Thank you for the invitation to address the 2023 Young Liberal National Convention.
It’s wonderful to see a few familiar faces from the Hornsby / Berowra Young Liberals who are part of my community.
It’s great to be here speaking to Young Liberals – because you are both the future of the Liberal Party and the future of our country.
About 60 years ago a Young Liberal Branch President wrote to Sir Robert Menzies.
He asked for some sage words he could put in his branch magazine.
Sir Robert wrote back and said.
“Liberalism offers us much to believe in, not just something to oppose.”
He then went on:
“We in our Party have a faith to live by and I am sure that it is a faith which appeals to the Australian spirit of independence and to youth, and not to the spirit of dependency.”
The Young Liberal President to whom Menzies wrote those words was the president of Earlwood Branch a future Prime Minister, John Howard.
I joined the Liberal Party at 16 in 1992.
Like you, I wanted to play my part in removing a bad Government and making our country stronger.
My first campaign as a candidate was for local Council when I was 19.
I doorknocked my ward twice. My friends and family handed out for me.
We won and I was elected the youngest councillor in Australia.
In 1997, at the age of 21, I was elected as a NSW delegate to the Constitutional Convention. I should add there were at least three other NSW Young Liberals who also ran – Gladys Berejiklian, Natasha Maclaren-Jones, Jason Falinski – who were not elected but who went on to make a contribution to our Party our State and our country.
In both elections, I was told I was too young.
I was told I didn’t have life experience.
That was said to young people then, and it’s said now.
And when it’s said to you, my advice is……don’t listen.
They are wrong.
You have something of incalculable value – as young people you have the greatest stake in the future.
Because of that – you have a responsibility to get involved and where we are on the wrong track to challenge the status quo – in our party and in our country.
And you must.
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
So today I want to talk about the future.
But you can’t engage with the future, unless you first understand where we have come from.
One of our greatest Liberals, David Kemp, has just published his fourth volume of a history of liberalism in Australia.
David Kemp’s central argument is that the success, freedom and dynamism of modern Australia is very much a liberal achievement.
Liberal ideals: freedom and equality, private property rights, reward for effort and government knowing its limits have played their part.
As well as what as Menzies called “civic mindedness” the responsibility we have to our neighbour and country and the shared national endeavour that binds us all.
In the Liberal tradition we balance personal aspiration and freedom, with responsibilities and obligations to others.
We saw that tension very acutely during the pandemic.
As we look to our recent past, I am proud of how our Liberal values and our policies have strengthened Australia.
I applaud the Young Liberals recent forays on social media – highlighting the policy achievements of previous Liberal governments – not just Menzies, but Holt, Gorton, Fraser and more.
We have a Liberal history that has built so much of modern Australia – over the past three quarters of a century we have governed for about 55 years.
Of course, our political opponents will always try to denigrate our achievements. And we should not let them.
We should be proud of what the last Coalition Government achieved for Australia.
I reject Labor’s mythology that seeks to de-legitimise or discount these achievements.
The last Coalition government faced the most difficult challenges in a generation.
The geopolitical reality of a super-power seeking to bully us – and to cower us as it did others.
The need to rapidly upgrade our defence, intelligence and security apparatus for a changing world.
The rapid digitisation of the world economy.
New fragility in supply lines.
Drought, floods, fires and major natural disasters.
And a ferocious once in a century global pandemic – that could have killed tens of thousands and destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs within weeks.
We responded to that with some of the lowest pandemic death rates and highest vaccination rates, emerging as one of the strongest economies in the world.
Our Coalition Government provided strong leadership in response to unprecedented events. History will be kind to Scott Morrison, Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg for their leadership during the pandemic.
After 9 years in government, we left Australia in good shape – with the Australian economy stronger than the G7 countries.
With more Australians of working age in jobs than at any time in our history.
And we didn’t seek to increase the burden on people.
We cut taxes – and legislated PAYE tax reform – reforms that are now under threat from the Labor Government. These are reforms that put more money in the pockets of families and households, because they ensure that 95 per cent of Australians will pay no more than a top tax rate of 30 per cent.
Critically, we withstood the greatest shift in the geopolitical tectonic plates since the end of the Cold War.
We restored confidence in our migration program and started the most comprehensive defence rebuild in history.
We established AUKUS and revived the Quad – building deeper strategic partnerships with the world’s most powerful democracies: United States, the United Kingdom, India and Japan. And closer to home, a strong relationship of trust with Indonesia.
I pay tribute particularly to Peter Dutton who drove so much of our work in national security over the past decade – strengthening the borders, equipping our intelligence and security agencies and driving the rebuild of the ADF.
Because of Peter Dutton, Australians are safer today.
We also made major economic reforms and investments that will stand the test of time.
We repaired the Budget debacle we inherited from the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, giving us the room to respond quickly to the economic consequences of the global pandemic.
We gained duty-free or preferential trade access to 2 billion more customers for Australian exporters.
We invested heavily in Australia’s economic capability with a $120 billion infrastructure pipeline – with transformative investments in the Bruce Highway and Pacific Highway – including NorthConnex in my own electorate – and 35,000 other projects completed improving the lives of Australians every day.
We also made major investments in renewables – with $20 billion invested in clean energy technology and major projects such as Snowy Hydro 2.0.
And we met and surpassed our carbon reduction targets and committed to net zero by 2050 – by focusing on technology and not taxes.
This is a record of achievement. And one we must defend.
I want to assure you, we will defend the stage three tax cuts because Australians deserve to keep more of what they earn.
We will stop any attempt to dismantle our border protection regime.
We will continue to argue against measures such as Labor’s energy price caps which will damage confidence in energy investment in Australia.
We will fight Labor’s plans to cut Medicare access to psychological services in half.
We will continue to stand for freedom – and that includes the supporting the young people and women of Iran.
And we will always stand up for Australia – and our interests wherever they may be found.
Our work now is to build policy based on our values and to offer Australians a real alternative to Labor in just over two years.
YOUNG AUSTRALIANS AND THE LIBERAL PARTY
Despite our record, in May last year Australians, in large numbers, said they wanted change. In my view, this was because after nine years we did not offer them a plan to meet the challenges of Australia’s future.
We have a responsibility to deeply reflect on that and to ensure we are reaching out to the voters we lost.
The first stage of that reflection was the development and release of the Loughnane-Hume report.
The report made recommendations about our internal capabilities and our external challenges.
The Loughnane-Hume Report highlighted three demographic challenges – young people, women and multicultural Australia.
All are pressing, but here at the Young Liberal National Convention I want to speak specifically about young people.
The 2022 election results reveal a profound disconnect between young Australians and the Coalition. And it’s a disconnect that has been growing for some time.
The Australian National University has run a 35 year study on elections.
It found that at the 2022 election only one in four voters under the age of 40 voted for the Coalition. One in four. Let that sink in.
Their report states “at no time in the 35 year history of the study have we observed such a low level of support for either major party in so large a segment of the electorate”.
That decline is part of the continual decline in the combined vote of the two major parties over decades.
This not just a challenge for us in Australia centre-right parties across the world are grappling with the same issue.
So this is a moment for the Young Liberals to step up in our party.
What is the point of having a youth wing of the party unless it speaks for young people?
This is your moment and you should seize it. You must seize it.
It’s not just a time for the Young Liberals to step up and be a clearer voice in our party. It is also a time for me and my colleagues to listen and have a deeper engagement with the Young Liberals.
If you want to be heard, this is going to require the Young Liberals to change as well.
If there is a sickness I see in much of our party, including the young liberals, it’s a focus on internal politics.
To the Young Liberals here I say, I’m not interested in where you are in the factional zoo. I’m really not.
Change for the Young Liberals means a focus on a bigger broader membership, more debates and policy development and better ways of communicating our ideas and values to young Australians.
We need a bigger, broader movement both so we can better campaign on the ground and also so we can ensure our party is reflecting the aspirations of young Australians.
Many of us who joined the Young Liberals did so because we had a rich discussions about politics in our families or because we were inspired by Menzies or Howard, Churchill or Thatcher, Reagan or Bush, or we read the works of great thinkers like Burke and Mill Hayek and Friedman.
But to build a bigger broader movement we have to engage with other young people, especially those engaged in leadership in other organisations and others who display natural Liberal values but to whom no one has reached out. We need to listen to their aspirations and ensure that, consistent with our values, our policies are speaking to them.
The president of your university ski club has many of the same skills and values as you do. She can organise. She can communicate she can build community. She has a set of values. She is a self-starter. She may be just as political as any of you. She just doesn’t know it because no one has engaged with her.
The young bloke who didn’t go to uni but worked in a pizza shop and saved up to get a business loan to start their own business is just as Liberal as you are but he doesn’t know it because no one has engaged with him.
It takes you to listen, to ask and to build a relationship and to think about what they are saying and how we as a party might provide solutions based on our values to address their aspirations.
Having Young Liberals engaged with their community and community leaders engaged with the Young Liberals makes our party representative of something bigger.
The more our members have engaged with other active citizens the more representative our organisation is whether it is people in church, synagogue, temple or mosque, the RFS or SES, the footy club, the land care group, or the mental health charity.
Your engagement with the wider community ensures your ideas are grounded in the aspirations of the Australians we want to represent whether they live in Wentworth, Werriwa or Wannon. And we must reach out and encourage people who are already involved in a panoply of other organisations to get involved in ours.
Second, the Young Liberals have to be an organisation that is long on ideas and debate. Engaging in policy ideas and debate are how we improve our country.
When you read a biography of Robert Menzies or Margaret Thatcher you read about them going out nightly to participate in debates on public policy in the youth wings of their political movements. The Young Liberals need to be a place where there are more policy debates where people can test, hone and refine their ideas and develop new policy ideas that reflect your aspirations.
Young Australians particularly are feeling weighed down – by housing unaffordability, rising interest rates, HECS debt, and the sense that even with almost full employment it’s hard to get ahead.
My former colleague Tim Wilson argued long before the last election that young Australians should be front and centre when it comes to economic policy and he was right
That means clear policies that prioritise young Australians on accessing their super for housing, on lowering tax and policies that create more opportunity and access to vocational and higher education.
I want to encourage you to drive such debates – because they are vital to our future electoral prospects but more importantly to the future of our country.
Your job is to influence me. It’s to influence Peter Dutton, and Dom Perrottet and the other state leaders, to put in place the settings so you and your generation can achieve the goals and aspirations you have for yourself and our country.
Your job is to stand up and to be the voice of young Australians because we need this more than ever in our party.
And third the Young Liberals need to be a place of skills development and campaign innovation.
It is important Young Liberals are trained in traditional political campaign techniques: the ability to organise people, the ability to imagine innovative outreach, the capacity to write and frame arguments and policy, and communicate are skills which will always be vital for politics.
But I’m interested in how you organise – because campaigning with your generation is a vital skill that we need to invest in.
And I believe older generations can learn from yours.
I believe the values of our party are timeless, but the lessons of the last election require an urgent and focused re-assessment about how we engage with young Australians.
In this time of profound change, I believe the Young Liberals have a clear mission – to grow, to lead the way in communicating with your generation and most importantly to debate and develop new ideas.
As you know, this year one of the biggest debates will be on the Voice to Parliament.
As some of you know, for many years I have been a supporter of the idea of a Voice.
I’m on record as supporting constitutional recognition as far back as 1998.
I worked on early concept plans for the Voice with Indigenous leaders Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Megan Davis before I became a Parliamentarian.
I founded an organisation called Uphold and Recognise to encourage constitutional conservatives to support the Voice.
And after becoming a parliamentarian I co-chaired a committee with Labor Senator Pat Dodson which outlined some principles for the Voice and recommended a process of codesign which led to the Calma-Langton report.
I support the idea of a Voice because as a Liberal I believe in the dignity of the individual. I believe better policy is made when people affected by it are consulted on that policy.
Because as a Liberal I believe in the principle of subsidiarity. I believe that through empowering people, building institutions that shift responsibility and decision making closer to people and local communities, we are more likely to be successful in shifting the dial on indigenous affairs
Australia is the greatest country on earth but I believe we need to offer a hand to those who haven’t shared in the full promise of our country.
Done properly and built from the ground up, local and regional voices that ultimately feed into a national voice, can give Indigenous Australians a greater input in responding to the challenges they face instead of a Canberra knows best approach.
Designing better policies to reduce infant mortality, lift school attendance rates, keep women and children safe from violence, and in housing and jobs. This is what the Voice is meant to be about.
It is a mechanism which at the local, regional and national level can give Indigenous Australians the opportunity to provide advice and take responsibility for their communities.
In the Uluru Statement From the Heart, the most powerful phrase is “the torment of our powerlessness”. That idea of powerlessness should be anathema to anyone who calls themselves a Liberal.
As Liberals, we should be about empowering people and meeting practical social needs in a way where there is responsibility and accountability.
So I believe in the idea of a voice.
Had the Coalition won the election last May we would be now rolling out the Voice at the local and regional level.
This was the first step in the process for the Voice according to the Calma-Langton report – and although the government keep telling us they are following the Calma-Langton report they are not doing this vital part.
I also believe we are a critical juncture in this debate.
Like most of my colleagues, I’ve spent the last month catching up with friends, neighbours and people across the community.
I’ve talked to friends watching the cricket, and other parents in local playgrounds, and for coffees and catch-ups. I’ve been listening
Australians are a people with enormous goodwill. We love our country and we always want to make it better.
Yet from so many people I have spoken with, many of whom tell me they want to vote yes, I am picking up a great sense of unease about the referendum.
People are concerned they don’t know what the Voice is or how it will work or without the detail whether it will work.
Reasonable people are asking for reasonable information.
Even for people who want to explain the Voice – it is very hard to explain how it will work when the government is not providing the detail.
For a referendum to succeed, it must be easy to explain, and the yes case must have the answers to people’s legitimate questions.
Like an election, in a referendum it is the people who determine what matters and what politicians need to answer.
Yet the government is not listening to the reasonable questions of Australians who come to this debate in a spirit of generosity.
As someone who is a supporter of the idea of a voice – hear me when I say, I can’t believe how cavalier this government is with the referendum.
This is the Prime Minister’s referendum. He has set the parameters, he is setting the timetable.
The Prime Minister says that the detail is all out there in the Calma-Langton report.
But it is clear that he hasn’t read that report.
I have been saying since I have been shadow minister that the Government needs a formal considered response to the Calma-Langton report.
It is a good report but no government ever adopts a report word for word and there are ideas that need further reflection given the experience of government and there are choices to be made.
The detail matters, not only for voters to know what they are voting for, but also so that the proponents know what they are arguing for.
This last week, the Attorney-General, who is responsible for the referendum, went on national TV with cheat sheets to help him explain the referendum. His read his script like a telemarketer who wanted to be somewhere else.
And the Prime Minister’s answers have been little better.
Mr Albanese says everything is in the Calma-Langton report. He says Australians should read that report.
We know he hasn’t read the report, because he keeps stumbling over the detail.
In recent days, the Prime Minister has said the national Voice would drive the closing the gap process – but according to Calma-Langton it will only have “input on issues beyond those covered by the National Agreement on Closing the Gap”
He said the National Voice would have 20 members, the report says 24.
And the Prime Minister said the members of the Voice wouldn’t be paid, the report says they will.
If you can’t explain the voice, then you can’t argue for it.
If you can’t argue for it, then you can’t win it.
As someone who wants the voice to succeed but who would not be doing it in this way, I have watched these developments with despair.
It beggars belief that the Prime Minister would go on the most popular radio network in the country to talk about a signature policy and have no idea about the detail.
We are not talking about a minor regulation in the fisheries department where you might forgive him for not being up on all the details.
We are talking about the Constitution.
We are talking about a policy directly affecting Aboriginal People.
We are talking about a policy he mentioned in every speech in the lead up to the election.
We are talking a policy he regards as a signature item.
And he doesn’t know the detail. It is not good enough.
The way the government is handling this referendum they are losing supporters daily. They are even in danger of losing me.
I believe the place to start in repairing this damage is for Anthony Albanese to answer the questions put forward by Peter Dutton.
These questions are genuinely asked and are designed to give Australians an informed choice about the Voice that they will be asked to vote for.
So this is a critical time, and I sincerely hope the government changes course.
This is an important referendum – and I want to say something about the actual campaign for the referendum.
Everyone has a responsibility in this debate to listen to each other with an attitude of respect.
If you are a leader or advocate of the yes case, then you have a responsibility to listen to the legitimate questions of those who doubt.
And if you are a leader or advocate for the no case, then you have a responsibility to listen to the aspirations of Indigenous Australians who see value in a Voice.
It is part of a bigger challenge for all us – young and old, Liberal and Labor, Indigenous and Immigrant, to be willing to walk a mile in another’s shoes.
To be bigger people who see the best in each other – even when we disagree.
People of goodwill can and will disagree.
As Australians, no matter where we land in the coming referendum campaign, we need to find empathy for each other.
It’s not just the challenge of a referendum, it’s the challenge of modern democracy.
Last Summer I read an arresting book with an arresting title People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn.
One of the premises of the book is that we often find empathy when we see people “just like us”.
But that is not true empathy.
Empathy is bigger. It’s not about accepting and embracing people because we can see ourselves in them. It is to stand with people and their right to dignity, freedom, and self-expression when we can’t see the similarities.
That’s not only the challenge of a referendum campaign, increasingly it is the challenge of being a thoughtful participant in a modern democracy.
The referendum can’t become a new ground for tearing apart our shared national fabric. Democracy is more fragile than we believe and we all have a responsibility in the campaign ahead.
I wanted to speak to you today because I believe we are in the midst of a profound generational change.
And the Young Liberals are central to helping the Liberal Party adapt to these changes.
Our challenge is to change while holding true to our Liberal values of freedom and responsibility, of reward for effort and individual aspiration as well as building family and community.
In navigating change while holding true to our values, we need a party that is fit for purpose.
We need a Liberal Party that is much bigger – with more young people, more women and more Australians from multicultural backgrounds.
We need a party that is closer to the community.
We need a party whose culture is welcoming and respectful to outsiders.
We need a party that is facing out and not looking in.
And a party whose first goal is always service to the country we all love.
I believe our young liberals are central to us achieving this – and achieving so much more.