‘Positive politics in the age of disruption’ – Address to 34th Annual Earle Page Political Lecture, University of New England
Thank you for the honour of giving the Earle Page Political Lecture for 2017.
Here I am as a former Labor Deputy Prime Minister, in New England, the seat of the current Deputy Prime Minister and National Party Leader, Barnaby Joyce, giving a lecture named after Country Party Leader Sir Earle Page who rose to be Prime Minister, even if just for three weeks.
It struck me that my very presence giving this lecture could be seen as a metaphor for what is my theme – positive politics in the age of disruption.
We certainly live in a period where politics as usual has been turned on its head.
Traditional allegiances are far less entrenched.
In the United States, we’ve seen the rise of President Donald Trump.
In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn is within reach of becoming Prime Minister.
In France, Emmanuel Macron has been swept into office, winning an enviable majority of seats.
Time and again we have seen orthodoxy abandoned in favour of candidates and platforms of the right, left and centre.
But what these movements have in common is they have tapped into an increasing dissatisfaction with the outcomes of economic globalisation.
This is despite the substantial benefits we’ve seen accrue from globalisation, which has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.
Products in Australia once considered luxury items are now available much more widely.
When I was a child we had a home phone, unlike many of our neighbours in our public housing community.
We had an honesty system in place, with a money box next to it, for people to deposit a coin for its use.
Now in Australia there are more mobile phones than people.
Plane travel is five times more affordable than it was 20 years ago.
Australians have never been better educated and we are living longer.
But the simple fact is that some have benefited from globalisation more than others.
And the consequences of this are broad reaching, with many turning to ballot boxes at election time to express their resentment.
The current political shake-up can be traced in an immediate sense to the Global Financial Crisis.
Millions of people lost their jobs, many their homes, because of a series of events for which they were not responsible.
By and large those who were responsible escaped comparatively unscathed.
It was a stark demonstration of the inequality of power distribution in society.
It led to a critique of neo-liberal economics and a recognition that without government intervention, markets can create bad outcomes and almost always create unequal outcomes.
Unpredictable election outcomes and expressions of dissatisfaction with the prevailing order exemplified by Brexit have been described as politics in the age of disruption.
This has led many active participants and commentators to be negative about the future.
I think this assessment is wrong. And self-defeating.
In our pursuit of change it can feel like every time we take one step forward, it’s followed by two steps back.
But as Barack Obama once said, ‘if you’re walking down the right path, and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.’
Tonight I will argue that in the words of musician Ian Dury, there are indeed “reasons to be cheerful’’.
Of course there are many across the political spectrum who define present circumstances negatively by romanticising the past.
For progressives who, by definition, believe in the better instincts of humanity, this is very much a contradictory trait.
I have been in many debates with people who have asserted with despair: “Labor isn’t what it used to be”.
My response is that it is true that we no longer support the White Australia Policy; it is true that we are now moving towards equal representation for women; and it is also true that we now support equal rights regardless of sexuality.
Political parties evolve with society and my argument tonight is that over time that change is progressive.
This approach is consistent with a faith in humanity.
Progressives consistently fail to celebrate our victories.
Sometimes this is because we have already moved on to the next challenge.
If you’re about defending existing power relationships in society, you don’t have that issue.
You celebrate the past almost by definition.
To inspire the next generation, including students at this university, we should seek to understand the past, celebrate the gains of the present, and both anticipate and create the future.
Social change doesn’t just happen.
It is made to happen.
I believe that an analysis which is optimistic about future prospects is a pre-condition for inspiring that positive change.
THE RISE OF NEGATIVE POLITICS
In Australia, it is fair to say that recent years have seen an increase in negative politics on a superficial level.
We’ve had changes of Prime Minister, with two replaced in the first term after their election.
The question is: will this instability become a permanent feature of the political landscape?
There is no doubt that the pace of the media is having an impact.
Complex issues cannot be addressed in 140 characters.
The immediacy of online news websites means that no one wants to miss a big event so detailed discussion of ideas is reduced to political power plays.
It makes a mature discussion of challenges more difficult.
This can advantage the Opposition, but a plan to get into government does not equate to a plan to govern, as we saw with Tony Abbott.
Labor has been determined to not repeat this mistake and has worked hard on comprehensive policy plans.
Bill Shorten deserves credit for leading from Opposition on difficult issues such as reform to negative gearing and capital gains tax to improve housing affordability.
The Australian people are desperate for an end to disruption.
I believe that is why Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the Prime Ministership was welcomed so strongly.
His statement that he would treat the population like adults and move to less divisive political leadership appealed to a public that had been exhausted by what it perceived as consistently negative politics.
It was indeed positive politics in the age of disruption.
Unfortunately it has become all too clear that the internal compromises he made to secure support have led to the current disappointment.
Both major parties clearly have a vested interest in renewing faith in mainstream politics.
I want to outline some of the long term challenges that Australia faces, which, if we can work through as a nation, will be critical in changing politics in Australia for the better.
I would argue that these are consistent with the politics of the last century, which has seen the promotion of progressive ideas that are seen as radical at first, then accepted over time as a result of community support.
Medicare, compulsory superannuation and expanding access to education are fundamental issues that were fought strongly by the forces of reaction but are now cemented as part of the Australian ethos.
When governments attempt to attack the Australian consensus and wind back the gains of the past, as the 2014 Budget did, they meet strident opposition.
Nowhere is this stronger than in social policy.
Whilst there is more to be done, removing much of the discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity and sexuality has already made a fundamental difference.
The first woman elected to the House of Representative from NSW was my predecessor as the Member for Grayndler, Jeannette McHugh, in 1983.
Think about that for a moment.
Not a single woman from this, our most populous state, in 83 years.
Since then 107 women have been elected to the House of Representatives across Australia and, at the last election, we elected the first Indigenous woman in Linda Burney.
The refusal to offer an apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people eventually was overwhelmed.
Kevin Rudd’s apology will go down as an important step in reconciliation and certainly the finest moment in the Parliament so far this century.
In my first term in 1998 I introduced a Private Members Bill to give same-sex partners access to their superannuation.
It was blocked from a debate or vote.
I found out later that some colleagues from interstate assumed I was gay, for the simple reasoning that it would explain why I was raising the issue.
A decade later the Labor Government removed 84 areas of discrimination in legislation against same-sex couples in numerous areas including immigration, health and education.
This was largely uncontroversial and received bipartisan support.
And the unfinished business of marriage equality now has a majority of support both inside and outside the Parliament.
The recent Budget saw the Coalition adopt some of the central principles at least rhetorically, that have been advanced by Labor in recent years.
While the change of rhetoric is welcome, what is also required is a change of substance.
This included an acceptance that Australians see Medicare as the central component of the provision of universal health care.
That school funding should be needs based.
That the NDIS is critical reform.
That infrastructure investment in our regions and cities which boosts economic productivity is “good debt”.
This is a start – and motivations have been rightly questioned – but while words can be positive, it is of course actions that really count.
It does seem to me that stating that these principles have been broadly accepted at least in the rhetorical sense, should be a source of pride for those who have been long term advocates for these positions.
And it certainly does not mean that there are not arguments to be had about the sincerity of this broad adoption, let alone the practical implementation of those principles.
The principle of universal health care needs to be supported by the Medicare Rebate and hospital funding being improved.
The principle of needs-based education funding must be supported by resourcing to allow the “full Gonski” to be delivered.
And we need to enhance the role of early childhood education in realising the potential of our younger generations.
The principle of infrastructure development needs to be supported by real investment, not the cuts that were in this year’s Budget.
The rhetorical acceptance of these previously contested positions such as needs-based education funding, should facilitate a focus on how to achieve these objectives.
Moving on from old arguments should also permit greater consideration of the long term challenges which face Australia.
Tonight I want to discuss just a few of these: infrastructure including the National Broadband Network; climate change; and inequality.
On infrastructure the Government raised expectations prior to the Budget by accepting what economists, the Reserve Bank, the Business Council of Australia and Labor have been saying for some time.
That borrowing for productivity boosting infrastructure is sound economic policy.
This is particularly the case given the context of the resources sector moving from the construction to the production phase, low interest rates and the high infrastructure deficit.
We know that in the short term infrastructure creates jobs and generates economic activity.
In the long term, infrastructure boosts productivity, producing revenue for the Government and a return to the national economy.
The former Labor Government doubled the roads budget, increased the rail budget more than tenfold and invested more in public transport than all previous Governments since Federation.
Our major reform was the creation of the independent advisory group, Infrastructure Australia to ensure the right projects were funded with the right financing and proper planning.
This region benefited greatly from the Hunter Expressway, a $1.7 billion investment which was a central component of the economic stimulus plan
The New England Highway, benefited from $40 million of upgrades to sections both north and south of Armidale.
It is often said of politicians that “they need to get out more”, and when it comes to regional infrastructure that is true.
Tony Windsor and I drove the Highway to the Bolivia Hill Blackspot which, once visited, ensured that funding flowed for it, as well as for the Tenterfield Bypass.
We also invested in Roads to Recovery, the Black Spot Program and upgraded the Livestock Selling Complex here in Armidale, to make it safer for truck drivers and workers.
Right across the country there are good examples of projects that connect people and freight to regional centres.
The Inland Rail Project is one which has bipartisan support.
While we were in Government, $900 million was allocated to upgrade existing track and secure the corridor, following on from our landmark study.
The recent Budget committed substantial funding to the ARTC for the project, but every dollar of it as equity funding.
This contradicts former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson’s review which found that it would not produce a return on capital for 50 years.
I am concerned that the need for grant funding has been ignored and that this will undermine the project in the future, as will the fact that current plans have it stopping at Acacia Ridge, some 38 kilometres short of the Port of Brisbane.
Projects should be transparent about their finances.
The economic development of regional centres such as Parkes along the route, the pressure taken off the coastal routes and the safety, environmental and economic benefits of replacing heavy vehicle movements with rail all combine to mean that Inland Rail deserves support.
It will fail if its financing is based upon false premises and there is not transparency.
Passenger rail is another significant priority for regional communities.
The Regional Rail Link, in Victoria, allows commuters from Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong rapid access to Melbourne on a new rail line that is separate from the existing Melbourne passenger train network.
The Regional Rail Link was the largest ever Commonwealth investment in a public transport project.
The big game changer is the proposed High Speed Rail Link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.
This project demonstrates that carefully targeted Commonwealth investment can make a real difference when it comes to strengthening links between cities and regions, lifting productivity for both.
It could transform the economies of those regional centres along the route including Lismore, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, Goulburn, Wagga Wagga, Albury and Shepparton.
It is positive that the Government has recognised rhetorically that there is a role for the Commonwealth in investing in regions AND cities, in road AND rail, and in moving freight AND people.
However, by creating an Infrastructure Financing Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department, it has sidelined Infrastructure Australia. Its insistence that projects must produce a commercial return means that the market will be distorted to fund just toll roads.
This will have a devastating impact on regional Australia, as demonstrated by last week’s absurd proposition that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility be used to fund toll roads in Far North Queensland.
The Infrastructure Australia model is important because it is designed to break the nexus between the short term political cycle and the long term infrastructure investment cycle.
Long term investment certainty is required for visionary projects that will make a real difference to our future prosperity.
The Western Sydney Airport is an example of a project that could not proceed without bipartisan support.
This project is not only important for the economic transformation of Western Sydney; it is critical for regional NSW to have continued access to Sydney for its people and its produce.
Of course in the Digital Age, the easiest way to overcome the tyranny of distance which disadvantages our regions is access to a 21st century National Broadband Network.
That means fibre to the premise, not copper.
Right here in Armidale was the first mainland community to receive the rollout of the NBN.
If a business here in Armidale can have the same access to markets and customers as a business based in Sydney or the world, it moves from a position of locational disadvantage, to one of advantage due to lower overhead costs.
The same advantage applies for this outstanding university.
High-speed broadband is essential for uploads, not just downloads.
It is also about more than enhancing productivity.
It is about the provision of health and education services.
But it is also an enabler for creating opportunity and equity.
This makes it an essential component of economic and social policy for the future.
Climate change is our biggest intergenerational challenge.
Right now we have an opportunity with the Finkel Review to draw a line in the sand and move forward in a bipartisan way.
While the Government has agreed to 49 of the 50 energy suggestions in the Review, it hasn’t yet reached a decision on a Clean Energy Target.
To be clear, this is not our preferred path forward – that is for an Emissions Intensity Scheme.
But Australians need the current policy paralysis in the energy sector to come to an end and we will work with the Government to achieve this.
Since the price on carbon was abolished, wholesale energy costs have doubled.
The policy uncertainty has stifled investment, undermined the national energy market and is hurting vulnerable Australians who cannot afford to pay their energy bills.
Alan Finkel himself, the Chief Scientist of Australia, has said that putting a Clean Energy Target framework in place would see investment restart, pollution reduce, job opportunities increase, and a reduction in wholesale power prices.
These are all great outcomes.
The fact is most Australians understand the arguments for action.
The world is moving toward a low-emissions future.
Three quarters of Australia’s coal and gas-generation are already operating beyond their design life.
With Australia’s capacity for innovation and our abundant natural resources we should be a world leader in renewable energy.
This policy area exemplifies the need for a consensus about at least the framework moving forward.
It is the poorest people in our communities who bear the brunt of our most significant challenges.
This includes those challenges I have raised – the provision of infrastructure, digital connectivity, the impact of climate change and the transition to renewable energy.
As governments develop policy solutions, we must consider equity issues, or else political disenfranchisement across our nation will only deepen.
The fact is inequality in Australia is at a 75-year high.
An Oxfam Report recently found that the two wealthiest Australians own more than the poorest 20 per cent of the population.
And, at a time when real wages are falling and the Reserve Bank Governor has said that we need to increase wages, we’ve seen cuts to penalty rates actually reduce the real wages of some of our most poorly paid.
The former RBA Governor, Bernie Fraser, has referred to a “danger point’’ where the gap between the rich and poor could grow so much it would have “awful’’ far reaching consequences.
There is a spatial dimension to inequality in Australia.
Research conducted by the Parliamentary Library found that out of the bottom 10 electorates for total personal median income, nine of these were regional.
All nine of the electorates with the highest median income were urban, within short distances to CBDs.
I’m also concerned that we face a very real scenario in a number of communities across Australia where the only way for young people to own their home is to inherit one.
The latest Census data shows lower home ownership rates and a decrease in the number of people who have paid off their mortgage.
Rental stress is also a growing problem.
The percentage of households now paying more than 30 per cent of their income in rent has also increased, rising from 10.4 per cent to 11.5 per cent.
Successful societies are inclusive.
You should not be able to judge an individual’s economic status by their postcode.
Given this picture of inequality in Australia, it is tempting for some to turn to negative politics and blame a group, or particular policies, for an individual’s lived experience falling short of their expectations.
Such an approach is short sighted.
It is the easy choice, not the right choice.
There’s another way forward.
Politics at its best offers hope not fear, and aims to lift people up.
We need to ensure that as our nation’s wealth grows, the benefits are shared more equally.
The common aspiration that we share, that our children may enjoy greater opportunity and quality of life than we had, with a natural environment at least as good as we enjoyed, is not too much to ask.
Those of us who are concerned that the age of disruption could lead to a downward spiral of respect for our institutions and capacity to deliver real solutions to challenges, have a responsibility to engage positively to avert such a scenario.
We must secure outcomes in the national interest.
That includes real needs-based funding for education, investment in infrastructure and the digital economy, regional economic development and strong and decisive action on climate change.
We must continue to be the land of opportunity.
If we deal with these challenges we can create a more positive political culture and indeed give people “reasons to be cheerful”.