Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Statements by Senators

Australian Democracy, World Down Syndrome Day, Cybersafety

1:06 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to make a senator's statement today on some very important issues related to our democracy and political processes. I would particularly like to address issues of participation, accessibility and the integrity of our democracy. First, I would like to note that there is a staggering lack of diversity in Australian politics. Under-30-year-olds make up 40 per cent of the Australian population yet just one per cent of the Australian parliament. At age 23, I'm the youngest person ever to enter this place, and I'm less than half the average age of members across both the Senate and the House.

Young people are disenchanted with politics, because they don't see parliament fundamentally as representing them. Their future is not being decided by people their age who represent them, speak for them and speak with them. The question before us is: how do we increase youth participation in politics? In my opinion, central to this must be civic education. The political system has only recently been put back into the curriculum, and how well it is being taught is another matter entirely. Civic education—or, as I like to refer to it, democratic literacy—must be taught early and often to equip young people to understand the importance of taking part in the political system and to help us recognise that this is a space in which our future is being created and in which we have a right to participate.

Australia's young people—and I am proud to count myself among them—are interested in politics and passionate about the issues, but unless we improve civic education and encourage young people not only to enrol to vote but also to put themselves forward in elections, their capacity to participate in democracy and shape society in the future will continue to be limited. We must stop drawing the correlation between age, maturity and experience, because it is fundamentally damaging our democracy. This is why we Greens have a policy to increase the political opportunities and engagement of young people by lowering the voting age to 16. And this is why the Greens want to see a much greater emphasis placed on encouraging and educating young people about the importance of our political process in order to improve Australian democracy.

I would now like to turn to the issue of the accessibility of Australian democracy. Under article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it is recognised that it is the right of disabled people to stand for elections, to effectively hold office and to perform all public functions at all levels of government. However, many barriers exist to disabled people exercising this right to fully participate in democracy, including voting in elections, nominating for office, making informed decisions, lobbying, and getting their issues on the political agenda. Policies by political parties are rarely produced in accessible formats such as audio, braille, easy read or large print. As a consequence, disabled people are presented with barriers to being well informed on the policies of all parties. The Free Interpreting Service, which is available to non-English-speaking Australians to communicate with approved groups and individuals, including MPs, does not include hearing services. As a result, hearing-impaired people are presented with barriers to communicating with their elected representatives.

I can personally attest to the barriers that exist in this country for a disabled person to become a candidate in campaigning for an election and in entering the parliament—a place that, prior to my arrival, was not accessible to a person who uses a wheelchair and continues not to be so in many ways. I cannot commend enough the people who have worked to make this place accessible for me, but I am also deeply saddened and frustrated that it took my presence to bring this change about. This is why, now that I am here, and having broken in under such unusual circumstances, I intend to make damned sure that I am not the last.

I would also like to note that today is World Down Syndrome Day with a theme of what I bring to my community. Disabled people, as equal citizens, bring much to our communities, our democracy and our country. More than that, we have the right to participate at all levels. It is our society that is creating barriers to participation and it is our society that must change.

Finally, I would like to turn to the issue that has been covered very widely this week, which is the use of personal information collected, stored and used without consent in order to microtarget individuals with political advertising. The names that jump out in this narrative are, of course, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and Donald Trump. But there are so many weak links in this chain that it becomes difficult to point a finger and even more difficult to draw a line as to what is legal, moral, ethical and democratic.

At the centre of all this are the platforms, which, on the surface, are tools for connecting with loved ones, entertainment, news, shopping and so on. But, also, what lurks beneath is far more insidious. These tools mercilessly collect your personal information, habits, thoughts, likes and connections and build profiles so accurate that the product that is you is extremely valuable to advertisers, influencers and anybody who is willing to pay to access you and people like you.

Then we come to the next layer of scum—Cambridge Analytica, who seized the opportunity to scrape your details from Facebook, value-add with other big data and build tools for political parties to microtarget you with just the right words at just the right time to buy your vote. Add to this the fact that the Australian Privacy Act does not apply to politicians, political parties or those acting on their behalf, and you have a recipe for the wholesale violation of the privacy rights of Australian citizens. Your private information and every detail about your life is being collected, stored and used for purposes for which you do not give your consent. You are for sale, as your vote is for sale, and this is legal. This is within the terms of service of your platform and your country.

So the question falls to us: what are we going to do about these issues? We must contemplate this with rigour. We must consider within this place: how democratic is our democracy? How representative, how diverse and how inclusive is this space? We must ask ourselves: how fair is our democracy? Is it working for everybody? Is it working for anybody or is it working for a select few? How can we do this better? How can we make our democracy something which truly represents us all? How can we fundamentally transform it? How must we temporarily fix it? Finally, if we consider, as I do, that increasingly our democracy is being bought, captured and resold by the special interests of a select few, we must consider how best to take it back.