Aug 21, 2018

Grievance Debate – Liberal Party Leadership – Tuesday, 21 August 2018

This week’s events illustrate the issue that I want to raise in this evening’s grievance debate: the decade-long degeneration of this country’s political culture. Wherever I go in this country Australians tell me the same thing: they are tired of people shouting at each other; they’re tired of the division and discord. They also despair at a political culture that so readily disposes of elected prime ministers. Above all, they’re angry that negative politics is acting as a handbrake on national progress. Let me give you one example. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was a political consensus in an election, when John Howard and Kevin Rudd both went to the election committed to having an emissions trading scheme—a market based solution to drive down emissions. A decade later, we still don’t have a solution. The government has been in place now for five years without a policy. Without the Renewable Energy Target that had been set by the former Labor government, we wouldn’t be having anywhere near the drive-down of emissions, and prices would be even higher.

Yesterday the Prime Minister stood up in parliament and said that he wouldn’t pursue an emissions target as part of the National Energy Guarantee, not because Labor wouldn’t support him but because Labor might. He would rather lose that policy framework because he was in a circumstance whereby he couldn’t guarantee that all members of the coalition would vote for it on the floor of the parliament. I think the style of politics brought in by Tony Abbott in 2009, who some say was a successful Leader of the Opposition, isn’t quite right. Whilst the member for Warringah was successful, from one perspective, at creating chaos and a feeling of conflict on the floor of the parliament with his daily interruptions in question time and moving suspensions of standing orders, the problem is that when he was successful in being elected in 2013 he didn’t have a plan to actually govern the country.

The problem now is that the coalition has been infected by the toxic approach. It is divided. It is distracted. It’s dysfunctional. It stumbles from one internal conflict to the next, unable to muster the unity of purpose required to deliver effective government. While the previous Labor government was a good government, we also allowed ourselves to be derailed by division. I’ve said before and I say again tonight that it was a mistake to remove a first-term elected Prime Minister on 23 June 2010. But, while Labor has learnt from that mistake, it appears from today’s challenge, the coalition is doomed to repeat it. The member for Warringah’s glove puppet, the member for Dickson, will be back for another go.

Those opposite need to reconsider their approach. If they hope to serve the Australian people, they should ask themselves what Australians want out of life and how we in this place can help them to achieve those aims. The key aspiration of Australians is to live productive, enjoyable lives, to give their children more opportunities than they enjoyed and to leave the environment in better shape than they found it. But, for months now, the Prime Minister and his ministers have misused the term ‘aspiration’. They have accused Labor of standing in the way of aspiration because we oppose their plan to cut taxes for wealthy individuals and multinational corporations. Their argument seems to be that aspiration is just about the top end. This is absurd.

While Australians have personal aspirations, they extend beyond individual needs. They have aspirations for themselves but also for their family, for their community, for their environment and, indeed, for the national interest. Australians aspire to a whole range of things—many of which this government refuses to support. My grievance is with a government that chooses to serve the aspirations of the few by undermining the aspirations of the many. Of course Australians want to improve their living standards and feel comfortable. But, in the land of the fair go, people think beyond their individual needs.

Our aspirations extend to the welfare of our families and our communities; the health of our environment; a nation where schools and universities are properly resourced; a nation that devotes resources to skills training for young Australians, rather than cutting apprenticeships and importing skilled workers on a temporary basis; and a nation where people can be confident that, if they or their children become ill, a well-resourced health system will be able to meet their needs. Australians also aspire to the maintenance of a good social safety net. That’s because in this country most people believe we are only as good as the way we treat our least advantaged members. Commuters aspire to live in a nation that invests in public transport, so they can get home from work in time to play with their children.

All of these aspirations relate to quality of life, and all of them are just as important and just as meaningful as the spirit of entrepreneurship that drives business and creates jobs. Yet on all of these quality-of-life measures, the government has been found wanting. We’re still getting cuts to health and education. We’re getting cuts to vocational training. We’re getting the social safety net being undermined. We’re not seeing investment in important public transport projects, like Melbourne Metro and Cross River Rail. The irony is that, while the Prime Minister and his colleagues champion tax cuts for the wealthy few in the name of aspiration, the cuts to services undermine everyone else’s ability to achieve their aspirations.

The coalition wants to replace this nation’s cultural respect for egalitarianism and the fair go with the conservative creed to individualism and self-interest. They want Australians to embrace their view that the free market can cure all ills and people should be blamed and punished for their own disadvantage. They believe in the trickle-down effect: if we help people at the top, somehow people at the bottom and in the middle will benefit. To quote that great Australian Darryl Kerrigan, ‘Tell them they’re dreaming.’

Prior to the 1996 federal election, then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating famously warned:

When the government changes, the country changes.

Mr Keating had it half right: incoming governments do attempt to imprint their own culture and philosophy on the societies that they govern. Sometimes this changes prevailing views or social values; however, some Australian values are immutable. One of those is the fair go, the idea that everyone deserves a chance to be their best and that Australians help each other out in times of need. Throughout our history, the fair go has been the constant moderating force against the excesses of conservative ideology. That’s why in 2007, for example, Australians rejected John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation, which sought to destroy trade unions. It’s why Australians supported Gough Whitlam’s introduction of universal health care in 1973, and supported it again under the Hawke government, after it was abolished by the Fraser government. It is also why Australians now, wherever they live, care about people who are suffering from the drought in rural and regional Australia, and are putting their hands into their own pockets to help out people who they have never met and are unlikely to ever meet. It’s also why Australians are so disappointed with this bitterly divided rabble of a government. This government needs to get its act together in the national interest.