My portfolios of Citizenship & Multicultural Australia, Environment & Water and the Arts capture much of the conversation about national identity. They cover the land and its people and the creative ways in which we express who we are. Add in Indigenous Affairs and I’d probably have the lot. The stories that we tell help to form and shape our national identity. There are two sorts of Australian stories, those that have been told on this land since the first sunrise and those that involve immigration. We’re a nation of twenty-four million stories, each story as distinctively Australian as the others.
In a shared sense of story lies the key to a proper understanding of modern Australia. Our nation is a collection of many backgrounds; that’s who we are. From the very moment a migrant takes the pledge of citizenship, their entire story becomes part of the nation’s story.
At the 2017 ARIA awards, the two most featured bands were A.B. Original, made up of Indigenous Australians Briggs and Trials, and Gang of Youths, whose members are of Polynesian, Korean and Jewish descent. When the next generation turn on the radio and listen to the music they love, this is what they hear. They’re already living in a pluralistic society without seeing a reason to question it. They see Australia as a mixture of ingredients, perhaps like a salad, where every ingredient is distinct but together they form a national flavour. That’s modern Australia, a multicultural society built on integration. To take that analogy further, the alternative is to keep all the ingredients in separate containers, which is segregation, or blend everything into a smoothie, which is the melting pot that the United States claims to be seeking. I’ll have the salad thanks!
Multiculturalism is about retaining, rather than eliminating, identity. In the American assimilation model people are only allowed to say, “happy holidays” so as to not offend anyone. A multicultural model is where everybody gets to celebrate everything. People from different faiths join in the singing of Christmas carols, just as during Ramadan people of many faiths walk the streets of Lakemba, breaking fast, enjoying Iftar and the associated blessings. In the suburbs near where I live we admire the incredible light displays each year during the Indian festival of Deepavali.
Multiculturalism doesn’t restrict people from celebrations in order to be politically correct, it enables people to share a heritage that has a new life in Australia. When we get that right it that does nothing but enrich us all.
And another thing…
A Nod to Good Government
Good government manages the tension between policy purity and responsiveness to the public. A well-functioning democracy needs a measure of both; formulating sound, consistent policy through genuine consultation while not simply selling a preordained conclusion.
Policy is variable, whereas the core values of a good government tend not to be open to negotiation. Some principles are held so closely that the electorate is effectively told that they should vote for someone else if they hold a different view. On matters of principle, the community decides whether they want you or they don’t. That’s the nature of election campaigns.
It’s often those inviolable principles that help define the people who put their names on the ballot paper. For example, even if polling showed that a majority of Australians believed that we should not take action on climate change, a Labor government would still say that we need to, and we would. At a more personal level, I have a deeply felt objection to capital punishment. Opinion polls consistently show that Australians support capital punishment but even in the face of that, I will always be opposed to it. It wouldn’t matter if my party tried to convince me otherwise, it is a principle of mine that’s not up for negotiation, whereas on many other issues I will consult broadly. My development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a good example. In small groups, town halls and meetings of 10,000 people, I heard many views that didn’t match my own. I let people know where there was flexibility and where there wasn’t. I made it clear that a plan was needed and that I was going to put one in place without further delay, letting all stakeholders know that if they had a view on how to get there, I was willing to work with them.
Policy that is developed following genuine consultation may be imperfect, but the impact will be greater when community ownership takes hold. At a practical level, consultation necessitates deadlines.
In the party room of a good government, people accept that decisions have to be made for progress to occur, provided that they’re not consistently being cut out of the process. People will accept disagreements, but those who have dedicated themselves to public life will not accept that they’re irrelevant to a decision that they’re passionate about. If you start with the position that you’re going to make them irrelevant then they’ll find a way to prove you wrong!
Australia is sufficiently large that good government requires a willingness to delegate. Prime Ministers need to let their ministers make decisions, ministers need to delegate to assistant ministers, and the public service needs to do its job. Each layer needs auditing mechanisms in place to ensure that the principles and priorities of the government are flowing through. There have been times when parliamentary secretaries, who work for me, have made decisions that are different to the ones that I would have made. In those cases, I’ve always been careful not to re-litigate as if I were the original decision maker, but rather to ask whether the decision they’ve made is so wrong that I must intervene. Unnecessarily overriding a decision can quickly erode confidence in the person you delegate to, which reduces their ability to make decisions in the future.
In a good government, people feel motivated by the opportunity to be true to themselves. In interviews, I ask prospective team members how they’d like to change the world. Their answers reveal a true sense of what drives them and what values they hold. Then, if they’re successful, I try to make sure that in their work they get to draw on the principles that motivated them to join the team in the first place because when you work in politics, you’re not working for a brand, you’re fighting for a cause. People in good governments feel that each and every day.