McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership Oration - Melbourne University - 29/03/2019

29 March 2019

(Acknowledgments omitted)

I want to thank members of the McKinnon Prize Selection Panel for this award.
I am both honoured and humbled to receive it.
But more importantly, I want to thank the Susan McKinnon Foundation and the University of Melbourne for establishing the McKinnon Prize.
As someone who believes that politics matters, that our system of government matters and that the content and tone of leadership matters, this initiative that encourages political leadership is both timely and vital.
At a time when many are eager to dismiss the possibilities of politics, and to disparage the role of government, this prize affirms our democracy.
I would like to thank all those involved and, in particular, the founders of the Susan McKinnon Foundation, Grant Rule and Sophie Oh, and the director of the Melbourne School of Government, Professor John Howe.
I also acknowledge and congratulate last years inaugural recipients Senator Dean Smith and Councillor Vonda Malone and this years Emerging Political Leader, Senator Jordon Steele-John.
I want to speak tonight about democracy. Why it matters at home and abroad.
When first preparing these remarks I had in mind a discussion about the importance of democracy, the risks it faces and a focus on the imperative of defending it.
Then the terrible terrorist attack in Christchurch took place.
A fortnight ago today, Muslim men, women and children were gunned down at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch, killed and wounded as they were attending Friday prayers.
The stories of the victims are heartbreaking.
Teenagers and children as young as three and four years old.
A brave woman who helped to save other women and children but was shot dead when she went back into the Al Noor mosque to help her wheelchair-bound husband.
People who had come to New Zealand as refugees, escaping war and civil strife in their home countries to be attacked in a place of peace and sanctuary.
They were attacked simply because of their religious faith.
It was an act of violence, but fundamentally it was an act of hatred.
This act of hatred has shocked our nation.
We regard New Zealanders as family and we mourn with them.
Our distress has been magnified by the fact that the right-wing violent extremist responsible for this act of terror is an Australian.
He was an Australian but he does not represent Australian values. He is not who we are.
Over these last two weeks there has been much discussion about these terrible events what do they mean, what can we learn, what do we need to do?
There are many lessons from this terrible, violent event.
One must surely be a greater awareness of the fragility of democracy.
Another must be the consequences of not defending it.
Because ultimately the resilience of our democracy not only derives from its institutions and its democratic conventions and practices, most importantly it comes from its underpinning values.
Poignantly, Canterbury University College in Christchurch is where political philosopher Karl Popper wrote his famous defence of democracy, The Open Society and Its Enemies.
Some 80 years ago Popper was living and working in New Zealand, having left his native Austria in the face of anti-Semitism and fascism in the 1930s.
When Popper was writing, the main challenge to the democratic values and individual freedoms of the open society came from totalitarian regimes.
Today, as the tragic events in Christchurch remind us, the new enemies of the open society are those who reject diversity and pluralism and seek to impose ideologies based on intolerance and hatred.
Those who use intolerance and hatred for their own political gain do harm to our democracies in the process.
There is a stark truth to which we must hold racism is a threat to our democracy.
Racism is not only unethical, it is antithetical to the values which underpin democracy.
As Tim Soutphommasane reminds us, racism erodes the values of equality and justice and non-discrimination which are fundamental to liberal democracies.
That is why our rejection of racism, of prejudice, of discrimination and of hate speech must be uncompromising.
Hate speech is inimical to democracy; it must not be normalised; it cannot be defended on grounds of freedom of speech because it inflicts real and direct harm.
A central element of the way prejudice works is by dehumanising, by singling out people as outsiders, as second-class citizens, not deserving the protections and dignity afforded to full members of the community.
This is what makes hate speech so dangerous; it is what links hatred in speech to hatred in deed.
History shows that genocides, mass atrocities, and systemic forms of enslavement and ill-treatment have been fuelled by hate speech which dehumanises and blames the victims.
There is a responsibility on all leaders, religious, community and political, to stand against those who seek to spread intolerance and hate and in doing so undermine our democratic values.
I believe the normalisation of hate speech, extremist views in our Parliament, and a lack of unity in response to these, have rendered the Australian democracy more fragile.
Perhaps some sense of this underlies the debate that has ensued since these terrible events around race, democracy and our response. I hope so. My hope is also that we can learn from our history as we struggle with understanding and remedying this fragility.
Those moments in our history where we have most strongly pressed against racism and for unity have been when we have worked together.
In particular, when politicians from across the political landscape have worked in common cause.
The White Australia Policy was abolished with bipartisan support; the Racial Discrimination Act was legislated with bipartisan support; the refusal to politically weaponise community concerns around the wave of Indochinese asylum seekers; the reaffirmation of a non-discriminatory immigration policy to counter the debate on Asian immigration; and the political and electoral isolation imposed on Pauline Hanson and One Nation in its earlier incarnation were all achieved with bipartisan support.
I fear we have done less well this last decade or more.
The nation is poorer for it and our democracy more fragile.
That is why now, more than ever, we need politicians from across the political landscape to stand together against ideologies of hate and prejudice.
A good starting point for reaffirming those earlier bipartisan efforts against racism would be for the Coalition to once more commit to preferencing right-wing extremists like One Nation below the other party of government, as John Howard did and as Labor has never wavered from doing.
The challenge of racial and religious intolerance is compounded by the fact that our democracy is also being tested by other persistent and widespread concerns.
Many Australians question whether our democracy can deliver the outcomes they seek meaningful representation, effective government, and sensible policies that address their concerns for the future.
Many Australians feel that their political leaders are out of touch and that the political system is increasingly dysfunctional, incapable of addressing everyday concerns let alone longer-term challenges.
The Lowy Institutes latest survey of Australian attitudes, carried out last year, found just 62 per cent of Australians agreed that democracy was preferable to any other system of government.
20 per cent said that a non-democratic system could be preferable in some circumstances, and 15 per cent said that for someone like themselves it didnt matter what kind of government we had.
Alarmingly, amongst people aged between 18 and 44, fewer than half agreed democracy was preferable to any other system of government.
The Australian Election Study, carried out by political scientists at the Australian National University after every federal election, found that 40 per cent of those surveyed in 2016 were not satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia.
That was the surveys highest level of dissatisfaction with Australian democracy since 1979.
The companion of rising discontent with democracy is declining trust in government.
The Australian Election Study found that in 2016 only one quarter of Australians said people in government could be trusted, the lowest level of trust in government since these surveys began in 1969.
These numbers suggest there is a growing disillusionment that goes beyond the usual gap between aspirations and outcomes, between what individuals want from government and what can be achieved.
They suggest a deeper malaise a loss of faith amongst many Australians that our democratic system itself can deliver meaningful change.
The reasons for these trends are no doubt complex and multi-dimensional and they are not confined to government and they are not confined to Australia.
We are seeing declining trust in a range of institutions, from corporations and the media to scientific and academic experts.
At the same time as many are becoming alienated from democratic politics, many are becoming more entrenched in their attitudes, less willing to engage with those with different views.
And many players in the political system are fostering division as a way of gaining tactical advantage.
We cannot continue to allow the adversarialism and competition of ideas that is intrinsic to democratic politics to mutate into the kind of hyper-partisanship and deep polarisation that can place democracy itself under stress.
Such hyper-partisan approaches foreclose rational discussion and the willingness to listen to others and to build compromises.
They erode the social cohesion and mutual respect needed for a tolerant, pluralist democracy.
Polarisation is driven in part by the behaviour of political leaders and representatives.
But it is contributed to and augmented by other factors and other players: the fragmentation of the news media; the rise of social media; the echo chamber quality of much of our debate; and a failure by many to ground debate within a factual framework.
Australia is of course not alone in these trends in many places the pressures on democracy and liberal values are far more severe.
Professor Katharine Gelber, of the University of Queensland, recently noted: Were facing a crucial time in international democratic politics when core liberal institutions are being challenged by forms of politics that seek to question their legitimacy, undermine their validity, and question the basis on which they operate. In some quarters, political rhetoric has become caustic, seeking to separate informed public debate from evidence and reasoning.
Internationally these strains can be seen in the Brexit debate in Britain; rising protectionist sentiment in the United States and elsewhere; the emergence of self-styled illiberal democracies in central Europe; populist political movements of both Right-wing and Left-wing varieties; and the kind of authoritarian politics exemplified by Russias Vladimir Putin.
Surveys by the Pew Research Centre suggest that Australia is in the middle of the pack of advanced economies when it comes to pressures on democracy. Pew surveys in 2017 found that the share of Australians satisfied with the way democracy is working was higher than it was in the US, Britain, Italy, Spain and Japan.
But satisfaction with democracy in Australia was considerably lower than it was in countries like Canada and Sweden.
Even if Australia is able to rebuild confidence in our own system, we will continue to be affected by developments in democracy in other parts of the world.
For the risk is that these domestic stresses will spill over into international relations, eroding the philosophical underpinnings of the rules-based order which has been so important for the pursuit of global peace and prosperity. The concern must be that hyper-partisan domestic politics will fuel hyper-competitive international politics.
A world of strident nationalism risks eroding the space for international co-operation.
A conception of national interest as a zero-sum equation, where one country can only win when its international rivals lose, undermines the values of liberal internationalism.
And the erosion of democratic values may undermine international security. For history shows that constitutionally-stable democracies are far less likely to go to war with one another.
The proposition that democracies are more peaceful in their foreign relations is known as the democratic peace thesis.
It is one of the few theories in contemporary international relations studies that is overwhelmingly supported by empirical evidence.
There is a demonstrable connection between democratic values, at home and abroad, and a stable and secure international environment.
As Kori Schake of the International Institute for Strategic Studies has argued, to sustain the liberal order governments will need to move beyond narrow self-interest and educate the public about the value of institutional norms, institutions and collective action. As she puts it:
The arc of history only bends towards justice when people of goodwill grab onto it and wrench it in the direction of justice.
Winston Churchill famously declared: Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Despite the laconic turn of phrase, its a memorable and persuasive observation.
Yet the pragmatic argument for democracy needs to be coupled with the principled case which rests on democracys values of freedom, equality, justice and the rule of law.
Democratic principles matter at home and internationally.
The importance of electoral majorities in democracies does not equate to majority rule.
Democratic systems must protect the rights of minorities.
Not only because it is right to do so, but because equality is a foundational democratic principle.
As democrats we reject the notion that might is right.
We share an aversion to hegemony and authoritarianism as inconsistent with principles such as equality, individual rights and the rule of law.
We seek to ensure that power is shared between institutions and individuals, and constrained by laws and conventions, in order to minimise the risk of its abuse.
The advance of womens rights is one significant example of the role of democracy in dismantling discrimination and enabling progress.
Womens rights are being advanced globally through international conventions and multilateral institutions women in developing nations are amongst those who stand to be most adversely affected by barriers to the development of democracy and the international rules-based system.
Democratic principles are relevant for an international system that establishes collectively agreed rules and norms to guide behaviour and that builds institutions to resolve disputes and respond to collective challenges.
Australias support for a liberal rules-based international order reflects our interests, our values and our identity.
As a substantial power, but not a major power, we have a direct national interest in ensuring that rules and norms determine outcomes rather than sheer power.
As a democracy, we seek an international system which safeguards sovereignty, respects differences, accepts international laws and norms, and promotes human rights.
Not all the countries of the world are democracies, but democratic values are a significant element of the international rules-based order.
Germanys Chancellor Angela Merkel noted earlier this year that NATO was established not only as a military alliance, but also as a community of shared values in which human rights, democracy and the rule of law are the guiding principles of joint action.
Indias Prime Minister Narendra Modi has argued that regional rules must be based on the consent of all rather than the power of the few, on faith in dialogue rather than dependence on force.
As he put it: The ideals of democracy that define us as a nation also shape the way we engage the world.
Canadas Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has pointed out that in building the international rules-based order out of the ashes of the Second World War, weve worked to build a system that championed freedom and democracy over authoritarianism and oppression.
In an address to the US Congress last year, French President Emmanuel Macron said the worlds democracies faced two possible paths in responding to current strains and pressures.
The first path was one of isolationism, withdrawal and extreme nationalism, closing the door to the world and leaving non-democratic powers to shape the 21st century world order.
The alternative is to strengthen international co-operation, to shape common answers to global threats by reinventing multilateralism in a stronger, more effective and more accountable form.
For Australian Labor, our commitment to the multilateral, rules-based approach to foreign policy reflects our democratic values and the ideals of liberal internationalism, as well as our realistic understanding, based on hard historical truths, of the risks and dangers of the alternatives.
Labors foreign policy deals with the world as it is but seeks to change it for the better.
This imperative is even more compelling given the choice and consequences of those different paths.
We affirm the benefit of co-operation in foreign policy.
Co-operation is not only an effective approach for achieving Australias national interests.
It is also an expression of our values values that Australia shares with many members of the international community.
In a time of disruption and uncertainty, co-operation and multilateralism become even more important.
If countries close themselves off, turn inward and disengage from the world, the risks of misunderstanding and conflict will increase.
Our ambition must be to work together to generate collective benefits, and a more prosperous, peaceful and sustainable world.
This work needs to be prosecuted both in the international sphere and at home.
We must recognise the importance of the resilience and health of our democracy to the nation, to its people and to our capacity to prosecute the foreign policy agenda we want.
A robust Australian democracy is not only fundamental to the country we cherish, it is a necessary prerequisite to our ability to advance our interests and advocate our values internationally.
Our weight amongst nations is greatest if we can truly reflect who we are an inclusive, independent, multicultural nation confident of our identity and of our place in the world.
We must face unflinchingly the threat of racism and prejudice, honestly recognise the trends towards the normalisation of hate speech, and work together to see off these risks.
And we must make our democracy work better.
The malaise which undermines confidence in democracy cannot continue to worsen.
Discontent cannot continue to seethe.
So we must tackle its various drivers inequality, disrespect, disengagement. These efforts must be reflected in our actions.
In the conduct of political leaders.
In the expectations of each other and our Parliament, and in the standards citizens expect of their government.
In defending our democratic system there are important roles to be played by those in business, in the education system, in community organisations and in public institutions.
Those who see political or commercial advantage in heightening cynicism should consider the consequences of fuelling alienation and distrust.
Not only does it divide us and undermine the notion of common purpose and shared values, it degrades the quality of political debate, diminishes the civic life of the nation and impedes our ability to make worthwhile reforms.
On the evening of those terrible events in Christchurch a fortnight ago, Sydneys Imam Hasan Centre issued a statement that declared:
United as a community, we can overcome these barbaric events wherever they happen. Divided we become barbaric ourselves and the innocent lives lost around the world should be a sign for us to unite against hate.
This is a powerful message of the need to come together against hatred and division.
In my first speech in Parliament, I said that prejudice and distrust cannot build a community, but they can tear one apart.
Unfortunately, that observation remains as relevant today as it was in 2002.
For when we have political parties in Australia advocating banning migrants based on religion and members of the Senate using Nazi terminology, attending rallies with far-Right extremists and blaming the victims for the Christchurch atrocity, we have to recognise that our fundamental values are under attack.
My hope is that people from across the political landscape will once again work together to articulate and defend the values and principles that underpin who we are and what we believe.
The values and principles which are central to Australian identity and Australian democracy: inclusion, acceptance, respect, equality.
Let us choose unity not division, respect not prejudice, hope not fear.
And above all choose love not hate.
In doing so we make our nation stronger, at home and in the world.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.