John Curtin Research Centre: Pathways to Government

John Curtin Research Centre: Pathways to Government Main Image

31 October 2019



I wish to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people - traditional custodians of this ancient land along the Yarra.  I have great respect for their elders both past and today, and acknowledge any Indigenous Australians present with us here.
John Curtin had a special rapport with Robert Menzies. In 1942, after he’d stepped down from the leadership, Menzies wrote that Curtin’s friendship had been “a pearl of great price.” 
The friendship  existed because of mutual respect. There is not nearly enough of that in politics today. 
So from interstate, across the aisle and to whatever generation - I say to our opponents six months after one of my tribes’ most gut wrenching defeats: much of what you say I disagree with. But I think it’s cool that you value and defend choice and free will, and I will always respect you for doing that.
Labor starts from a different place. We stand for society, for community. Better together, no matter what. 
I raise the initial point about the greatness of liberalism because in our sometimes competing, sometimes complementary efforts to build a better country as social democrats, we must always remember that Labor has the gift of free will too. 
There is nothing inevitable about where we go from here. Our future as a party is our choice.  
This election has laid bare some big picture challenges. We can confront them, or we can choose not to. So today I want to talk about how I think Labor can use this defeat to build a better and stronger movement for change. 
There has been a flourishing discussion about why Labor lost the election (some may feel a little too flourishing). Personally I am glad to see it. That is our party kicking back to life. 
Much commentary has focused on somewhat technical aspects of this specific campaign: did we run the best social media? Is our data analytics up to scratch? Was our policy offering overcrowded? Did our paid advertising hit the mark?
These are critical questions. 
But I don’t want this to be the only conversation we have.
One observation on the election analysis is the domestic focus of the discussion.  So let’s start by joining the dots internationally.  
The defining economic problem in developed economies today is wage stagnation. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution takes hold, more economic rewards are landing at the top of the labour market and with owners of capital, and not enough to the middle and bottom. 
Fairly managing transitions like this one is core business for labour parties like mine. 
And yet at the very moment when it feels as if we should be the trusted voice, voters are drifting away. 
In the UK, British Labour is polling at 22%. At the upcoming election, a large group of lifelong Labour voters may desert their party for the first time. 
In America, a bunch of registered Democrats are some of Donald Trump’s most one-eyed supporters. 
Across parts of Europe, Latin America and Asia, there are strains of a similar political shift. 
I look back to Australia and to the seat of Capricornia in central Queensland. It’s a blue collar, regional electorate of Australians Labor strives to represent.
And we used to. In 2007, the election that swept Kevin Rudd to power, well over half the people of Capricornia – 56% - gave us their primary vote. We stormed home with a 2PP in the sixties and held this seat for the entire Rudd and Gillard years.
On May 18, fewer than a quarter of voters in Capricornia gave Labor their primary vote. The swing away from Labor between 2007 and 2019, on primaries, was a full third of the electorate.
It’s the pointy end of a bigger problem. Since the 1970s, Labor’s primary vote has bounced around a bit. But the trend has been a slow persistent decline of almost 1% per election. 
Since the election, there has been some discussion about whether the party should move to the Right or the Left. I wonder, though, if that framework is relevant or useful. 
Right and Left implies that every voter and viewpoint can be neatly plotted on a linear plane. 
Today, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Steve Bannon are two of the most vocal critics of globalisation. Angela Merkel has probably done more to promote multilateralism and protect the world’s refugees than any other person this century. Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have advocated similar policies on trade, re-industrialisation of struggling regions and criminal justice reform.
As Jonathan Freedland has observed in Britain: LVR scribbled on a notepad used to stand for Left Versus Right.  Given the real cleavages today, it surely stands for Leave Versus Remain.
We have seen it too, in Australia. Hayek would have a heart attack if he saw the level of state intervention and government spending the Australian conservatives have signed up to. Think of climate, where Labor has advocated a market-based solution, and the Liberals direct intervention. 
When I look at our community, I do not see Right and Left as the defining political division. I see a bunch of new faultlines emerging which are increasingly important at the ballot box. 
I see a faultline between winners and losers in a digital economy which provides vastly more economic rewards to people who live in our cities.
I see a faultline dividing Australians who want the community to look more like it did in the past, and those who love and value change. 
A faultline dividing people who are worried about global interdependence, and those who see opportunity for global influence. 
A faultline between those who relish economic change and those who resist it.
Between young people who feel locked out of a life enjoyed by older generations, and those who think that kids have never had it better.
Between open and closed, authoritarian and decentralised, the elites and the masses.
Political allegiances aren’t static. We don’t have a Brexit to smash open old loyalties. But slowly and surely, tectonic plates are on the move. In these moments, the parties that survive look alive. 
As new divisions open up, society is fragmenting into smaller and more zealous groups, more susceptible to populism. 
Zealotry, for sure, is the consequence of social media. Algorithms on YouTube and Facebook can turn someone with questions about vaccinating their child into an ardent conspiracy theorist in a matter of hours. Some of the most violent terrorists started out not particularly committed to any ideology, and became radicalised online relatively quickly. 
Sure, the mainstream experience is not so all encompassing. But the same hardening of opinion, stronger and more violent reactions to things we don’t agree with and quick dismissals of alternative points of view are looming larger in our political culture. 
I think of Australian society as a Venn diagram, where big circles are breaking into smaller ones, and they are all moving away from the centre to the edge of the page. 
The overlap of those circles, what we Australians share in views, values and life experiences – it feels smaller and less definable. 
Populism, too, is part of the picture. 
Social media creates a direct line of communication between political interests and the public - nefarious or otherwise. 
That can be a very good thing. But it has a downside. 
It turns out having our message verified and interpreted by professional journalists on the way through did have a bit of social value.  
Technology sits at the heart of all these changes. 
When I talk to social researchers about the public mood, they come back to one word: overwhelmed. 
The moment we learn how to use one iPhone, it is out of date. 
400 hours of Youtube content is uploaded every minute. 
Watching people yell at one another is a form of digital sport for Australia’s millions of Twitter users who can, if they wish, read a billion tweets every two days. 
Instagram brings your individual definition of a perfect life tantalisingly close, every carefully-curated moment of every day.
Fear, too, is in there. 
Smart phones have brought the darkest corners of the world right into our living rooms. Raising kids in this world – where paedophiles roam the internet and psychos create Peppa Pig videos full of violent content to trick kids into consuming it – it’s really scary.  
Technology has massive benefits. I see the elevation of voices previously ignored, the creation of new communities, the beautiful connection between friends and family who live far away.
But confusion, anxiety and complexity are critical to understanding the public mood. Especially when we consider that that these fundamental changes to the way we live have essentially happened within a decade. 
If politics is different, the answer is as simple and complex as this: we need to do things differently.  
We cannot descend into nostalgia for the way things were, or dissolve into handwringing about how we wish things could be. 
In a world with more diverse and strongly held views, forming stable majorities is going to be more challenging. It’s harder to keep everyone on the same page. 
Undoubtedly, people are less trusting and more tribal. 
In a world of way-too-much information, voters are steering towards politicians who sound and talk like they do. 
James Carville’s “it’s the economy, stupid” dictum isn’t quite a thing of the past. But it seems that cultural issues, rather than more complex economic ones, are the preferred shorthand for who speaks for voters and not to them. 
All this makes political leadership much tougher, and much more important.
Look around at the models that are working at the ballot box. 
There is the strongman. The authoritarian claiming he or she can stop change, that we can survive without engagement, that some voiceless, defenceless other is to blame for our problems. In the long-run, that approach is doomed to fail, and diminishes us all.  
There is another way to bring people together: by defining and nourishing not who we are against, but what we have in common. That’s where we see compelling examples of hope and competence. 
Jacinda Ardern’s irrepressible likeability and her vivid, genuine commitment to her country is drawing the circles of the Venn Diagram back into the middle. 
This is natural territory for Labor, and there is no more authentic person in Australian politics than Anthony Albanese. 
His story from public housing to the Australian Parliament is genuinely moving and Albo’s capacity to connect and communicate is vital to building a winning majority for the next Labor Government. 
On policy issues, too, there is some room for fresh thinking. 
There is no question that we need to articulate a new narrative on the economy. 
Since the 1980s, Labor’s economic approach has been to grow the economy by opening it up. With a fair labour market and a good education system, all boats would rise together. That worked for 30-years. 
Today, that model it is broken. For the first time, our country is getting richer but ordinary families are going backwards. 
That’s not all. 
Business investment is at record lows. Even with the blast of technology flowing into organisations around the country, our productivity growth has slowed. 
Our economy is much too reliant on the things we grow or dig out of the ground. We are spending more on education yet our results have flatlined. 
Our brilliant scientists and researchers continuously invent things, only to see the commercial benefits flow overseas. 
We face huge skills shortages but also high underemployment. 
We have not told a sufficiently compelling story to Australia’s two million small businesses, or to our friends in digital.
Technology is another issue where every political party is underdone. How families are coping with technological change may be the BBQ stopper of the teenies. Yet it is largely peripheral to what we talk about in politics.
There are many more. Mental health, family breakdown, balancing work and family in a world of changing gender roles, child welfare, national identity and our beliefs about patriotism, community and culture.
I note on the way through that most of these issues don’t have a clear Left/Right perspective. They are open expanses of political territory. And they are all areas where the conversation in Canberra is not reflecting the importance of these issues around the kitchen table. 
On the policy side, I want to make a final point about the solutions.
We need to approach these problems with a sense of humility.
Government is not the answer to every problem in society.
And where government is the answer, tens of billions of dollars in new government spending is not always the solution.  
We forget sometimes, I think, government’s convening power, and how much can be achieved by setting the rules, and clearly articulating the mind, mood and direction of the nation. 
I have mentioned some policy issues where we need to rethink our story. But if the changes I mention are real, then just as important is how we in Labor talk about politics.
The progressive centre has been stymied by a disease of managerialism. That disease is contagious. Hilary Clinton, Ed Miliband and Bill Shorten led progressive parties that conscientiously produced reams of better-prepared, better-researched, better-designed public policy than their opponents. And each went on to lose. 
Depth and detail of vast volumes of policy, and modelling, evidence, evaluation and implementation design, are all important for governing.
But I don’t think we are winning hearts and minds out there talking about policy this way. If an election is about whether a family will be 4% better off in five years under one leader and 6% better off under the other one, I think we are missing the mark. 
I do see, by the way, the irony of me pointing this out. 
I love nothing more than a meaty conversation about statistical sampling techniques – this is why I am such a hit at dinner parties. But these are how questions, not why. 
Politics is about offering a compelling story about our country: who we are, where we are going. Then we talk about how we are going to get there. 
One of the most upsetting things I have heard in speaking with people after the election - especially in the regions - was how we sounded on the doorstep. 
The impression of many was that progressives were talking down to them. I know this is not what was intended. But if our voters hear sanctimony, that is what matters. 
That’s why we need to engage in the conversation about political correctness.
I understand and acknowledge that some people cynically claim political correctness has gone too far as a cheap cover for racism and bigotry. That is undoubtedly true.
But when our own people - Labor people of a lifetime - tell us that they feel they are not allowed to question new social standards that seem to be reset every other week, I think we need to listen. 
There is a culture developing in the progressive movement where membership is granted with a box of ideas. And if you don’t accept one of the ideas in the box, you do not merely have a different opinion, you are obviously wrong, probably stupid and possibly subhuman. 
For what it’s worth, I probably support most of the ideas in the box. This is not about content. It’s about tone.
Not everyone with a concern about the immigration rate is a bigot. Not everyone with a hesitation about changing gender roles is sexist. Not every social change is inarguably a good one. 
And if Australians feel they can’t question assumptions and positions in conversation with us, they will find someone else to talk to about it.
The current environment can see political discourse descend to a form of tribal performance art. 
Witness the kerfuffle about gender neutral toilets at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. A respected journalist tweets about this issue of pressing national importance. The Prime Minister, who cannot find time to develop a coherent economic or energy policy, springs immediately into action. The crowd on twitter fire up on their issue of the day. The toilet signage is changed. And the caravan moves on.
Everyone played to their audience. No one learned anything, no one listened. No minds were changed. To me, the whole thing contained not a shred of public value.
I’m not an actor, I’m a politician. My job is not to perform for Facebook likes. 
It is to seek out people in the community who don’t share my views, listen to them and treat them with respect. Then, I might be given the opportunity to have a real dialogue about Labor’s perspective.  
For people who are upset that I am saying this, I don’t particularly like being on the same side of an argument as Alan Jones. But if we share the fight for social progress, we need to take people with us.
And I don’t know anyone who ever changed their mind because they got made an example of, or yelled at, or shamed. All that creates is simmering resentment. It’s the last thing we need right now.
We will get a handle on these things. I raise them not to create trouble, but because this loss is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: if politics is changing, who do we seek to represent in Parliament? What are we fighting for on their behalf? And how should we talk with them about their lives in this new era? 
As always, I confront these issues as a perennial optimist. Labor is the largest and oldest political party in Australia because we are good at change. John Curtin himself was the master of it. 
When the story of great leaders is written into history, we tend to focus on the victorious moments. 
Yet Curtin went through some very tough times in politics. 
Over 31 years, he stood as a Labor candidate in nine federal elections. 
Seven times out of nine, he lost. 
Either he failed to win the seat, he failed to hold his seat, or Labor failed to win government. 
For people who engage in politics to fight for a better future for their country, as John Curtin did, as my colleagues and I do, losing elections will always be bloody awful. 
What matters is what we do with the loss. We can choose to roll ahead, business as usual. Or, we can make this defeat mean something more, by using it to build a better and stronger political movement.  
I had a lot of young people at my election night party, devastated beyond belief at the result. I reminded them Labor was out of office for 23 years in the middle of the last century. And it gave birth to the best of our movement. 
This loss has birthed a generation of activists who will never let this happen again. 
It has changed my outlook on politics forever.
It has made me infinitely more determined to fight for the country I love and the party I joined as a 16-year old.
Curtin and Menzies may have been friends, but their political contest was one for the ages. 
It is in that spirit that I say to the Liberals and Nationals: we are coming for you at the next election with a bolder, brighter vision – stronger, sharper and tougher than ever before.