Standing up for Canberra

Uncivil discourse

Over the past few years, since I was elected member for Canberra, I have become increasingly concerned about the nature of discourse in this country—in particular, the uncivil nature of discourse not only in politics, in parliament, but also in the media and in the wider community. 

We all know parliament is a contest of ideas and that that contest should be rigorous and robust. But the contest should not be personal and it does not need to be a blood sport. Canberrans have told me time and time again that they want more policy and less posturing in parliament—and I agree. I am worried that the current uncivil discourse in Australian politics and also in some other sectors, particularly in the social media community, is causing people to disengage with the political process. In an age that is more connected than ever, in an era where that connectedness is meant to enhance democracy, Australians now seem to be more disengaged and disillusioned with our democracy and, through that, disenfranchised. 

This year's Lowy Institute poll of Australian attitudes found that just 49 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds say 'democracy is preferable to any other kind of government', and 26 percent believe it does not matter what kind of government we have. And last year's Plan International Australia survey of 1,000 young women and girls on sexism found that one per cent or less wanted a career in politics. These are disturbing findings and, I believe, a sign that the bile-filled national debate and uncivil discourse and behaviour has alienated many. 

The responsibility to improve the pitch and tone of debate rests with all of us. We, as leaders, must behave decently and respectfully to each other. We need to call out unacceptable behaviour when we see it and put an end to personal attacks. Ultimately, we need to change the culture of public discourse in this country. I acknowledge that this will be hard, and it will be confronting. But politicians, the media and the community have been the first to call for cultural change in our schools, in the corporate world, in our boardrooms, in our cultural, sporting, academic and religious institutions, in the public service and in the Australian Defence Force. There has been a call for an end to bullying and harassment, for an end to sexism, for an end to discrimination, for an end to the 'boys clubs' and instead a call for greater diversity. Each of these institutions is responding.

As Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and as someone who consulted in Defence for nearly a decade, I know that organisation is making significant changes to develop an inclusive culture, to stamp out unacceptable behaviour at every level, from the Australian Defence Force Cadets, to ADFA, to RMC through to the senior management and the top brass. The best example of that is not just David Morrison's 'Get Out' speech but also last year's speeches by the incoming chiefs, where inclusiveness was the predominant theme. Yet, curiously, we politicians are particularly quiet when it comes to the need for cultural change here, in this institution—parliament. 

Today I call on all of us to accept that we need to change the nature of public discourse in this parliament, because I am very worried that those young women and girls—that possible 99 per cent—who may dream about influencing public policy through a career in politics are frightened that they too may one day be victims of trolls on social media, vilified through Facebook, or bullied or harassed 

I worry that those women do not seek to be engaged in public policy and the political process, because of fears of being bullied and harassed. 

In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

So who is responsible for the civility of discourse in this country? I say all of us—our leaders, our media and our community—because the definition of civil is, 'polite, obliging, not rude,' and it is also, 'of or belonging to citizens'.


Speech delivered in Parliament on August 13, 2015