Empowerment, feminism and sci-fi with Associate Professor John Mikler

I don't remember exactly the moment when I first decided to use my voice and become involved in politics. Malcolm Turnbull was still wearing leather jackets on ABC's QandA, Bob Brown was still the leader of the Greens, and Barack Obama was the President of the United States of America.

Not long after that - passionate abut marriage equality, climate change and wanting to do more than rage tweet at TV screen or participate in the QandA audience, I joined the NSW Greens where I've been a voluntary member and office bearer since.

In 2017, however, feeling as though things may have been going backward and that I was at risk of being stuck in a dystopian future similar to Back to the Future Two, I was worried I still wasn't doing enough. Even though grassroots democracy and political membership is critical, I was angry, frustrated and curious as to what had gone wrong in a world where Brexit, Donald Trump and climate change inaction were now the reality. What the actual f*ck had happened?

So, being the determined feminist activist that I am, I decided to go back to study and embarked on my Master of International Relations degree at the University of Sydney.

It has been one of the most challenging yet also most rewarding decisions I've ever made.

After graduating, I fully intend to use both my academic, professional and personal experiences - which range from being a survivor of domestic violence, an advocate for human rights, a feminist, mental health advocate and and a globally experienced media professional - in my next role.

And if I am fortunate enough to be nominated to run for office one day - which I hope will be the case - I will not only use that incredible opportunity to represent everyone in our community fairly and to fight for human rights, I will also wake up every day thinking about ways to smash the patriarchy.

To say thanks to one of the lecturers at the University of Sydney who has inspired me the most to fight the good fight - and who has helped me to critically think about the role of governance in this global era - I spoke to Associate Professor John Mikler on youth empowerment, the impact of feminism, a certain Prime Minister's 'ludicrous comments' on International Women’s Day 2019 and sci fi. Yaassss, sci fi!

Hi John, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak to me. Let's get straight to it!

RG: How did you first get involved in academia and the field of International Relations? Was there a lightbulb moment, or have you always been passionate about it?

JM: International relations and politics are always areas that I've been interested in. I had worked for around 10 years in various policy oriented roles in the public service - the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce; the Australian Broadcasting Authority; and AusAID - but realised after going back to university part time to undertake a Master of International Studies that I had really missed the study. Then when I was given the opportunity to do some teaching, I felt more rewarded in discussing topics with students - them learning from me and me from them - than I had ever felt as a public servant. It felt like there was something tangibly beneficial, a 'win' if you like, after every class. So, I realised that a career in academia was what I wanted and embarked on what was a risky career change, doing a PhD and then getting a position at the University of Sydney in 2006. So, it worked out!

RG: As you're probably aware, I'm an intersectional feminist and am an advocate for women's rights. What role do you see feminism as having played in international relations?

JM: Not enough! It is still very much on the fringes, unless you take an identity or ideas-based approach, or one that stresses structures of power like neo-Marxist approaches do. And in terms of teaching it is often found in specialist subjects as opposed to being integrated in broader ones. I suppose I am guilty of that in my teaching as well, although from time to time I am trying to inject gender perspectives on the issues as they are discussed - eg. in questions of development, or in one of my subjects where we look at forced labour in corporate supply chains and the manner in which women and children are over-represented in the numbers of those exploited. But I could do more!

RG: Our Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on International Women's Day this year that 'the rise of women should not come at the expense of men'. What are your thoughts on that?

That is a ludicrous, almost offensive thing to say. If 'the rise of women' (whatever that means - it sounds threatening!) involves women participating on the same basis as men in whatever areas we are talking about (work, family, community etc.) and some men have benefitted from a lack of this 'rise' in the past, then yes, there must be an 'expense' to them in any change from the status quo. But look, 'the rise' and 'expense' terms are such emotive words, aren't they? No doubt they are used deliberately for political point scoring or dog whistling.

Here is what it means in practice. Take work. If you observe that senior positions in an industry are overwhelmingly held by men, that many of these men are quite average by comparison to women who might have occupied these positions if their gender really didn't matter, and that despite decades of lip service to women's equality they still don't get the jobs, well, that must mean that some men are benefitting at the expense of women. If they are no longer able to do so then the rise of women, which is simply a matter of women having equality of opportunity, will come at their expense.

Take the home. If men do a fairer share of home duties, including things like cleaning the house and looking after their children, then you could say that the result is that they have borne an 'expense'. Or you could just say that things are better.

RG: In the current era where many people are concerned about the rise of the far right around the world, many young people feel disempowered and as though their votes don't matter. What would you say to this - how can people feel as though their voices are heard?

They need to get involved. I think you are right that there is a feeling of disempowerment, and it is very worrying. But politics is about struggle. Endlessly. If people don't vote, or don't join movements, or don't exercise their rights to be heard, then nothing will change. I am particularly shocked at the way in which discussion of major issues now often involves people saying that there must be ways of dealing with them that do not involve government. Why do we let our governments off the hook so easily? What do we pay our MPs for?

Rather than feeling disempowered, young people not very long ago used to feel outraged and demand change. I am not sure why they don't now, but I've noticed this in discussions at university. Where they used to get angry, demand change and suggested new policies and approaches, now they tend to to look sad, depressed, shrug and say nothing will change. If that is their attitude, they are right. Join a political party, start a movement, write an opinion piece. The success of Greta Thunberg shows that there is an appetite for change and a willingness to be involved. But somebody has to kick things off, otherwise you're part of the problem.

RG: For many people, studying a political science or international relations degree - particularly via a Master of International Relations at the University of Sydney - seems out of reach. It may be for financial reasons, academic reasons or that it all just looks a bit too hard! How else can people engage in this area?

It is getting out of reach. It is getting more expensive to go to university, and this coupled with the cost of going to university in a city like Sydney (housing, cost of living and so on) means it is out of reach for many people. I would not have gone to university as an undergraduate student now. When I did my undergraduate degree in the 1980s it was free, and even then it was a struggle. I was the first in my family to go, so did not understand well what was involved, and I needed to earn enough money to do so. It's not that my family were dreadfully poor, but I did not feel that they were in a position to pay for me to attend for four years. So, I did some of my degree part-time, and worked all the way through my degree. This is not unusual now, but it is even harder.

How else can people engage in this area? There is so much online now - Youtube, news sites, discussion sites like The Conversation etc. And if you curate your Twitter feed carefully, or Facebook, or whatever platform you like to use then you can get access to really interesting viewpoints and material. Nothing beats dedicating your time to study though!

RG: Beyond your academic work, what are you reading, listening to or binge-watching right now (for fun!) ?

I love science fiction. Done well, it allows you to step just outside your reality to examine what's going on around you. OK, so I like the laser gun and spaceship stuff too, but more seriously I've recently finished Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed. It's such an amazing book! She won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards for it. I don't know how I've managed to live this long without reading it. Written in 1974 during the Cold War, she speaks truth to power in respect of the options available to society across the political spectrum. She imagines , and actually manages to convincingly portray, a planet colonised by people whose society is based on anarchism, embracing feminism and rejecting capitalism. No mean feat!

And I've recently binge watched the third series of The Expanse. It's basically Game of Thrones in space, and I can't wait for the next series!

Thanks John! You rock.

Associate Professor John Mikler is at the Department of Government and International Relations | School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Sydney.

Visit him here: http://sydney.edu.au/arts/government_international_relations/staff/profiles/john.mikler.php

And check out his book, The Political Power of Global Corporations.