Around the world, democratic societies are fracturing. Institutions and norms that once felt unchallengeable now appear fragile. Trust in politicians and political parties has never been lower.
The public arena we enter every day, so quick to descend into insult and vitriol, compounds the feeling among ordinary citizens that getting involved in politics is pointless – that the public sphere is a nasty place, best avoided.
Populists exploit this feeling, filling the vacuum with simplistic solutions to complex problems. When these inevitably don’t work, it only frustrates people more. It’s a vicious circle, reinforcing the conviction that democracy is broken and that genuine improvement is impossible.
Everyone involved in Labor politics understands our urgent mission to restore confidence in our party and in our movement. But even more importantly, we need to dedicate ourselves to rebuilding trust in democracy itself.
We need to reassure people that democracy is worth defending. Not just because it’s better than the alternatives, but because it’s the best vehicle for actively delivering a better quality of life for everyone.
This will require effort and dedication from all Australians. But the greatest effort should rightfully come from those who have done the most damage – politicians and the political class.
To win the right to govern in 2022, Labor will need to restore the electorate’s faith in our ability to deliver their essential needs: a better quality of life, a stronger economy, secure jobs with higher pay, better health and education.
But for these commitments to resonate with Australians, for voters to truly believe we are capable of fulfilling the promises we make to them, they need to trust us. We need to prove that our democracy can function as it should; that Parliament is driven by the needs of Australian citizens, not the vanity of its politicians.
Indeed, while most people still value and defend democracy – recent EU polling found that, regardless of country, age, gender or religion, about 80 percent of people believe that democracy is the best way to run a society – more and more people find themselves disappointed in the democracy they live in.
In many places this shows itself as low voter turnout and the rise of autocrats; here in Australia it manifests in weaker attachment to parties and high electoral volatility.
Democracy isn’t dead. But it’s not feeling crash hot either. The optimistic predictions made in the years after the Cold War, of the End of History and the inevitable march of democratic progress, now feel outdated – like relics from a more confident, different era.
Democracy is worth protecting. That should go without saying. But sometimes we forget that it also requires nurturing.
And its mother’s milk is trust.
As a system, democracy only survives while people continue to believe in its essential promise. It cannot function without this belief.
So how do we restore trust to our politics?
To answer that question, we first need to understand how we got here.
WHY HAS THIS HAPPENED?
People are not stupid. Their scepticism towards politics is not irrational.
Faith in democracy is declining because enough people are failing to see the tangible benefits the system promised them.
Too many Australians are worse off financially, even as the nation as a whole becomes wealthier. They can see the wages share of the economy has shrunk – while the profit share continues to grow. They might not say it like that, but they know that their pay hasn’t increased in some time.
We sometimes ask people to accept enormous social and economic change, without sharing the economic benefits of that change. This feels a lot like a broken contract.
Those struggling hardest, people on Newstart and sole parents, know this truth intimately – and express disaffection most strongly.
Indeed, the group with the lowest trust in democracy – low income women – are the people for whom national economic growth has delivered least.
Australians can see the immense changes moving through their lives and their communities – but cannot see their government responding in an equally serious way. There are no obvious plans for meeting the biggest problems facing this country. Most of these are stubborn and intergenerational.
Most people would agree that improving productivity is key to this. But besides cutting wages, what is the Government’s plan? We hear little about automation or the gig economy. The Government would rather retreat to its comfort zone of union bashing.
On climate change, the most pressing threat to our planet, we have a government on its 18th energy policy, while both carbon pollution and energy prices continue to rise – at the same time as reliability in the system falls.
And on housing, we can see home ownership sliding out of the reach of a generation, and no coherent attempt from the Government to confront that. People buying their second, third or thirtieth home get more help than those buying their first.
For the Government, the instinct is always to deflect, ignore, or attack – which are all easier than hard, mature work.
Sadly, this small target strategy has, so far, paid off for Scott Morrison.
Perhaps even worse is the way we have let down our true believers. Too many of us fail to meet the high standards expected of people in such privileged positions.
At the most blatant end of this is corruption – politicians shamelessly trading their authority for personal enrichment. Unfortunately, as those of us from New South Wales know, this has not been a sin restricted to our opponents.
Australia is actually relatively low in international corruption rankings. But examples like those in New South Wales – or Angus Taylor, or Gladys Liu – encourage the perception that it is widespread and common.
Maybe even more insidious is the everyday behaviour that makes politics look like a big game – one conducted for the amusement and benefit the political class, rather than the good of the nation.
The most obvious statistic is the most damning: six Prime Ministers in twelve years, when it previously took thirty-six years to go through the same number. For ordinary people, this does not look like a parliament motivated by good policy and the common interest.
Ministers increasingly act like they’re immune to criticism and accountability – even as our system of responsible government depends on it.
The past fortnight has made this particularly clear. We have a Minister openly refusing to answer questions about document forgery – and a Prime Minister intervening to protect him.
We have seen the perversion of our frank and fearless public service – reports the ABS played down poor data on wealth inequality is just one example.
This is all made worse by a media model that is broken – and that increasingly encourages the worst tendencies in our public life.
With advertising revenue falling, companies have cut resources to fact checking and story breaking. Comment is cheaper than journalism, so more of our coverage becomes comment – and the line between the two is not always obvious to readers.
Social media has taken this trend and jacked it up on steroids. On Twitter and Facebook, people only talk to people who share their views – or those they hate enough to abuse for some perverse enjoyment. Only the most extreme commentary gets retweeted. Shouting becomes habit.
This is an environment that emboldens extremists, who see their views amplified in the media out of all proportion to their support in the community. And it just depresses the rest of us who think the world has gone mad. We lose sight of how much we have in common.
WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO REBUILD TRUST?
When our challenges are stacked up next to each other, you could be forgiven for thinking that our country and our politics are in a dark place. But I don’t want people to fall into despair or feel hopeless at our situation. That would be the worst thing we could do.
As I said, everyone has a role in restoring faith in democracy.
And it’s not really that complicated. Before anything else, it will take common sense and common decency to regain people’s confidence.
People trust governments and parties when they feel that they share their values, have their best interests at heart, and can competently deliver on their promises.
People lose trust when they sense a distance between their lived experienced and the priorities and behaviour of those who govern.
We need to show the genuine benefit of our system, in clear and material ways.
That means being prepared to tackle the hard issues without resorting to insulting simplicity: the ongoing problem of stagnant wages and an insecure labour market; climate change and energy policy; the persistence of inequality and its disproportionate impact on young people.
As a party, we need to beat the standards we set for our opponents – to call out corruption and bad behaviour wherever we see it, including on our own side of politics. Even when it feels uncomfortable. Especially when it feels uncomfortable.
But we also need to recognise that our system has been relatively corruption resistant. It is too easy to fall back on attack lines which bring everyone down, indiscriminately and cynically, like the Greens and their ‘old parties’ rubbish. Or when Tony Abbott campaigned against the Republic by asking ‘why would you trust politicians to choose Australia’s head of state?’
Comments like this might help politicians win short term political battles. But at what cost?
It is through concrete policy, not self-serving rhetoric, that we best address corruption: …
…A National Integrity Commission with teeth;
…Donations reform, to stop the Clive Palmers of the world playing with democracy like their personal toy;
…And a system of government advertising that doesn’t insult our intelligence.
We also need to reconsider the way we talk – as well as the things we choose to talk about. So much of our debate is alienating to regular people. It’s exhausting for anyone who doesn’t follow politics like a football team.
The right loves to tell stories about what the left ‘really’ believes. They try to portray us as obsessed with identity politics. But most people in the Labor Party know you have to deal with the basics first – the economy, national security, quality services.
When we get dragged into a culture war, people think we’ve lost touch with what really matters to them – and it lets the Liberals distract from their hopeless economic management.
The Israel Folau saga was case in point. As uncomfortable as his words were, he should generally be able to say what he believes, especially inside his family’s private church – just I should be able to disagree with him. But why are newspapers even reporting this stuff? What happened to live and let live?
If he has broken the terms of his employment contract, that’s one thing. But reporting comments made within a private religious setting is another.
And in another example, the Prime Minister’s proposal to protect large mining companies from consumer activism was an unacceptable limitation on a citizen’s right to spend and invest as they see fit.
We need to be better than that. And dare I say it, we need to be more tolerant than that.
It’s not always easy. But as progressives, we need to argue for the rights of people with whom we disagree – and offer ourselves as models of courteous, civil debate.
And this is not just a matter for politicians – but the media and active citizens too.
While commercial realities facing media organisations are real, the mainstream media needs to take its title seriously – to seek out fact, identify opinion as opinion, strive for balance, stop trying to compete with sensationalist social media. You’ll never win that race.
As citizens, we need to teach ourselves again how to talk, listen, and argue courteously.
We need to take our democratic responsibilities seriously. And if you really believe no one represents you, you should consider joining a party or standing for office.
All of us have a responsibility to work co-operatively for the greater good. To seek a middle ground. To find a common cause.
I thought former President Obama was right when he recently criticised “call out” culture as a substitute for the real hard work of political, social and economic change. “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
It reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt in Paris in 1910 talking aboutthe responsibilities of citizenship:
“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities … It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better”.
Talking to this Labor audience, I hardly feel the need to tell you to be joiners. You wouldn’t be here on a Sunday afternoon weeks out from Christmas if you weren’t already.
But it’s not just participating that matters – it is how we participate.
With generosity, sincerity, kindness, determination and thoughtfulness – matched by hard, methodical, practical work.
We should aspire for something better for ourselves and our children, but this doesn’t require a dog-eat-dog mentality. Our aspiration can be for a better, fairer country, where everyone does well. And we can find a way to get there courteously and cooperatively.
I use the word aspire here deliberately. Aspiration is not the property of conservatives – and we should not let them monopolise it.
When my parents migrated to Australia, they were full of aspiration about the life they could build here. Of course, for them that meant food on their table, a roof over their head, and a reliable job. They were happy not to be living in a war zone.
When I look at my own children, I’m full of aspiration for their future – and the kind of world they’ll grow into.
This is common to all of us. Everyone in this room aspires for a stronger, wealthier, more equal country than existed in the past. The difference between us and our opponents is that we want that for all Australians.
In the words of John Dewey, “what the best and wisest parents wants for his children, that we must want for all the children of the community. Anything else is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy”.
Our image of aspiration is much richer than the individualism presented by the political right. We seek an abundant society in all its forms – economic, social and cultural.
We have a vision for a better country. For a constructive government that confronts Australia’s toughest problems.
Our guiding lights are clear: …
…secure work with wages growing again;
…a society where everyone has a roof over their heads and food on their table;
…a nation where all families can send their children to a great school which nurtures their talents;
…and have access to a good hospital, or aged care, or disability services if they need them.
We want to protect our beautiful natural environment. We want a more unified Australia, with less hate and division – and an ongoing commitment to ending discrimination.
We have a vision, but we will also need a plan to get there.
Idealism and pragmatism are not opposites; they are two necessary sides of the same coin.
We need both if we want to restore faith in our party, and most importantly trust in our democracy.
That’s what weekends like this are all about – an opportunity to come together and renew our commitment to a better, fairer Australia. Not because we don’t love our country, but because we do.
And hand in hand with that goes the road map. The plan that takes us there.
Never forget that, with just an extra 21,000 votes in ten seats, we would be a majority government. We are closer than you might think – and we can get there in 2022.
Thank you for your part in that.