He’s the federal member for Gellibrand, and one of the youngest members of the federal Parliament, but that hasn’t stopped Tim Watts working towards his vision of the future.
Q: Two Futures – can you tell us a bit about the book and how it came about?
One of the things that struck me the most about Parliament is just how rapid the pace of the job is, everything in your life becomes a battle for the next half an hour, doing the next interview, the next speech, the next meeting, and it’s very easy to get caught up in a reactive, short term approach to the job. So writing Two Futures was a bit of self-imposed discipline to force myself and my co-author Clare O’Neil another labour MP, to focus on the things that are really important – not for the next day, not for the next week, not for the next year but for a 20 years. So we were looking at what are the things that are going on around us at the moment, that are going to matter to Australia in 20 or 25 years’ time. So the objective of the book is really a discipline on ourselves to focus on what really matters in Canberra.
Q: That’s a lot to tackle, how does the book approach all that?
So we identify six major themes that are really going to have an impact on Australia in the next 20 years. The first one is the decline in the strength of our democratic institutions, the second is the significant increase in economic inequality in Australia, and the third is the significant impact of climate change that we’re going to start to see become a reality over that time period. Then the fourth one is digital disruption – the impact of the digital revolution and technology change, the fifth is our sources of growth in the economy and our future path to growth, which looks more uncertain and rocky, and finally the sixth is Australia’s place in our region, in the Indo-Pacific and a very rapidly changing strategic environment. Now short term band-aid solutions can’t fix those issues, they require long term policy initiatives and politicians to stick to priorities over a period of not just years but multiple terms of government, so it was an enlightening experience. If you look for a significant change in the way we do things that has survived the change of government, you really have to go back to the GST and that’s 15 years ago now, so you look at the reform of the last Labor government, things like carbon pricing, the NBN and a whole range of those initiatives have been torn up by the new government, so there is an open question about how well we’re bedding down reform in this country. Possibly the NDIS is going to be the exception to that, we’ll see what happens with the government’s funding commitments over time.
Q: You’re an advocate for addressing family violence. How far do we have to go in this area
It is an issue that touches all aspects of Australian society. It doesn’t respect economic differences, religious differences, cultural differences, it’s something that touches all parts of Australian society. Melbourne’s west has experienced some horrific family violence over the last couple of years and that’s really what got me involved in the issue. That said, we really have some fantastic community and government organisations working on this issue in Melbourne’s west. Women’s Welfare have been providing really important support services. McAuley Community Services are also providing really important crisis accommodation and services for women, and also our multicultural community groups are providing support. What we really need to do is promote gender equality which is at the heart of family violence, it’s men who feel like they’re entitled to exercise control and power over women in their lives, and do so by using violence and cohesive means. One of the most encouraging things in Melbourne’s west are the serious commitments to promoting gender equality from our local councils, our local groups and our political leaders.
Q: ‘Dob in a flag’ – where did that idea come from?
It’s just something that most groups don’t know that they can get a flag from their local MP, and if you look around at the electorate, at the bowls club, at the schools, at the retirement homes, you see a lot of tatty Australian flags. So the ‘Dob in the Australian flag’ idea was a way of saying, well if you see a flag in your community that could do with a freshening up, let us know and we can arrange a new one.
Q: Your Gellibrand electorate has 60 % of people one parent born overseas, should Australia be doing more to help refugees?
My wife was born in China, so my kids and my wife both fit into that definition. My firm view is that Australia does need to be doing a lot more to support what is an unprecedented demand for asylum around the world at the moment. We said for some time now that we believe Australia’s humanitarian intake, the number of people we resettle from overseas needs to be significantly increased, so the current intake is only around 13,000 people a year and we said we want to take that to 27,000. And that’s a significant number we are dealing with, what is a really substantial national problem at the moment. Something that is often forgotten is that we need to adequately fund the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). We’ve said that we’ll commit 450 million dollars which will make us one of the top five global contributors, and the UNHCR is the organisation that is delivering services to the people who fled conflicts, like what’s going on in Syria and Iraq at the moment, and operate the resettlement and temporary protection, refugee camps that are in existence at the moment. We need to resettle more people in Australia and we need to support the national institutions who are supporting people fleeing persecution.
Q: How do you represent the largest Buddhist population in Australia when in Canberra?
Well yes being a member of Parliament means it’s important to represent everyone in your electorate from all kinds of backgrounds and being responsive to what the community ask from you is really the most important thing no matter what the background of the people you’re working with is. I also have a significant involvement with the temple. The temple in Braybrook is one of the largest temples in Australia. The Dalai Lama? That’s where he visits. So a very strong relationship with the temple for things like Buddhist birthday, and Lunar New Year, and the arrangements for those cultural and religious events. On a practical level in Canberra, one of the things I wrote about in Two Futures, its important our democratic institutions are open and representative of all Australians. One of the things that bothers me about the Parliament at the moment is that before we start work every day, the speaker will read out the Lord’s prayer, and it’s the Anglican version of the Lord’s prayer, and that’s something that I think is unnecessarily exclusive and divisive. If I was one of my Buddhist constituents coming to Parliament, seeing it open, and sitting through the Lord’s prayer, I would wonder whether that was the institution that was properly representing me and representing the diverse Australian community.
Q: How can the people of Gellibrand help integrate migrants and refugees?
Melbourne’s west is really the welcoming mat for generations of new Australians, going back to the post 2nd world war period, we have the largest community of Maltese outside of Malta, large communities of Greeks, Italians, Polish and through the eighties we had community arrivals of Vietnamese refugees, Turkish Australians, Lebanese Australians and more recently African and Middle Eastern refugees as well. We have a long practical experience of what that’s like, and my view is that the foundation of settlement once people arrive in Australia is citizenship – not in the sense of a piece of paper but citizenship as in the sense of really investing in an individual’s capability to exercise their rights as a citizen and participating in our economics, so having the skills they need to get work and also to be able to participate as a political entity in our society. A lot of that is driven by government services, but really it comes from how the community interacts with new arrivals. Treating them as equals as a citizen who can pursue their interests as well.
Q: Does being a younger member of Parliament help you connect with youth of the west? Conversely does it make it harder with older people in business or politics?
I suppose that being the youngest Labor MP is helpful in some ways, probably more comfortable with some of the new technologies used in politics now, as a social media user I really enjoy engaging with my constituents on social media so that’s been a great advantage, but I don’t think it’s in an obstacle dealing with other members of the constituency, it just means that I need to work harder at getting out to all parts of the electorate and focusing on what people want from the their representatives.
Q: What’s your vision for youth in the west?
The reason I got involved in politics is because I want every Australian, particularly every young Australian to have the same economic and social opportunities as anyone else, so I want a kid from Footscray, a kid from Sunshine, a kid from Altona, a kid from Williamstown, to feel like they have the exact same chance of becoming Prime Minister, becoming a surgeon, becoming a successful business man, becoming a community leader. For me the most important thing is the quality of our education system, so I think needs-based school funding – funding that recognises that when schools have populations of kids that might come from a non-English spoken background, that might come from a more disadvantage background, that might have a background of disability, they need more help, more government support, more funding to ensure that their kids have more of the same opportunities.
Q: Would you like to be Prime Minister one day?
Ha ha, I’ve just started as a member of Parliament so I can tell you I’ve got plenty on my plate. I’m a local member of Parliament, I’m really enjoying it, I feel like I’m learning something new every day so I’m very happy being the member for Gellibrand. Unfortunately it has become a little bit of a round-about in recent times under the Abbott government but I can say if we get in, a Bill Shorten Prime Minister in the near future the country will be in very good hands.
Q: What football team do you barrack for?
Ha ha, I barrack for the ‘dogs but I am a relatively recent convert, I used to be one of these people who thought that once you pick your team, your stuck with it for life. I grew up following the Brisbane Bears and went through many spoons with them. I went through an interstate move with them but when I was elected member for Gellibrand I told (Bulldogs President) Peter Gordon “I’m sorry, I’ve already got a club, it’s not the dogs, but I’ll work with you but I can’t barrack for the dogs”. But after being elected you get around and you just see how much they are a part of the community. The men’s health program, the schools outreach programs, the community integration inclusion programs, their citizenship ceremonies on world refugee day – you realise they’re not just a footy club they’re a community institution.
I was a reluctant convert but now I’m extremely enthusiastic and looking forward to what will be really big next year for the Bulldogs.