A kinder politics - Speech, House of Representatives



This has been one of the most emotional weeks that I've seen in politics in my 7½ years in this place, a tough week for people on both sides of the House, where the personal has melted into the political, when private lives have been splashed across the front page and pulled apart in this very chamber.

The incredibly brave member for Longman was yesterday forced to relive one of the hardest experiences of her life: the moment when, as a six-year-old, her mother dropped off her school and never came back to pick her up. Her gracious speech, given in the face of intense scrutiny, her capiacity for forgiveness instead of hatred, is what we should strive for as politicians.

Politics provides an opportunity for us to be a better version of ourselves. After all, as Aristotle put it some 2,000 years ago, politics is simply the art of working out how to live together. That’s something we all need to get better at.

It hasn't escaped the notice of our friends in the press gallery. Annabel Crabb has noted the 'hostile, scratchy feel' of modern politics. Laura Tingle has claimed:… our public discourse have become noticeably angrier.

We've seen a lack of compassion spill over recently into the debate over African Australians, and comments from the immigration minister, who said people in Melbourne were 'scared to go out to restaurants' because of 'African gang violence'.

What followed included a young South Sudanese Australian family being followed home from child care by a man hurling racist obscenities, so-called patriots threatening to take back the streets, police intervening after a photographer began harassing a group of African teens. This is the Australia of the Cronulla riots — not the Australia I want to live in.

We've seen anger in America too, where insults are a frequent feature of political debates, where neo-nazis no longer hide their political allegiances, where people can buy T-shirts threatening political journalists with nooses.

Anger has been rising in Britain, where, in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, Labour MP Jo Cox was fatally shot by a man who had been shouting, 'Death to traitors; freedom for Britain!' This week we saw another person charged for threatening a Scottish politician by referencing the death of Ms Cox.

Brendan Cox this week issued a warning to politicians, 18 months on from the death of his wife, urging us to reject extremism amid the debate over Senator Jim Molan's sharing of divisive videos by hate group Britain First.

It's the same racist hate group that the US President was widely condemned for promoting when he'd shared their inflammatory anti-Muslim videos. We know that at least one of the videos shared by Senator Molan is a fake, but we're yet to hear an apology from him for circulating these mistruths, designed to divide.

As Brendan Cox has said:

…politicians cannot claim ignorance and must not be allowed to walk away from the effects of their actions.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition, when he said that the views put forward in the videos are repugnant, and Senator Wong, when she said:

… bigotry and divisiveness has no place in our society and it certainly has no place in our parliament.

As Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, wrote earlier this week, we politicians have a responsibility to avoid the promotion of prejudice, bigotry and hatred.

In the US Congress now, partisanship is at the highest level since the reconstruction era. Partisanship has been rising in Australia too. We should get better at promoting what's good about politics, the lasting friendships across the chamber and the matters that bring us together.

I spoke in 2016 at the Collins Street Baptist Church about these challenges, living up to that Greek notion of agape, to the ideas that have been expressed by thinkers going back to Søren Kierkegaard, Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Martha Nussbaum, bel hooks and Vaclav Havel, and more recently by young New Zealand thinkers Max Harris and Philip McKibbin.

When we look at issues like the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, they remind us of our deepest responsibility as community leaders. They remind us, as the commissioner said in his final address:

It is the responsibility of our entire community to acknowledge that children are being abused… The tragic impact of abuse for individuals and through them our entire society demands nothing less.

As the opposition leader said this morning:

… politics should be about doing the right thing, making good wrongs and helping the vulnerable.

It is up to the country's leaders to come together and set an example for Australia.

As Martin Luther King wrote: Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.