INCLUSIVE CITIZENSHIP: A LABOR AGENDA SIXTH WRAN LECTURE SYDNEY

 

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THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR WOMEN
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY

 

INCLUSIVE CITIZENSHIP: A LABOR AGENDA

 SIXTH WRAN LECTURE

 SYDNEY

 

TUESDAY, 21 NOVEMBER 2017

 ***CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY***

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay respects to their elders past and present.

 

Introduction

You might have noticed that citizenship has been in the news a bit lately.

Members and Senators have resigned, others have been moved-on by the High Court, one of them blamed his Mum….the whole thing has gotten pretty silly.

But while the recent run of by-elections has started to look more like farce than tragedy, the issue of citizenship itself is an important one, and one for progressives to shape.

In the Labor party we talk a lot about inclusive prosperity…

…our plan to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are more evenly shared; reducing inequality and driving further growth.

Tonight I want to talk to you about inclusive citizenship.

Citizenship can be used to exclude.

Like the White Australia Policy or Peter Dutton’s most recent effort to revive it with a university level written English exam.

Or it can be used to include.

Australian citizenship is the glue that holds our proudly multicultural nation together.

As Neville Wran himself put it:

In this nation of immigrants, the only definition of being Australian, the only one that matters is commitment to the future of Australia.

Citizenship comes with rights and responsibilities – to each other.

Conservatives love to wrap themselves in the flag, but what is missing from their notion of citizenship is solidarity; what we owe to one another.

The hard right have long sought a monopoly privilege on Australian patriotism.

But they’re wrong.

Indeed, the very act of seeking that monopoly shows just how wrong they are.

You can be a progressive and love your country: I do.

You can cherish this nation and yet want to make it better: all of us in this room do.

You can be proud of your citizenship and dedicated to progress.

Because the values that underlie our citizenship are fundamentally progressive ones:

-           Democracy

-           Equality

-           Fairness

When John Howard took to poetry late in life, and drafted a preamble to the Australian Constitution he focused on mateship.

But from John Howard, it just didn’t ring true.

“Mateship” is about solidarity, loyalty, working together to help each other.

It’s a foreign notion to the dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, world view of the right.

Mateship is not back slapping and locker room talk.

It’s a helping hand when you need it.

Because each one of us is equal; each one of us deserving.

My great friend Tom Uren used to talk to me a lot about life as a POW on the Burma Railway in World War II.

Tom said his politics was formed there, under the influence of Weary Dunlop.

The Australians, he said, had better survival rates than the British because the Australians looked after one another, irrespective of rank.

Earlier this year Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton sought to introduce changes to the way people became Australian citizens.

We were treated to a lecture by the Prime Minister about how his new measures would preserve and strengthen “Australian values”…..

….although when pressed, he struggled to say exactly how the measures would do this and how Australian values were under threat in the first place.

So what are these Australian values?

While Malcolm Turnbull struggled to articulate them, I think they’re beautifully expressed by the Citizenship Pledge itself.

 

Citizenship pledge

I love hearing new citizens recite the pledge – making a commitment to the country they have chosen to be their new home.

The first oath of citizenship was similar in substance to the one given by my own parents when they arrived on these shores:

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Sixth, his heirs and successors according to law, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Australia and fulfil my duties as an Australian citizen.

This was the Australia of Chifley and Calwell, still grappling with its new Post War identity; still pledging loyalty to the Crown while welcoming millions of new Australians.

The oath remained largely unchanged until 1994 when the Keating Government introduced the words spoken by new citizens today.

I’m in good company in my regard for this pledge.

Twenty years ago, Neville Wran argued that this should be the same oath Federal politicians swear when they are elected to Parliament.

From this time forward I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,

-           whose democratic beliefs I share,

-           whose rights and liberties I respect, and

-           whose laws I will uphold and obey.

It’s an elegant expression of what it takes to be a good citizen.

Nick Bolkus, when introducing the legislation said:

we need to have an oath of allegiance which reflects the core values of Australia and which is a bonding instrument…

And so it is.

The pledge demands “loyalty to Australia and its people”.

The loyalty we ask new citizens to give is to one another; to all of us.

It’s not to the government or the monarch; it’s not to an ideology or an abstract institution.

In those very first few words of welcome we pledge our fidelity to each other - to the collective and the common good.

Encouraging people to pledge loyalty to their fellow Australians when they decide to make this country their permanent home is a powerful way of joining our story.

Under Labor, the Minister’s message read out at these ceremonies ended with two simple words: “Welcome home.”

When Scott Morrison took over, he deleted them. 

That says it all.

Five years ago I gave a speech at the Sydney Institute where I said that I thought all school kids should be encouraged to learn the citizenship pledge and recite it at school.

It’s something I hope to pursue if I become Education Minister.

Because whether you’re born here or choose Australia as your new home, the pledge sets out a template for inclusive citizenship.

 

Democratic beliefs

The pledge’s first limb talks of the “democratic beliefs I share.”

The democratic tradition runs strong in our people.

We were the world’s social laboratory: one of the first countries to allow for near universal suffrage and extend suffrage to women.

Of course, to our great shame, Indigenous Australians did not get the right to vote until 1962.

While Australians could have been excused for boycotting the Government’s ridiculous, wasteful, divisive and hurtful recent postal survey, they participated in spite of all of those things.

The near 80 per cent turn-out was a powerful act of democratic defiance.

Australians proved themselves better, braver and more decent than their government – and worlds away from the hate and fear pushed by grubbier elements of the “NO” campaign.

And as much as I was delighted to see “YES” win the day, I don’t want to see any more of these ‘innovations in democracy’ that submit people’s relationships to public judgement, or make human rights subject to the whims of a survey.

Equality isn’t the gift of the majority – it’s fundamental, it’s indivisible and it should be as much a part of citizenship as the pledge itself.

 

Democratic participation

Democracy is a lot more than just turning up to vote.

It is a reflection of the values at the heart of progressive politics.

Each one of us is equal.

Democracy isn’t just something we do grudgingly every few years on a Saturday between taking the kids to soccer and doing the groceries.

It’s in the way we treat people at home, at work; in private and in public.

Democratic workplaces mean the voices of workers are heard and valued when decisions are made that affect their lives.

It’s one of the reasons why strong unions are so critical.

We need democracy in our personal lives too, with respectful and equal interpersonal relationships.

Now I’m a parent, and democracy doesn’t mean we workshop bedtime or vote on whether vegetables should be included with meals.

I can assure you that in these areas I assume dictatorial powers.

What I mean by democracy at home is equality between the adults, and understanding that children, while needing guidance to grow into good adults, have intrinsic rights too – to be safe, to be heard and respected.

We need it in our institutions, especially – dare I say it – in our very own political party.

Democracy gives us protection from others who would dominate us, but it also means a commitment from us not to misuse our own power.

Democracy doesn’t happen on its own.

It needs to be built and nurtured.

And for all of us it means acknowledging our responsibility to contribute to the collective good in the best way we can.

 

Democracy and civil society

Of course, we’ll all have our own views about the best way to discharge our democratic responsibilities.

It can be through participation in the political battle, or active engagement in civil society.

A free and diverse press, churches, social welfare organisations, the charitable sector, non-government organisations, think-tanks – a strong and vibrant democracy requires them all.

Again, the attitude of the conservatives is instructive here.

They are content to reduce diversity in our media.

And while the Howard Government expanded the role of the charitable sector in service delivery it also introduced gag clauses into their funding.

Charities were good enough to deliver services, but were officially banned from advocating for the people they served.

When we were elected in 2007 we scrapped these gag clauses, but they were reintroduced under Tony Abbott.

Advocacy cannot be an optional extra in a well-functioning democracy – it is a foundation of it.

 

Threats to democracy

We can’t take democracy for granted.

We need to protect it at home and argue for it internationally.

We have seen that in just the last 36 hours. 

The suspension of the scheduled sitting of the House of Representatives is an almost unprecedented move by a Government.

You can’t just suspend democracy when it becomes inconvenient.

You can’t turn your back on our institutions because they threaten your majority or your grip on power or your Party room.

That is the slippery slope towards authoritarianism.

And in this country it has always come from the so-called conservatives – prepared to trash our democratic institutions when they get in the way of their sense of entitlement.

Since the end of the Cold War, democracy has had an unchallenged run of being regarded as the naturally superior type of government.

Yet more recently we see authoritarian forms of government resurgent.

Russia, seeking to expand its influence in Europe and the Middle East – and even in the Pacific.

In the face of U.S. retreat, China has signalled its support of globalism and a willingness to export its political model to developing countries.

Democracy – real democracy – still needs its advocates.

 

Rights and liberties

The citizenship pledge also talks about an Australian population “whose rights and liberties I respect”.

We’re a better country when we respect each other’s rights and liberties.

Of course, our understanding of these develops over time, but I’m always proud of the fact that it was an Australian and a Labor hero, Doc Evatt, who built a model of the UN in which the smallest countries had the same voice as the most powerful.

And I’m proud of the fact that it was Jessie Street, another great Australian, who ensured women had the same rights as men in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We should all be conscious of our own rights and liberties and be fierce in safeguarding them, but in their exercise comes the responsibility to also respect and protect the rights and liberties of others.

In voting for marriage equality we were ensuring that same sex couples were “equal before the law and entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”.

We are now told by opponents of marriage equality that we need to respect the rights of religious Australians to free worship.

And so we should.

Every Australian should have the right to religious freedom but that is the right not to be discriminated against because of your religious views or practice.

It should not give a person the right to discriminate against others in the name of their religion.

The draft Bill provides enhanced protections for churches but a religious belief should not allow just anyone to refuse to provide a good or service to someone based on their sexuality.

Just imagine if we suggested that business-owners had the right to refuse to provide a good or service to a mixed race couple because they had a prejudice against “miscegenation”.

One person’s religious belief should not mean a woman is not allowed to go out of the house unless escorted by a man.

Someone else’s religious belief can’t deny me the ability to consume alcohol, eat pork or beef, have an affair, swear, work on a Sunday or even covet my neighbour’s ox or donkey, as tempting as those last two may be.

But here’s the thing: while the law should not prevent me from doing these things, sometimes courtesy and good manners might.

So in our defence of our own rights, respecting the feelings of others is not a weakness.

It is how we make our bonds stronger.

 

Contemporary discussion of rights

Of course, so often talk of rights in this country has been the preserve of the already elite and powerful.

In recent times we have been treated to George Brandis telling us that “we have a right to be a bigot” and, in an increasingly incoherent rejection of marriage equality, Kevin Andrews has argued that Jewish bakers should be able to refuse service to Muslim customers and vice versa.

And we have all grown weary – and perhaps even a little embarrassed – by Mark Latham complaining to the few remaining people clicking on his Facebook page that his rights as a white, male with a generous taxpayer-funded pension, are apparently under constant and fierce attack.

This came to a head with the unhinged debate around section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

And having stood up for poor oppressed newspaper columnists everywhere, it is notable that the self-appointed guardians of free speech at the Institute of Public Affairs - and in the conservative press – were silent when John Lloyd, the Federal Public Service Commissioner, told public servants they were banned from sharing their opinions on political issues on social media or in private emails.

Or when Streets told workers they might be sacked if they put an angry face emoji on a Facebook post about the company that was cutting their wages by 46 per cent.

These are real freedom of speech issues.

There are pressing rights issues in this country that should be addressed.

Surely the most fundamental right of all is the right to be free from violence and intimidation.

Yet in this country one in four women has experienced violence at the hand of their current or former partner.

And where this country has the most work to do – where there is clearly unfinished business – is in addressing the rights of our First Nations’ peoples and their liberties.

 

Uphold and obey the Law

The final line of the pledge is a promise to uphold and obey the law.

The rule of law protects us all.

But laws evolve and we should always seek to make them fairer.

The Labor Party was founded to ensure that the law was fair for working people.

In the State of NSW, it was not until 1984, with Neville Wran as Premier, that homosexuality was decriminalised.

If not for the reforming Wran Government, loving relationships between same sex couples would have remained illegal for much longer.

Now, no-one imagines that homosexuality didn’t exist before these laws were changed.

Normal human sexuality was criminalised; people lost their jobs, lived in fear.

These laws could not be upheld and needed to be changed.

Labor has always believed in working within the system to make it just and fair.

A model of inclusive citizenship says that part of our responsibilities to each other is to obey and uphold the law or to argue publicly that it is outdated and must change.

And then to do the hard work of winning government and making that change.

 

Neville Wran’s legacy

And that’s what Neville Wran did.

As we all know, Neville was a working class kid from Balmain.

He once said that what being in the working class was about was getting out of it – and he did that by applying his extraordinary intellect and talent to a career in the law.

Unlike the establishment who dominated the Sydney Bar, he had not inherited privilege.

He could have spent his whole career building it and hoarding it.

Instead, he decided he had a responsibility as a citizen.

Wran brought democracy to NSW politics by doing away with the colonial legacies of the Legislative Council and making it a genuinely representative chamber of review. 

He advanced the rights and liberties of others, particularly by decriminalising homosexuality, by advancing the land rights of Aboriginal Australians and through the introduction of the Anti-Discrimination Act.

In his career as a solicitor and barrister he took seriously his duty to uphold and obey the law.

But when that wasn’t enough he entered the Parliament to draft the laws and right the wrongs.

Conclusion

In 2015, in the months after Bronwyn Bishop got caught attending a Liberal Party fundraiser in a helicopter, everywhere I went, people asked me if I came by chopper.

Well the citizenship circus has become a bit like that.

I hope it’s resolved when parliament comes back - whenever that may be.

But more importantly, I hope the past few months don’t cheapen the word citizenship.

Because citizenship at its best is the very essence of our great social-democratic nation: inclusive, egalitarian and open to all who share our values and respect our laws.

And citizenship at its best,

 

-           like politics at its best,

-           like Labor at our best,

-           is a commitment to the future of Australia.

 

And as Neville Wran said, that’s the only thing that matters.

 

ENDS