When The Two Tims Talk: Tim Dunlop In Conversation With Tim Hollo

By Elissa Jenkins April 4, 2019

Author, writer and academic Tim Dunlop interviewed Green Institute Executive Director Tim Hollo. He’s kindly given permission for us to share it here. You can unlock Tim Dunlop’s other essays, stories, interviews and analysis on his Patreon by becoming a patron. Tim and Tim discuss how we might change the institutions of politics, problems with the concept of ‘centrism’, the Green New Deal, and what Tim Hollo hopes to achieve if he is elected at the next Federal election.

“In my experience, most politicians rely hugely on the belief that most citizens don’t know or care about most of what goes on. We must not let that be the case.” – Tim Hollo

Dunlop: Tim Hollo is the Greens’ candidate for the new seat of Canberra in the ACT. He has been involved in community and national politics for a long time, as an activist, an environmentalist, an organiser and political strategist, including a stint as senior advisor to Greens’ leader, Christine Milne.

He was also the Director of The Green Institute, a progressive think tank, and the founder of Green Music, a lobbying group that has had a deal of success in getting music festivals and other concert venues to decrease their environmental footprint by doing everything from using solar power, to replacing plastic water bottle sales with water refilling stations. Tim is also a musician, a classically trained violinist, and member of the band Fourplay, a rock string quartet.

I’ve known Tim online for a while now, but the first time we met in person was at a two-day workshop at Melbourne University in 2017 that was looking at issues around the implementation of a universal basic income. In a roomful of impressive people, he stood out with a compelling presentation on the politics of UBI.

I wanted to interview him because I knew he would have interesting and challenging things to say, and by golly, I was right.

The Two Tims Talk: Tim Dunlop In Conversation With Tim Hollo

The Interview: Part One

Dunlop: Tim, many people would agree that business-as-usual politics is broken and that something needs to change. But we seem to constantly fall victim to the paradox of, to paraphrase Audre Lorde’s well-known expression, that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.

I’m also reminded of the comment by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish school student who launched the school strikes movement: “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.…And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.”

If you’re elected, you will exist within the structures, the institutional framework, that has brought us to this impasse. How do you work within those structures—the parliament, the Greens party itself—to bring about the radical change that many argue we need?

Hollo: Thanks, Tim. Not messing about – getting straight to the heart of it 🙂

This is exactly the tension at the centre of any project, isn’t it? Do you work within existing systems or do you reject them and seek to replace them? It’s a tension in politics (with parliament and with parties), in NGOs (do you work with a large organisation that’s established and resourced but in some ways compromised, or set up a new one and face all the challenges that entails), for that matter in businesses, too (at what point do you set up your own enterprise?).

Greta Thunberg’s excellent point challenges that most annoying of centrist adages, that politics is the art of the possible.

I’ve long said that this adage is true, it’s just misinterpreted.

It doesn’t mean we should only seek to do what’s currently possible, nor does it mean we should charge on through and seek to do the impossible.

My view is that the goal of good politics should be to change what’s possible by broadening the discourse, opening up space for action through advocacy and action, critiquing the status quo, and creating new alternatives.

I believe that the challenges we face–from climate change to the rise of authoritarianism, and both of those closely related to rising inequality–demand that we reinvent our democratic practices.

But I’m pragmatic enough to recognise that, firstly, climate action is so urgent that we have no choice but to act from within the current system, and that, secondly, there is tremendous risk in demanding major changes in a febrile, unstable environment. In both cases, the task in my view is to start to build the new from within the old, with a view to replacing it when possible.

Dunlop: Can you give me an example what you mean?

Hollo: Sure. I’ve written about how our Constitution, a document written in the Age of Empire, needs to be rewritten from the ground up. Not only is it horribly out of date in many ways, but it is grounded in genocide. It is not fit for purpose and, in too many ways, is holding us back.

I was interested to recently come across commentary that the framers of the US Constitution believed in a living document that each generation should revisit. We’re way past due. But it would be a disaster to declare the Constitution over and attempt to replace it helter skelter, unprepared. The risk of plunging into authoritarianism is immense.

I suggest we need to work over time, begin the conversations about deep change, perhaps starting with distributed deliberative discussions about a Bill of Rights alongside listening to the Uluru Statement from the heart, and build towards adopting a new Constitution in many years’ time.

The concept at the core of it, for me, is resilience. We need to change the system, not break it. We need to foster enough networks and systems of connection, enough redundancy and duplication, enough alternative structures, a sufficiently complex ecosystem that the deep changes we need can be effected smoothly. Evolution rather than revolution, if you will. Or evolution rather than extinction. Dynamic equilibrium. Plenty of ecological metaphors.

Translating theory to practice, I believe that government and parliament as they currently exist can play a role in seeding and nurturing new and improved systems, rather than suppressing them.

We can support cooperativism and decentralisation. We can create mechanisms for participation. We can, from within the current system, expose corruption and Institute new rules to minimise it. We can, even from the margins, raise new ideas which, over time, become mainstream, just as we can give new industries enough support to find a foothold, begin to thrive and, eventually, take over.

As a candidate, I’ve already been building participatory democratic practices into my campaign, inviting people in to discuss not just specific ideas but also processes for ensuring ongoing community involvement in decision-making if I’m elected. I’ve also committed to using my office to support sharing community groups, helping to ensure that the commons can thrive in Canberra, rather than being increasing pushed to the margins. I’ve used the platform that candidacy gives me to expose the role donations play in political decision-making, and to challenge other candidates to commit to climate emergency action, expanding the range of our political discourse.

I’ve also found myself needing to bite my tongue and temper my ambition.

Dunlop: Tim, there are so many points to pick up on here! Let me just see if I can keep the general conversation going by concentrating on the idea of, as you say, ‘government and parliament as they currently exist can play a role in seeding and nurturing new and improved systems’.

I think that is true — my god, it would want to be! — but it seems to me so many of the mechanisms of our current system mitigate against that.

We have a preferential system of voting in the lower house that tends to make it hard for those outside the Labor and the Coalition to get elected. That means our choice of members is severely limited by the pre-selection processes of those two parties. We then tend to get massively unrepresentative representation — few teachers, but lots of party operatives; no tradies, but lots of lawyers; more men than women. All that adds up to a sort of received wisdom, a status quo, that is hard to shift.

And there are related problems. We know, for instance, that a lobbyist for a big corporation finds it much easier to have the ear of a minister than any ordinary citizen ever does. Indeed, there is a whole infrastructure to support that.

Reforming all this is difficult, though I refuse to say impossible. But it’s a bit like building the parachute after you’ve jumped out of the plane.

Still, if that is what you are faced with, then I think your point about ‘a sufficiently complex ecosystem’ is important: you want as many people as possible helping to build the parachute. Which means, I don’t think citizens can just rely on elected representatives to take responsibility for all this. Citizens themselves have to be able to participate beyond voting every three years.

So in your opinion, in your experience, what are the most effective things citizens can do to put pressure on parliaments in order to facilitate the sort of reform/evolution of the current system that you talk about?

And also, without being too reductive, what is the most important reform we could make that would improve the way our system of representative government works?

Hollo: I love your “building the parachute after jumping out of the plane” metaphor. Frankly, that’s exactly what it feels like. But, again, that’s what setting up my own NGO felt like, too. Or recording an album, for that matter. Aren’t most ventures like that, to an extent?

Certainly, if you’re trying to effect substantial change in a complex, dynamic system, you’re always going to be building and rebuilding your vehicle as you go. Or at least you should!

So, absolutely, the mechanisms of the system mitigate against change. It’s a self-perpetuating system, as most systems are.

I’m not sure I’d point the finger of blame at preferential voting, though. That, to me, is one of the better aspects of our system, enabling other entrants more access than first past the post, for example.

Single member electorates are certainly part of the problem, though, reducing diversity of representation. The comfortable symbiotic coalition of two big parties, their corporate donors and the inadequate media is far more powerful in locking out other participants than the electoral system, however. And the ‘there is no alternative’ culture is deliberately fed by all of them.

(I think I’m digging around in that space partly to avoid your very pointed and difficult direct questions.)

Okay, regarding what citizens can do. I’m not necessarily convinced that putting pressure on parliaments per se is actually the best, most effective thing to do. Sometimes it’s about bypassing parliaments, doing what you believe is necessary, and challenging the parliaments to catch up. Or daring them to stop you.

Dunlop: Again, can you give me an example of what you mean?

Hollo: I’m thinking of things like the People’s Inquiry into Privatisation recently. Or the process that led to the Uluru Statement From The Heart.

Or nonviolent direct action to stop pollution. Or setting up local sharing economies, swap groups, food and cooking coops, repair cafes, that completely bypass the market and build social cohesion.
All of those are ways of building new institutions or institutional approaches that didn’t/don’t operate in a way that is about ‘putting pressure on parliaments’. Not directly or primarily, anyway.

I always encourage people who ask me to take whatever action they feel best equipped to take, whether that be writing to their MP, chatting with their neighbours about politics, blockading a coal train, or establishing a people’s parliament for their local area.

I think we need the greatest diversity of actions possible, so I find it difficult to say ‘this is the most important thing.’

Dunlop: Okay, but is there some overarching principle or practice you would point to?

Hollo: Yes. I believe that all these ideas I’ve suggested need to be politically pointed, ie aimed at delivering broad systemic change, as opposed to ‘buying out’ of the system for the small number of people directly involved.

And the most important overarching thing citizens can do is make it clear to politicians and parliaments that we will not be ignored and sidelined, that we demand to have our voices heard, respected, listened to, that we’re not going to put up and shut up.

In my experience, most politicians rely hugely on the belief that most citizens don’t know or care about most of what goes on. We must not let that be the case.

We need to defend civil society, defend NGOs and unions, advocate for causes we believe in, and stand up to those who want to whittle all that away.

We need to start building the alternative institutions that we want to see from the ground up. If we build them well enough, governments will do one of three things: destroy them, co-opt them, or adopt them. We need to be strong enough to make sure they adopt them, properly.

Similarly, with your question about reform to make our representative system work better, I don’t think I can give a simple answer. Sorry. As you know, it’s… not like that.

If you want my view of a relatively simple change, I do think that moving to multi-member electorates would make a big difference. But, as Tasmania shows, it’s really not enough. Here in the ACT, it works better, but it’s not as though it’s a clear answer to the problems of the system.

I’m not personally convinced by your idea of a house of sortition, but I do strongly support the institution of regular rolling Citizens’ Assemblies on key issues, following the Irish model. They would need to be well-resourced, managed at arm’s length (eg by the AEC rather than by parliament or by relevant APS departments), provided with access to expert advice, etc.

Frankly, though, I reckon the most critically important thing we need to to do to improve how government works is to dismantle the overwhelming power of corporations.

We need to ban corporate political donations, regulate lobbying, including instituting radical transparency about who is meeting whom, when and how often.

Close the revolving door between political offices and the corporations they are supposed to be regulating, and introduce an ICAC with teeth. Because it kind of doesn’t matter how you set up systems of representation or participation if corporations can just buy the decisions they want anyway.

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The Interview: Part Two

“My feeling is that the Green New Deal is cutting through right now because its time has come. People are ready to hear really big ideas, and have little patience for half-measures.” – Tim Hollo

Dunlop: I just want to dig a bit deeper on that point about having ‘little patience for half-measures’.

A lot of the talk of hyper partisanship is overstated, I think. Often those moaning about partisanship are simply elites who aren’t used to having their primacy challenged and therefore tend to frame any criticism as unreasonable partisanship.

Peter Dutton and others have been doing a similar thing in the wake of Christchurch: they frame criticism of racism and racist dog-whistling as being as bad as the racism and dog whistling itself. They define any such criticism as ‘extreme leftism’ and therefore Richard Di Natale is as bad as Fraser Anning. The media report it uncritically. And then they speak platitudes about bipartisanship and moderation.

Nonetheless, in a democracy, we do have to walk a line between pushing the limits and bringing people along.

Is this something you can only do on a case by case basis, or is there some overarching principle we can apply, so that we are always pushing the progressive envelope, or in pol sci terms, opening the Overton Window? To what extent can you get people off-side in the short-term in the name of convincing them in the long term? Or is that not the way to look at it?

Hollo: There are a few intertwined issues regarding partisanship and bipartisanship that I think lead to the problems we’re facing.

One issue, related to your point about the overstatement of partisanship, is something Tim Wu set out in an excellent recent New York Times piece, ‘The Oppression of the Supermajority’.

He argues that polarisation of views along partisan lines isn’t actually that much of an issue – the real issue is bipartisan political refusal to do what a great majority of citizens want, be it acting on climate change, taxing corporations, restricting access to guns, etc. (Also, a Tim being interviewed by a Tim and quoting a third Tim was too good to resist…)

I think a lot of this comes back to the Thatcherite ‘There Is No Alternative’ attitude that has for so long pervaded politics. The Overton Window, as you put it, is very narrow for mainstream politics. I also like how Chomsky puts it in Manufacturing Consent – that the best way to maintain control in society is to strictly limit the terms of political discourse but allow very vociferous debate within those terms.

Another central aspect is the ‘I’m the expert at this and you should leave it to me’ attitude from so many politicians, enacted so clearly recently by Senator Feinstein to the students coming to lobby her about the Green New Deal. While I do understand that the viral video was edited perhaps unfairly, the central point – that too many politicians simply think the views of most of their constituents are wrong or naive or ill-judged – stands.

Both of these go to your point about those in power not liking to have their primacy challenged, and simply rejecting views that do challenge them. In some cases it is a genuine inability to grapple with the different ideas, and in some it is a deliberate attempt to restrict the terms of debate. And yes, then mouth platitudes about bipartisanship.

But there’s also a critically important structural problem here, and that is that our deeply adversarial system has created an inability, or at least an unwillingness, in politics to negotiate and deliberate.

For the vast bulk of the ‘political class’, politics is understood as inherently a win/lose game whose goal is to get your way and achieve dominance. Negotiation is therefore a sign of weakness – witness the howls of derision from Liberals, Labor and the gallery when governments find themselves in minority. In this context, the idea of bipartisanship becomes a weapon to be used to beat your foe with, not a genuine idea of negotiating mutually beneficial outcomes.

Dunlop: This is one of my problems with the idea of a so-called ‘sensible centre’.

Hollo: Yes. You get to sensible outcomes through active deliberation, informed by expert advice, not by plonking yourself in the ‘centre’ and declaring that must be correct. Firstly, the ‘centre’ is frequently not correct (for example, on climate change). Secondly, the ‘centre’ moves, depending on the political discourse.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in participatory democracy – and not just simplistic direct democracy like referenda, but true, deliberative democracy. It forces those involved to engage with each other’s ideas, take advice from a range of experts, and come to a conclusion that a majority can accept.

That, to me, is the best answer to your question about pushing limits versus bringing people along. On an important level, yes, I think it is the wrong way to look at it.

It’s remarkable how often, and in how many different contexts, actually getting people to sit down together, examine the evidence, and discuss potential outcomes leads to excellent and effective solutions that can often be well outside what is considered the legitimate terms of the debate.

It doesn’t have to always be a deliberative process, though – as discussed previously, sometimes it is a process of long advocacy and slow political shifts creating the space so that a really big idea put on the table at the right time is embraced even though ‘Very Sensible People’ assume it’s crazy.

Often those ideas will be laughed off the table before they’re vociferously attacked, and finally adopted.

Dunlop: You mentioned the Green new Deal and I wanted to specifically ask you about that. It strikes me as a little bit like the call for a UBI — it isn’t just the specific policy (or policies) that matters, but the potential to rally people to big change.

This means, though, that there is a certain vagueness about what GND actually is, though I would call it necessary vagueness, or a productive vagueness, even if it does open up the easy retort from the status quo that it ‘lacks detail’.

So what does the idea of a GND mean to you? How can Australia tap into the momentum it seems to be building? To what extent do we have to build our own version? Ultimately such a movement needs to be global, not just local, so even if it, in its current form, doesn’t translate perfectly to other countries, I presume you see value in us using it to add our candle to the sum of light?

Hollo: I agree very much with your point – the scale of the ambition is where the meaning lies, not in the detail. Although, of course, the detail will matter, too.

We’re living in a world where the scope of what is deemed politically possible has been narrowed drastically, and very deliberately. It’s Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’. It’s the Very Serious People in politics and media declaring that science-based climate action is unrealistic. It’s the ‘don’t scare the horses’ approach that too many NGOs have found themselves co-opted into. I remember well fighting against that when coordinating environment groups’ election campaigning back in 2004. ‘Yes, we know that’s what the science says is needed, but if we say that, nobody will take us seriously…’

The Green New Deal is interesting in that, at a policy level, it’s not actually that different from what many people and groups have been arguing for a long time – radical emissions reductions paired with jobs programs to retrain workers and increased taxes on the wealthy and on big corporations to pay for it.

There’s nothing in what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others are asking for that hadn’t been Australian Greens policy for years. It’s not even that it’s new language, or a new reframing. The Green Institute held a forum on the idea in 2009, and people all over the world were talking Green New Deal as a response to the 2008 crash. In a sense, the pink batts insulation project was a small part of that idea. Maybe the world wasn’t quite ready for the big idea then. Tragically.

My feeling is that the Green New Deal is cutting through right now because, in a sense, its time has come.

Dunlop: Yes, fair point, but why now and not when we were on the verge of economic ruin in 2008?

Hollo: The old neoliberal certainties are collapsing – partly because of many years of work from academic critique through to the Occupy movement, partly because the right is abandoning neoliberal economics in favour of extreme right ideas, partly because climate change is here and can no longer be ignored.

People are ready to hear really big ideas, and have little patience for half-measures.

When The Two Tims Talk: Tim Dunlop In Conversation With Tim Hollo

Dunlop: And the language of the current form of the Green New Deal?

Hollo: I don’t think it’ll be Green New Deal language which cuts through here in Australia. It is very American.

But the concepts of moving rapidly to 100% renewable energy, and requiring corporate tax dodgers to pay their fair share, and supporting workers through the transition – all that seems to strike a chord with a great majority of people here.

It all links back, in a sense, to that question of time. As many people have noted, there are tipping points in social change just as there are in climate science. People can be working for something for decades with seemingly little or no action taken, and then suddenly things shift very fast.

The Green New Deal is symptomatic of this. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of AOC, but I’m not a subscriber to the Great Man (or even Greater Woman) Theory of history. GND didn’t spring fully formed out of nowhere: it’s based on the work of many many people across many countries working in all sorts of different capacities, struggling for decades to be heard and listened to.

Maybe now we’ll get this happening, just in the nick of time. I hope so.

Dunlop: Okay, I want to wrap this up with a couple of final of questions. Thanks so much for your time and your willingness to engage in the way you have.

I think for progressives, one of the most annoying things about contemporary politics is the hostility exhibited towards the Greens by certain section of the ALP and Labor voters. I mean, I don’t want you all to love each other, but if you want to talk about the perils of partisanship, that sort of partisanship bugs me much more than a lack of bipartisanship between Labor and the Coalition.

Anyway, I don’t really want to get into that directly, but I will ask, what do you think people most get wrong about the Greens? Not just people who oppose Greens’ policies, but even amongst those who are, broadly speaking, from the same progressive side of the tracks.

You guys cop a lot of shit from all sides. What’s the biggest misconception or the most unreasonable criticism?

Hollo: The biggest misconceptions about the Greens? The idea that ‘Greens won’t negotiate’ is one.

Greens are actually very good at negotiating – much better, usually, than Labor and Liberals. Our internal consensus-based decision-making processes (when they work well, which they sometimes don’t) require us to develop those skills.

The myth that ‘Greens won’t negotiate’ is precisely one of those weapons used by other parties and their barrackers in the commentariat to narrow the terms of the debate. If the Greens put an idea on the table for negotiation, they must be ‘demanding’ something ‘unreasonable’ and immediately shutting off any chance of discussion.

It’s easier to throw that accusation than to actually put in the effort to consider the ideas and negotiate. Particularly if you actually believe that negotiation is a sign of weakness.

This is a constant annoyance, but it’s not what I think is the most unreasonable criticism.

Dunlop: But I take it there is something else?

Hollo: What gets my goat more than anything, is the bizarre double standard that I hear so often about barriers to voting Green.

It is remarkable how often people say that they agree with almost all Greens policies, but they can never vote for us because they disagree with this particular one – whether it be voluntary euthanasia or pill testing or criticism of Israeli government action or one specific bike path that annoys them.

At the same time, they will happily acknowledge that they disagree with maybe 50% of what Labor does in government, but will continue to vote for them. Given that Labor is, currently, a party of government able to implement a large part of its agenda, while the Greens are a cross-bench party able generally only to influence the political agenda and achieve marginal outcomes, this is, to me, incredibly frustrating thinking.

I believe it’s a relic of tribal two-party voting under which the assumption is that if you are generally of the left, you vote for Labor unless there is a very good reason not to. It’s fading over time, and I find it’s possible in conversation to get around it by naming it and embracing the idea of the Greens as currently primarily about agenda-setting and not implementing our full agenda, but it’s still there.

Dunlop: Okay, final question. If you are elected at the next Federal Election, what would you most like to achieve? Is it just about policy implementation, or is there a broader goal of changing how politics is done? What does success look like for you?

Hollo: For me, it kind of all boils down to climate change, although in two quite separate ways.

Fundamentally, this next term of federal parliament is the one where we need to put Australia on track for swift and complete decarbonisation. We need to set up the next decade’s trajectory towards 100% renewable energy, staged closure of coal fired power stations with properly funded just transitions packages for workers, moving to electric vehicle fleets, protecting and rebuilding landscape carbon, and energy efficient industry.

All of that is totally within reach – it just takes the political will to do it.

I hope that, if I’m elected, I can influence an incoming Labor government which has one foot stepping towards that future and the other firmly wedged in the past to make the leap. If they don’t – if they’d rather keep playing silly games of wedge politics – then we are in very deep trouble.

The second aspect is that we’ve got some hell that’s coming to rain down on us regardless, thanks to the climate change that is already locked in. This will have a hugely destabilising impact on an already unstable world.

That means that a critical task is to build resilience – in our communities and in our democracy.

I want to use my position to support, encourage and enable those resilience-building tasks: improving our democratic systems by removing corporate control and creating participatory paths, building engaged, connected, sharing communities, strengthening civil society.

In other words, all the various things we’ve discussed through this interview. All of it. Neatly bundled together and labelled “resilience-building”!

I know I’m not going to achieve all of it, even if I do leap that first hurdle of getting elected. But there’s plenty that can be done to ‘change how politics is done’ with some of the specific policy interventions we’ve discussed.

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