“We have a political culture that is very shallow” — Interview with Greens candidate Jonathan Sri

January 23, 2015
Jonathan Sri, Greens candidate for the seat of South Brisbane in the Queensland election.

Jonathan Sri, Greens candidate for the seat of South Brisbane, joined Evan Verner to talk about the state of politics in Queensland and Australia, what made him run as a politician and his views on different political issues.

In this interview, Sri discusses his views on politics and how music has influenced his view of the world.

* * *

The first time I saw Jonathan Sri was at a rally where he was on stage delivering one of his slam poems.

"This is Queensland, where no man is carried
we like our blacks in jail and our gays unmarried
if you protest we'll lock you away
you have the freedom to do what we say "

With this striking language, Sri's progression into politics seems only natural. Running for the Greens in the Queensland election, Jonathan brings experience, critical thinking and a refreshing tone of politics to Queensland, which has seen growing unrest under the Liberal-National Party (LNP) government.

In the state election, the Queensland Greens are going all out, running dozens of candidates and giving voters an alternative to the two main political parties.

Why did you get involved in politics?

Well I’ve always been really interested in political issues and I guess I come from a social justice background. The things that got me really interested in the political sphere were things like Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and Indigenous people.

I guess part of that is informed by the fact that my mum has been a teacher for a long time in remote Aboriginal communities and my dad is a Tamil migrant. He came over just when the civil war started up back in the 1980s.

Probably for me the more interesting question is why I became involved in party politics.

For a while I was like, "yeah the Greens are cool, they have good policies, but I’m not convinced that working within the system will significantly change anything." I’ve definitely changed on that. I’ve started to recognise that you can work from outside the system and within the system at the same time, and that even that dichotomy is a bit ridiculous because we are participating within the cash economy.

Certainly our political sphere is badly corrupted in terms of how money influences election outcomes. But, I think if we all switch off from party politics and say elections are pointless then we take ourselves out of that conversation and create a situation where the coercive power of the state to maintain the status quo is just embedded and reinforced.

We get into this mentality of negativity where we’re always criticising each other. It’s so adversarial, particularly at the federal level, but also at the state level where people don’t spend time talking about policy or philosophy they just take shots at each other. That’s unconstructive and I think contributes a lot to voter disengagement.

Hopefully my campaign will shift that a little bit and show that you can speak positively and articulate genuine policy goals without having to just snipe at the other parties.

Who inspires you?

The glorious leaders of the past have, in a sense, been exulted, as though they had some extra power that made them great leaders, when really they were just human. I figure there are humans in my own community who I can respect and strive to follow their example.

So I look to people who run their local church groups, who run local community sports clubs — those are the organisers of our community today. They are the people who connect the community and they inspire social change, often incrementally. They are the opinion leaders, the people who I try to emulate and look up to.

Obviously there are a whole bunch of musicians as well. Musicians inspire me and I follow their ideology a fair bit. Boots Riley, from The Coup, springs to mind and so does Saul Williams who is a phenomenal slam poet. I encourage you to check out Saul Williams, who, gives really articulate criticism of the progressive left, which I like because I think often we aren’t self-reflective enough or we don’t question our own motives.

You have a Bachelor of Law. Do your music and law interests complement each other?

For me I was like "OK, law is a really good grounding and it’s awesome to understand how it works," but I want to be able to improve and reform the system. I guess in that sense music is awesome because it gives you these alternative pathways to talk to people.

So I love slam poetry because it’s really direct as a communication mode. You can just say to people here this is what I’m thinking and package it in a way that’s more accessible to people but you can get your message across without much ambiguity.

Similarly with music, a lot of the music I listen to and a lot of the music I play is very political and that acts as a way to reach people who you wouldn’t be able to reach if you were just a politician drafting opinion pieces or putting out press releases. No one’s going to read that stuff, but people will listen to a song about the same issues because it’s more accessible and more digestible.

I grew up listening to bands like The Cat Empire and some of their stuff was a bit political.

I went to Woodford Folk Festival for the first time when I was 16 or 17 and that for me was a big awakening because I hadn’t had much exposure to that kind of progressive culture before.


Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said we don’t need "endless politicking". Does this represent a healthy democracy?

It’s not an accurate representation of a healthy democracy, it might be an accurate representation of what we have at the moment. This certainly predates the current government, but we have a political culture that is very shallow.

It’s rare for the mainstream public discourse to get into the nuts and bolts of policy analysis. It’s often just our policy’s better because we say it is and you’re idiots because we say you are and there’s just this snarky negativity.

I think a short election campaign probably isn’t healthy like that because it means people aren’t spending the time on the detail. Journalists and the general public don’t have time to get their head around all the complex issues that are being discussed. Everything just devolves back into slogans and that’s not healthy for democracy at all.

What is your position on the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) laws?

The VLAD laws were a bad idea. I think most people see that now.

The whole thing was not based on evidence-based research or sound justifications. It was just like "oh this will calm the public down". We see this again and again with this tough-on-crime mentality that rears its head every few years where a government, just to win votes and get popular, says we’ll be tough on crime.

You don’t need to bring in new laws that are specifically targeting bikies because they are already committing offences and a police force that can’t prove those offences must be an inept police force.

I’m very cynical of the bikie laws; they were largely populist. I don’t really think it was about the government exerting greater control over people but there’s definitely the potential for those laws to be abused.

That’s a problem with the VLAD laws and this feeds into the broader discussion around civil liberties.

The right to free speech and the right to free assembly are given secondary position in relation to this overarching idea of control and the government knows what’s best. We’ll tell you how to live and if you don’t like it you can complain, but only through these prescribed channels.

It’s shocking when you look at how much our civil liberties have eroded in recent years. It blows your mind. The Brisbane City Council passed a whole bunch of laws that kind of flew under the radar a bit, but there were restrictions now on using a PA in a public park, playing music in a public park, handing out flyers of any kind in a public park.

There are things like that that are happening in every level of government that are kind of insidious and they fly under the radar. But we’ll look back and say, man, we used to be able to hand out political flyers in the park and now we can’t anymore, why is that? And we’ll regret not standing up for them when we had that moment.

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