Statement on equality

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (12:32): This motion has languished in the basement of parliamentary business for a couple of months—two months does not sound like a lot of time to most Australians but if you look at what has gone on over the last two months, it has been a very long time indeed. Last night I read the Prime Minister's speech on this motion. It was a good speech—a very good speech. There was not a word in there that I could not agree with. Sadly, it was very difficult, looking at the Prime Minister who gave that speech two months ago, who spoke most eloquently and passionately in support of this motion, to recognise the Prime Minister who has done very little in the last couple of days to confront the rising tide of bigotry, including bigotry in this place.


Watch it here

The motion reconfirms our commitment to the right of all Australians to enjoy equal rights—a policy which is based wholly on non-discriminatory grounds when it comes to race, colour, creed or country of origin. It reaffirms our commitment to the process of reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; it reaffirms our commitment to maintaining Australia as a culturally diverse, tolerant and open society. How easy would it have been during question time yesterday for the Prime Minister to repeat those words that he spoke so passionately not two months ago? What has changed?

Much has been written in the last two weeks about what has changed: Trumpism and the US election; back further we can look at Brexit—the vote by millions of Brits to excise themselves from the European Union; and closer to home we can look at the results of the 2016 election and now the monumental swing against the National Party in the New South Wales by-election in Orange.

From Australia, Trumpism looks like a disaffection with the political class—technocrats, the city elites and the experts. Those very same insiders, those experts, are now bemoaning what appears to them to be post-facts politics. In fact, they do it with the exact same vigour the way that their detractors conclude that all of those facts and all those theories are just a conspiracy from the insiders, those very people who are controlling and making the decisions that we do not agree with. There is more than a nagging suspicion amongst this group that the trade deals have got more downside than upside, unless you are a merchant banker. It is a belief that immigration policy is working against their interest in some sort of zero-sum, one-more-mouth-to-feed way. In all this, words like 'innovation', 'modernity', 'economic change' and even 'multiculturalism' sound like doublespeak for a future that does not include these people.

There is a lot we can recognise in our own country in all of this. It really is not that hard to understand if you are listening and, of course, can be a stretch if it is a long way from your lived experience. If you are a city professional putting in 50 to 60 hours a week and pulling in your six-zero-figured salary, it might be a bit hard to understand that upwards of a million Australians are in jobs where they are not getting enough hours to bring in the income which is meeting their cost of living. If you are working these mad hours in the inner city, it might be very difficult for you to understand that there are people who are in a casual or a part-time job who do not have enough work to pay their bills.

If you stop listening, you are not going to hear what they are saying. If you are listening, you might hear the guy who is saying: 'I no longer have a permanent job' or 'I'm 29 years of age and I've never had a permanent job' or 'For the last month, I've spent four hours travelling to and from work everyday for a job that I may not have in six months time and people ask me why I don't move from the place where I live to the place where I'm working. I tell you reason I don't move is because I can't afford to rent or buy a house there and I don't even know if I'm going to have that job in a few months time.' These are the people who are deeply concerned with what is going on in Australia and we hear their concerns. When you have a decent conversation with these people, when you duck below the dog-whistling and all the noise and the concern and you talk to them about their concerns, you talk to them about 'Islamophobia'—a word that they would never use—they might say, 'I really am concerned about all that bombing and that killing that is going on in Iraq and Syria, and I don't want that stuff going on here.' Is that too hard to understand? It really is not too hard to understand.

America with its politics, its economy and its culture are very different places to Australia but there are plenty of similarities. We are both advanced economies with cities that are fully embedded in the modern and international economy and regions that are in industrial decline. We have been trading nations that have enjoyed the benefits of trade with Asia and, in the case of the United States with Latin America, have been able to spread the benefits of that trade to jobs in labour-intensive sectors, particularly in resources and manufacturing. But now with the growth in Asian manufacturing capacity, it means that the region that was once the market for our goods is now the origins of our import competition. If you live in one of these big cities, the transition from the manufacturing economy to a service economy might have been less marked. But if you live in a region like mine, it has been extreme, and I know in your region, Deputy Speaker Vamvakinou, it has also been extreme. You see, the goods that you were once able to afford, which were the trade-off for those well-paid jobs—those goods have disappeared.

At the heart of this discontent is economics, because the truth for Australia and for the world is that we have dropped the ball when it comes to equality. There is growing inequality right across the board, but nowhere is it greater than between city and regional Australia. In the Illawarra on the South Coast, unemployment rates are three to five times those in the capital cities. Income disparity is growing rapidly. There are unacceptably high suicide rates all across the country, but these are multiplied by two and three and four in regional Australia. This is the circumstance which is breeding discontent; it is inequality which is breeding alienation and discontent. It is the way that we respond to this inequality which defines us. It is the way that we respond to the exclusion and the fear and uncertainty which defines us as a nation.

It would be quite open to us to use parliament and the privilege of our titles to stoke the fire of discontent. We could do that. We know that there are ready ears out there for that message—people who are already hurting, because they are not getting the benefits that the Prime Minister talks about of these never-more-exciting times where we are 'nimble'. That is another world to the world that these people live in. We could convince people that the real cause—of unemployment, of homelessness, of rental stress, of the time they are spending in a traffic jam, or of the train that does not run on time—is these wretched souls that are languishing in detention on Manus Island and Nauru, and that all we have to do as a nation is stop them coming to Australia. We could convince people that that was the truth, but that would be a lie.

It is the way that we respond to these things which defines us as humans. It defines us as parliamentarians. It defines us as people who have been sent here to uphold the best traditions of Australian democracy. Sadly, what we have seen on display over the last week is a long way from the eloquent words of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition when they brought this motion into the House two months ago. This motion is the sort of bipartisanship that we need. It is bipartisanship around the best traditions of Australian democracy and not the worst.