Bill's Speeches

‘THE STATE OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICS’

SPEECH


 


CRAWFORD AUSTRALIAN LEADERSHIP FORUM


‘THE STATE OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICS’


 


AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY


CANBERRA


TUESDAY, 1 JUly 2014


 


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It’s great to be here, among such distinguished company, to discuss the health of our current political and policy debate.

All of us - parliamentarians, business, media, academics, unions, public servants and the community sector – play a part in driving an informed, high-quality policy debate.

It is the duty we owe our nation and our citizens.

If Australia is to meet the economic and social challenges of 2020 and 2030, our conversation must go to policy, and policy substance.

That’s where I, and Labor, will seek to lead the discourse – to the battle of policy ideas.

I’m ambitious for our democracy, I have faith in our political system.

And in considering, as you do today, whether we have reached some kind of low point - I would offer two observations by way of context.

Firstly, commentators frequently lament a surplus of division and a deficit of political consensus as a major factor in voter disengagement.

Not just in Australia, but around the world.

Last month, 25 years after his famous essay on The End of History, Francis Fukuyama reflected on the current state of democracy in the United States:

In the polarised – indeed poisonous – political atmosphere of today’s Washington, the government has proved unable to move either forward or backward effectively.

There is no doubt that Australians, like Americans, are frustrated when they perceive our politics falling hostage to deal-making and obstructionism.

And if they only see 30 short seconds of Parliament a day on the news, it will always contain more Question Time nastiness and brutishness than earnest policy conversation.

Yet it is wrong to think that the quality of our debate will be improved by both sides of politics flicking the switch to mutual admiration.

Or an acquiescent Parliament.

Ours is an adversarial system, by default – and by design.

Churchill gloried in it, Gladstone, Disraeli, through to Whitlam and Keating.

Its purpose is to counter extremism, zealotry, the hubris of brief, high-strutting Bonapartes, and government by executive decree.

In our democracy, a government’s policies are meant to be tested in the community, sharpened, re-worked and improved by amendments and by Senate negotiations.

This is for the good and benefit of the people, and quite often the government too.

As Disraeli said 170 years ago:

No Government can be long secure without a formidable Opposition

This holds true today.

After all, John Howard’s Senate majority delivered only WorkChoices and election defeat.

A second fundamental operating principle of our democracy is healthy scepticism.

Ours is a system designed for the voters to sit in judgment.

In our democracy, on average every two and half years, the electorate determines if the parties’ words match their deeds, and if they deserve the privilege of governing in the name of the Australian people.

But it doesn’t take too much for rational scepticism, to spill over into debilitating cynicism.

People are quick to say that:

‘The fate of policies now is decided in secret conclaves, which contain representatives bound hand and foot to vote as a majority decides…’

That was how George Reid described the Deakin Government during the 1906 election campaign.

Or:

The hardest things for politicians to do is to get behind the policies of the other side, no matter how sensible they might be’

That’s what the Canberra Times said in 1989.

I cite these two examples not to dismiss concerns for the quality of today’s debate, but only to show that nostalgia for a lost ‘golden age’ of politics is as old as Federation, and so are predictions of irretrievable decline.

Even taking into account the global context, there is no doubt today there are historic challenges facing our democracy.

The first and most fundamental is the question of participation.

Right now, millions of Australians are failing to take the most basic step of participation in our democratic process – voting.

Consider this:

At the time of the 2013 election, there were about 14.7 million Australians on the electoral roll.

The turnout of nearly 94 per cent means around 1 million enrolled Australians did not cast a vote.

Add to that number the more than 800,000 informal ballot papers – either incorrectly completed, defaced (occasionally with words of rancorous wisdom), or left blank.

And then add the estimated 1.2 million Australians classed as ‘missing’ from the roll.

Even allowing for the approximately 250,000 people who submitted valid excuses to the AEC because of illness or incapacity…

We still end up with around 2.8 million Australians who were eligible to participate in last year’s election, whose votes did not count.

2.8 million.

More than the population of Western Australia or South Australia and Tasmania – indeed all of Australia north of the Tropic of Capricorn.

Among them, 400,000 Australians who turned 18 between 2010 and 2013 and did not enrol to vote.

How is it that nearly 3 million adult Australians – small business people, farmers, job-seekers and home-owners - don’t see the value in voting?

The fact that nearly 3 million Australians of voting age consider politics irrelevant to their days, politicians oblivious to their concerns and our political machinery impotent, incapable, uninterested in the problems of their daily life – should be a wake-up call for all of us.

Increasing fines won’t fix it.

We can’t any rely on ‘push’ factors – we have to empower people, giving them a reason to vote and a sense of ownership.

Above all – we have to foster the belief that politics is still capable of changing the world, or at least our local lives.

This is why, in April, I launched a campaign to modernise and rebuild the Labor party – to re-shape the structures of our party and to encourage a more empowered and more diverse membership.

Rebuilding Labor means attracting new members from all walks of life: small business people, people from regional towns, professional women and young people.

Labor has to rebuild as a membership-based party, not a faction-based party – a party that boasts every section of the Australian economy, and every tribe of the Australian community.

A party as modern, confident, democratic and outward-looking as the country we aspire to lead.

A party where your membership card entitles you to a say in our policies and preselecting our candidates.

That’s the core of my agenda: a party where more people…are more involved…more often.

Because it is that sense of ownership – of having your voice heard in policy debates– that is far more powerful than any sense of civic obligation.

Dare I say it - cynicism and apathy are more difficult opponents for us than even Tony Abbott.

Our democracy needs to be better at debating what matters, and deciding what matters, to the lives of Australians.

These days the internet gives our generation, our time-poor generation, more data to inform political choices than ever before – and also more distractions more diversions, more capacity for snap judgments in the place of meaningful engagement.

Today, more Australians than ever are engaged in the world – 8 million of us travel overseas every year and more than 40 per cent of us have at least one parent who was born in another country.

And more are engaged in variable home loans and superannuation exposed to financial markets and are therefore actively engaged with the economy.

In the Australia of 2014, a hundred years from Sarajevo, unlike our Anzac ancestors, we monitor the gold price, the Aussie Dollar and ASX movements on the evening news, when once it was only the sport.

Achieving this same level of engagement in our politics requires a foundation-level consensus on what will shape the future Australia of 2020 and 2030 and beyond.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

Calling for consensus in politics is easy – especially from a position of strength.

The real test of political leadership is a willingness to build consensus, as a general nationwide habit and practice, not just demand it.

To earn agreement, not just yank the bell in Downton Abbey and expect a servant class of obedient Australians to carry out your will.

To create a consensus that goes beyond the two chambers of our Parliament and the columns of the newspapers – a community consensus and a national one.

This does not mean offering identical policies – far from it.

What’s needed is a consensus on the challenges facing our country.

This consensus has long been the driver of Australian greatness – working and striving together, fighting bushfires together, and sharing in the success.

Without it, we end up with parties talking at cross-purposes in an unrewarding definitional debate.

And we risk falling further into the empty politics of division and resentment – typified by the Budget.

The false language of ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’.

The dangerous division between people who go to university, and those who don’t.

The powerful against the powerless.

The States against the Commonwealth.

This division fractures national political argument, frustrating voters young and old, and guaranteeing that disengagement is the default setting.

One fault-line in our current political debate can be traced to 2009, when Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as Opposition Leader, and the bipartisan consensus on the need for an Emissions Trading Scheme perished with him.

At the 2007 election, John Howard and Kevin Rudd both promised to implement an emissions trading scheme – and until the very end of 2009, the debate focused only on the shape of the model.

Within a year of the Abbott coup – by one vote - ­and the Greens deciding to vote with the Liberals in the Senate to defeat Labor’s CPRS, the political climate changed dramatically.

We in Labor found ourselves in a minority government, a hung Parliament and caught up in a bitter, three-year debate about a carbon tax.

Tony Abbott played the politics of division hard– and he prevailed.

With bewildering speed, the debate changed from how and when Australia would implement an ETS - to whether any real action on climate change was needed at all.

Suddenly, the settled science was back in question and years of painstaking policy work, intellectual effort and international negotiations were put aside.

And the denialists, the flat-earthers, the internet trolls have ruled the roost ever since.

Today, Labor has to live with our failure to prosecute the case, to take the public with us on the need for action on climate change.

There’s no shrinking from that.

But I know there are many leaders in the business community, who spoke against an ETS at the time and now look back with more than a hint of regret at five years of lost certainty and economic opportunity.

Many academics who wonder now if they mistook their own inter-campus agreement for a broader community consensus on the need for serious action to tackle climate change.

Many members of the Greens – and the broader environmental movement - who lament choosing the purity of impotence over the practical benefits of reasonable compromise.

And many members of the Liberal party, who rue passing up the chance to move forward, together, on an issue that will define this century.

We can learn by looking back – but we can engender hope from looking forward.

Amidst the hoopla and showmanship of last week – significant points of climate consensus emerged.

The Palmer United Party has now declared its support for three key pillars of Labor’s climate change policy, namely

  • Retaining Labor’s Renewable Energy Target

  • Keeping the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a $10 billion fund which co-invests with the private sector in renewable energy projects and low emissions technologies

  • And maintaining the Climate Change Authority, which provides expert, independent advice on emissions reduction targets, caps and trajectories, and other Australian Government climate change initiatives


 

Seven days ago, none of this was assured. Today, all of it is welcome.

I also welcome Clive Palmer’s in-principle support of an Emissions Trading Scheme, and would remind him that Labor already has an ETS, legislated and ready for implementation.

The three concrete measures now welcomed by Palmer United are efficient and effective policy reforms that deserve bipartisan support.

Since the Renewable Energy Target was introduced, around $18 billion has flowed into the renewable energy sector.

Under Labor, wind power generation has tripled, the number of jobs in the renewable energy sector has tripled and the number of households with rooftop solar panels increased from 7,400 to almost 1.2 million.

Australia is one of 144 countries in the world with a set of renewable targets – and we have the potential to be a world leader in solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energy.

But 9 months of the Abbott Government undermining the RET has seen us slip from 4th to 8th on Ernst and Young’s Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index.

Policy uncertainty undermines our international competitiveness and harms jobs and investment – and I hope we can put an end to it very soon.

The CEFC is a model that leverages private sector investment to overcome barriers to supporting renewable energy.

This is a thriving enterprise, delivering value for taxpayer money.

Last year, the CEFC's investments mobilised, on average, $2.90 of private sector investment for every $1 of fund investment.

And, if properly resourced, the Climate Change Authority will be pivotal in monitoring Australia’s progress toward our emissions reduction goals – and provide independent advice on how to best transition our economy to a market-based climate change solution.

As for an Emissions Trading Scheme, Labor’s position has not changed.

It is the position we took to the last election.

It is the position we hold now, and it’s the position reflected in the amendments Labor has twice moved to the Government’s repeal bills.

Labor believes climate change is a problem that demands a serious response.

A global response. A considered, thoughtful, intelligent response.

A response that has to include a market-based framework capable of interacting with, and benefiting from, similar schemes in the United States, Europe and Asia.

This is a complex area where international developments will play an important role, alongside extensive national consultation on detail and implementation.

But I still have faith in the good sense of the Australian people.

I still believe that good policy, clearly articulated and explained and argued will win the support of the electorate.

I know it can work – because I have seen it work.

As the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities – I saw a marginalised, disempowered group of people, Australians who had been exiled into a second class life in their own country, take centre stage in our political debate.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme was a long-term, complicated policy that focused on an under-reported and little- understood though widely experienced problem.

But with the passionate, co-ordinated, grassroots advocacy of people with disabilities, carers and community groups – supported by Labor - we were able to raise public awareness and understanding.

And with a comprehensive policy formulation process that drew on the detailed work of the Productivity Commission and sector experts, we were able to make the economic case for reform.

Our argument became so compelling that we were even able to pass a tax to fund it – through an increase in the Medicare levy.

That last point is worth emphasising – a government low on political capital, pilloried on tax for three years, had the courage to fund this reform by increasing revenue.

The roll-out of the NDIS, the empowerment it is bringing to thousands of Australians with disability, and the people who love them, is something Labor – and Iwill always be proud of.

Especially today, as we celebrate the first birthday of the NDIS – and see the roll-out of new launch sites in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and here in the ACT.

For me, it is an instructive model for policy reform and policy leadership.

The lesson I learned from my work on the NDIS is that the Australian people have not lost their appetite for reform.

Australians are still willing to back in new ideas if the case is made that they are good ideas.

From the beginning of the NDIS debate, Labor acknowledged the complexity, the expense and the difficulty of a solution.

We took the electorate into our confidence, we engaged in a frank and mature discussion.

We retailed the benefits of change to individuals.

We explained to people where they fit in on the journey of change, and their destination.

And we won people to our cause by the quality of our ideas, and the moral foundation they were built upon - backed up by the expert number crunching of the Productivity Commission and their advisory panel.

Labor’s position on the NDIS was so strong that the Abbott Opposition had no choice but to fall in behind us.

But since the election, their lukewarm language, and their daily redefinitions of what the disabled deserve, and who they are, has given us cause for concern.

There is a risk, amidst their talk of ‘value for money’ and ‘cost effectiveness’, that as with climate change, we slip back into re-litigating first principles.

That we retreat to re-fighting the case for an NDIS, rather than overseeing its progression.

And the only way to prevent this is for Labor, the community, business, the media and the public sector to remain resolute in explaining the need for an NDIS – and the value it adds to our economy and our society.

This is the Hawke-Keating tradition – serious, nation-changing reform well-argued.

Not treating the electorate as mugs, capable of being wooed and won by simplistic slogans, but rather as intelligent, concerned equals.

As people who want the best for their country, their own futures, and their children’s futures.

Labor can do this.

Again.

We have to.

For the sake of our economy, our society, our community and, as I have argued today, our democracy.

That’s the job of all of us in politics – and all of us here today.

To assess ideas on their merits, to look at the evidence and to base our judgments on the long-term, what we want the future Australia to look like.

To match our principles to what works best.

To blaze the trail of good policy with passion and conviction and with credible evidence-based reasoning.

That’s the path forward – for better policy, better politics, better discussion of politics, and a better future.

 

ENDS

 

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