I watch with amusement every time some safety body claims ‘transformation’, ‘difference’ or ‘vision’. Then look at the next proposed conference and everything is just the same: opening speech by the Regulator, followed by legal speeches followed by the Minister for WHS and then further speeches on systems. Then perhaps turn to a published Vision document and of course there is nothing to be seen that involves any insight or imagination. This is what one gets when the world is ‘framed’ (https://safetyrisk.net/framing-your-world/, https://safetyrisk.net/anchoring-framing-and-priming-risk/ ) through compliance, regulation and zero.
When we think of vision, imagination, inspiration, leadership and creativity we don’t think about the archetype of Safety. The archetype of Safety is all about stasis – keep everything as is, the only thing that changes is the window dressing. The companion of Safety is Bureaucracy. The purpose of Bureaucracy is to institutionalize the charisma (Weber). If you are looking for vision in an organization you won’t find it in any ‘vision statement’.
When we think of visionaries, leadership and imagination we look to those who step outside of the confines of compliance often: musicians, satirists, artists, poets, writers and movie makers. These are the ones we most often admire as visionaries. One thing is for sure, visionaries don’t ‘play it safe’, they embrace risk.
Those who step outside of the known and safe boundaries develop insight and see things that conservatives cannot see. In this way they develop what Brueggemann calls ‘the prophetic imagination’. They see trajectories of current policy, discourse and symbols and paint a picture of the future. At other times they articulate what dystopia looks like and confront us by what they ‘see’.
In Australia we often call visionaries and leaders ‘larrikins’, a special term of endearment for mavericks and trouble makers. We buried one such visionary recently, ex-Prime Minister Robert Hawke (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/may/16/bob-hawke-former-australian-prime-minister-dies-aged-89 ). However, it is rare that larrikins ever make it to high office.
The trouble is Safety doesn’t like larrikins and trouble makers, it fears risk and adores stasis – keep everything as it is, just change the window dressing. This is the dynamic of zero. Zero is the ideology of stasis, there is no movement in zero. There can only be learning where there is movement. So you see, ‘vision zero’ (http://visionzero.global/ )is not a vision because it hopes for stasis and lacks imagination. The dynamic of compliance, regulation and regulatory systems offers no hope or vision. The funny thing about all the rhetoric of zero at http://visionzero.global/ is that there is not one imaginative thing in the whole campaign, nothing new, nothing different – just believe. Talk about the emperor’s new clothes.
Visionaries see over the horizon. Having a vision is a special form of perception that ‘reads the tea leaves’ and foretells the future. A vision understands human people and knows their vulnerabilities, fallibilities and seductions. The gift of seers, soothsayers, dreamers, discerning and oracles is not some mystic gift but rather the ability to see the bleeding obvious and then showing it to others. Visionaries often battle Safety because it conserves, complies and seeks stasis.
I am in the process of writing my ninth book on the topic of vision and have been reading many biographies of Australian visionaries. So let me share the story of one, Louisa Lawson.
Louisa Lawson was one of the first feminist radicals in Australian History. Her husband Peter died leaving his Louisa with £1103 and she bought a paper called ‘The Republican’. Soon Louisa, established the first journal for Women in Australia called ‘Dawn’. Louisa was a suffragette (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_suffrage_in_Australia ) and most industrious, and Dawn soon had 10 female employees including 2 female printers. The New South Wales Typographical Association (NSWTA) (comprising all men) tried to close Louisa down because women were unwanted in the industry. Louisa countered the power of the NSWTA by seeking support from the Trade Union Movement. In 1889 Louisa formed the Dawn Club, the first association for female suffrage. Of course Dawn is symbolic for the Millennial Dawn, an apocalyptic hope for a new era and Louisa was one fo the first female socialists. Luoisa had a vision that one day women would get the right to vote. The fortresses of masculinst power and self-interest were rallied against her.
Louisa was instrumental in Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales formed in 1891. Her son Henry published his first volume of verse in Dawn in 1894. Who knows where he would have gone if it were not for that opportunity. In 1892 Louisa and others campaigned to the Premier to ‘redeem the world from bad laws passed by wicked men’. After being thrown off a tram and breaking her spine she recovered and in 1902 joined the Women’s Progressive Association to continue her political campaign. Unfortunately, her accident took a toll and Dawn closed in 1905 but saw the day that Women got the right to vote.
Unfortunately, Louisa died in lonely and impoverished circumstances but her legacy lived on through the inspirational verse of her own as ‘Dolley Dear, and through the work of her son Henry. Louisa stood up against forces much greater than herself and modelled to Henry a vision for a new dawn. A park in Marrickville, New South Wales is named after her. The Louisa Lawson Reserve contains a large colourful mosaic depicting the front cover of The Dawn, and a plaque that reads ‘Louisa Lawson (1848–1920) Social Reformer, writer, Feminist and Mother of Henry Lawson’.
One of my favourite poems of Henry Lawson is Faces in The Street (https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/lawson-henry/faces-in-the-street-0036075 ). This poem captures all that is critical in the prophetic imagination. Walk down the streets of Sydney or Melbourne today and ask just how accurate this poem foretells the way we live today.
In all my research on Australian visionaries I could find none who were not ‘political’. All called out against the nature of power and most were victimized and destroyed because they wouldn’t get into bed with orthodoxy. Keeping to stasis favors the privileged and keeps everything safe. Stepping outside Regulation and Bureaucracy embraces risk and enters into the social contract (https://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/ ), this is where real decision making takes place. This is where real vision and imagination is found that thinks of a new, different and better future.