Tuesday, 20 September 2022


Member for Preston

Member for Preston

Valedictory statement

Mr SCOTT (Preston) (15:19): First, let me thank my family: my wife, Shaojie, and my son, Lucas, who have sacrificed so much for my public life, and my parents, Don and Amanda, who live their deep commitment to public service. To my current staff—Stephen, Christina, Lisa and Rukiye—and all of my former staffers over 16 years in my electorate office and in my ministerial offices, and I apologise for not naming all of you for the fear of missing one, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I also wish to thank the local Labor Party branch members. To all my true friends, with whom I was able to share my true self, free of the mask we show the world for protection, your friendships are all dear to me. You all gave me a priceless gift: your love, your passion and your trust. I hope I was worthy.

Those seeking immortality, power and glory in Parliament are on a fool’s errand. Time washes away our names, leaving us as footnotes in unread histories. We will not join Shakespeare, Newton or Curie in echoing through human history, yet our roles are profoundly important. The decisions made in this place affect millions of lives. I hope I have made a contribution befitting the trust of the good people of Preston. I have never sought power or influence as an end in itself. These are merely tools of social reform through the implementation of ideas. John Maynard Keynes had it right when he said:

… the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.

Politicians are generally not great philosophers or masters of fate. Politicians are largely the tools of the ideas of others, and it is the struggle of ideas and values that really matters. On this journey of ideas I have had the great honour of working with fantastic staff. I expected much from my staff, and their collective ambition for social change was great. I am deeply grateful for their dedication, intellect and talent. Their thoughtful, intellectual conversations and moral clarity changed my thinking and actions much for the better. Without them nothing would have been possible in my career.

Public office is a precious gift and should not be wasted. With their help we have been able to give profoundly disabled transport accident victims the dignity of their own home through the Residential Independence Pty Ltd housing project; introduce rollover protection for quad bikes, saving many lives; help create wage justice for Victorian government translators and interpreters; and introduce the greener government buildings program, which continues to reduce electricity usage and greenhouse emissions, all the while saving money. We rolled out the first grant program specifically assisting LGBTI migrants and developed and implemented the Victorian and Proud of It campaign, a template for strengthening multiculturalism which measurably moved the dial to increase support for a diverse society. We created community support groups, a world-leading model of reducing the risk of violent extremism through community-led engagement, and oversaw the early implementation of the first programs in our state targeting the growing threat of far-right extremism. My electorate office staff were able to change Preston profoundly, including the reopening of Preston High School, the refurbishment of essentially all of our local schools and of course the construction of grade separations, fundamentally changing the community in which I live and love.

I have used the phrase ‘journey of ideas’ deliberately. One of the central elements of every culture and the subject of many of the world’s great stories is the hero’s journey. They all follow a similar pattern: the hero leaves the ordinary world and faces challenges, overcoming some great obstacle or enemy, and then returns and undergoes a metamorphosis in the realisation of how this adventure has changed them. I think many in politics, including myself, live out a literal version of the hero’s journey in the external world. This literal view almost entirely misses the point. The challenge we face—the great obstacle, enemy or dragon, if you like—is within us. This dragon cannot be slain in the external world. These are stories of personal transformation, not personal conquest in the external world. There is a very old question on the purpose of life: is it to be happy or to have meaning? It is a question we all must resolve ourselves. We must all slay our own dragon.

As I leave this stage the challenges facing democratic societies loom large in my mind. Increasingly, Western societies are divided into insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, those who benefit from the great shifts of globalisation and those who do not. Right now this inequality is being turbocharged by low interest rates and the furious pace of technological change. These may be disruptive forces, but they are not disrupting inequality. It is those who are already on the inside who are the winners from globalisation and technological change. Better educated, they have access to power that knowledge provides. They own assets and have access to intergenerational wealth that leaves them even wealthier when historically low interest rates drive up asset prices. For these people inflation and the cost of living are manageable problems. For them change is an opportunity, not a threat. They are not bad people. More often than not these insiders are socially progressive and environmentally conscious and demonstrate genuine care for their communities. But for outsiders change is too often a threat. They are often less educated and have less power over their own lives. They have fewer assets, and the prospect of owning them at some point often becomes a distant dream.

Jobs for the less educated are disappearing. Future job prospects are less secure, uncertain and more precarious. These people die earlier, and not just by a little. Life expectancy is the starkest illustration of inequality. The difference in life expectancy by postcode in Victoria is up to 30 years. Gaps of more than 20 years are not uncommon, and this is an Australia-wide phenomenon. This government is rightly proud of its record of taking on long-ignored challenges like family violence and grade separations. The challenge of inequality requires fresh determination—for those left behind by globalisation, those victims of this great technological and data revolution. Differences of 20 and 30 years in life expectancy should not separate the richest and poorest, not while we claim adherence to a fair go. Labor must rise to this challenge.

If we do not address inequality I believe the traditional system of politics in which we reside will die. We cannot expect those who have been left behind, those who are outsiders, to support the status quo. In a world where social media algorithms reinforce groupthink and drive people quickly to extremes, this change is coming faster than most people think. A fractured society will produce a fractured political system. A fractured political system fuels populism, which blames migrants, the poor and other minorities, trading in fear, trading in hate. This is the bitter harvest that we risk sowing if we ignore this inequality. Addressing it is not beyond our capacity.

The Victorian government spends around $100 billion a year. What is required is will—will and humility to learn from others. Governments should set ambitious goals. Reducing the life expectancy gap would be a good place to start. The needs of individual disadvantaged Victorians should shape interventions—individual tailored solutions measured over time and modified based on the outcomes after regular review. The goal should be employment for all. We need the will and the humility to learn from communities and from world’s best practice.

I see hope—hope in the application of scientific knowledge for common good. Enormous opportunities exist for a better world. The pandemic has been a disaster. It has killed approximately 20 million people across the world, yet during this time science has unlocked a profound understanding of the transmission of airborne diseases. The more airborne viral particles that are breathed in, the more likely a person is to be infected. The fewer viral particles breathed in, the less likely a person is to be infected. This simple understanding can and should forever alter our relationship with airborne disease. Just as sanitation freed us from waterborne disease in the 19th century, using tools we already have, we can radically reduce the risk of airborne diseases without reducing our freedoms—ventilation, open windows, increasing airflow inside buildings, filtration including HEPA filters and disinfection where UV light kills bacteria and active viruses. A number of studies have shown radical reductions in infection risk. A peer-reviewed Hong Kong restaurant study of upper-room UVC showed a reduction in risk of secondary infection of over 90 per cent. This magnitude of risk reduction promises a fundamental change in our relationship to airborne disease. The cost of reducing this risk would be less than the cost of sanitation. We contain pandemics and free ourselves from the regular cycle of endemic infection. The cost of airborne disease for this state is high. The solutions are cheap. We need imagination, and we need bravery. We need well-designed programs. It will pay for itself many times over. The current difficulties can be replaced for a better age for humankind. We did it before with waterborne diseases. We can do it again with airborne diseases.

Power reveals much about your character. One of my deepest regrets is all the times that I was thoughtless and did not show enough care for those who cared for me. Power held and the moral importance of the work create a sense of entitlement that can leave the needs of others in second place. Love and friendships are gifts that should never come second, regardless of the stakes in a political life.

I will end with what I am sure is in my greatest contribution, a private one, not a political triumph, which would come as not a surprise to many who know me. Unlike most politicians, I have some background in science. I enjoy reading scientific papers; I enjoy understanding them. In early 2020 I was visiting China with my family. On 23 January, my birthday, Wuhan locked down. I had a ringside seat while the world’s largest government took action unseen for a century. I watched a city of 20 million people stop. It was breathtaking and shocking. The world had changed forever. As a science tragic I consumed countless epidemiological papers. It became obvious to me that unless we acted to prevent infection spreading, tens of thousands of Australians would rapidly die. At this point there were no vaccines or treatments. I reasoned that death on this scale would be unacceptable to a civilised society. Until we stopped the entry and transmission of the virus, we would lock down.

By late January I had concluded the borders should close. I was convinced very early that we would lock down and the borders would close and that then we would copy East Asian practices in testing, case tracing and masking, and the sooner we did these things, the better. In February and early March 2020 I spent time trying to warn my colleagues and engage in what I thought would happen and how we should respond. It is fair to say that not all of my colleagues were immediately receptive. Indeed many thought my China experiences had addled my brain. It seemed that the radical changes the virus was spreading through the world would somehow not reach us. The disaster unfolding across the world seemed far away, and our common genetic make-up seemed a foreign idea. During this period South Korea and Taiwan succeeded in controlling the outbreak, but that barely registered here. Only when north Italy was struck did the pandemic seem real.

Yet I am convinced that my warnings did help speed up the response in Victoria, and considering the stakes, this was by far my greatest achievement. During this time I think the logic of the situation was actually fairly evident. Why then were I and others unable to convince more quickly? In my view there is a heuristic relating to the future. If history has taught us anything, it is that the future will be radically different from the present. Yet when we face genuine crises, politicians often cannot see that reality will be radically changed in a short period of time, even when those radical changes are eminently predictable.

The world we now face may be less predictable than it was in early 2020. War is destroying the international rule’s order. Rampant inflation and a COVID-zero slowdown in China present dramatic economic challenges. Democratic societies have been undermined by authoritarian strongmen from both within and without. The world is not predictable, but we must try. We must be open to the uncomfortable answers that this must present. The future will be different—if history is any guide, radically different.

My final advice for this Parliament is to face the future, looking into the abyss, honestly without the comforting fantasy that things will not be different. The present will not survive contact with events. If we do not try with unwavering honesty to understand what may come, we will always be unprepared. The stakes will be high. The more we face the very real possibility of significant change clearly and rationally, the more we can protect the interests of the community.

In relation to my own future, my ambitions are still large, but not for myself. Instead I intend a journey deeper into ideas, to change the flow of events through those ideas and to dwell in a space where those ideas interact with action. I hope this part of my life will be undertaken with humility born of reflection on my failures as much as my successes. My role in the hero’s journey in public life will be changed from the hero of my own narrative to the helper of others. I will leave the heroic conquering to those who still desire that path. I certainly do not.

It has been a deep honour to serve. Farewell and thanks to all who have helped me on this journey. I owe you a debt that can truly never be repaid. I will try for the rest of my life to do justice to that contribution. I wish all of you well—those who do not share my values not quite as well as those who do. May you go well, may you respect your families and those who care for you. Touch the world through the ideas you believe in. This is an important place, even if we all will be forgotten.

Members applauded.