, if you’re of a certain age like we are, which allowed us to get into the property market before it became insane, there’s a kind of meta-narrative that says, “We’ve worked really hard to get here.” discounts all of the changes in tax policy and the middle welfare handouts of the ’90s. A false sense of how what you’ve earned is created and the need to protect it

David: It’s absolutely true. I actually think some of the nationalism that we see in Australia, some of the emerging or re-emerging of nationalist thought is around this trope.  That people believe that their being born in Australia was a measure of their genius rather than a measure of their luck. And they get really belligerent around being Australian. Funny thing is, it’s just luck.

Kieran: Yeah. I mean, just to go back to the politics thing. I think theoutcome of last election will mean that the Labor Party are going to be incredibly cautious in terms of policy reform. It’ll be a kind of bipartisan choice really in terms of policy settings with furious agreement on everything but the most minor of details.

I heard an interesting talk a few weeks ago about the Uluru Statement and the notion that bipartisanship has really not served Indigenous Australia well. Because what is meant to happen with a twin chamber of government, is that you’ve got a conservative side and a progressive side and they argue the toss over a whole range of ideas to come to a position.

As a result of kind of wedge politics, the constituencies that both sides are fighting for are blurred now. You end up pretty much with the same group of people that both parties are looking to try and get the vote from. And therefore, bipartisanship as a result of aiming for some of that nationalist idiocy also then excludes the opportunity for meaningful reconciliation.

In Australian politics we’re ending up with an inability for effect because no one will want to put forward a policy that has a kind of reformist proposition. Maybe the NDIS is the last thing that’ll ever happen in politics for a while?

David: I was listening to a great podcast the other day, Mark Keenwas interviewing someone who had looked at the previous election. Theyhad done an in-depth analysis of the election result and their view was that progressive politics needs to be more emotive in the way in which it captures the imagination of Australian people.

She was discussing the way in which the conservative side is emotive – in terms of taking away your ute or of those kinds of thing. Whereas the progressive side presents lots of facts, lots of data.

I think that we need to think about, emotionally, what does reconciliation genuinely mean? What does fairness mean? What does equality genuinely mean? And try and bring people along that way.

Kieran: Do you think that’s possible? I mean, this is a question that we often talk about. Does true reconciliation and empowering communities require some handing over of power by those with the power? Symbolism is not enough. The actual relinquishment of power is what’s required.

MEMBERS OF WA'S DOMINION LEAGUE MATTHEW LEWIS MOSS, H K KEITH WATSON, JAMES MACCALLUM SMITH MLA AND SIR HAL COLEBATCH FLY THE FLAG IN LONDON.

MEMBERS OF WA'S DOMINION LEAGUE MATTHEW LEWIS MOSS, H K KEITH WATSON, JAMES MACCALLUM SMITH MLA AND SIR HAL COLEBATCH FLY THE FLAG IN LONDON.

David: I think it's really important that we have multiple views on our landscape, on our political landscape. That's how I think we arrive the best decisions and the best people.

David (cont): There is no doubt that the concentration of media ownership in this country is problematic. The dissenting and alternate views, they come but they’re rare. Five years ago, you’d get disparate views around different issues and so the reader would be able to read things with much more detail, get a different lens on a different set of data, different sets of facts. We’re losing that – it’s all just melding into one centre right position

Kieran: I agree with you that there should be a tension in politics between the conservative and progressive perspectives. I wonder what the trajectory is for contemporary democracy, and the impact of that on the way in which providers of services or providers of infrastructure can plan for the future.

For me it feels like there almost needs to be a kind of devolution of one of the strands of government to allow it to occur. A kind of a beefing up of the states and a diminution of the Commonwealth.

David: But our federated model has struck a balance where the federal government has the cash but not the service delivery infrastructure or the relationship with the community and the state government has the service delivery infrastructure and relationship with the community but not necessarily the cash. And there’s such a symbiotic relationship that just underpins our federation.

One of the things in Western Australia that’s been looked at is how we all start to tell a story about the impact that we’re having (in the community?) sector? How does government and the sector look at collective impact? Is it around outreach to young people? Around mental health? Around children, the early years?

Kieran: I had lunch with Michelle McKenzie from Shelter the other day and she was saying this interesting thing about COVID and the opportunity that it’s brought for a greater level of compassion. Suddenly there’s all these people realizing that they’re about to interact with a (welfare) system they’ve never anticipated interacting with, and the sheer workload involved in interacting with a system that they’ve never dealt with. Maybe there’s an opportunity for empathy through this whole thing?

David: Well, you would hope that many more people have a much crisper understanding about the impact of JobSeeker, living on $40 a day. It’s outrageous that we are comfortable with people living on $40 a day.

And to your point about this new empathy, I think part of that design thinking that is needed is how do we support what will be lots of new people that need our support but not necessarily drag them into the system? Providing the support in their community, I guess, in different ways.

Kieran: Yeah, maybe in less confronting ways.

David: Less confronting ways, yeah.

Kieran: Okay, so I think that’s all pretty good. I don’t know if you want to just say something about what you think your impact … for you, what’s the kind of personal driver of why you do what you do? Beyond the kind of beach house and the …

Dave: My personal driver, I guess is around the innate vulnerabilities of children. I really have a connection to the safety and well-being of children. I mean, the findings from the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse were just breathtaking in their sadness and how we’ve failed, really failed, a whole generation of children. That drives me. And again, now through our Stewardship of the White Ribbon Australia campaign, focusing on reducing family and domestic violence as well. I think it’s a major issue that impacts so many families, impacts our community, and impacts our country.

Kieran: Yeah. Well, they have two pretty good things to drive you. Okay. That’s great. Thanks Dave.

David: Thanks Kieran.

Good luck with that.

 

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