• Mohamad Tabbaa

VICE Election Panel: Some Musings

Ok so here is the final extended video of the VICE federal election panel discussion recorded last week.

It’s about half an hour long, covering immigration, drugs/health, indigenous affairs, wealth/class and climate. Pretty interesting set of discussions and worth watching.

Some of you will know that I used to do a lot of media work, but have not really been involved in media for the past few years, mainly because of just how bad the scene is here (yes, it’s a cop-out, I know), but also because it’s not really my scene. For someone who’s a slow thinker and naturally gravitates towards prolonged, in-depth discussions, the pace, dynamic and polemic nature of media really doesn’t work for me. I would often still get caught up in the skirmishes rather than focusing on the strategic messaging and then berate myself afterwards for it.

I can’t really say why I agreed to attend this panel (and I almost didn’t in honesty), but I just felt a lot more comfortable with my position and went in with a bit of a ‘why not’ attitude. It’s probably been the best media experience I’ve had to date (and I’ve had hundreds of interactions, so that’s saying a bit), so no regrets.

It was a fascinating and complex experience, so I wanted to share a few points from it.

The first is that the complete recordings were about 2 hours long, so obviously (as with all media) most of what occurred has been edited out. I’m quite happy with the final video, I think they’ve done a great job at producing a debate/discussion that captures the main talking points, positions and the perceptions of the topics at hand.

That being said, I simultaneously feel that the final version is inevitably a misrepresentation of what actually unfolded in that abandoned Collingwood warehouse that just screams VICE. The dynamic, energies and alignments/fissures that formed over the 2-hour period are not (could not be) represented in the final version, so I’d like to touch on them briefly here, both because it was such a great case study in strategic battle and allyship in facing off conservatives, but also because there are general media lessons in them as well.

I don’t believe the panellists in the room knew each other, or at least I didn’t know any of them, so it was interesting to see how things played out. In summary form, the entire event was an evisceration of the two conservative IPA folk, Kurt and Renee, in a beautiful display of an organically-formed alliance.

The main credit here goes to Roj Amedi, Senior Campaigner for GetUp, who really led the way. Roj influenced the dynamic from the outset, setting the tone and direction of the discussion, and especially drawing the discussion consistently back to the larger picture of structures, policies and people rather than falling prey to the IPA tactics of getting stuck in fiscal arguments about what’s best for the economy (this formed the majority of their responses). The dynamic that played out following this was just an excellent example of how to work collectively. One of us would lead a topic discussion, the others would step in to reinforce and expand the points just made, drawing the discussion back to core topics of importance and in the process showing up the uninformed positions of the two conservatives. Each of us only spoke when we needed to, and a natural formation of authority and leadership was formed; those best placed led their topic of expertise, otherwise backed up their colleagues or simply remained silent (e.g. I barely spoke in the climate section because it’s not my area). It demonstrated for me how well things can work when people are aligned on a broad strategy and don’t let egos and posturing get in the way. It also demonstrated the powerful impact one person can have in influencing the energy and direction of a room full of people.

Roj explaining the refugee experience.

On a personal (and slightly selfish) note, it was also a big relief to be able to sit back and let someone else take the lead without fear of them making a mess of it, and that was largely due to the calibre of some in that room.

What it also means, however, is that, owing to the editing, the credit for what was produced is not accurately accorded. The large role that Roj played in producing the end result, for example, does not come through in the final video, neither does the extent of numerous contributions. I don’t think this is anyone’s fault per se, it’s part and parcel of both media and leadership. I mentioned above that I’m happy with the final version, despite what I’m stating here, because from the perspective of influencing viewers, the way the video presents as a ‘balanced’ discussion that one side happens to win, has a lot more potential to sway viewers than would a polemic scrap, which would likely have viewers double down and cement their existing positions (and this intervention was, after all, aimed at swaying votes for the election).

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time in media, it’s this: media engagement is not about speaking the truth, but about strategic interventions.

From the perspective of strategic interventions, I feel the framing of the final video offers greater potential than accurately representing what took place, though I also find myself wondering whether (and how) it would be possible to achieve both.

As for what’s lost in this model (e.g. the credit), this is quite common and I feel is what one signs up for (willingly or otherwise) as a leader: it’s primarily thankless work because most of it is done behind the scenes and what’s presented most times does not (and often cannot) accurately reflect who did the work. Only those who know, know.

One of the main reasons I was comfortable with this media engagement more than others is because the panel itself was quite balanced. And it was balanced precisely because it was stacked. I thanked the producer for this fact at the close of the event, and I think it caught him off guard. If we’re at all honest, the majority of the panellists were different shades of non-conservative, so numerically-speaking, it was biased. However, I say it was balanced because the conservatives have the weight of decades-old discourses behind each of their empty statements, whereas we don’t. So, when they recycle an ill-informed or simplistic trope, which they did often, it cannot be dismissed out of hand, due to the institutional backing it receives and the fact that it’s echoed across the country and indeed the world in powerful quarters. Working from the margins, we simply don’t have the same level of authority, even though what we’re arguing is more informed and sensible. Rather, we need to exert much energy firstly defending ourselves against the simplistic statements, unpacking so many problems and implications in their arguments before we’re afforded the space to make our own arguments. And that’s no simple task either. With most contemporary discourses on these topics carrying a conservative bent, it takes a lot of groundwork to start to make an independent case that’s not entirely a defence or a response.

For this reason, having conservatives represent a minority of the panel allows for a more balanced discussion to take place, and this showed in the fact that the topics were not derailed in favour of the status quo, and we were actually able to put forward detailed opinions on each of the topics discussed. This is one of the very few media experiences I’ve had where this was made possible, so credit to VICE for facilitating a genuine discussion.

Kate describing Portugal's drug model.

The fact that the panel was stacked however also presented a new challenge for me. During the drugs discussion, which we were thankfully able to move away from crime and punishment, there was a strong shift towards a medical approach. While I’m generally in support of this approach, I felt it was not cautious enough and had the potential to idealise what also has the potential to be just as disastrous (I could hear Foucault crying – the hospital is a prison!) This presented an unprecedented but welcome challenge for me, whereby I had to consider how to disagree with an ally in the midst of agreement. And while there was an initial awkward tension, this was worked through very quickly, again owing to the genuine and considered nature of most in the room.

Kurt opening a discussion on immigration with talk of borders.

The final segment on Indigenous affairs was the most telling. Our friend Kurt opened up with a monologue of tired clichés which I won’t repeat here. Part way through his dry speech about statistics, Aretha, in tears, took the mic. It was a difficult moment, witnessing someone sitting next to you trying to put into words the erasure they’re experiencing, being forced to engage with a discourse that objectifies them and renders them invisible, speaking behind so many layers of racialized meaning centuries-old and somehow expected to devise a rhetorical quip to represent all of this on camera. As she painfully wrestled with this, it was captured best with her return, numerous times, to the powerful resignation: what the fuck.

What the fuck indeed.

We tried to support her. Roj walked over and hugged her. Kurt confusedly asked whether he had said something wrong. Renee’s intervention was to say that, despite the fact that people were expressing ‘different opinions’, this does not imply that Kurt’s input was lacking compassion…

If you pay attention to my facial expressions throughout (please don’t, they’re embarrassing), you’ll notice that I exert quite the effort to control my reactions: I hide my eye-rolls, try to restrict my headshakes, hold back tears and quell my shaking … because no amount of training can stop you from feeling. It was quite the emotional rollercoaster: sadness, anger, joy, rage… But on Renee’s comments, I lost my cool and unleashed on both of them. Because yes, speaking about a targeted people as abstract subjects of policy and economy is disgustingly lacking in compassion.

Most of this doesn’t make the final cut, and it’s probably the right decision all things considered.

On the whole, it was a worthwhile and interesting experience that’s left me with much to consider, including my own involvement in media, how we practice solidarity and the ethics of debate amidst imbalance. Most importantly, and particularly after this week’s election results, it’s reinforced for me the importance of critically examining who we align our activism with, and if there’s a silver lining in the sting of the election result, I hope it’s that we strengthen horizontal alliances and forge paths that bypass (or hopefully subvert) vertical power structures. For many Muslims who naturally lean conservative because of ‘shared values’, we need to seriously reflect on what values we share with people who are entirely bereft of an iota of compassion in their dealings with different people (like ourselves), and whether we want to be part of a group who see only money and statistics, not people.

I don’t.

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