Bill's Speeches

OPENING OF THE NEW AUSTRALIA INSTITUTE OFFICE - CANBERRA - WEDNESDAY, 9 NOVEMBER 2016

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I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, I pay my respects to elders past and present.

Thank you Ben, and our generous hosts at the Australia Institute for your kind invitation. 

And it’s a special pleasure to be here with the re-elected Chief Minister of the ACT, Andrew Barr…I bet you’re not sick of hearing that yet.

Friends, I’m not sure if this was quite the evening you had in mind…

…who would have thought your office opening would have such an impact on the global share market?

I’m here this evening to thank you for the contribution you make to the contest of ideas, for shaping the debate.

And in the spirit of your motto: Research that Matters…

I’m here to say your work, your intellect, your advocacy matters more than ever and it is needed more than ever.

But – like all of you – my mind is also on the United States tonight.

An election campaign unlike any other, has produced a result almost no-one predicted.

The American people have spoken, they have made their choice - and as common believers in democracy, it falls to us to respect their decision.

Of course, every time the people of the United States choose a new President, it has consequences for the world – and for Australia.

I’ve said my piece about Mr Trump’s views before – his comments about women, about migrants, about race.

I don’t apologise for calling it as I see it – I will always do that.

If I see women being disrespected, I’m going to call it out.

If I see people being discriminated against because of the colour of their skin or their religion, I’m going to call it out.

As the alternative Prime Minister of this country, I think Australians are entitled to know where I stand.

And Australians should also know, that our alliance with the United States has grown and thrived for seven decades.

The friendship between our two nations is strong enough for honesty.

It is far bigger than any individual, far more powerful than any personality - and it will endure. 

Friends

No-one in this room needs to be told this is a testing time for liberal democracies and for progressive politics.

We live in an era where disaffection and disengagement are easily harnessed.

Where people who’ve been downsized and outsourced and rationalised can be tempted by the politics of blame.

By the low road of change, by the idea of a country divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’, with a convenient minority serving as the scapegoat for a far-from-silent majority.

Overcoming this, turning the tide – making people partners in our politics – won’t be achieved through scorn or anger.

Contempt from the establishment, the pundits, pollsters and ‘political elite’ will only fuel the problem. 

It’s evidence, tangibles, facts that speak to people’s experiences and daily lives - that’s what we need on our side.

As a rule, Australians are not inclined to soaring oratory and are rarely moved by grand pronouncements.

As Don Watson once said, the first word most Australians put after ‘rhetorical’ is ‘bullshit’.

But there is a very significant, very real difference between plain-speaking and anti-intellectualism.

I’ve never pretended to be the smartest person in the room, that’s not my style of leadership.

I don’t feel the need to prove I know everything about every subject every time I speak…

…that’s one of the reasons there was such a clear choice at the last election.

But none of that diminishes my respect for the experts – it enhances it.

On the big policy questions or before my big speeches – I ask myself:

Who are the three or four or five leading experts on this subject? Who’s got the best ideas?

I think it’s my job, my responsibility, as a political leader to seek out the strongest arguments, the most compelling evidence. 

The best possible policy prescriptions for the maladies of the moment.

And nothing dismays me more than when people given the great privilege of being elected to public office actively take pleasure in dismissing the views of experts.

Instead of listening – they lecture. 

They revel in rubbishing evidence and trashing data in favour of comforting feelpinions, familiar prejudice and that great catch-all: ‘common sense’.

We are all short-changed, we are all diminished, when our leaders substitute ideology for evidence. 

All this does is encourage an escalation in fact-free attacks and a degradation in the tone of the debate.

Only establishing the truth, and driving it home, can change that.

That’s why tonight I am delighted to help launch your new Writers-in-Residence program.

A distinguished steering committee, giving an Australian writer some precious time to finalise their book, without financial pressure.

It’s a great idea - and an important one – congratulations. 

So friends, you asked me to come and open your offices – and now I’m here asking you to save democracy.

I always like to set my audience a challenge –so I want to leave you with one more. 

Stanley Kubrick once said:

“If you can talk brilliantly about a problem, it can create the consoling illusion it has been mastered.”

That might explain a couple of the plot-holes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But there is great merit in that advice, for all of us in public life.

Because in the end, there’s only so much time you can spend tilling the soil and going through the process.

There’s only so much canvassing and foregrounding and ventilating of the issue people will tolerate before they say, with all due respect:

Yeah, but what are you going to do about it’.

In the same way, there’s a limit to how far think tank analysis can take us.

There comes a time when raising awareness and provoking debate isn’t enough.

A time for answers, for solutions. 

That’s the challenge I want to leave you with tonight.

Don’t spend your energy seeking elegant new metaphors for old problems.

Don’t fall for the consoling illusion of talking brilliantly about a problem.

Devote your intellectual firepower, your authority, your credibility to charting a way forward for Australia.

Our democracy needs you.

Progressive politics needs you.

Australia needs you.

Now, more than ever – your work matters. 

ENDS


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