SPECIAL GUEST SPEAKER – AUSTRALIAN YOUNG LABOR CONFERENCE
5 FEBRUARY 2017
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Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to speak to you.
I especially thank the organisers of this conference, including your National President, Ben Rillo, Senior Vice-President, Josh Gilligan, and National Secretary, Josh Orchard.
It is the deliberations of conferences like this one that will shape the future course of Labor politics.
You all know that we live in a highly complex society undergoing rapid change.
A society in which relationships that once seemed solid are fraying, and political allegiances are under strain.
Working-class Australians are becoming disconnected from their traditional occupations and sources of support.
These social discontents are transforming the politics of democracies everywhere.
The most alarming example has been the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. We’ve seen a similar situation in France, Germany and Italy, and in Britain, where working class communities have supported far right parties.
But we see it here, too, in the resurgence of One Nation.
What One Nation and Trump share is that they are outsider politicians.
They can get elected because of the increasing alienation of many people from mainstream politics.
People who are deeply anxious because they are economically insecure.
That is why Malcolm Turnbull’s enthusiasm for innovation, which briefly became his buzzword after he replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, had little appeal outside the gentrified inner suburbs of the capital cities.
The shrivelling of the Government’s electoral majority showed that many people do not share Mr Turnbull’s belief that this is the most exciting time to be an Australian.
The Prime Minister was never really clear what he meant by innovation.
His use, or rather misuse, of the term was an early warning of what has become the Turnbull trademark in politics.
He is all style without substance.
He is a glib and weak vacillator, who asks Australians to trust him because he has their best interests at heart.
But he consistently fails to earn that trust.
To people who have experience of innovation policy, and its connections with broader science and research policy, Turnbull’s lack of understanding was apparent from the start.
To be effective, innovation talk can’t only, or even chiefly, be directed to the denizens of the inner cities.
It needs to win the support of people in the outer suburbs, regional cities, and rural areas.
The areas where the support for outsider parties like One Nation is strongest.
This is not to say that the majority of Australians are anti-intellectual Luddites.
Rather, it is to recognise the effect of growing disparities of wealth and the impact of the lowest full-time employment participation rate in generations.
It is to recognise that there has been no effective wages growth for years.
It is to recognise that the workforce in the so-called old economy in the outer suburbs and regions is becoming increasingly dependent on casual hiring.
Above all, it is to acknowledge a global reality identified by the International Monetary Fund.
For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, technological change is the cause of inequality because it is destroying more jobs than it creates. The losers of globalisation are the very communities that will determine the result of the next federal election.
The consequence is that this deepening inequality will retard growth.
What is happening is a crisis of capitalism, which has brought about a crisis of the political system.
This crisis is the root cause of a decline in the perceived legitimacy of the agendas pushed by political elites.
It is a huge problem for any democratic political system when we can’t talk to large sections of the population.
And by that test, the focus of innovation policy under the Turnbull Government is fundamentally misconceived.
Innovation programs should not be directed chiefly to start-up businesses run by hipsters spruiking the latest mobile phone app.
A successful innovation system requires a suite of measures that also address the plight of older businesses.
Businesses that actually generate jobs.
Innovation is not typically something that happens online or on your phone.
Innovation essentially means doing what we do better.
It is a process, and it happens on the factory floor and in the office as well as in universities and research agencies.
A successful innovation policy requires building what I call an alliance of blue collar and white coat.
That is why it must be an integral part of broader science and research policy.
These are all areas in which the Abbott and Turnbull governments have demonstrably failed.
The Abbott Government’s budget in 2014 cut $3 billion from science, research and innovation programs.
The Turnbull Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda has restored only $1 billion.
What we have now is innovation-lite.
And we are witnessing the steady degradation of Australia’s science and research capabilities.
Under two prime ministers and four industry and science ministers, there has been a consistent preference for research outcomes that turn a quick dollar.
That is not conducive to the outlook and practice of science.
A Government that understood the relationship between science, research and innovation policy would not have focused narrowly on commercialisation at the expense of basic research.
Because if you abandon basic research, you gradually diminish your ability to do applied research effectively.
Winning public support for innovation will depend on our success in creating new and better jobs for working people.
This is a social-democratic approach to innovation.
It is not an add-on to Labor politics.
It reflects the deepest values we have always held.
It arises from the vision of society that the party and the broader Labor movement have always striven to build.
A society based on equality, decency and respect for human rights.
A society in which economic opportunity and prosperity are available to all, not just the mega-rich or those already privileged.
To fulfil that vision, we must be a party of government.
Because we know that power in our society is not evenly distributed.
Redressing the balance requires collective action by the state, by trade unions and community organisations.
The Turnbull Government is already a lame duck.
In the year ahead, and the remainder of this Parliament, our task is to win the trust of the Australian people, which Malcolm Turnbull has failed to do.
We can expect the next election in the spring of 2018 – although the way this Government is going it could be held at any time.
The election will be won and lost in the outer suburbs and the regional towns and cities.
It will be won if we can persuade people that Labor’s social-democratic vision is about them.
We will need to focus upon issues that directly affect people’s living standards and economic opportunities, for themselves and their children.
Hence Bill Shorten’s emphasis on jobs and the need for governments to put people first.
We need to demonstrate that only Labor can build a fairer, progressive, prosperous and inclusive Australia.
We must constantly remind Australians that One Nation and other right-wing fringe dwellers offer only hatred and division.
I commend that task to you, who are the future of the Labor Party.