JOIN LABOR'S CULTURE OF IDEAS

Labor and Democracy: Anthony Albanese’s address to Toward 2022

At the National Press Club in November I said that my intention over the next two years is to provide the Australian people with a fresh and positive approach to our country’s future. 

Labor only wins when we are the party of the future. 

As you are aware, many of our sister parties overseas have failed to adapt to changing political conditions. 

They’ve turned inwards and looked backwards. 

We can’t make the same mistake. 

We must look forward and renew.

 

Labor must always be a progressive Party, 

of modernisation, 

of aspiration, 

of growth, 

of jobs. 

 

We’re the party 

of social justice, 

the party 

of nation building, 

the party of our natural environment, 

the party of science and the party 

of the future.

 

Our movement was founded at a time when your destiny was anchored to your class. 

Labor’s historic mission has been to sever that anchor chain. 

 

No one held back 

and no one left behind.

Implementing that vision starts with a renewal of Australia’s democracy.

 

And when I announced the third vision statement would be on democracy, little did I know democracy would be under attack as it was this week.

Now in its seventh year, the Government has got to the point where it won’t support freedom of the press.

It won’t support the freedom to protest.

It won’t support freedom of association.

And now it won’t even support debate in Australia’s Parliament.

 

When we tried to do our job as an Opposition and hold ministers to account for their conduct, the default position of this reactionary government was to shut down debate and gag us – which they did on more than 30 occasions… 

In just two weeks.

On Thursday they pushed their anti-union legislation through the House of Representatives without a single word of debate – not one.

This unprecedented action was reminiscent of an authoritarian one Party state not a modern democracy. 

 

For the Morrison Government, democracy is an inconvenience.

we will contrast this with plans not just to defend democracy but to enrich it.

 

Labor will have to formulate our plans for Australia against a backdrop of unparalleled economic, social, geopolitical and environmental change.  

 

We can approach this task in one of two ways.

We can ignore inconvenient truths. 

Shout cultural insults louder and louder at each other.

Or we can have a proper, grown up, democratic conversation about the best way forward for the country. 

 

Coping with the future is going to require difficult choices. 

To succeed, broad interests, concerns and ideas must be heard. 

We must examine things as they are, rather than as we want them to be.

Expert knowledge must be treated with respect. 

 

Let’s talk to each other with level heads. 

With reason, 

not anger. 

With respect, 

not condescension.

 

And let’s take a step back from the social media precipice.  

Think before we tweet. 

Take some heat out of our debates. 

 

Passion is good. 

Trolling is bad.

 

In short, we can’t start building a better future for Australia without renewing our democracy.

So here are five priorities for strengthening our democracy that will allow us to deal with the challenges of today and build a better tomorrow – together. 

First, I want to rebuild our capacity to have constructive national conversations about the big issues.

Democracy requires more than just the right constitutional and legislative arrangements, in order to work effectively.

The starting point is inclusion. 

Without it, our democratic institutions can become little more than a forum for combat, rather than cooperation.

It’s obvious to everyone that the necessary degree of respect is currently absent… and we were reminded of that this week.

The prime culprit is the culture war. 

It undermines the potential for rational discussion.

The monotonous pattern of culture war arguments is now well established.

If you disagree with someone, 

your facts are fake, your character is questioned, and you’re denounced as an elite.

 

On the other side of the coin, if you’re not progressive enough, you’re cancelled.

 

The debate over climate change is the most obvious example.

It seems no amount of international scientific consensus or tragic experience, will convince certain members of the Coalition that climate change is a real and present danger.

Australians can now see, smell and feel the changing climate, 

but our government thinks they’re only imagining it.

Coalition members too often see climate change as little more than a conspiracy cooked up by academic scientists to get research grants, and by environmental activists to destroy the free market.

People are subject to attack for putting their views. 

Even if they’re only 

16 years old.

 

I recently heard David Attenborough’s right to speak about the destruction of the world’s endangered species questioned, because he flies the world to make his documentaries. 

Seriously…

 

Questioning people’s motives has now gotten so ridiculous that some of Australia’s most experienced firefighters couldn’t even get the ear of their own government to warn of the dangers of this year’s fire season – just because they accepted the reality of climate change. 

 

Time and again 

they tried. 

 

Time and again 

they were ignored. 

 

Even firefighters are now denounced as cultural elites.

This has got to stop.

 

In a world that’s being revolutionised by science and technology, and threatened by a changing climate, 

what sort of country treats its scientists, educators and firefighters like enemies of the people? 

 

The answer is: 

one that will have fewer jobs, a lower standard of living and a more dangerous environment in the decades to come. 

On the other side of the argument, I think those of us who advocate change need to understand the viewpoints of those who will feel insecure by that change. 

 

We must consider 

their point of view, 

their interests, 

their security, 

their future, 

their solutions. 

 

The convoy into Clermont was not helpful.

We can’t afford to let culture wars dominate our politics and our discussions like this. 

As Leader of the House in a minority parliament, I saw how it was possible to respect and work with your opponents. 

You can hear other people’s point of view, without necessarily compromising your own.

I believe the country only advances when people engage with each other in meaningful ways. 

The big economic reforms of the ‘Eighties, the gun law reform of the ‘Nineties, the NDIS a decade later.

These national achievements required leadership, but succeeded because of agreement.

 

If one of the distinguishing characteristics of being on the left of the political spectrum is a faith in humanity, 

there is an obligation to engage as broadly as possible.

 

I do have faith in humanity — not just an abstract humanity, but everyday Australians, including those whose views differ from mine.

And I have faith we can find a better way. 

One that lets our democratic processes work as a source of progress. 

One that allows our democracy to be at its best.

 

The second thing we can do to get our democracy working as it should, is to break down our echo chambers. 

What we need is a little less anger and a little less outrage. 

We could also do with a little less volume.

The internet has facilitated much greater participation in politics, and can be seen as a democratic force. 

Social media means that every news consumer, can also be a news producer.

But because algorithms – aided by artificial intelligence – encourage people to follow sources and publishers that largely reinforce and entrench their existing views, we’ve seen a much bigger polarisation of political discourse.

The phrase “everyone thinks that” is more and more common. 

 

It’s becoming a more prominent feature of political debate today than it was at the turn of this century.

It’s like we’re characters in the movie Spinal Tap, where the amplifier goes all the way up to 11.

 

But when progressives retreat into our comfort zones, we cede the ground we should be claiming. 

Genuine political discourse and problem solving is discouraged. 

Alternative views are not just dismissed, they’re not even considered.

One of the consequences of the increased polarisation of politics is that compromise and searching for outcomes are seen as weakness.

 

I argue we need to talk with people who disagree with us.  

Engage. 

Debate. 

Advance.

We need to argue our case – every forum, every opportunity. 

 

Because politics in an echo chamber does nothing to advance a progressive agenda. 

If you have confidence in your ideals and policies, there is nothing to fear from debating them.

 

Sadly, echo chambers aren’t just reinforced by algorithms deciding what we see.

Sometimes, online platforms are unwilling to filter out content proven to be misinformation. 

 

They’ll argue that it doesn’t violate their so-called community guidelines.  

They say that so long as they eventually note the information is fake, the community can judge for itself.

 

Mark Zuckerberg says he thinks people should be able to see what politicians are saying. 

But what happens when it turns out that what politicians are saying isn’t real at all?

Facebook usually won’t do anything at all. 

 

That happened to me just last week, when men’s rights activist Leith Erikson doctored a social media image from my Facebook page.  

What was originally a graphic supporting Australians’ right to protest became a graphic pushing Mr Erikson’s campaign against the Family Court.

Now unless you’d seen the original, there is no way that you would know the image was a fake. 

My words were replaced with Mr Erikson’s. 

The image even included my legal authorisation at the bottom – a clear breach of Australia’s electoral laws.

When we raised this directly with Facebook, they just shrugged. 

They said it wasn’t a breach of the so-called community guidelines.

This is a far-right candidate, creating a fake graphic fraudulently purporting to be from a progressive party, and Facebook sees no issue.

Well, I do.

And it begs the question: if this doesn’t breach community standards, then what does? 

And perhaps more importantly – why do Facebook’s laws of the jungle trump Australia’s laws of the land?

What then happens when platforms become so complacent with misinformation that they become unable to filter it out?

 

The artificial intelligence technologies capable of doctoring video so effectively we’re unable to distinguish fake from real, are becoming more effective as time goes on.  

And we have no reason to assume their growing effectiveness – which takes even A.I. experts by surprise – will slow down.

Take, for example, the fake video of Nancy Pelosi circulated by Trump supporters earlier this year. 

Millions of views. 

Hundreds of thousands of shares. 

And how many people will see these types of deepfakes – and have their views shaped by them – before we work out that they’re fake at all?

This increased volume of anger and misinformation is robbing our political debates of civility and making the public’s poor opinion of our political system much, much worse. 

It’s something we simply can’t afford. 

Surveys are finding that fewer and fewer people are satisfied with the way our democracy works and that some are losing faith in democracy altogether.

The University of Canberra has found that satisfaction with our democracy has more than halved in the last decade, down from 86 percent to 41 percent. 

This year the Lowy Institute found that 22 percent of Australians support the statement that “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”. 

It was a shocking.

30 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 years, whose enrolment and voter turnout is rapidly declining. 

That’s dangerous. 

When the idealists lose interest in democracy, the cynics win, and positive change stops. 

Cynics want us to lose faith in democracy because they know democracy changes things and exposes failure. 

Cynicism allows failure to go unaddressed.

 

And that’s fine for our opponents, because the conservative side of politics hates change.

Their whole ideology is based on maintaining the status quo – and sometimes rolling back reform towards their imagined past.

The third priority is to end government attacks on freedom of the press and the right to protest.

When the Prime Minister says “quiet Australians” what he really wants is silent Australians. 

That we should all just shut up and listen to him.

He wants Australians to be silent about their future because he knows his policies won’t stand up to public scrutiny.

Why else would the government threaten people who have the courage to speak out to protect the welfare of their fellow citizens? 

Journalists raided by police, with prosecutions not ruled out.

Protests labelled secondary boycotts so they can potentially be outlawed.

Union offices raided after the TV cameras have been tipped off, and unions threatened with deregistration.

 

There’s something sinister about these episodes that I know Australians will look back upon in the future with astonishment. 

You don’t govern in the national interest under a shroud of secrecy. 

What are they trying to hide?

Actually, we know. 

Because Royal Commissions are now exposing to public view all the things the government won’t.

Poor regulation of our banks — allowing them to ruin people’s lives.

Neglected aged care services — exposing our loved ones to shocking abuses.

Violence, abuse and exploitation of people with disability.

Government secrecy affects everyone. 

Especially the powerless. 

 

Our elderly people’s rights are only now being considered because their children exposed their mistreatment to the public.

But the Australian people don’t need our government telling us lies to protect us from the truth. 

We want to know. 

We have a right to know.

And we won’t be quiet. 

Australians will never be quiet. 

It’s not in our nature.

We’re up-front. 

We’re bold. 

We talk about things. 

We put forward our view. 

It’s the Australian way.

 

Walk into any pub and you’ll hear people giving their two cents worth. 

You don’t see people sitting there, sipping on a beer in silence. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to hear what they have to say, but Australians will tell it to you straight. 

 

And that’s the way it should be.

Because ignoring problems never makes them go away. 

It just covers them up and raises the cost of inaction in the long run. 

Dissenters expose corruption and waste.  

They spark innovation. 

They start positive social change. 

 

We don’t have to agree with every dissenting voice, 

but if we don’t even let such voices be heard, our society, 

our economy and our quality of life will stay trapped in a state that will make us poorer and less equal. 

 

For that reason, Labor stands with Australia’s journalists and the Right to Know Coalition in their united campaign to defend and strengthen press freedom. 

Journalism is not a crime. 

It’s essential to preserving our democracy. 

We don’t need a culture of secrecy. 

We need a culture of disclosure. 

Protect whistle-blowers – expand their protections and the public interest test.

Reform freedom of information laws so they can’t be flouted by government. 

The current delays, obstacles, costs and exemptions make it easier for the government to hide information from the public. 

That is just not right.

 

We must bring in stronger protections for public interest journalism. 

Don’t prosecute journalists for just doing their jobs.

We need to enshrine in law the changes required to protect press freedom.

 

Four, we must restore public accountability.

It is vital to Labor’s national renewal project that we restore the integrity of government.

The end of the year has been an Angus Horribilis for the Government.

First there was the Angus Taylor scandal involving water buybacks.

Then an inquiry which found that Angus Taylor “consciously used his position as an MP and Minister” to try to influence an investigation into the clearing of critically endangered grasslands at a property he and his family part-own.

If that wasn’t enough, Angus Taylor has also been involved in the extraordinary fake document concerning the City of Sydney’s travel budget.

The Minister has simply refused to come clean about its origins – for months.

I know that when people hear about this sort of behaviour, they often think it has nothing to do with them – something that concerns what the Prime Minister likes to denigrate as “the Canberra bubble”.

 

But it has everything to do with regular people.  

Because political abuses like these undermine the capacity of government to make change in the interests of these people.

This sort of behaviour has to stop.

 

That’s why, as a major first step to restoring integrity to our democratic system, Labor supports a National Integrity Commission. 

It should have all the powers, independence and resources of a standing Royal Commission to root out corruption in the federal sphere. 

 

The best antidote to corrupt decision making that puts self-interest before people, is a big dose of Australian sunshine. 

That’s what’s coming when the bubble is finally burst.

 

Confidence in our democratic system would also be supported by other strong public organisations contributing, truthful information and well-informed and reasoned analysis – free from interference and intimidation. 

That’s why we need to support public bodies like the Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the CSIRO – and the ABC. 

And politicians have a special responsibility. 

People elect us to debate each other, not scream at each other.

 

Over time the executive has assumed greater and greater political power at the expense of the parliament.

If we are to restore the integrity of our democratic system, the pendulum needs to swing back the other way.

Take this simple example: 

In the House of Representatives, Chairs and Deputy Chairs of parliamentary committees are now selected by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader respectively – rather than the committees themselves.

Fewer and fewer decisions are being subjected to democratic debate. 

 

The most prominent example of this is the decision to go to war. 

I understand there are those who passionately believe that a parliamentary vote should precede the deployment of our troops in conflict overseas.

I also understand there is a long tradition of the executive making these decisions alone.

Our parliamentarians should, at the very least, be given the chance to express their view following a cabinet decision to go to war.

Like the two days of parliamentary debate Bob Hawke allowed after his cabinet decided to join the first Gulf War.

At their best these debates in Parliament are an exercise in transparency and accountability. 

And this is a practice that should continue.

Many democratic nations have parliamentary debate and transparency around their deployments.

Including in the United Kingdom, where there is now a higher parliamentary threshold for decisions to go to war.

And after all, our greatest ally, the United States, has a war powers act. 

We can’t ask people to put their lives on the line if we as legislators are too afraid to put our arguments on the line. 

 

We also have to ensure that we restore public confidence in the Parliament and we could do that with changes to the way it operates. 

Start with simple things: provide the Speaker with standing orders that ensure Ministers must give sensible answers to the questions they’re asked. 

Examine ways in which proper debate can be facilitated in the parliament, including on matters that are raised by individual members of parliament.

 

Then, tackle the bigger issues. 

These simple changes should be complemented by reforms to restore confidence in the way people get elected.

We need to do more to protect the integrity of our election system to stop high wealth individuals buying power. 

Allowing millionaires to buy the result they want is not the same as grassroots activism. 

It’s not the same as a community organising itself. 

It’s the last betrayal of the democratic ideal. 

And Australian democracy is not for sale. 

Ever.

 

We need to make disclosure of donations happen in real time to provide the Australian people with more transparency. 

And we need to examine caps on electoral spending to keep everybody’s voices equal.

And fifth, I want to modernise our constitution to make it reflect contemporary realities. 

 

But the most urgent and pressing issue is to create a First Nations voice to parliament, consistent with the historic Uluru Statement from the Heart.

 

If we want to create a better society, we have to listen to Indigenous Australians. 

Without their input, we will never close the gaps in living standards and never heal the psychological pain that our history continues to cause. 

We will never be truly democratic.

 

The concept of the voice, indeed the whole Uluru Statement – including their call for the telling of truth about Australia’s history, embodies all the important human and democratic values I’ve talked about today.

It’s about facing up to facts. 

Telling the truth. 

Listening to each other. 

Engaging in reasoned discussion. 

Showing human decency. 

Searching for agreement. 

Making progress. 

It contains, in its essence, the vital spirit of democracy. 

For nations like us, with our sort of history, it’s not just about facing up to the past, it’s about searching for a better, more democratic future.

 

And of course we should have an Australian head of state, which is long-established Labor policy. 

Its day is coming – but not before we settle the question of the recognition of the First Australians

 

The qualities of public decency I’ve discussed today are the very qualities we are going to need to display if we are to make the voice a reality.

If we think and act as culture warriors, creating the voice simply won’t happen. 

If we’re cynical 

it won’t happen.

But if we think and act more generously, and show some public integrity in representing it to the people, it just might.

History is on our side. 

 

It took leadership and agreement to get the parliamentary apology to the stolen generations. 

Many at the start regarded it as anathema and impossible. 

But after we debated it thoroughly, it seemed uplifting and inevitable.

In that spirit, Labor starts by acknowledging the government’s positive first step in creating a Senior Advisory Group to begin to work through the proposal.

Our policy is clear. 

We support the Uluru Statement in its entirety, including a referendum to enshrine a voice in the Constitution, and that is the position we will pursue.

The government has ruled out constitutional enshrinement from the beginning – and deliberately misrepresented the concept to turn Australians against each other. 

That’s incredibly disappointing. 

But the best way to proceed, as in most circumstances, 

is to keep talking, 

keep working, 

keep progressing. 

That’s what we intend to do until a voice that can heal and unify is finally achieved. 

 

Let me end where I began.

If we want to create a better future, we need an open and confident society in which our decisions are guided by facts and everyone’s voice can be heard.

We can’t afford censorship, persecution, insult or condescension. 

Building a better future for our country starts with a full-blooded assault on the culture of fear, censorship and denial that the Morrison Government is trying to foist upon us.

It means an end to the now ingrained habit of shouting people down through the culture wars. 

It means all Australians, whether inner city or outer suburb, city or country, young or old, listening harder and really trying to understand where each other is coming from. 

And realising that when all’s said and done, we’re on the same side.

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