Address to the John Cain Foundation on Labor's democratic promise

3.00pm | June 10, 2015

I’d like to congratulate the John Cain Foundation on your conference. In recent years I have argued strongly for Labor to step up our participation in the battle of ideas. Conservative forces in this country have long understood the power of a regular, slow, deliberate drumbeat. It not only calls the faithful to your side, but can also create rhythms which are hard for the community to ignore.  I’m so pleased we have a new drummer in Victoria.


I am excited to be invited to today’s conference – and to share a platform with my friend Maurice as well as a range of excellent home grown thinkers.

I am in awe of the enormous intellectual and practical contribution Maurice has made to British Labour’s conversation about its purpose –  in particular the relative emphasis we might place on state and non-state actors in delivering on our goals. And I’m pleased to see a similar conversation taking place here.

It’s a conversation with many strands – many of which have been on display today.

It links back to a strong philosophical heritage – into the republicanism and civic idealism of the Greeks and Romans, and their enlightenment admirers.  In this world view, human purpose is found in the very practice of citizenship – with participation in politics seen as a privilege rather than a three yearly burden.

It finds constitutional expression in the devolutionary tendencies of the American state –including a love of elections for minor positions that Australians have sometimes found quaint.

It finds practical political expression in the Australian context in the organising revolution which took place in Australian unions from the 1990s, with its emphasis on transferring authority and responsibility away from officials and towards members. 

And it depends on behaviours of mutualism and co-operation that we worry we may have lost in modern Australia.

Today’s remarks

Last year, I spent a little time in London to gain some deeper understanding of the way these ideas are being used both practically and politically in the UK.

I’ve since thought hard about the ways that these ideas might translate here.

Today I’d like to do two things:

  • Firstly I’d like to make the argument that Australian Labor might use some of these ideas to assertively argue for a deeper democracy;

  • And secondly, I’d like to examine a couple of policy areas where I feel these ideas might provide some fresh thinking about difficult problems.


Australia faces real challenges. But we also are offered incredible opportunities. We are a culturally diverse, wealthy country embedded in the world’s fastest growing regional economy. Really, the future is ours to lose.

But to grasp these opportunities we need action from the entire community – but I sense confidence is wavering that we have it in us to answer this challenge together.

Certainly, elements of Australian society seem to have lost confidence in democracy. Routinely, the commentariat laments that the period of “reform” is over. As writers like Greg Jericho and Tim Dunlop have pointed out, by reform they mean reform that requires ordinary people to make sacrifices. In this narrative, reform which either demands sacrifices of business or wealthy Australians most certainly does not count – being mere populism. In an extreme version of this pessimistic account, 3AWs Tom Elliot recently argued in the Sun Herald that we should “temporarily [suspend] the democratic process and [install] a benign dictatorship to take tough but necessary decisions.”

This anxiety about the ability of democracy to deliver for Australia invokes centuries old fears that the unruly mob is unable to manage the responsibilities of suffrage. In the period following the American and French revolutions, de Toqueville fretted that ‘privatised individuals would fail to act as publicly engaged citizens' and John Stuart Mill proposed a weighted franchise – known to his contemporaries as a “fancy franchise” which gave greater weight to those with higher levels of education.  This atavistic worry about suffrage has now been updated– with culprits variously including the political class, the internet, or our unparalleled relative material prosperity.

In turn, the Australian public seems less than impressed. ANU researchers have found that for the last two elections, the number of people who believe people in government look after themselves has risen by almost 10 points while the Lowy Institute indicates only 42% of young Australians agree with the proposition that 'democracy is preferable to any other form of government’.

It seems to me that in this environment, Labor has an obligation to return democracy to the centre of our story.

Our project has always been to deepen democracy – to allow working class people a say, not just in the formal institutions of democracy, but in our workplaces and communities.

On this, Labor’s National Principles of Action are worth quoting directly:

The Australian Labor Party believes that the task of building democratic socialism is a cooperative process that requires:

  • constitutional action through the federal and state parliaments, municipal and other statutory authorities

  • union action

  • ongoing action by organised community groups.

This unusually deep and broad conception of democracy is unique in Australia to Labor – and distinguishes us from both the Greens and the Liberals.

Tony Abbott came to government saying “Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics”.This view is consistent with the historical liberal project which imagines a democracy with the narrowest remit – securing property rights and restricting violence. For liberals – democracy works best when it's unobtrusive. Of course, this means that real influence is exercised by a very small group of people.

But these attitudes are not confined to those on our right. I turned on the radio the other night to hear Bob Brown explaining that he believes it’s five percent of people that change the way society works – and the rest will follow the leadership. I was genuinely shocked by this proposition.  I don’t believe change is possible if only five percent of the population are engaged. I don’t even think change should be possible under these circumstances.

In this context, Labor has an opportunity and an obligation to defend, champion and expand democracy.

However it's one thing to say this – and another to do it.

In my period in both the public and private sectors, I have been struck by how pessimistic many Australian leaders are about the possibilities of involving ordinary Australians in any kinds of decision making.

My own experience in the Labor party suggests that genuinely inviting people in requires more than good intentions – it also involves skill, and like all skills, they improve with practice.

I’d suggest that as a nation we are not particularly practised in building institutions that can invite people in.

As we prepare our plans for government, we have opportunities to consciously build these skills through our programs and policies.

I want to reflect a little on two policy areas where the application of ideas of mutualism, relationships and decentralisation may provide some useful direction.


City planning

I want to start with questions around city and infrastructure planning.

For the last four years, I’ve worked at a global engineering firm. In that milieu, I have lost track of the times I’ve heard industry figures say that we need to get the politics out of infrastructure.

To be fair to my industry colleagues, when pressed they will acknowledge that they really want is a transparent explanation of the reasons for allocating resources to a project. And they also seek a more certain environment, where announced projects proceed and can outlast a change of government.

My response to this has been that if this is what they want, then they need more politics – not less. More specifically – what they need is a more democratic politics.

It’s certainly true that our cities need attention. We have much to gain from getting it right – but the new housing and new transport infrastructure needed to sustain vibrant capital city economies requires tough decisions.

The experience globally is that city transformation is best achieved when there is an active and engaged citizenry involved in planning the city.

The Grattan Institute’s work in this area has been excellent, documenting examples of major transformations in a number of cities.

The City of Vancouver’s development of CityPlan in the mid-90s directly involved over 20,000 members of the public, with an extra 80,000 individuals feeling they had contributed in some way by the end of the process. These figures accounted for around 4 and 20% of the City population, respectively. Similarly, the City of Seattle’s neighbourhood planning process engaged around 20,000 people or 4% of their population. 

These numbers sound modest – but practically they are extraordinary. Outside of an election, it is hard to think of an Australian process where up to 20% of the relevant population could say they had contributed in some way.

And in these case studies, this involvement laid the political ground for a sustained program of city shaping – including implementing tough decisions.

I’ve had some professional experience in trying to assemble large scale processes for deliberative decision making. They are not easy. Some community stakeholders who occupied a special if not always victorious position in the old order can resist strongly. Usually a long history of poor consultation means there is a legacy of cynicism to overcome. And the tools and behaviours of collaborating and compromising don’t come easily to all participants first up.

But overwhelmingly, if there is a genuine chance to exert influence, if the process is well designed, and if the political leadership follows through on its promises – these civic institutions can work.

I would also argue that this approach is likely to be enormously electorally powerful for the political leaders that commission them, with ongoing and unanticipated benefits as the process of bringing people together allows new coalitions and organisations to emerge.


Aged Care 

I want to turn now to a quite different policy area – aged care.

The Productivity Commission tells us that only a fraction of aged Australians enter residential care. Even of those of us that live into our nineties, only a third or so can expect to enter a home. For most of us, it’s a frightening prospect – it’s hard to imagine any of our friends or family telling us that they’re looking forward to such a change.

Recently the Senate held an inquiry into the experience of young people living in aged care facilities. One mother spoke with visceral distress about the impact of this environment on her daughter saying "As a mother with a child that now has a brain injury living in an aged care environment, it rips my heart watching her sit in her chair in front of the TV all day," she said.

It’s impossible not to acknowledge the raw pain in that statement. But when I listened to it, I thought –actually, it’s exactly the way I feel about my grandmother. And it got me thinking more broadly about our aspirations for older people.

I’m not sure what choices will be available to me as I age. However, my best guess is that at that point in my life I’ll still be looking for many of the same things I want now. I’ll want some control over my living environment - I won’t expect everything to go my way, but I’ll want a forum where my needs can be fairly weighed against the needs of others. I think I’ll want to contribute too. For as long as I can, I’d want to water the garden, or set the table, or fold my own clothes. And of course, I won’t want to be alone. Perhaps this last demand is unrealistic and even unfair, but I’ll probably want more than professionalism from staff, I’ll want kindness and companionship.

There are many fine people working very hard for very low pay in our aged care facilities. I don’t doubt for a moment the integrity and generosity of staff. But despite the best of intentions, in general, I don’t believe our institutions are currently structured to easily deliver these kinds of experiences for elderly people.

Aneurin Bevan famously said that he’d rather be kept alive in the efficient if cold altruism of a large hospital than expire in a gush of warm sympathy in a small one. These organisational principles are entirely sensible in an emergency ward. However I don’t think we ever imagined they would apply to people in what is effectively their home.

The UK think tank Demos has assembled a report which examines best practice in residential aged care. To build maintain residents’ sense of community, some facilities are inviting community organisations in to use their spaces, supporting those community groups but also ensuring residents continue to have contact with people from a range of ages and backgrounds. I read recently that a Dutch facility is inviting students to live on site for modest rent, on the condition that they provide social support for older residents.

In the Demos report, other facilities focussed more on giving their residents a voice, convening regular residents meetings, to allow issues around facilities, nutrition, and activities to be discussed and negotiated, with residents reporting how important it is to have control over the “little things”.

Still others emphasised responsibility and purpose – ensuring that all residents, however frail, were given opportunities to contribute to the running of the residence by performing modest tasks.

Overall the impression is one of a rebalancing away from standardisation and efficiency and towards relationships, purpose and self reliance. Of course, imperatives like clinical care, risk management and cost effectiveness remain important. However I don’t believe it is beyond us to acknowledge that there are other equally important considerations as we grapple with the implications of an ageing population.

More broadly, there are elemental democratic impulses driving these innovations. They necessarily involve staff and management surrendering some authority. They imagine communities which negotiate and manage their differences together, rather than rely on a higher authority to adjudicate. Fundamentally, they require trust that ordinary people – people with literally a life time of experience – can make good decisions for themselves.

Concluding remarks

I want to conclude by emphasising one simple idea:

Since the time when we first fought for the franchise, our movement has asserted and believed that working people have a right to control their own political destiny.

We are at a point in Australian politics when this simple proposition is again under active discussion.

We should apply all our creativity not only to defending the core elements of democratic practice – but to deepening and expanding democratic impulses as we develop our ideas for public policy.