House debates

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Parliamentary Representation


4:18 pm

Photo of Wayne SwanWayne Swan (Lilley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I was fishing for that! When I first drafted the speech, I did want to reach out across the chamber. I actually thought I would be able to ask people, perhaps, to remove their party blinkers and at least try to understand a bit more about why people take the policy stances they do, even if they're disagreed with.

From my point of view, that's particularly the case in what I had to say about the global financial crisis and so on. It's not just a question of Labor good, Liberal bad or anything like that. It's just that if we do have another crisis we are going to need a response like that, and the current demonization of that response is not going to be consistent with our national interest at any time in the future.

But I'm even more pessimistic about other things, because, unfortunately, there's been a divisive tone that's pervaded this place in the past week. It has made me realise that reaching out to the other side is perhaps impossible. I say this because I was here during the Tampa episode in 2001, and I do recall the way it changed us. The night John Howard sprung his Tampa trap in the parliament, otherwise known as the Border Protection Bill, I actually wasn't here. I was on the couch at home recovering from prostate cancer surgery, and I watched the events unfold with growing trepidation. In the weeks that followed, the politics of fear drowned out domestic political issues.

And, of course, before that event covert appeals to racism and xenophobia were regarded as unworthy of our country's elected representatives. When the ship was turned back, something else floated into our harbours in its wake: American race based dog-whistle politics. That politics is not new; it's as old as politics itself. We all thought it had died some time well before 2001. But we were wrong. During the eighties, it was brought back to life in America during the 1988 presidential election. There was a determined strategy to link the black community with violent crime. It worked. It became the template for what happened in Australia in 2001—a scab that's remained there ever since. Sure enough, 18 years later, it is being used again. Read the Hansard, listen to the debate, read ministerial transcripts; the only thing missing is the subtlety of yesteryear.

Soon after that 1988 campaign—this is the one in America—the architect of that strategy, strategist Lee Atwater, contracted fatal brain cancer. Before he died he set out to make his peace with the world. He said that his illness had helped him to see that what was missing in society was what was missing in him: 'a little heart, a lot of brotherhood' and that his own actions had contributed to 'a spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society' and a 'tumour of the soul'—that is, the man who invented the political strategy now being dusted off once again had repented. It says a lot. My hope is that this ugly approach is so soundly defeated at the ballot box that it can never arise again. And that's the good news; it won't work, not this time. One of the greatest things about democracy is its moral force. Sometimes parties can lose a moral right to govern before they lose their numerical majority in parliament. For the coalition, the first is already gone and the second is about to follow in its wake.

Finally, I want to thank the workforce in the parliament and, more generally, the support and backup that we all get as MPs. I want to thank the cleaners, the drivers, the transport office, the attendants—I just talked to Luch before; he has been here 30-odd years—the cooks, the security, the library staff for all of their help over the years. And I want to say to them that I was here for people like you. We will not prosper as a country unless we value the contributions of everyone in our community and in our workforce—the cleaners, the office workers—just as we value the work of the policy strategists, the entrepreneurs. We can only prosper as a country if we are all in this together and we don't think that wealth is created just by a brilliant few. We are in this together and we will succeed if we recognise that. I have some friends from Brisbane up there from Logan City and they presented me with a plaque the other day that was very touching. It said: 'It's the things that we do together that make us strong.' Nothing will stop this country if we always keep that in mind. Thank you for all of your support.


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