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Democracy Inaction

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BY ROB THOMAS, PRESIDENT AUSTRALIAN MEDICAL STUDENTS’ ASSOCIATION

“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” – Montesquieu

The position of AMSA President has been rewarding in many ways for me. I’ve had the opportunity to learn and be inspired by those around me, and come to high-level meetings, often several decades younger than the next person in the room. I get to hear the many views of my peers and on my best days, hope to represent 17,000 young people.

It’s fair to say that this year has been an incredible learning curve, beyond that of an average medical school year. I’ve learnt more about health and the education systems and have advocated for improvements in both. But perhaps most interestingly, I’ve learnt much more about leadership and the democratic process.

I find young people in general get a bad rap when it comes to political engagement. It’s true, there is less identification with traditional party politics among young people, but engagement through petition-signing or demonstrations is much higher. I find this very interesting in an age where political leaders are torn down just as quickly as they emerge. Perhaps we demand too much from our leaders, particularly if we’re not engaging them in traditional ways.

With the information revolution also comes the need to be discerning, and to protect oneself. I’ve seen this myself in the marriage equality debate, one that I have a stake in and at times need to actively block from my mind. On issues such as climate change and health inequity overseas and at home, young people can be discouraged by inaction from our leaders and in so doing disconnect.

One very interesting thing I’ve found about the advocacy sphere is how lonely it can be. Organisations such as the AMA and AMSA, and of course the Government, rely on facts and opinions from their constituents. We do this through survey or election, but often we only get half the picture. Worse still, some representatives receive feedback only when it’s negative, and I feel for those who don’t get the thanks they deserve.

On the other hand, representing any large group of people will involve strong differences of opinion, especially when it may involve life and death. The success of the National Rifle Association in America depends on the simplicity of their message – “no” to any information or regulation on gun ownership. The larger the organisation and more diverse its mandate, the more power it may hold; but it may start to represent more differences of opinion than similarities. On leadership, it’s important to be aware of these differences, as I believe it only legitimises your stance to show respect to the other side. As health professionals, we need to be able to flex and adapt to new information, and that only comes when we refuse to switch off. By our very nature we should challenge our assumptions and our preconceived notions to achieve the best for the public.

At the top I left a quote about the danger of apathy. Yes, democracy has its flaws, as we seem to witness time and time again. However, the only answer I can come up with is to engage in it – for those in power to make themselves available to opinion, and for those not in power to realise that there is power in that too. There is no good in burying one’s head in the sand. Democracy inaction is democracy in disaster.

Email: rob.thomas@amsa.org.au
Twitter: @robmtom

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