Good evening everyone.
My name is Maxine McKew and I’m a recovering ex politician.
It’s been two months since my last division.
Tonight is part of my therapy.
Isn’t modern politics wonderful?
We scream banalities at each other for six weeks. It produces a dead heat – then something rather interesting happens.
Conventional thinking gives way to something else.
The independent Rob Oakeshott says the new Parliament will be beautiful, ugly, cracking.
It certainly won’t be dull and I must say I am delighted that as a result Julia Gillard will be able to form the next Labor Government.
So in the new spirit of the times, and in line with my treatment programme, it’s time for a few confessions of my own.
It is true as my opponent in Bennelong claimed for months on end, that I failed to stop the boats.
But I say, just as well.
Commuters catching the 7.10 Meadowbank ferry would certainly notice its absence.
It is also true that I spent a large part of the last three years on building sites – be it for child care centres, urban precincts in provincial towns, community or sports centres, bikeways, and arts complexes.
All of this public expenditure through the period of the global financial crisis is what has kept the nation working.
In recent times, I have used the phrase ‘shovel ready’ as often as Tony Abbott has used the phrase ‘government waste.’
Your presence here tonight, in such numbers, suggests that you think that a $26m Federal/State Government contribution for the extension of the Museum of Contemporary Art is not wasteful, but a smart investment in the artistic life of Sydney.
So Liz Ann, Cynthia, and Simon, I want you to know, that I consider every minute that I spent jaw-boning senior Ministers about this project to have been worth it.
And it was the Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese who delivered.
It’s worth it because, with an expanded MCA, children across Australia will be able to tap into the riches of the Museum through the kind of re-imagining that Liz Ann is doing – the creation of a 21st century arts museum which marries technology with the curatorial strength of the MCA.
And what a boost this is going to be for regional Australia.
Of course it would not be happening without the spectacular co-contribution by Simon Mordant and his $13millon gift – so bravo to you Simon for your generosity.
And among the many friends I have made in the last three years I want to mention Cynthia Jackson in particular whose spirit and passion has produced the transformative Bella programme.
Too many of our children, whether born to privilege or disadvantage, are living pinched artistic lives and the Bella programme reaches right into the heart of that deficit.
Tonight I want to spend a few minutes talking about why this sort of investment in cultural institutions and our cities matter.
And also why we should reject the miserable defeatism that says we can’t grow.
The Sydney that I want to live in is one that is rich enough to support great cultural institutions like the MCA, and one that has sufficient mass to be a magnet for wealth creation and economic and cultural innovation.
Cities that lose heart, cities that are timid, or unwelcoming, are places that will gradually lose relevance.
And in that context, I’m worried about Sydney. It is still brash, but it certainly is not bold.
This, at a time when a new urban age has been proclaimed, and when more than half the world’s population live in cities.
The latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine makes the point that in the 21st century, it is cities, rather than states, that are becoming the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built.
Alongside the global giants of London New York and Hong Kong, is an emerging new category of megacity – whether it be the city-states along the Persian Gulf, or the superpopulous cities of Mumbai or Shanghai.
To quote Foreign Policy, by 2025 China is expected to have 15 super cities with an average population of 25 million where Europe will have none.
That figure alone tells you everything you need to know about power in the 21st century.
Now talk of mega cities is the sort of thing that drives Dick Smith to produce Hobbesian-style nightmares that are aired on your ABC.
Dick is part of the ‘shrink Australia’ crowd.
And we can take that path.
We can, if we choose, sit at around 22 million, and say to the rest of Asia, ‘sorry, we’re full.’
And when they stop laughing in Shanghai and Manilla and Jakarta, we’ll start to slip into irrelevance, just like Europe.
To my mind, the ‘shrink Australia crowd’ is suffering from an imagination deficit.
They cannot, or will not, see that well designed cities can be our salvation.
If we get over our hang-up about density, and start thinking and investing in innovative urban design, then the future starts to take on a whole different aspect.
I’m proud to have been part of a government that has produced significant work on Major Cities policy and again, that’s to the credit of Anthony Albanese and the department he administers.
And its work that is supported by many civic leaders in this town, and in particular, I would mention the Sydney Chamber of Commerce.
But the fact is this – Sydney needs more champions for a better, smarter kind of urban living.
We need the combined talents of our engineers, architects, planners, artists, environmentalists, venture capitalists and yes, our politicians, to find some common ground and work together to re-imagine Sydney.
I think the New Yorker writer David Owen has shown the way in his book Green Metropolis.
He argues, that far from being an ecological nightmare (Dick Smith are you listening?) a densely populated city like New York presents something of a model of an environmental utopia.
New Yorkers, says Owen, consume less oil, less electricity and water than other Americans – they live in smaller spaces, consume less, discard less and most importantly, spend far less time in cars.
Manhattan residents rank first in public transit use and last in per capita greenhouse production.
They live in a city that has literally dozens of MCA’s – museums, galleries and places of entertainment built by the Fricks, the Carnegies, and the Rockefeller’s.
New York has taken its share of hits, but its wealth and dynamism and talent bank combine to make it one of the buzziest places on the planet.
And it’s an interesting challenge to our conventional thinking that someone like David Owen is prepared to argue that in terms of sustainability, a densely populated city like New York has more to teach us than does the isolated solar-powered mountainside cabin in a rural retreat.
Owen is realistic enough to know that few solutions can be applied everywhere.
Sydney is not New York. We like our space, our backyards.
But the fact is we will only save our suburbs if we put an end to our hostility to increased urbanization.
If we continue to spread out with our profligate use of land and other amenities, then we will lose more open space.
It’s instructive to look closer to home.
Melbourne’s planners say that their city population can increase by another one million with better and smarter land use and increased density on only 10% of the city’s existing land stock
So I think its time for Sydney to get over its ten-year funk since the Olympics packed up.
We could start with local government reform.
Melbourne hasn’t looked back since Jeff Kennett sacked all the local government authorities in the 1990’s and started again.
One of the biggest brakes on Sydney’s renewal is in the retention of a sclerotic system of over forty local councils trying to determine what goes where. Where is the command and co-ordination that a city like Sydney deserves?
By contrast, Brisbane’s emergence as a growth city of the 21st century is immeasurably enhanced by the fact that the city is governed by one super council, in effect a mini state government which has sufficient scale and power to plan for major infrastructure projects.
And what about champions?
Quite simply, we need more people spruiking for Sydney in an intelligent expansive way.
Clover Moore does it, Peter Holmes a Court does it, Paul Keating does it, as does Patricia Forsythe at the Sydney Chamber.
But I’ve thought for some time that what Sydney needs is a decent sized coalition of individuals with broad interests who are prepared to run with an imaginative agenda.
In Renaissance Florence, the beautification of the city was the serious business of serious men – men whose interests ranged over politics, religion, art, architecture and large-scale infrastructure.
The Medici family took to heart the Florentine injunction – that there are two principal things that men do in this world – the first is to procreate, the second is to build.
The power struggles were intense and bloody – that’s 15th century Florence I’m talking about, (not today’s Macquarie Street), but the Medici and other great families of the city transformed the urban landscape and have thus given the world one of its great treasures.
Florence dazzled because discerning men competed to sell the best of Florentine culture to the rest of Europe.
I think it’s up to us to decide whether Sydney can dazzle, not just because of the great gift of its natural environment, but through the power of a bit of collective re-imagining.
And why wouldn’t we seize the moment?
Last week Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan quite correctly pointed to an Australian economy that is the envy of the developed world.
Growth is strong, public sector spending is decreasing as private activity picks up. Employment is buoyant, home building activity is on the rise, and the rest of the world is paying us generous prices for our exports.
So these should be confident days, not grumpy days.
And that brings me to my final point.
We have to stop yelling at each other. For too long, we have substituted slogans for ideas and concrete argument.
This is not exclusive to Australia.
The Economist pointed out recently that way too much media space is now given over to provocation rather than consideration. And the political debate reflects that.
In the area that I have represented for the past three years, I always said I was a strong voice for Bennelong.
A strong voice, not a shrill voice, and not a negative voice.
I made my choice and I stand by it.
I’ve had a marvellous experience in playing a role in representative government.
What I will miss most are the conversations I’ve had with my electorate.
It is certainly true that in recent times I have met people who were anxious about things like immigration and population – and to some extent asylum seekers.
But I have met at least as many people who imagine a bigger and more outward looking Australia, not a small introverted one.
I also met a lot of people in between – people who were open to argument and wanting to hear a vision for Australia; an Australia created not only on our existing opportunities, but also on opportunities we can create for ourselves if we use our brains and imagination.
So now that we are in a new era of Labor coalition building, of reform of Parliamentary process and other matters, let’s also consider the need to change the way we conduct elections.
Rather than campaign against community anxieties and direct clichés to places where discontent is greatest, elected officials owe it to themselves and to the people they seek to represent to match the better efforts, the better ideas, and the better feelings that are present in our community.
That’s my idea of representative politics. And my faith in that is undiminished.