First Speech: Tim Watts MP

Member for Gellibrand, Victoria

2 December 2013

 Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (15:50): I rise to speak in this place for the first time, conscious that I do so not only in front of the House but most importantly in front of my family. My two children are, at the same time, second and seventh generation Australians. On their paternal side, they are the progeny of six generations of Anglo-Saxon Protestants and, on their maternal side, of first generation Chinese migrants. My children's paternal ancestor, John Watts, set out for Australia from England as a 19-year-old in 1840. He came to Australia seeking the opportunity of what he called 'the colonial life' and became a landowner in the area now represented here by the member for Groom. In 1859, he was elected as the member for Drayton and Toowoomba in the first Queensland parliament and later became minister for public works. I regret to inform the House that John Watts was not a labour man, describing himself as a 'liberal conservative'. I do not question his judgement too severely as the great Australian Labor Party would not be established until some 24 years after he had left parliament.

My wife and her family came to this country from Hong Kong in 1985 seeking the same freedom and opportunity in our nation as John Watts did some 150 years before them. They brought with them a different language and cultural tradition, but they shared the same desire and determination to be the architects of a better life for themselves and for their children. Today, these braided threads of my children's heritage are equally fundamental to both their own and the Australian identity. However, in 1877, less than 10 years after my ancestor left parliament, the Queensland parliament passed a series of laws designed to force Chinese residents out of the state. The presence of my family here today—diverse, happy and thriving in a modern Australia—is a living testament to how far we have come as a nation in the last 150 years. This transformation did not happen by accident; it happened because of our politics.

Members will appreciate that 'politics' is a term of contempt in this country. However, as unpopular as it may be, it is our politics that created the institutional framework for Australia's prosperity. The success of our politics at building the institutions of growth and fairness in our society has been our true national advantage. This is why I am humbled to be elected to this place as the member for Gellibrand. I am particularly honoured to be representing a seat with such a strong Labor history. Gellibrand has always been held by the Labor Party, and most recently Nicola Roxon and Ralph Willis provided four decades of extraordinary service to the Labor cause.

It is not easy being a Labor member of this House. While Labor's ideological objective—expanding equality of opportunity, social and economic—is very simple, more often than not the political task of advancing this cause is a very difficult one. Labor is the fire in our democracy. We are the source of the combustion that drives political change in our nation, but this flame is difficult to maintain. When the tenders of this flame have failed to fuel it, when we have let the embers of reform burn too low, the public has overlooked us. Equally, when we have let the fires of radical change burn too rapidly, when the flame has grown too wild, the public has recoiled and rejected us.

My strategy for the tending of this flame of change is taken from the New Labour strategist, the late Lord Philip Gould. He convinced me that progressives should not focus simply on winning elections, as crucial as that was, but instead plan on the bigger picture of winning centuries. Lord Gould argued that to win centuries Labor must win the battle of ideas in our community over the long term, rallying public support to our causes in both government and opposition and forcing the conservatives to fight on political ground already captured in the minds of the public by the ideas of the progressive movement. To win centuries, Labor must shape public opinion over time, not merely reflect it. In fact, Labor must win the public debate so comprehensively in the hearts and minds of the people that, once introduced, our reforms are so embedded in a bedrock of community support that they simply cannot be overturned by a conservative government, no matter how transient.

Labor's agenda won the 20th century. We were not in power for the majority of the last 100 years, but our ideas were. From the Fisher government's championing of the old age pension and workers' compensation to the Curtin government's wartime leadership and foundational work on the Anzac alliance; from the Chifley government's nation building and leadership of the establishment of the United Nations to the Whitlam government's opening of Australia to the world through tariff reduction, trade relations with China and multiculturalism; from the Hawke government's Medicare, HECS, compulsory superannuation, dollar float and financial deregulation to the Keating government's Native Title Act, enterprise bargaining, national competition policy and APEC leaders meeting; and throughout it all the union movement's fight for better conditions for workers; it was Labor ideas that shaped the 20th century.

Members on this side of the House can look back on this legacy with pride, but the question confronting new members is how we can win the 21st century. The Labor reforms of the past are a great legacy, but they are just that: the past. We must keep feeding the fires of political reform, looking ahead and engaging with the challenges of the future. To win the next century, Labor must see the changing landscape of the nation, understand the trends that are already shaping our future and paint the big picture about how Labor's reform agenda will create a fairer and more prosperous nation. This is a challenge that the party will need to take up on many fronts—education, secure work, urban liveability, workforce participation, climate change and regulatory growth, to name just a few. There are, however, three fronts of this fight that I want to personally address briefly today: first, defending the role of government in a period of fiscal challenge; second, championing the online communities which have emerged as a result of the digital revolution; and, third, showing that the success of our open economy depends on our open society founded on immigration and multiculturalism.

The first must-win debate for Labor is the role of government in a time of fiscal challenge. The case for an intelligent, active government needs to be continually remade. We in the Labor Party are different from the conservatives because we understand the role that government must play to make our nation a fairer and more prosperous place. While Labor must resist the unthinking Left, whose answer is always and everywhere to increase the role of the state, we must also rebut the ideologues of the Right who see no role for government that does not simply prop up the status quo.

It is no secret that Australia is currently in a period of structural fiscal constraint. Important sources of government revenue are under pressure and significant areas of government expenditure are growing. If we do nothing, the budget goes backwards. Yet, while you might easily miss it amongst the din and filthy clamour of partisanship and sloganeering, Australia already has a lean government by international standards. Our tax-to-GDP and spending-to-GDP ratios are among the lowest in the developed world. Despite this, the conservatives' response to fiscal contraction has been to unthinkingly and ideologically cut government spending. Their instinct is to chase the spiral downwards.

In this context, Labor must convince the public that the size of government must be determined primarily by our expectations of it. While some public revenue sources are under pressure, the task of government has not reduced. We cannot cut our way to a fairer and more prosperous nation. We must continue to invest in urban infrastructure so that the strains of population growth do not cripple the productivity of those living in our cities and suburbs—investments like the regional rail link and metro rail tunnel that will allow for more services and ensure a faster and more reliable commute for people across Melbourne's west, not just for those who catch the train but also for those who drive.

We must invest in the nation's human capital, ensuring that we have a workforce that possesses the skills needed to do the high-paying work of the modern economy—investments like Labor's Better Schools package, which delivered millions in additional funding for schools in Melbourne's west and was distributed to those who needed it the most on a needs based funding model.

We must continue to invest in the health of our people to avoid the emerging fiscal productivity and participation crisis of the rise of chronic disease. In Gellibrand, 5.3 per cent of the population currently suffers from diabetes. It is estimated that there are half as many again with undiagnosed diabetes or pre-diabetes. Without investments in preventative health, like Labor's Medicare Locals, the cost of this chronic disease will be felt throughout the budget and the economy. These brief examples show that there will always be problems that we need to collectively pool our resources in order to solve. In these areas, the short-term savings of smaller government condemn our society and economy to greater costs in the long term.

The second must-win debate for Labor is our response to the digital revolution. The word 'revolution' is overused, but one of the few true revolutions we have experienced in our society over the past decade has been the impact of the spread of digital technology on the way people communicate. Before coming to this place, I spent the better part of 10 years working in the ICT industry and I have seen the pace and scale of this change firsthand. Consider that the first iPhone was released in this country in the year after the Rudd government was elected. In the barely six years since, the proportion of the Australian population who own a smartphone has exploded to over 72 per cent, all of whom are now walking around with computer processors in their pockets more powerful than those used by NASA to put a man on the moon 50 years ago.

However, for all its technical wonder, the most important aspect of the digital revolution is not technology; it is people. The internet has made it dramatically easier to find other people who are passionate about the same things you are, to share information with these people and then to collaborate in producing altogether new information with others in these communities, often with non-financial motivation. This new mode of production, peer production, has brought us a series of what Australian economist Nicholas Gruen has called 'emergent public goods'—goods such as the GNU/Linux operating system that supports the majority of the world's web servers, the Android mobile operating system that operates on the majority of the world's smartphones, and Wikipedia, the largest encyclopedia ever produced. At the same time, social media has allowed specialised communities of interest to form around even the most obscure subjects, producing unprecedented and constantly evolving repositories of technical expertise, culture and journalism—all created by communities for the benefit of other community members. In this era of unprecedented connectivity, as Michael Wesch puts it, 'The machine is us.'

These changes are particularly important for the progressive movement. We are a movement founded on collective action, on people working together for mutual gain. From the early cooperatives, mutual societies and trade unions, progressives have pioneered new institutional arrangements for organising collective action. The digital revolution has made possible a panoply of new ways of acting collectively, but we have not yet engaged with this change on a philosophical or institutional level. We need to do so soon, as the way we respond to the digital revolution has the potential to become the major ideological divide over the next decade—the next century, in fact. It has implications for how progressives should think about issues as varied as tax, defence, public services, trade, privacy and infrastructure investment. For this reason, the work of thinkers like Yochai Benkler, Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond, Lawrence Lessig and Eric von Hippel, who have studied these online communities, should be essential readings for all progressives.

In particular, progressives must become aware of the ways that government and business can stifle these online communities. There are already many examples of this in Australia, particularly with respect to intellectual property. As Chief Justice French noted in a case close to the heart of my predecessor in this place—the tobacco plain-packaging challenge—intellectual property is an instrument of policy created by government to serve the public. Figures as varied as Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Jefferson have long warned of the dangers of this statutory monopoly and its tendency to expand. Despite this, policymakers continue to view intellectual property as little more than an innate property right to be unthinkingly protected by government. This orthodoxy is buttressed by trade agreements, often negotiated without transparency or democratic accountability, that, instead of promoting free trade, are increasingly providing the expansion of private statutory monopolies.

Australian copyright law, in which all reproduction is prohibited—other than specific, narrow exceptions—is particularly problematic and is currently throwing sand in the gears of digital innovation in this country. In the absence of a broadbased fair-use exception, innovations like the Google search engine and the iPod were legally problematic under Australian law upon introduction—chilling incentives for digital innovation in this country. Patent laws are already becoming a similar handbrake on innovation. As maker communities and 3-D printing grow in popularity, so too will disputes about patent infringement. The emergence of commercial patent trolls in the technology sector is just the beginning of this problem.

In response, progressives should champion a new microeconomic reform agenda to re-evaluate intellectual property law from first principles, focusing on incentives and public benefits—not the mindless protection of statutory monopolies. This process should be led by economists and innovators, not lawyers and rent seekers. Without it, intellectual property will increasingly become an instrument for the protection of vested interests rather than the promotion of innovation. As progressives, we must stand up for the new online communities created by the digital revolution. They are our people acting in a long, progressive tradition and we must be a voice for them in this place. To win the 21st century on matters digital, our mantra as progressives must become, 'It's the community, stupid.'

The final must-win debate for Labor is the importance of Australia's open society to our open economy. Through leaders like Whitlam, Hawke and Keating, Labor has argued well the case for the openness of our economy. What we have not argued with similar vigour is that an open economy cannot reach its full potential without an equally open society. The foundation stones of Australia's open society have been immigration and multiculturalism.

Our early history was violent and the product of thinking and ideas that are foreign to us now. But even then, the southern continent, Terra Australis, was a canvas for the projected hopes of many in Europe and Asia—a new place that could perhaps be free of the injustices and prejudices of the Old World. For the most part, we have borne out this promise, but we will not have fully honoured it until we break our remaining links with the exclusive institution of the British monarchy and become a republic that allows all Australians to say that they have a head of state who is one of their own.

As a nation, we have used this position as a beacon for ambitious dreamers around the world—to our overwhelming benefit. As in the case of my family, over 60 per cent of the residents of Gellibrand have at least one parent born overseas. In the last term of government alone, we welcomed more than 350,000 skilled migrants to our shores, increasing our productiveness and helping us to avoid the costs of an ageing population. The reason these migrants chose Australia is the opportunity of an open society that has proven to the world that multiculturalism can make our nation stronger. As Tim Soutphommasane, Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, has argued, Australia has developed a uniquely successful model of multiculturalism founded on the concept of citizenship. This model recognises that cultural heritage can form an important part of a citizen's identity and that, generally, individuals should be free to express it.

However, by viewing multiculturalism through the prism of citizenship, Australian multiculturalism has also emphasised that this liberty is coupled with unifying and overarching obligations that we all have as citizens of a liberal democracy. Australia is a country where you are free to wear a hijab or celebrate Italy winning a World Cup game, even when they beat Australia—maybe. But you cannot bribe a government official, incite ethnic violence or take a child bride. The openness of our society and the opportunity we have extended to migrants to our nation has left Australia better placed to succeed in an open global economy. The great Australian chronicler of our nation's Anglo-Celtic convict heritage, Robert Hughes, noted that multiculturalism:

… proposes … that some of the most interesting things in history and culture happen at the interface between cultures … the future .. in a globalized economy … will lie with people who can think and act with informed grace across ethnic, cultural, linguistic lines … In the world that is coming, if you can't navigate difference, you've had it.

Despite this, there are those who seek to threaten Australia's multicultural success story. There are those on the other side of this chamber, particularly in the other place, who do not understand the success of the Australian model of multiculturalism and instead attack it with imported political arguments from nations with different experiences. There are those who are willing to sacrifice the success of our multicultural, open society to seek political advantage through the demonisation of asylum seekers who arrive through unauthorised channels.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the decision of this government to rename the Department of Immigration and Citizenship the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Let us reflect on those two terms, 'citizenship' and 'border protection.' One of those terms is about inclusion, the other about repulsion. One is about opportunity, one is about fear. One represents a very large number of people, the other a very small number. Such are the ignorant, inverted priorities of the coalition—priorities that sacrifice the very foundation of the success of the Australian model of multiculturalism, citizenship, in favour of language that raises the drawbridge on the rest of the world.

Labor must challenge these threats to the success of our open society and continue to convince the public that Australian multiculturalism makes our nation stronger. We must argue that while we are morally compelled to do what is necessary to ensure that asylum seekers arrive in Australia in a fair and orderly way, to protect the primacy of Australia and citizenship for all, we must also ensure that we are offering refuge to those in need in proportion to our capacity to assist. In this context, this government's dramatic cuts to Australia's annual refugee intake and aid budget, at a time when so many people—in the countries surrounding Syria and in the refugee camps of Africa and Asia in particular—are so desperate, is an abject moral failure. These are good people with the bad luck to live in countries whose governments gas their citizens or where militias murder, mutilate and rape women and children. As a party who believes in equality of opportunity in a nation that has benefited so much from an open society, and in a country that knows how to make multiculturalism work, Labor cannot abandon them if we hope to win the 21st century.

I would like to conclude by thanking the people who have contributed to my being here today. To my wife Joyce: it is a cliche to say that someone is your better half, but in my case my wife is truly everything good in a person, that I am not. I thank you for your love and support and sacrifice, and I say here today that you have a commitment from me written in Hansard that our family life will not be Borgen-ed by this job! To my grandfather, who passed away recently, and my grandmother, who I lived with for a number of years: you stamped the twin obligations of hard work and community service on generations of your family, and I thank you. To my immediate family—my father, Peter, my mother, Yvonne, and my brother and sister, David and Sarah—and my uncles Ian, Michael, Derek and Barry and my aunties Jacqui and Pam: you are people who helped me find my political values and supported me in chasing my dreams and I thank you. To my in-laws Wang and Dominica Kwok, I thank you for welcoming me into your family and supporting Joyce and me in this difficult expedition into political life.

Thanking party supporters by name is a sure way to offend many, given the many hundreds who gave their time to the Labor campaign in Gellibrand, so I will limit myself to thanking my core campaign team—my indefatigable campaign manager Jesse Overton-Skinner, Melissa Horne, Hamish Park, Fiona Ward, Matt Nurse, Cesar Piperno, Telmo Languiller, Andrew Moore and James Kenyon. To Senator Conroy, who has supported me and mentored me for many years now, even when he has thought me to be misguided—we do not always agree; he is a Collingwood supporter after all—I am proud to be associated with his enormous contribution to Australia and the Labor cause.

Finally, I want to thank the other MPs on this side of the House who have given their first speeches in parliament. I have had the privilege of listening to many of your speeches before giving my own today, and it has been an inspiration. I proudly associate myself with those speeches. We are the Promethean party—the bearers of the fires of political change. This task is a difficult one but I am confident in Labor's future knowing that I share this mission with you all. I thank the House.

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