Communicating Positive Peace in Australia


Jake Lynch – TRANSCEND Media Service

The brightly coloured ute stood out in the traffic crawling through the historic Indonesian city of Yogyakarta. As we drew closer, we could pick out the design, lovingly spray-painted on the side: the all too recognisable face of Osama bin Laden, and the single word, ‘damai’, meaning, of course, ‘peace’.

On the same trip, a journalist from strife-torn Ambon told me, he grew nervous at the mention of the ‘p-word’ because, every time someone came to his home-town talking about peace, there was an outbreak of war. And at roughly the same time, half a world away in Washington, President George W Bush was promising to ‘disarm Saddam… for the sake o’ peace’.

So peace is a notorious example of what is called a ‘polysemic’ concept: so replete with meanings and connotations that it can, in a sense, signify all things to all people. What’s the point, then, of defining peace, studying it and calling for it? Hundreds of scholars and practitioners from around the world are doing just that, this week at the University of Sydney, where we are hosting ‘Communicating Peace’, the biennial global conference of the International Peace Research Association.

(For more details, see

So what can they, and their insights, contribute to our national conversation here in Australia? The keynote speaker, Johan Galtung, was the first, forty-odd years ago, to think more critically about what peace could mean. Peace is the absence of violence, he declared; which begs the question, of course, of what we mean by violence.

We can all too readily, in a highly mediated, globalised world, summon up images of blows, bombs and bullets. But they can be equated, Galtung said, with grinding everyday realities – sustained by systems and structures – which thwart human potential. Bureaucracy, prejudice and corruption can, in that sense, all be construed as forms of violence, too.

So peace is not merely a ceasefire, however apparently durable. That is merely ‘negative peace’. Positive peace requires a commitment to opportunity, equity and equality. Yes, equality: plenty of public health studies show that more equal societies enjoy greater harmony and well-being. Balancing and negotiating between competing interests, in the cause of positive peace, requires openness, a commitment to dialogue and inclusiveness and a willingness to listen, including to those with whom you disagree.

On these terms, Australia, while superficially a tranquil and well-ordered country, has a long way to go to reduce structural violence and bolster the underpinnings of peace. A random selection of urgent tasks for peacemakers: the appalling toll of suicide; the shaming 17-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous Australians and the rest; the scandalous use of public money to reinforce privilege in schools; the apparently unchallengeable hegemony of big business in large tranches of national life.

The leaders of each of our two main political parties have floated policies, in recent months, that might take a small slice of the billion-dollars-a-month in profits made by corporate behemoths, and re-allocate it for the public good. Almost forgotten, in the ballyhoo over the mining tax proposed by the Labor government under deposed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s proposal for six months’ parental leave on full pay, to be funded by employers.

Each has been virtually howled down, with business lobbies queuing up to pour scorn, in media outlets that seem suddenly to open, mysteriously, to their self-interested protestations.

Then there is Australia’s equally mysterious military budget. A Labor government took office and set up a review, chaired by a Labor politician-turned-arms-dealer. The result: a renewed commitment to annual growth in ‘defence’ spending at 3% above inflation, with fat new contracts for the arms industry. Not so mysterious after all, perhaps.

To justify it, Australia has to have an ‘enemy’, of course, and the defence establishment have earmarked that role for China – our biggest trading partner. It encapsulates the contradictions in our global identity: a military ally of the US, now ‘growing up’ in a century when the centre of gravity, in strategic and economic terms, is moving eastwards.

So too does the military stream-of-consciousness, emanating from the Pentagon, that passes for debate about Afghanistan: ‘give us more time – and more weapons – we can win! No, really, we can!’ At least Canberra has started to take a slightly more even-handed line on the Israel-Palestine conflict, albeit calibrated in salami-slices; and that, too, appears to be at risk now a new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has taken over.

To reconceptualise peace as positive brings a philosophical poser. Suddenly peace can be worked for; striven for; struggled for. How far should we go? Should we make war, to get peace? Or for human rights? If there is one idea that stands discredited by recent events, it is ‘just war’. In our Posters for Peace Gallery at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, there is a picture of Gandhi, with one of his famous sayings: ‘I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the harm it does is permanent’.

Over the years, summer sun has faded the lettering into the background. It’s a sliver of wisdom, transmitted from our shared human heritage of peace, which we now need to re-inscribe. Peace by peaceful means – another of Galtung’s key concepts – is the rallying cry of our times, for anyone concerned with social justice.

There are abundant signs – in opinion polls, for instance – that most Australians realise the futility of force and attempts to dominate others, as a way of conducting ourselves in the world, and wish for a fairer, more equitable society at home. The challenge is to tackle the unresponsiveness of institutional frameworks: to create space, in media, politics, universities and beyond, for a more open dialogue about how we want to live together. In short, to communicate peace.


Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney and Chair of the IPRA Conference Organising Committee.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Jul 2010.

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