The National Interest

I came into parliament in 2001 as the Labor Party’s member for Calwell, the same year as Sophie Mirabella, the Liberal Party’s former member for Indi. Sophie and I quickly developed a good rapport which we maintain to this day. We have a very different way of seeing things but there are elements of commonality, partly due to our shared heritage and partly due to our personalities. There’s benefit in working through issues with people who have profoundly different views. Speaking only to like-minded people reaffirms what you already think. The fact is there are many different and worthy perspectives on most issues.

When I came into parliament any notion of bipartisanship on the issue of immigration and refugees was shattered in the wake of the Tampa crisis. In previous governments, right back to Fraser, there was at least the possibility of strong bipartisanship on the major issues that impacted the Australian community. Multicultural policy was an example, giving rise to the creation of institutions that today we take for granted such as SBS and the whole concept of an ethnic media. These institutions exist for the community and serve to provide the access and equity needed for newly arrived people, not just for settlement but in terms of creating and developing their Australian identities. That was the genesis of a big reform in our society that continues to evolve today. Bipartisanship is a requirement to progress major issues that go to the very nature and function of the Australian community. When those issues become over-politicised the stability of the parliamentary process suffers, which renders us unable to launch any serious reform at all.

In previous governments, right back to Fraser, there was at least the possibility of strong bipartisanship on the major issues that impacted the Australian community.

Sixteen years after entering parliament, the reform process is in clear jeopardy. The bargaining and haggling that is required by the government, as it seeks to manage a one seat majority, is an obstruction to potential reform. From the opposition’s point of view, they’re not always proposing the sort of reform that we would like, but nevertheless, people have voted for the government, as they did for Labor when we were in power, and like all democratically elected governments, they have a mandate. Some may say that the current inertia is a good thing, but I’m not so sure about that. In my time in parliament I’ve learnt that when a government has been formed, it should, subject to scrutiny and debate, be able to see its agenda through, which can lead to stability and nationwide confidence. The community recognises inactivity and is distancing itself from politics because they’re not seeing a collective, serious commitment to progressing the national interest. We should count ourselves lucky that the economy and the country seem to function without us, given the preoccupations of Federal Parliament that have played out in 2017.

The instability that’s surrounded party leadership of recent years hasn’t helped. I’ve been in Canberra for long enough to know that the 23rd of June 2010 was a turning point in Australian politics; it was the night before Kevin Rudd was deposed as sitting Prime Minister. The last big drama around who elects the prime minister and who has the right to dismiss them was the constitutional crisis of 1975. There have been regular challenges since then, but not as dramatic as in 2010. Rudd was very popular and had a global profile. People, especially those with European heritage, viewed his removal as a sudden and potentially ‘undemocratic act’ and they wondered why the community wasn’t protesting in the streets! The populace believes that they elect the prime minister…the person they voted for. The way Julia Gillard got the role affected her Prime Ministership. Tony Abbott was able to make capital out of the situation and then he suffered the same fate, but people have had enough. The whole concept of the ‘revolving door’ prime ministership has been detrimental to confidence in our political system as well as in our parties. People now think that we don’t have great leaders. They know they vote for the party, but they vote for the leader too. The reverberations from that action in June 2010 are still being felt.

…the 23rd of June 2010 was a turning point in Australian politics; it was the night before Kevin Rudd was deposed as sitting Prime Minister.

The resultant, constant talk of leadership affects people who want to make comment about a direction they believe their own party should take, either in government or in opposition. It takes away the right of a member of parliament to have a view, because any statement is immediately construed as being tied to leadership. It’s the bane of political activism. I, for one, feel cautious about what I say publicly on issues that I feel strongly about, nervous that it will be recast as a comment on leadership. The media play a part in this too, seeking out only those comments that can play to the leadership angle. Any new view is positioned as a break from the party line rather than a genuine contribution to debate.

The current round of reforms, like the company tax cuts, are not connecting with the community. People no longer believe in trickle-down economics. The community is highly economically literate and they know that ‘trickle-down’ doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. There is a distrust of corporations and an awareness of the ability of a corporation, with its headquarters overseas, to make a decision, based on global labour mobility, that immediately creates a massive hole in an Australian community. These sorts of changes are brought into sharp focus with, say, the closure of a car manufacturing plant and the government’s apparent inability to prevent it. Many are wondering what the whole point of democracy is and what sovereignty is worth when global companies have so much power. They don’t always like globalisation and its low-cost labour market bedfellow, but reluctantly know that those are difficult eggs to unscramble. Reassuring the community that government hasn’t lost total control is imperative for the national interest.

The ‘national interest’ is a broad concept, but it depends on governments being able to manage in a way that benefits the community from the ground up. Explaining that immigration and foreign investment creates jobs, creates housing, promotes economic growth and consumer investment is of little comfort to someone who can’t afford to buy a house. Being able to create a home is in the national interest.

The public likes the notion that in a democracy, the government should intervene to protect the national interest. They don’t see this as protectionist but rather they see it as what the government is supposed to be doing.

Being in control of your own destiny in relation to shelter, independent of government, is in the national interest. But that’s becoming less of the case right now when people are subjected to the whims of the market, coupled with foreign investment, which is creating a lot of instability and which harms the ability of the government to achieve meaningful reform. It’s generally accepted that a market economy is the best way to create the jobs and investment required to advance the national interest. Labor supports this notion but with a slightly more interventionist approach; that you can’t leave things totally to a free market. The laissez faire view is being questioned considerably throughout the world because communities feel that it has gone to the other extreme where it’s corporate interests and profits first while average people are not receiving the benefits of economic growth.

The public is challenging the status quo along with the assumption that the government can’t do anything. They are seeking more intervention from government, not based on the view that government intervention is more effective in the long run than free markets, but from the point of view of citizens rights in a democracy. The public likes the notion that in a democracy, the government should intervene to protect the national interest. They don’t see this as protectionist but rather they see it as what the government is supposed to be doing. They are looking to their federal government to stand up to the forces of globalisation that impact their lives. The national interest, in this context, is served by finding ways to advance the welfare of the citizens, not a welfare state, but a state that actually stands up for the community. People understand globalisation and the way it’s changed global production. They’ve seen the impact of it locally, with the closure of the Ford factory in Broadmeadows. But they don’t yet know how relevant the government is within a globalised economy. Democracy is about enabling the rights of the citizenry, and the citizens expect that their rights and welfare will be protected and advanced through the ballot box when they vote. The threat to democracy is the relevance and impact of government. Citizens vote the government in, but the less they see the government getting done the more they feel powerless at the ballot box to advance change.

Explaining that immigration and foreign investment creates jobs, creates housing, promotes economic growth and consumer investment is of little comfort to someone who can’t afford to buy a house.

The Labor Party and left wing parties globally, are reinvigorating debate on the issues of inequality, wealth distribution and the capacity of people to create a future life for themselves through education and effort. We’re at a stage in globalisation where it’s impacting so many lives in positive ways but there is a downside too; the whole issue of tax avoidance by international corporations has uncovered behaviour that has roused a new wave of political engagement. People feel like the government should be on top of that. They want their politicians to lead a new paradigm. That kind of thinking emerges only every thirty to forty years, but now is one of those times. Deep into the community, people are attuned to the conversation which, in a democratic way, will force change.

My reading of the situation is that despite partisanship on some issues, the community is looking for some sort of consensus on the major issues and major changes that are influencing their lives. Rather than allowing the opportunistic advancement of media-hyped populists and false gods, the two major parties need to come to consensus on major issues. Neither side should take the position that essentially global issues, like refugees or climate change, are the issues they are going to knock the other side over with in order to win the next election. Unfortunately, that’s where we’re at. Because the community think that political parties ‘are all the same’, both sides need to differentiate themselves in such a profound way that it can sometimes prevent them from simply being sensible.

On the issues of renewable energy, coal fired power plants and electricity prices, each side has been trying to edge the other side out, with policy accusations and finger pointing. While some of the points raised might be technically true, they are meaningless to a family who is struggling to pay their $700 power bill! For many activists or those on the far left of politics, this remains an environmental issue only, but that argument doesn’t cut it anymore as the economics of energy move from Canberra and board tables to the outer suburbs and kitchen tables. We simply have to find a political narrative that satisfies both. Younger generations who have learnt about climate change through their schooling, and elderly people who lived through the depression and the Second World War, don’t need to be convinced about recycling, water storage and organic processes. They get that, but the problem now is that they can’t pay for their utilities. They can’t turn on their heater. The activists have to be aware of both sides of this debate because the economic argument is a powerful one. We need to ask how long should we persist with coal, while pursuing an emissions target. What about clean coal? Is that even possible? Energy security is the major issue for the environment, for technology and for economic advancement, and in the national interest we need some consensus.

I believe in idealism, for young people in particular, because if young people don’t feel like they can engineer change then they lose hope and motivation and the whole of society suffers.

Activism based on utopian or idealistic goals is to be encouraged, particularly at the start of a debate, because without idealism you don’t get change. I believe in idealism, for young people in particular, because if young people don’t feel like they can engineer change then they lose hope and motivation and the whole of society suffers. However, to get things done, you need wisdom. Wisdom is about being able to find solutions with the benefit of experience and without being one-eyed about it. Energy security is a case in point. It’s good to have an ideological position, but a wise person can see the other side of the argument. When you can see both sides of an argument, only then can you seek a solution. We need to get to a position where we bring people together to accept that there is a way forward that helps the majority and ultimately comes to a solution. The national interest is best served with a dose of wisdom, of laying down our arms and working together, rather than politicising every issue.

Another vexed issue is our responsibilities with regard to refugee intake. The approach we’re taking today is turning Australia into a little Australia, not realising that the refugee problem is not our problem alone, it is a global problem. It can’t be anything other than a global problem when there are sixty million people displaced and on the move. When we turn away our fair share we are abrogating our responsibility. We spend a lot of time in Australia fortifying and protecting our borders, and so we should, but at what point do we look at the four hundred people on Nauru, seeking a Temporary Protection or Safe Haven Enterprise visa? Are they really such a problem for us? Germany took in one million people in 2015, and their approach has been to absorb them, rather than spend an enormous amount of money trying to palm them off to somewhere else. Morally, we can do better. I believe there is an opportunity for bipartisanship. Rather than do a deal with America, we should do a deal with ourselves! Lay down our arms politically. Keep in place the boat turn-backs. Break the people smugglers business model to ensure we control our borders, but still seek to resolve this issue. There is no moral justification for keeping asylum seekers in detention on Nauru any longer, not to mention the significant amount of money being spent.

We are being not at all protectionist when it comes to our citizens and local industries yet highly protectionist when it comes to our borders and issues of humanity.

How can it possibly be economically viable to spend billions of dollars (over the forward estimates) to house people in offshore detention centres, especially when the rest of the world is trying to find more practical solutions? I’m fully supportive of an orderly migration program and secure borders, which have served our country well. We’re known to be one of the best countries in the world for settlement, precisely because it has been orderly and planned, but we live in a world where if we’re going to accept a lesser role in car manufacturing due to globalisation then we have to think of the movement of people in similar terms. We can’t control the Syrian conflict and we’re not responsible for it, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it. We are being not at all protectionist when it comes to our citizens and local industries yet highly protectionist when it comes to our borders and issues of humanity. We all agree that refugees have contributed significantly to Australian life, so what is it that we’re afraid of? With the strong border protections we have in place, why not let the remaining men, women and children in detention into Australia?

There are many issues on which the public is seeking more from their politicians. The middle ground is no longer about falling in line with globalisation and a market economy as it was back in the Hawke/Keating governments. Those arguments have already been won. I, and the community that I represent, want government to show interest in and have an action plan on issues of equality and humanity. We need people on both sides to step in with goodwill; to bring all of their intellectual, moral and ethical capacities to the table in order to resolve some of these major issues, not for the benefit of our respective sides of parliament, but for the national interest and the common good.

Bitnami