Speech on ICAN

2.06pm | January 25, 2018

A decade ago, a handful of activists sat down in the Melbourne suburbs. They were inspired by the success of the international campaign to ban landmines, which had played a major role in the negotiation of the anti-personnel mine ban convention. They wondered if a similar campaign could achieve progress in banning nuclear weapons. Ten years later that small room of activists is now a network of hundreds of NGOs and their aspiration for a nuclear-free world is now the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which had been signed by 122 countries as of July this year. And a month ago, their organisation, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is an amazing achievement. I congratulate them and I want to spend some time today talking about their project.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has a long history in Australia. It is a history that is inextricably bound up in the political tradition of the Labor left, which I am proud to be a part of. At the heart of that history is Tom Uren. He was a giant of the Labor left, and I am grateful to have received Tom's support and advice over many years. At the close of World War II, Tom was a prisoner of war in a camp 80 kilometres away from Nagasaki, and he witnessed the dropping of the atomic bomb. He later said, 'It reminded me of those beautiful crimson skies of sunsets in Central Australia, but magnified about 10 times stronger, and it's vividly—it's never left me.'

The events of that day left Tom with convictions that he took with him into the parliament, into cabinet and into his advocacy. As he said when he retired from parliament, the struggle for nuclear disarmament is the most important struggle in the human race. It's a struggle that the activists of ICAN stepped into when they organised in their Carlton room 10 years ago. It is also a struggle that has grown no less urgent since Tom retired from parliament in 1990. Any hope that the post Cold War world would be nuclear free has been well and truly dashed. We've seen the nuclear-armed states grow. We've seen weapons appear in the hands of nations that position themselves deliberately outside of the international order. Just last week, there were reports of another test of an intercontinental ballistic missile by North Korea.

Against that backdrop, the work that ICAN has done in driving a treaty against nuclear weapons is more important than ever. I'm not naive about this; the treaty is only able to achieve so much in the absence of agreement from nuclear powers. There is still a lot to be done. In noting this, I want to point to the thoughtful and persistent work undertaken by people like Gareth Evans with the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament in getting to zero. The international consensus that ICAN has managed to drive and document through the treaty process is remarkable, and the fact that it has been awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize endorses the scale of the vision shared by those activists years ago. There's something very powerful about the idea that ICAN represents.

Quite often, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to an individual—someone who has used their power or their platform to achieve a worthy end. However, ICAN is something very different. It didn't inherit any pre-existing platform; it willed it into existence through a gradual accretion of individuals and organisations to its cause. At its heart, ICAN is a coalition of people who care. It represents one of the best manifestations of civil society. In many ways, the Nobel Peace Prize committee has done more than just recognise ICAN as an organisation; it has recognised the contribution that determined people can make when they take concerted and collective action. Nuclear disarmament sits at the crossroads of very complex political, diplomatic and military issues. This is far from being low-hanging fruit, but the success that ICAN has had in marshalling support for the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons demonstrates the real power that civil society can have in achieving change.

ICAN, of course, is not the only example of civil society, and here in Australia there are countless groups dedicated to driving change in how we care for the environment or animals, how we address climate change or how we care for vulnerable people. As a senator, it is one of my great privileges to meet with representatives of those groups. I am always impressed by how passionate they are about making a difference.

I want to reflect on the contribution that they make to our political discourse in Australia because, unfortunately, civil society is under threat from the government. First, under Prime Minister Abbott, and now under Prime Minister Turnbull, the coalition government has exhibited relentless hostility towards civil society. Some years ago, there was a push to strip environmental groups of their standing, to intervene in court matters. More recently, there has been talk of denying charitable status to organisations that engage in advocacy and try to change the government position on crucial issues. This government has forced social services charities that deliver government services to sign gag clauses that prevent them from speaking out on policy issues. Only this week, we've seen charities warn of the chilling effect that mooted changes to donation laws will have on their ability to speak out, to advocate and to argue for vulnerable people. This is frightening.

This government seems to think that the only role for charities should be to provide services that the government can't be bothered to provide. From that perspective, if people have a political view, their option should be to join the local Liberal Party branch, where, from everything I've heard, any ideas are promptly ignored. I think this view of charities and NGOs is wrongheaded and dangerous. Civil society plays a unique and important role in public debate, and we should distinguish charities from some of the other advocates in the political system.

Our public debate is often populated by actors who represent particular interest groups—industry associations, peak bodies, business organisations, employer organisations and things like that. These organisations are important. They have an important voice in public policy, but they are not constituted to advance the public interest. Very explicitly, their role is to advance their members' interests. In principle, there's nothing wrong with that; nothing at all. It's very important that we hear the voices of those who may be affected by a particular decision or policy, and I appreciate greatly the interactions that I have with bodies of this kind. But we can distinguish between this and NGOs and other kinds of organisations.

There should be a place in our public discourse for people who aren't motivated by self-interest but are instead motivated by their vision for what we can and should be. There is a role for civil society. The work of these organisations can and should be more than just stunts and gesture politics. Like ICAN, these organisations are at their best when they build a coalition for change through the hard grind of advocacy and through the hard grind of those meetings that change one mind at a time. As the Nobel prize committee recognised, that work can make a real difference. It can create change.