7 June 2022

Address to the Australian Progress conference, Canberra


Australia reconnected

It's an honour to be in the room with so many friends, activists, people who I greatly admire. The Australian Progress conference is Davos for altruists.

I want to talk about the civic crisis that Australia is facing today. Over the last couple of generations, we've seen a four‑fifths decline in the number of organisations per person. We've seen a decline in the share of Australians who say they can trust government to do the right thing. We've seen a drop in the volunteering rate from 35 per cent of the start of the millennium, now down to 25 per cent. In the 1950s, half the population used to regularly attend a religious service – now that’s down to a seventh. In the 1980s, union membership was half the workforce ‑ now down to a seventh. Australians are less likely to participate in team sports. Compared with the mid‑1980s, Australians have half as many close friends and know half as many of their neighbours.

Now I've been involved in progressive politics for over three decades, since I joined the Labor Party in 1991. If you'd asked me when I first joined the Labor Party how much should we care about community and social capital, I would have said it's not that important an issue. I've fundamentally changed my view over that period, as I’ve come to believe that it goes to who we are as a society. Just as inequality is a choice between a society of ‘we’ and a society of ‘me’, so too civic community is a choice between a society of ‘we’ and the society of ‘me’. Inequality and community are two sides of the same coin.

We've seen a huge attack on charities over the last nine years. The Liberals came to office in 2013 promising to scrap the charities commission, a body that had been recommended by a dozen independent inquiries as a one stop shop for charities. We managed to block them getting through that repeal, so then they appointed as the head of the charities commission Gary Johns, somebody who had made his name as a charities critic, and slipped the announcement out in the hours following the successful same sex marriage vote. To put Gary Johns in charge of the charities commission was like putting Scott Morrison in charge of ensuring safety at kids’ soccer games.

And it's no great surprise that we've seen a succession of open letters from the charity sector, calling on successive Liberal Prime Ministers to back off their attacks on charities. Three major open letters, calling on the government to stop the attacks on charitable advocacy. Indeed, charities even wrote last year to the United Nations, pushing back on the attacks that they had seen on their sector. That left many in the room feeling that you were devoting resources not to going forward, but just to trying to hold your ground.

The war on charities ended with the election of the Albanese Government.

I'm absolutely delighted to be the Assistant Minister for Charities. I don't think anyone has ever wanted the charities portfolio as much as I do. I've had that shadow portfolio throughout our nine years in opposition. I've had the joy of working with charities right across the country through our reconnected forums and getting your ideas about how to rebuild civic community. We've set an ambitious goal to double philanthropy by 2030. We want to celebrate the role of charitable advocacy, recognising that our democracy is stronger when the voices of charities are heard in the public square. We want to collaborate with the community sector through a charities regulator that makes sure that charities don't do the wrong thing, but doesn't unnecessarily seek to crack down on charitable advocacy.

I want to close by calling on you to bring us your ideas. This is a room full of people with ambition for the country, at a moment which is potentially a hinge point in our nation’s history. Just as we need to do better than stopping the rise of inequality and actually start making Australia more equal again, I want you to think big when it comes to community. This isn't just about how do we stem the decline in union membership and in volunteering and in donating. This is about how do we turn those things around again. How do we turn Australia into a country which is a beacon for the world as to how to build an egalitarian, community focused society. A society that prizes ‘we’ over ‘me’. There's so many rich ideas in this room, I want you to flood us with your proposals. Because this is a huge task which runs well beyond government.

When we wrote up the results of our reconnected forums in a book ‘ Reconnected’ with Nick Terrell, much of that was directed at what we thought the charities could learn from one another. Maybe there's a role for government in bringing community groups together. Maybe there's ways in which government can set up organisations that will help you prosper. But we know the end goal ‑ it is a more united society that speaks to our civic values, in which we have more friends and are more likely to know our neighbours, in which we're giving back to the community, in which we've got a business sector that is proud to donate to the community.

Thank you again for the honour of speaking to you today, and I look forward to working with you on this big and exciting Australian project.