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Tuesday, 24 October 2017
Page: 11876


Mr GILES (Scullin) (19:11): There's a paradox that is affecting and also shaping politics right across the developed world at the moment. People right across OECD nations and particularly in Australia perceive a real need for fundamental change to the way we live now and particularly to how we might live into the future. They see this need, but they also doubt the capacity of this to be achieved at all, particularly through the present institutional framework that governs our politics. This is a matter that is of deep concern to me and that I think should be of concern to all of us, because it reflects failures of policy but also of politics. Distrust and alienation in relation to politics in Australia isn't simply a reaction to instances of corrupt conduct. It goes beyond that, to a sense that the rules of the game, not just in workplaces but in how we are governed, simply aren't fit for purpose. Especially for those of us on this side of politics, those of us who are committed to building a more equal and inclusive society, this represents a profound challenge. So I want to speak about one particular aspect of this challenge of rebuilding trust in politics through the prism of the responsibilities I have as a member of this parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

But before getting to those specifics, I want to touch more broadly on the context within which this committee's work on political donation and disclosure reform is being undertaken and the role it plays, not in resolving these issues but in being part of a resolution, part of a settlement towards politics that more Australians feel they can more effectively participate in and have confidence in. So when I go about my role I think about what's happening economically and socially and how this is driving change in our political institutions and organisations right around the OECD and in Australia.

We are witnessing a continuing phenomenon whereby, on one hand, we are seeing a populist insurgency. In Australia we've seen it in various forms. Much more obviously, we have seen it in Europe. I note that a 31-year-old leader of a populist party became the leader of government in Austria just a few days ago. And of course we have seen Brexit. We have seen the election of President Trump. We are seeing a lot of data in Australia, which is reflected elsewhere, about declining trust in politics, declining involvement in political parties, declining civic participation, declining confidence in our institutions and, most worryingly, in recent Lowy foundation research, declining confidence, which is particularly pronounced amongst young Australians, about the importance of democracy.

This is a fundamental challenge to anyone who holds elected office or wishes to hold elected office. It's a challenge we have to meet head-on. It's a challenge that, as I said earlier, has many facets, and I think we have to acknowledge in this place that the disruption that is going on to political parties is also related to the disruption that's going on to media organisations. There is a very important relationship here. How we do politics is obviously changing, and so is how we consume news, which is the means through which we determine our understanding of the world and how our constituents determine their understanding of the world and the work we do.

I just make this observation because it goes critically to these questions about the influence money plays in how our politics is conducted and the importance of reaching a broad settlement in this place to restrict the influence, real and perceived, of external actors on what happens in the Australian parliament and in Australian government. I spoke earlier about failures of policy and failures of politics in terms of driving this sense of alienation, cynicism and disillusionment with politics. On the policy front, I'm so very proud to be part of a Labor team, headed by the member for Maribyrnong, which is squarely focused on combatting inequality, with a policy framework that is fit for purpose, that responds to what has been going on and that understands that, despite 26 consecutive years of economic growth, the benefits of that growth have not been spread equally and that too many Australians have been left behind and too many Australians feel—because this is in fact the case—that they will not enjoy the standard of living their parents did. This is not the social compact upon which modern Australia has been founded. This is not a social compact upon which Australia can continue to prosper and thrive as a nation.

Our policy work, led by Bill Shorten, the Leader of the Opposition, also recognises the critical relationship between economic and political inequality. What's happening to people economically is shaped by and is shaping their alienation from the political process. People feel powerless because all too often they are powerless, whether it's because of institutions that aren't subject to democratic oversight making critical decisions which shape the circumstances of their life, or whether it's because of their sense that the rules of the political game are rigged against them—that those doing well are simply being licensed to do better and better and better. This is particularly the case under this government.

The present Prime Minister has been inconsistent on so many aspects of his political journey, but I will give him credit for this: he has been a consistent neoliberal and he has been a consistent advocate for trickle-down economics. But he has not given sufficient thought to the sort of society this produces. So I say we need to respond to this. We need to respond to this in terms of how we conduct ourselves if we are concerned to see more Australians engage more effectively with our politics. We need to consider how, as public office holders, we conduct the debates we have over our visions, shared and often different, for policy foundations to secure Australians' living standards.

Today's question time was not a great example of how we can resolve difficult issues in this place and build confidence in this. There is a shared responsibility to do this, which is why the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has been such an important body to build bipartisan and indeed multipartisan consensus on establishing, in effect, a framework within which we can play out arguments and differing views. I would like to acknowledge the work of the chair, Senator Reynolds, who has been a very effective chair in stewarding this process, and Senator Rhiannon, from the Greens party. I disagree with senators Rhiannon and Reynolds on many issues, but we share a desire to work through this process to make sure that we can play out our substantive arguments more effectively and engender more confidence in the Australian people for them, and we have done good work. But I am concerned that the continuing work that we are doing is under threat. I am concerned by suggestions that the government will proceed to legislate unilaterally on some aspects of donation reform without considering its wider impact. I'm concerned at several levels on this.

The matter of process is important. If we are to build trust in politics, we have to take a shared ownership of our institutional framework and reach agreement, wherever possible, on that. We also have to be conscious of two things: firstly, the chilling impact of decisions we make on civil society. We should all be encouraging a more robust democracy. We should be encouraging a broad debate about building faith in politics, about responding to the very real concerns that Australians have that this is a game in which they cannot have confidence.

There is much more than simply tidying up donations reform to be done in this regard. But I will say this: it is important that we take the sorts of steps the Leader of the Opposition has proposed through legislation which is in the parliament and which has not been subject to any particularly credible critique on foreign donations reform. It is important that we seek to instil more transparency in who influences who in politics and lower the amounts of money that can be generated, but this cannot be the sum total of our efforts to build integrity. We need to do the reverse of what Senator Hanson has been suggesting and look at how we can better engage younger Australians in the electoral process, responding to their particular sense of alienation, not shut the door on their engagement. We need to look, today of all days, into how we can make sure that the institutions of state are genuinely independent and not unnecessarily politicised. Today is a difficult day in that regard to have confidence in a bipartisan settlement. We need to look at a wider integrity framework. But, above all, if we are to play out the debates and to have confidence in our different views about how we can build a more successful Australia, we need to work closely together on rebuilding faith in politics. This is a shared responsibility and a shared duty of all of us.