HON. WAYNE SWAN MP
FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LILLEY
ADDRESS TO THE 2011 QUEENSLAND YOUNG LABOR CONFERENCE
"Social Media And A More Progressive Future"
SATURDAY, 26 FEBRUARY 2011
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Thank you to Darren Sibson for that introduction and also thanks to Khiraan Kumar for inviting me here today to address this conference. This is a very familiar building to me. I worked with some great people downstairs during the 80s and 90s, to end 32 years of National Party rule and restore a bit of fairness and decency to government.
Such a long time ago – before the days of Twitter and Facebook, and around the time when some of you in this room were born. It would be tempting to say you make me feel old, but you don't. In fact, being back here, seeing your energy and your commitment, fires me up.
Today I want to talk about the role young people are playing in our society, and how that role can help improve the way our Party operates. In the aftermath of the tragic floods and Cyclone Yasi, I want to add to the chorus of admiration for the effort young Queenslanders played in the rescue, relief, recovery and clean-up effort.
Many of you would have been involved, helping protect family, friends and local communities. I know some of you are members of the Springfield United Football Club, who pulled together as a team to help flood-affected Goodna residents – sweeping mud out of homes, clearing debris, cooking sausages and delivering water.
I'm also aware there were a number of you out in Rocklea and Oxley, up in Townsville, and right across Queensland – lending a hand and helping out those in need. My generation learned a lot from your efforts. We were amazed at the public spiritedness of your generation – and especially at the way your sense of duty expressed itself through social media.
With three-quarters of Queensland declared a disaster zone, and hundreds of thousands of people without power or phone coverage, it was younger Australians who instantly harnessed social media to deal with these disasters.
Providing mum, dad or the grandparents with up-to-date information from Facebook about flood peaks, road closures or electricity outages. A tweet to mates – a call to arms of sorts – to help the battlers out at Rocklea who had lost everything. Creating Facebook groups to help efficiently coordinate the flow of donations. Coordinating Baked Relief – the food that kept people fuelled up and ready to work. And the list goes on.
But it wasn't just the practical flow-on-effects from social media during the floods. Social media provided young Queenslanders with a virtual town hall to help build and grow community morale and camaraderie, which subsequently spread like wildfire across Queensland. These sorts of examples aren't something unique to our country.
In the United States in 2008, the Democratic Party mobilised a new generation in support of the Obama campaign. They got the vote out – but more importantly they got a new generation excited about democracy and the idea of public service. Harnessing the idealism and energy of the young is crucial to electoral success today, including here in Australia.
In some parts of the world, social media is playing an even more fundamental role in the affairs of state. Young people are toppling dictators and establishing democracy by means that simply didn't exist just a dozen years ago. Sometimes at great cost, as we are seeing in Libya right now.
The faces on the street in Cairo and elsewhere are predominantly those of the young. They are an inspiration, putting their lives on the line for the principles of democracy and freedom of speech.
Thankfully in the established democratic world young people can make their mark without risk of persecution.
Today I want to issue you with this challenge: Reinvigorate our democracy; reinvigorate our communities; and reinvigorate our Party by harnessing social media. There is power at your fingertips – more power than my generation could have dreamed of – to change opinions, change debates, change lives and change your country. My challenge to you is to harness social media to bend Australia's future in a more progressive direction. This means playing a bigger role in policy debates in our own Party.
People won't vote for a disunited party, but neither will they vote for one that lacks the spark of idealism. They expect their parties to be spaces for passionate debate, where ideas are thrashed out, fresh policies adopted, and where renewal can take place.
In other words, people won't long support a party that denies a constructive role for young people. This need to renew by finding better avenues for participation is something that was raised by John Faulkner, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr in the review of the party's decision-making process released last week.
I want to put on the record that I agree that we can no longer ignore the damage that the tendency to shy away from robust debate has had on the Party. If we want to rebuild our membership and attract new talent we have to give every member a say. Our decision-making bodies need to be reinvigorated. I want all of you to read, discuss and act on the review's recommendations for reform.
I want you to pay particular attention to the recommendation for an online national policy branch. And the recommendation for a community-organising model and a national outreach organisation, similar to Get-Up, in which the new social media generation will come to the fore. Importantly, the review recommends that young campaign activists from within the party be represented on its board of this new outreach body.
I want to throw my weight behind these recommendations and urge you to do the same. I want to encourage you to use social media and other means to rebuild the party in the same way you used it to mobilise the community during the floods and cyclones. We need new ways of operating that reflect the times.
As the review points out, our structures and practices have been drawn from the time of the party's formation 120 years ago. Since then we've been meeting under trees, in shearing sheds, in the back rooms of pubs and in dusty classrooms to build our party and organise our campaigning.
There's still a place for getting together. If I know Young Labor, the back rooms, front rooms and any rooms of pubs will always be popular. Especially over at The Fox, around the corner from here. But we also need to meet online, through Twitter, on Facebook, and via iPhones, iPads and mobiles if we want to continue to make an impact on today's world.
You are the people to lead this. The party needs you to always be on the lookout for these new opportunities. This is about survival as an organisation – no more, no less. A younger generation rightly demands that we modernise and listen or lose relevance. Empowered by social media, young Australians won't sit back and be told what to do. And if party structures won't allow them to make an impact, they will seek to influence the world in other ways.
When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, there was no question about what course a young, idealistic and politically-minded person would take: they would join the Labor Party. Today there are so many more avenues for young people to express their idealism. And there is competition from other parties as well.
This has in some respects always been the case, but the rise of the environmental movement, with its different angle on the problems confronting the world, has created new challenges for us. Delegates, we need to confront this honestly. We have to make the case for membership of our Party in the face of competition from the Greens on the left, and from an increasingly strident and seductive selfish populism from the Coalition parties on the right.
We have to show we are the party best equipped to mould the future. Let me deal with the competition from the left first. Why Labor instead of the Greens? It's the question I know many of your friends are asking. There are times we work with the Greens and times we disagree. But what makes Labor unique is that we are the only progressive party in Australia that can match our commitment to 21st Century causes with a commitment to growing the economy whilst protecting and raising the living standards of every Australian.
Labor today is both a progressive party and a social-democratic party. Our competitors sometimes don't rate the last half of that equation nearly enough. They believe we should be the party predominantly of new causes. To some, a focus on the bread and butter concerns of working people seems so 'last century'. They are wrong.
Firstly, because there's nothing incompatible with being progressive on environmental and human rights causes and being social-democratic on economic causes. Taking the environment seriously and creating secure, well-paid jobs are today the same task. And it's only by ending discrimination in all its forms that we can increase the workforce participation rate and maintain economic growth.
Our progressive stance on the environment and people's rights make good economic sense. And secondly, because without decent living standards for working people there is no progressive society. True progressives believe both in meritocracy and in a decent living standard for all. In this respect, we have the runs on the board.
Our response to the global financial crisis kept Australians in jobs and houses, and protected their hard-won affluence. We have an unemployment rate approximately half that of the United States and the Euro area. On top of this, we have massively increased investment in public schools, and in human capital right across the board.
One thing the Government is extremely proud of is that this year the enrolment of university students from low socio-economic families has gone up. Agreement on major reform to the health system on which millions of Australian families rely has now been achieved. Successfully managing the peaks and troughs of a modern economy is absolutely crucial to maintaining a fair and harmonious society.
The discontent in the United States and in parts of Europe from their failure to avoid recession is palpable – and has given rise to a new form of ugly conservatism that espouses views that are anathema to everything we believe in. And this brings me to our competitors on the right.
I want to put it to you that our opponents in the Coalition are increasingly taking their cue from new conservative movements like the Tea Party and the political strategies that lie behind them. These movements see electoral advantage in widening social disadvantage – in capitalising from division and disunity. Their aim is to make people angry at each other instead of working together to solve mutual problems.
This is Tony Abbott's playbook. Their answer to every issue is to say either 'no' or 'stop'. And their focus is only ever on the short term. Their day-to-day focus on politics jeopardises all attempts to face future challenges constructively. You only have to look at their opposition to the flood levy and carbon pricing to see that.
Worst of all, as we've seen in the past fortnight, they are increasingly nasty and divisive, unafraid to threaten the core of our social cohesion in the pursuit of their short-term electoral ends. Scott Morrison's behaviour says it all, as does Tony Abbott's refusal to sack him. To politicise the funerals for the victims of the Christmas Island boat tragedy in the way he did was bad enough. But for it then to be exposed as part of a deliberate strategy to court the One Nation vote by setting Australians against one another was absolutely despicable.
What they are doing is not just morally wrong – it's economically irresponsible. The strategy they are espousing cannot be allowed to inform the world's view of modern Australia. Let's be clear about what is at stake here: our prosperity and our growing voice in world affairs.
In the era of the international 24-hour news cycle, the world follows our debates, just as we follow those happening elsewhere. As part of the dynamic, multi-ethnic, multi-faith Asia-Pacific region, and a respected member of the world's premier economic forum, the G20, we simply cannot afford to lose our reputation as an intelligent, forward-looking and tolerant country.
The people of the developing world are hungry for our resources and our expertise, and are prepared to pay a premium to get them. Any hint of the sort of discrimination of past times will put that at risk. It's as simple as that.
Young Australians like you know just how stupid the divisive political strategy being pursued by Scott Morrison, Cori Bernardi and others is. You see the world and you see Australia as it is today – not as it was 50 years ago. You don't ask your friends or workmates what religion they follow, or how they came to live in Australia – you ask them what team they support, or what music they like. In short, you know that intolerance is stupid.
And you know that a tolerant, positive outlook on the world is the only viable future for you and for this country – as indeed it is the only viable future of every country aiming for success in the 21st Century. You have a duty and an opportunity to step up to the plate and influence the direction Australia takes.
So I urge you to stay involved in our party, to stay involved in our democracy, and to bring to their causes all the skills, all the social media savvy, the passion, the hunger, and the energy that you possess. If you do, we can bend the future of our country together, towards the more progressive, more tolerant, more prosperous future Australians deserve. Thank you.