Thursday, September 22, 2016


We sit nervously in the reception area, glancing around at all the community notices. A large framed photo of Albo looking victorious catches my eye, possibly from some election night or other. Then, with a flurry, the door opens. A small dog appears and rushes over to greet us, sniffing and peering into our bags. The Hon. Anthony Albanese follows laughing, and makes apologies for Toto. He then shakes our hands warmly before inviting us into his office.

My friend and I are here to talk with our local Member of Parliament about the treatment of people seeking asylum in offshore detention centres. Of course, we mainly agree with Albo on these matters, but we came wanting to stress that there are alternatives to Australia’s very punitive policies, and to convey a message of hope about how Australia could be welcoming as well as pragmatic. We outlined the areas where we think he and his party have failed to speak up or take strong enough action to change policy. Then we presented him with a set of asks for the future. For me, this meeting was about holding our elected representative to account.

In advocacy work, we use the phrase “holding to account” an awful lot, but what do we really mean by it? When citizens hold their elected representative to account, I see this as reminding them that they work on our behalf, and that we have certain expectations of them. There's also an aspect of requiring a person or institution or government to accept responsibility for their actions, if they have fallen short of expectations. 

As I prepare for a humanitarian protection role overseas, I have become aware that a major part of the role of international civilian peacemakers is to bear witness to and stand firmly against harmful behvaiour in a context where human rights are denied and great injustices are done on a daily basis. These international actors hold an occupying force or a military dictatorship to account by reporting on abuses and being a very physical reminder that the international community has higher expectations of them. 

In all these contexts there is an underlying assumption that, as members of some sort of community, whether it is the international community or a community as local as Marrickville, there is a connection to and relationship with the other. In the case of Albo, it is our position as residents of his electorate that connect us with him. And while he didn't exactly agree to stand up tomorrow in Parliament arguing against offshore detention, he did promise to attend more community events in support of people seeing asylum, so that's a start. And he knows we'll be back if things don't change. For international contexts, it might be the trade or ally relationships that keep countries accountable to one another. The evidence seems to be that occupying forces behave a little better when international witnesses are present.

So, it would seem that I am a big believer in holding to account. But what about when the harm or hurt we have been witness to is even closer to home than Marrickville shops? Are we more reticent to hold our family members, colleagues and friends to account when they fall short of the social norms our shared community holds dear? Do we take the same effort and time to express hurt and disappointment, articulate our expectations, and outline a hopeful way forward when it comes to our nearest and dearest? Or do we just hope that the "not great" behaviour will just disappear?

I find it incredibly challenging to consider holding those close to me to account. I tend to find it easier to “hold” people in more conventional ways - hold them in my thoughts when times are tough, hold them tightly in my arms when I am happy to see them, and hold the space during group discussions so that everyone is heard. Yet, on the rare occasions when I have held people accountable for their actions, and planned for such a meeting in a spirit-led and intentional way, the outcome has usually been positive, at least for me. 

And it's not just me. Restorative processes have proven quite successful within the justice system in finding relationship-based resolutions rather than punitive ones. In this context the perpetrator listens as the victim explains the impact of the action on their life. A plan will be agreed which would help to restore the situation. An apology might be enough, or payment for damages, or an act of community service might end up being the agreed way forward. I’ve been told that it can be just as healing to be given the opportunity to apologise and make amends as it is to have one's story heard.

So, given that holding to account can lead to multiple changes and benefits, why are we so reticent to try it in our everyday lives? As my friend and I bid Toto and Albo farewell, and head out onto Marrickville Rd, I pause to consider what our various communities would look like if we did “hold” one another to account a little more often. And, what if we “held” others to account in the same gentle and loving way as we do the other kinds of holding? By acknowledging the humanity in the other while clearly articulating where expectations have not been met and harm has been done, it’s possible that beautiful and unexpected things will happen, and there might be growth and learning for everyone involved.

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