United States Studies Centre Women in the Alliance Speech

I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, traditional custodians of  the land on which we meet this evening, land which was never ceded. I thank the US Studies Centre for the invitation to join you tonight.

I stand here with you at a difficult time in Australia and internationally.

Here, the Voice referendum has failed, in part due to very effective use of negative politics, if that’s not an oxymoron, and the renewed deployment of fear as a political tool.

‘If you don’t know, vote No’, made ignorance a virtue, while the Yes campaign struggled to get traction with a much more complicated message that required careful and patient explanation, which, as is now self-evident, the majority of Australians did not have the patience to receive.

And indeed as the old saying goes – reprised by Don Watson in the latest edition of The Monthly – “you will never sell a policy that you have to explain”.

These are less criticisms of the voters themselves – for any journalists in the room who might be inclined to parse my words – than a reflection on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the messages and the way they were delivered.

The lessons learnt tie back to other lessons in global democracy which I have borne witness to which I will touch on in a moment. Central to those lessons is the fact that trust is at the core of all leadership and policy making. If you don’t have it, you are impotent. Internationally, the crisis in Israel and Gaza rightly has world attention, amid the potential, not only, for spill over into countries like ours in the form of fragmenting social cohesion, but more directly in the form of large-scale conflict in the Middle East.

I grieve for the thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilians who have died since the shocking events of October 7. The Hamas terrorist attacks have directly touched thousands of members of my own community in Goldstein, who have loved ones in Israel. The anxiety, indeed, outright fear among people in my community, is palpable. Protests outside a Jewish staffed business in Melbourne on Monday, for example, had constituents utterly petrified.

These feelings are legitimate. They are also not helped by lack of trust in government and the media, even in a country like ours, a multi-cultural success story, where despite all the work happening behind the scenes in government and among security agencies, people feel abandoned, unheard.

We cannot ignore this.

We live in perilous times – perhaps the most perilous since the Cold War in the early 80s or, perhaps, the Cuban missile crisis of the early 60s.

Yet despite our ability to communicate on more platforms than ever before, amid an information age, our ability to meaningfully reach people seems to be worse than ever. Maybe that’s just me.

In 1980, I was 8. Perhaps those of you who were a bit older than I have different reflections on how political leadership was framed, and how the media delivered that information, important information, not words to parse, manipulate and play with, but critical messaging to the public.

As a foreign correspondent I reported from around the world.

My reflections that I have just outlined therefore focus on communication, but also people, and an understanding that most things are not binary. In the case of Israel and Gaza specifically, I believe that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, Israel has experienced a horrific attack and has a right to self-defence within the international rules of war, and Palestinian civilians must also be seen, protected and have a right to grieve.

This is a position that not everyone in my community likes, but if you are not true to yourself, how can the public trust you?

As I have said in the parliamentary chamber – “The reality is that actions in times of war disproportionately affect civilians,
and in this case if not carefully executed will cause untold death and destruction, potentially not only in Gaza and again in Israel, but across a region that is always on a knife edge.

“This is a clear and present danger.

“I have seen the results of conflict.

“I speak with sincerity from the dark places where I hide these memories with genuine concern for all people, and I grieve deeply for those affected in my own community touched by the terror that has reached from Israel to Goldstein.”

This gathering celebrates the US Studies Centre’s “Women in the Alliance Initiative” and I congratulate the centre for initiating this important project.

Early in my career as a foreign correspondent, on my second posting to Southeast Asia, my husband Rowan and I landed in Bangkok with a one-year- old and a three-year-old.

At that time, female correspondents with children, especially in broadcast media, were extremely rare, almost non-existent in fact. That has changed since, because just as you can’t be what you can’t see, once you can see it, it becomes possible. As in the job that I am in now, it’s a case of proving it out. Gender equality was one of the four policy pillars on which I was elected, and women were empowered to vote strongly on women’s issues at the last election.

I cannot tell you how many older women who exited the polling booth with their husbands and gave me a sly wink or a covert thumbs up as they passed me. Women want representation – in politics, in business and on the world stage. The initiative you are launching tonight is part of that process.

In the parliament, now, they have it, at least on the Labor side and the cross bench. The Coalition has much work to do.

With that, from a cross bench perspective, the Australian people have put a group of professional women in the room where it happens – a paediatric neurologist, a GP, a midwife, a barrister, an economist, a former local mayor, women who have worked as CEOS and led NGOS, and a foreign correspondent.

We all bring our experiences and our lifelong learning to the table.

Not a bad crew. And, speaking for myself, unencumbered by all the ambition that comes with being a party backbencher trying to get to the front bench. The view from the cross bench is just fine thank you! (For now!)

As an MP I have made it a priority to place a gender lens on all relevant legislation – so far so good, with the Fair Work Act, the Jobs and Skills Australia legislation, and the National Reconstruction Fund, for example, all now with a legislated requirement to consider women in decision making.

Indeed, when Industry Minister Ed Husic accepted my amendments to his National Reconstruction Fund legislation earlier this year he said “less than three per cent of venture capital funding goes to female founded companies, which is frankly a shocking number. Interestingly, investments in the ones that do get the investment deliver 35 per cent higher returns on the investment compared to those led by men.”

So, we made a start by inserting a requirement that the NRF consider gender equality and leadership when considering applications for funding.

As a journalist, from Australia to Africa to Asia to the Americas I have observed women at work in international relations and politics.

Indeed Julie Bishop, Australia’s first female Foreign Minister and Marise Payne, her successor who is here tonight and now Penny Wong have all been inspirations to me in different ways.

Women bring something different to the table. They also face different challenges.

When I covered the 2016 US election, yes, I have to get to Trump eventually, the overt sexism towards Hillary Clinton was breathtaking.

Hillary made lots of mistakes and came with all sorts of other baggage obviously, but there was a pervasive sexist overtone.

There was pro Trump merchandise saying, “Trump that bitch” Hillary sucks but not like Monica” “Life’s a bitch but don’t vote for one” “Hillary Special – fat thighs, small breasts, left wing.”

We saw similar about Julia Gillard here in Australia I might add.

This kind of nastiness doesn’t breed trust in leadership. And I will always stick to Michelle Obama’s ‘when they go low, we go high’ doctrine.

But as I am learning, in politics, opponents will stick the knife into any perceived weakness to win. Because returning to my original point about the Voice – negativity and fear are a much easier sell than happiness and rainbows,  especially in the current environment. The thing is, that while being a woman is still a perceived weakness by some,
those of us on the cross bench think the opposite – it’s a superpower.

So is listening.

When I was appointed ABC bureau chief in Washington in 2015, I was determined to hear regular Americans outside DC.

Over the course of the 2016 campaign, I came to the view that Trump would win and not just because of Clinton’s “bunch of deplorables” misstep.

In Youngstown, to quote the title of the famous Bruce Springsteen anthem, for example, I met dozens of down to earth, straightforward Americans, Trump supporters to a man and woman.

“He’s saying out loud what people are thinking, but don’t want to say out loud,” one said to me.

Local property developer Lesley Baum Rossi was another.

She’d painted her house in the stars and stripes and erected a giant effigy of Trump out the front. Thousands of people would stop to buy Trump merchandise and take pictures. I saw them.
“I can’t believe [the polls] from what I’m seeing,” she told me “…this is such a small town and I have so many coming here in a week.” But there were dark sides to Trump – beyond his appalling attitudes to and treatment of women.

It was his adroit use (or misuse) of mis and disinformation with the net effect of undermining faith in the institutions and values of the world’s first modern democracy.

His use of social media, particularly then Twitter, was genius.

During the 2016 campaign – 2016 not 2020 – he was already – and successfully- casting doubt on the legitimacy of the forthcoming result.

It was a trial run for 2020 – and when he deployed his persuasive skills a second time throughout that year the insurrection of January 6, 2021, was the direct and disastrous result.

As most of you already know, many of those who stormed the Capitol believed THEY were the ones defending democracy, that the election of Trump had

been STOLEN and that they were preventing TREASON – not the other way around.

This is difficult to understand, but one thing that I did learn in journalism that is very relevant to politics, is, try to hear and understand the opposite position to your own.

Earlier in this speech I spoke of the difficulty in reaching people, despite all the channels we now have available. That people feel abandoned, unrepresented, not listened to. In some cases, this may be more perceived than real, but in today’s world perception can quickly overtake reality.

And of course, the core of the problem is still trust – because in a post facts world facts are a matter of opinion, and as you know, many Americans still believe Trump.

It was only one of a shopping list of reasons for the Voice referendum’s failure, but we saw the impact of misinformation and disinformation from the “No” campaign in the result – straight out lies in some cases.
And they landed.
For example, that success for Yes would threaten people’s backyards or indigenous Australians would be able to charge the rest of us to go to the beach.

I had actual conversations with voters who believed these lies outside polling booths in my electorate – which did vote yes though, thankfully.

We have already seen the role of mis and disinformation in the current Middle East conflict.
As the old axiom goes truth is the first casualty in war.

The conflict is not just kinetic – with the death and destruction that comes with it – but also a propaganda war in an era in which misinformation travels like a bushfire.

And like the old newspaper adage ‘if it bleeds it leads’ the negative travels a lot faster and more easily than the positive and is all but impossible to rein in. In the 21 st century, in the age of digital media, it’s more the case of: “He who speaks first will be believed, whatever the truth. Once it’s out there, it will become fact for some people.

This is a massive challenge for democracy worldwide – before the remaining values of the Enlightenment when reason rose to the top – are completely shredded.

How to protect free speech, which sits at the core of our democratic freedoms, while also addressing the very real threat to democracy from information manipulation?

Donald Trump’s seeding of doubt about the legitimacy of US elections is a case in point. Words, led to actions.

Democratic governments around the world must recognise the threat and the challenge – and act before it is too late if it is not already as those who seek to erode democracy around the world become ever more enabled.

Is the sky blue?
I say yes.
Is that a fact?
Trust me.


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