NEW POLITICAL PARTY PROMOTES AUSTRALIAN WELLBEING
By Tamsin Channing
Feeling frustrated by a lack of focus on wellbeing and compassionate communication in the current political arena, North Fitzroy local Ben Irvine decided to take matters into his own hands and initiate the type of political party that he and his friends would feel happy to vote for. The Australian Wellbeing Party will launch on March 5th at St Brigid’s Hall in Fitzroy North. The Hall is the long-term home of 5Rhythms dance in Melbourne, where after class discussions have built a strong wellbeing-oriented community. I interviewed Ben outside St Brigid’s to find out more about the political and philosophical basis of the Party. They hope to gain a membership of 550 people in order to be eligible contenders at the next election.
Ben, what motivated you to initiate the Australian Wellbeing Party?
I was feeling a sense of hopelessness on the day after the 2013 federal election. I felt that the Abbott government had won the election just with the strategy of condemning and attacking their opposition, it was a bit depressing. At the same time I had been ruminating on the philosophical idea that you can’t change the system by condemning or attacking it because that just reaffirms the violence that is causing the problem. The idea of a political party committed to compassionate communication with a platform for wellbeing struck me while chatting with a friend. I’ve was magnetically drawn to the idea and have been working on it ever since.
Tell us about the policy basis and aspirations for the Party.
The idea of a wellbeing manifesto was proposed by the New Economics Foundation in the UK, who published one in 2004. My former colleagues at The Australia Institute followed suit with an Australian version in 2006. They both really inspired me. Like those manifestos we are seeking to promote very practical policies for increasing wellbeing across all area of government strategy because they all feed into our national wellbeing. We’ll focus on areas like education, health, urban planning and addressing inequality.
What gaps do you see it filling in the current political landscape?
I’d love to re-inspiring people who have been disillusioned by politics. I’ve spent the last few years immersing myself in what I would call the wellbeing community. People prioritising wellbeing, personal growth, and self-actualisation through modalities such as yoga, mediation, dance, rituals and ceremonies. I feel more supported and connected than I have at any other time in my life. However, I’ve found a lot of friends in these kinds of communities are ‘not into politics’. I think that’s due to the high levels of judgment and condemnation in politics and a sense of hopelessness.
I have also seen many people in the social change scene, including myself, get disillusioned and burnt out by working to change the system without enough tangible victories or moral support to nourish them. The vision for the Wellbeing Party is that it can be a compassionate voice representing healthy, supportive communities that enable us to bring about change from a place of wellbeing.
Have there been precedents in other countries?
There are increasing examples of wellbeing organisations seeking change from within the system. In the US there is Yoga votes, which encourages yoga practitioners to vote. There was the congressional campaign of spiritual author Marianne Williamson. As far as political parties go the main one I know of is The Alternative, a green political party in Denmark who have the values of humility, empathy and courage. They are aiming to crowdsource policies through what it calls ‘political laboratories’. This is something the Wellbeing Party is intending to do – to establish a wellbeing policy platform that is detailed and nuanced. It can be done with online collaboration and moderation, similar to how a wikipedia page is generated by user editors.
Who inspires you politically?
I spent some time researching Gandhi recently and that has been really inspiring. Gandhi led an uprising against the British colonialists but he refused to use hate or violence against them, not even in direct retaliation. His goal was to see the British off ‘as friends’. And he did it by using nonviolent methods to make the moral injustice of the situation very clear. Gandi’s nonviolence comes from the Hindu principle of ahimsa, which also translates as ‘love in action’.
Closer to home, when I worked at The Australia Institute we had Bob Brown come and speak at our event Politics In The Pub several times, he really stood out for me. He had star power and gravitas but he also had a beautiful, open hearted presence that really filled the room. He could get serious and hash out the details of tricky policy areas when needed, but most of the time he would just radiate love and compassion. I was really inspired by it. He reminds me of the Dalai Lama, another influence. When Dalai Lama or Bob enter a room they interact and connect with everyone and rejoice in it. There isn’t a sense of the powerful people getting all the attention, which is something I think we should strive for.
Who inspires you philosophically?
I’m inspired by all sorts of philosophy, and like Socrates I believe that the unquestioned life is not worth living. I’ve also spent a lot of time in recent years studying Eastern philosophy and practising meditation, yoga, Advaita Vedanta, Zen and Taoism.
Politically, the philosophers I’m inspired by include Buckminster Fuller, John Stuart Mill, Gandhi, Jean Gebser, Ken Wilber and John Ralston Saul. I think that they all would agree that our modern rational individual thinking, which began in the Western enlightenment in the 19th century, has caused us to lose sight of true wellbeing by causing us to become overly materialistic.
I think overly rational, head-based thinking can also let us justify closed minded views. John Stuart Mill defined himself politically as a radical moderate. He liked to appraise both sides of an argument without rushing to ‘take sides’. Ken Wilber says it’s wise to listen closely to every voice in a debate because ‘nobody is smart enough to be 100% wrong’. Both of these sentiments remind me of the Buddhist ‘middle way’ to liberation though avoiding extremes.
What impact do you see this Party making?
At first I think we can fill a gap based on our focus on wellbeing policy. Ultimately I hope our intention to communicate with compassion can be an influence on people. I’d like to see us help redefine people’s idea of what’s possible in empowered political campaigning and discussion. I believe that we can stand up and be heard without or showing contempt for our opposition. To do so we have to humble ourselves and be aware of our emotional triggers. We also have to use constructive language that reduces the emotional triggering of others. As we get better at compassionate communication I think we can start to access the collective wisdom we need to solve the political challenges of our time.
What are you aspirations for the Party this coming year?
This year the focus is on reaching out to wellbeing communities, and campaigning to share our vision in the lead up to the federal election. After the election it is our intention to build a firmer foundation. We will do that by establishing a research organisation to further develop our wellbeing policy platform. It’s also our intention to keep putting on transformational and life-affirming events for our members and community. All of the Wellbeing Party team members are regular attendees and organisers of fantastic community events and experiences, so it makes sense to build that kind of experience into our strategy.
How can people offer support to the Wellbeing Party?
Start by looking at our website to get familiar with our principles and our wellbeing manifesto. You can comment on the pages so please leave feedback and reflections. Become a member, donor or volunteer. Come to our launch and other events. We’d love to have you as part of this movement.
Do you have any events coming up?
Yes indeed, our launch is on the 5th of March, starting at 1pm at St Brigid’s Hall in Fitzroy North. Details at wellbeingparty.org
Where can people find more information about the Wellbeing Party?
Tamsin Channing is an established writer, editor, producer, psychotherapist and contemporary dancer. She lives between in the Inner North of Melbourne and the South of India.