Yesterday saw the horrific fire at the Quakers Hill nursing home which has so far claimed the lives of five people. It was extremely hard to watch the news footage of the terrified, confused elderly residents who had lost their home, possessions and friends, struggling to comprehend what had happened to them. There certainly was a lot of graphic vision - evidently the TV news crews thought a compassionate telling of the story required them to shove cameras in the faces of the fire victims as they were loaded into ambulances, and I sure hope people are at least demanded to explain themselves for stripping these vulnerable people of their dignity at a time when they have precious little else left.
At any rate, overnight a suspect has been charged with arson. It is difficult to comprehend that such horror could have been the result of a deliberate act, but people are reminding each other that we must not rush to judge, that the slow wheels of the legal system need to turn, that justice must take its course.
I'm kidding, of course. The internet hordes are baying for blood. There are the usual calls to bring back capital punishment, with several commentators offering to take care of the offender themselves involving hot things and sharp things. The possibility that the defendant will plead mental illness is raised, with comments such as "He will claim he was mentally ill and get away with it. (my apologies to those out there living with mental illness) but too many people claim that they are sick and get away with it". We even ventured into the realms of fantasy, with one commentator opining that "you dont deserve a trial if you think its ok to murder innocent elderly people." As with comments regarding politics ("I didn't vote for Julia Gillard/a carbon tax! Bring on an election now!"), I'm no longer surprised but merely saddened that there are so many adults walking the streets of our society, so blissfully ignorant of how that society actually works.
Of course in Australia, we have a representative democracy. We elect politicians to make decisions for us, and no one voted for or against the carbon tax. Gillard did say she wouldn't bring in a carbon tax in a government she led. Her error was not one of delusion but omission - she left out the word "majority" before government. Left without a majority, she needed to introduce a carbon tax proposal in order to form a minority government. Those red-faced harpies calling 2GB to complain about the unfairness of it all can't quite grasp this nuance; that we don't have elections "for" anything, and that referenda are only held to change the Constitution, not on individual laws. They invoke the spectre of 1998 as the "GST election" - John Howard took the GST to the people and won, making it a legitimate decision - when it wasn't and he didn't. In their misunderstanding, they call for fresh elections/referenda on everything from same sex marriage (like it's anyone else's business who gay people marry) to whether we should process asylum seekers offshore or really, really far offshore. The principle of representative democracy and the process by which bills become law are unknown to these people.
It's the same with the legal system. Precepts such as the right to a fair trial and innocent until proven guilty are misunderstood and thrown aside in the rush to judgement. The notion that a trial is not deserved shows a belief that is a privilege to be earned for lack of guilt, not the right of all people to assess their guilt. The concept of mental illness is beyond them - some sort of made-up thing used by criminals to get away with their crimes. Does it matter that people have these erroneous beliefs? Of course! These are adults who vote in elections and serve on juries; they nominally control a system they barely comprehend. They would, I bet, all call themselves "proud Aussies", be proud of Australia's "freedom", not understanding that freedom confers the right to a fair trial and that the public deciding every issue which crosses the parliamentary floor is not democracy, but mob rule.
When it works well, democracy is the best system we have, but for it to work, we need an educated citizenry. Parliamentary democracy and a free judicial system can't function if large chunks of the population have no idea how they work. So what is the answer, high school civics classes? Well, they'd be a start. But even loving the details of our system as I do, I can see that civics classes have the potential to be the week's most boring subject in an already crowded curriculum; besides, such classes would be no help to everyone who's already helping to run the country, through their votes and jury service, even if they don't know how.
Let's make civics a national TV event. Let's gather up Eddie Maguire, Bert Newton, the cast of Packed To The Rafters, and Jessica Mauboy to sing the big opening number, to host Take Back Australia!, a TV spectacular with great production values, shiny graphics, and a gentle attempt to explain how the legislative, executive and judicial framework of Australia actually functions. There could be an iPhone app, quizzes with cash prizes and cutaways to members of the Australian cricket team and whoever won whatever televised talent quest the twisted mind of Simon Fuller has disgorged upon us this year. If you're groaning at the thought of watching such a spectacle, that's okay; you're excused from watching. If all this sounds heinous to you, chances are you know this stuff already.
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