Wayne Swan
Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Opening Address: Changing Hearts and Minds

We come together at an important time for our party and for our country.  

But now is not a time for introspection. It is a time to look ahead.  Although we suffered defeat, supporters of Labor are resilient, we continue to fight for what we believe in and we continue to fight for a fairer Australia.

It is this spirit of renewal that brings us all together this weekend.

This weekend offers us a chance to debate and discuss the way forward for Australian Labor.  From staying in touch with our working-class base, through to ways to combat fear based social media campaigns, this weekend is about engaging in a conversation designed to rejuvenate Labor.  

The two defining issues of our time are climate change and inequality.  

Both of these pernicious forces are steadily eating away at our nation’s prosperity.  

Growing inequality eats away at our social and economic prosperity and the threat of catastrophic climate change eats away not only at our natural environment, but our entire way of life and our duty of care to future generations.  

Neither of these issues goes away because the current Prime Minister blocks his ears and closes his eyes to them. Australia needs to tackle these issues head on and it’s only a renewed Labor movement that can lead that fight.  

We have to lead the debate on tearing down trickle-down economics and putting forward a strong and credible framework for equality – economic, political, racial and gender.

Being progressive doesn’t just mean being on the right side of history on all the great social questions of our time. It doesn’t just mean greater legal equality. It means greater economic equality. It means re-dedicating ourselves to a task too many Australians believe Labor has neglected: creating a society where the working class doesn’t miss out. An emphasis on jobs – good jobs – and the rights of working people to gain and sustain decent, dignified employment must always be central to our political message.

Labor has achieved positive change in the past and it can do so again in the future. And we do so from a sound electoral base.

So much of what modern Australia takes for granted are Labor policies embedded in our political and economic life. This achievement tells me that our social democratic values are in sync with the hopes and aspirations of working people.  Think Medicare, think National Superannuation, think Labor’s macroeconomic policy during the Global Financial Crisis.

So I don’t accept the ‘we’ll all be ruined’ diagnosis that the Labor vote has eroded to catastrophic levels over 30 years.  Both major political parties have seen their support erode and in this last election the Liberal’s achieved one of their lowest primary votes since their formation.

In the 30 years, from 1989 to 2019, Labor’s governed federally for 13 years, almost half.  And at the state level for more than 50% of that time.  Indeed in Queensland we have governed for 25 of the last 30 years.

I am in strong agreement with the findings of the Emmerson/Weatherall review and what it shows is we have a lot of hard work to do, and we have a roadmap of what we need to do with our campaign mechanics. 

But it doesn’t answer the question of how do we as a social democratic party in the years ahead compete in the battle of ideas and not meet the fate that many of our social democratic sister parties around the world have suffered in the last 30 years?

The once mighty French Socialist Party. PASOK in Greece. The Socialists in Italy. All have been swept away because they had no answer to the economic disruption of our times. UK Labour is also in some turmoil.

We would be foolish to believe that we are immune to similar decline in the longer term.

But there’s something else we have to get better at. That’s setting the wider agenda of the political debate.

Selling a platform for a better society involves more than winning elections, it involves winning arguments. Over many years.

Despite the best efforts of many, we’ve been out-gunned in that area for far too long.

Organisations like the IPA, backed up by their friends in the right-wing press have pushed ideas that generations ago few people would accept:

  • that widening inequality is acceptable
  • that unions are inherently corrupt
  • that it’s somehow OK for companies facing competition to underpay and rip-off their workers
  • that it’s OK to neglect our elderly in the name of deregulation 
  • that a casualised dog-eat-dog workforce is somehow natural and flexible
  • that miners shouldn’t pay tax and banks shouldn’t be subject to strong public oversight through Royal Commissions and the ACCC. 

What it all boils down to is their underlying, almost subliminal message: Government itself is the problem and should be smaller. And collective action by people to improve their lives is somehow immoral and illegitimate.

This madness is making it impossible for our country to have an intelligent debate about the role of government in increasing growth, achieving greater economic and social equality and even tackling climate change.

To win that debate, the Right has invested huge sums of money.

As I said last year, since the Global Financial Crisis, the IPA and the Centre for Independent Studies alone have raised over $55 million to argue for less government, less financial regulation, less power for working people, less equality and less action to combat climate change. 

And increasingly they have been active in climate denial

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is now copping this whirlwind and we saw it impact dramatically in the last Federal election.

We need to hit back and win that wider debate. 

So we need to come together and scale up.

Digital platforms have transformed the way we communicate, and as we are now painfully aware it’s not all good news. 

As our own Campaign Review noted, the economic and social transformations that digital platforms have brought about have amplified two threats to our democracy.

First, the self-selection of news has contributed to the rise of echo chambers and filter bubbles. There’s no ‘shared media experience’ anymore, and misinformation can spread online quickly, easily and virtually unchallenged. 

Secondly, hostile and bad-faith actors can weaponise controversial and misleading information at-will to sow division and create chaos in our politics. 

In Australia, we got a taste of this in 2019 when the Liberal Party’s ‘death tax’ lies warped the debate about Labor’s plans for the country. 

It’s critically important to note we aren’t alone in facing this challenge. 

For example, the Conservative side of politics internationally is smashing progressive political parties in organised social media, particularly “under the radar” communications disguised as political news or non-politically motivated views.

We saw this particularly in the Federal campaign on Facebook where conservatives effectively circulated false claims about a Labor death tax.

More and more people across the world are waking up to the threat posed to democracy by the social media giants.

A global problem requires a global response. 

Progressive and centre-left parties across the world have not been quick enough off the mark in responding to the disruption and chaos that social media giants have enabled.

And we haven’t done enough to share our experiences and coordinate our responses across borders. 

2020 must be the year when we change this. 

Over the next twelve months, the Australian Labor Party will bring together a coalition of centre-left and progressive parties from across the globe to drive this debate forward and take action to check the domination of firms such as Facebook.

Three principles should inform this work. 

First – the social media giants should be recognised for what they are, which is publishers. 

Second – as publishers, the social media giants need to take responsibility for ensuring that the content on their platforms isn’t riddled with misinformation or hate. 

Third – a step change is required in the level of transparency and accountability that the social media giants are held to around how they collect, store, use and share our data; including who they are partnering with, and how their algorithms are shaping user behaviour. 

Nothing – including breaking up the social media platforms where the concentration of their market power is damaging society – should be off the table. 

Without these essential reforms it becomes harder and harder to win the battle of ideas and be an effective machine for changing hearts and minds as well as a machine for winning elections. 

We need a continuous campaign to reinforce the importance of using the power of collective action through communities, workplaces, unions and governments, to improve the standard of living and build a better society.

That’s why conferences like today are important.

What we need, in essence, is an enormous collaborative effort to reinforce the foundations of social democracy.

One that brings together our think tanks, our best thinkers, our best writers, and our smartest digital communicators to tilt the centre of our political debate back to a sensible place where the problems facing our nation can be addressed and solved. 

If you look around the world there are reasons to be hopeful.  In international politics we may be living through what many see as an extreme right take-over, but its foundations are shaky.  We can see this in the US and Scandinavia, just as you can see it in Australia. Their trickle-down economics and their climate change denial are ultimately self-defeating. 

Hostility to climate change and sustainability, and their rabid creation of wealth and income inequality, can produce its own counter-revolution.

It’s up to us to convince the public that an empowered and active government will create a better society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.

Our task is to tear down neoliberalism and its trickle-down economics, to argue that inequality is not inevitable, to espouse the benefits of fair wage rises, and to prove that our social-democratic alternative will create a richer and better society

At this moment in history, we can’t afford to be insipid or tame.

Scott Morrison camouflages his extreme right agenda on climate and trickle down economics by posing as a centrist set against radical forces that – let’s be clear – are entirely a fabrication of his own fevered political imagination.

What I’ve seen in looking at recent climate marches is not the radical fringe – which frankly, you’re going to find in any grassroots movement – but the thousands of concerned grandparents, thousands of concerned schoolkids, who are part of a powerful swell building in the politics of climate change in this country.  Actually I find this cross-generational connection both touching and powerful.

It’s not “centrist” to look at the hundreds of thousands of Australians demanding action on climate on the one hand and troglodytes like Alan Jones, Tony Abbott and Angus Taylor on the other hand, and say you’ve found a sensible middle by maybe admitting climate change exists but doing nothing about it.

The problem is that everyone knows who it was who abolished Australia’s carbon price in 2014 – a price that was working to reduce emissions, at lower cost and with less disruption than anyone expected.

It was the current and still serving conservative Government, led by a man who’s lasting political legacy will be the photo of him brandishing a lump of coal in the Parliament.  Ever since then, the conservatives and the country have been at sea on climate – engaged in what is a lonely, pointless and dangerous argument with the laws of atmospheric physics.

The problem for the rest of us is that those laws of atmospheric physics are not wildly interested in what Scott Morrison thinks, and are completely immune to the daily slogans he invents to cover his political nakedness on this issue.

Truth is there’s no so called middle ground when it comes to climate change; there’s just denialism and long-term economic and environmental decline. 

No leader or movement is immune from his centrist gushing. In his day Bob Hawke was a great consensus builder. The liberals claim today that there was nothing Hawke or Keating did that the conservatives didn’t support.  Scott Morrison claims his and Hawke’s agendas are both middle-ground. The truth is that 80-90% of the Hawke-Keating agenda was opposed trenchantly by the Liberal party as it continued its 30-year trek to the extreme right.

Medicare – opposed root-and-branch by the Liberal Party and the subject of repeated attempts – still ongoing – to undermine and destroy it.

The Accords in industrial relations – the same.

And its no different for our highly successful fiscal stimulus during the Global Financial Crisis.  In fact, the Liberals are so opposed to that ten years later that they are happy to risk a recession on their watch just to prove a point!

The consensus that many in the electorate pine for, even where it’s achievable, is not possible because of a huge chasm that has grown up between the Centre-left views of the Labor party, and the increasing embrace of neoliberalism and climate change denial by the Liberals. This trend has been promoted and exaggerated by the Murdoch media while aiding and abetting the Liberals permanent campaign against Labor.

The centrism embraced by the Liberals, and their media barracker, is nothing more than a camouflage for a trickle-down agenda which lay at the heart of all the Liberal party’s policy offerings. 

The conservatives are the last people left on earth insisting climate action and economic growth are at cross-purposes. It is Labor’s task to realise the unparalleled opportunity now within our grasp: the best solar and wind resources in the developed world, and the capital generated by that other great Labor innovation – our superannuation system. We can re-make our economy and generate millions of new jobs into the bargain.

That’s why we are delighted to have internationally renowned economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin join us to open our Conference.  Rifkin advises the EU, Angela Merkel and the Chinese Government on shifting to a low carbon future. His insights will provide a great starting point for our dialogue. 

The aim of the Towards 2022 Conference is to help generate ideas for the next Labor government and foster the fresh policies needed to tackle Australia’s biggest problems.  

We’ve got a full program designed to do just that and I wish you all the best for this weekend.

About Wayne Swan:

Wayne Swan was the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010 until 2013, and Treasurer of Australia from 2007 until 2013. He was the Federal Labor Member for the seat of Lilley from 1998 to 2019. You can find him tweeting at @SwannyQLD.