The labour movement is one of the greatest forces for justice, fairness and equity in global history.
Few social movements have had such a profound effect on human existence as organised labour.
Working from the idea that fairness and collectivism will always trump greed and self-interest, the labour movement built the foundations of decency in modern Australia.
The architects were working people who understood that fairness could never be achieved if self-interest guided decision-making in all things.
Their collective achievements underline their passion and their preparedness to embrace the public interest ahead of their own personal interests.
- Prior to collective bargaining, exploitation of workers was the norm, not the exception.
- Before union activists helped form the Australian Labor Party, working people in this country had no-one to represent their political interests and aspirations.
- And before Labor Governments were elected there was no political force prepared to legislate to turn the idea of a Fair Go into reality.
So as we come together tonight here in Cairns, we should be proud.
Proud of the labour movement’s great achievements.
- The aged and widow’s pensions
- The eight-hour day
- Decent standards of workplace health and safety
- Universal health care through Medicare
- Universal access to tertiary education
- Superannuation for all, not just the rich
- Workers compensation
- Nation Building Infrastructure like the Snowy Mountains Scheme and the Trans-Continental Railway;
And more recently,
- Saving 200,000 Australian jobs with an economic stimulus package in response to the Global Financial Crisis.
That’s a great record. It is one that our opponents, whose creed is based on self-interest, will never match.
Labor’s record of achievement is made more impressive because it was delivered by people acting for each other, not out of self-interest.
Indeed, the labour movement is driven by the notion of the Fair Go – the idea that all of us deserve access to the dignity of labour with fair working conditions.
Or, in short, that opportunity should not be determined by birth.
You could use another term for that concept.
A vision of humanity that accepts that we are not only responsible for ourselves, but also responsible for each other.
THE STRUGGLE IS NEVER OVER
When your ambition is social justice, your struggle is never over.
Today’s struggle is against Tony Abbott and his conservative agenda.
The problem isn’t that Tony Abbott is stuck in the past; it’s that he wants the rest of Australia to go back there and keep him company.
In opposition, he was relentlessly negative.
He spent no time developing alternative policies. His contribution to public debate was to shout slogans.
If the pre-Budget leaks are any guide, this month’s first Budget will prove that Mr Abbott, despite having won office, is still mired in negativity.
The wheels of his government are spinning. There’s no go-forward.
Apart from paying millionaires to have babies, it seems Mr Abbott’s only Budget plan is to break his explicit pre-election promises and rain down pain on average Australians.
Using dodgy and confected Budget reckoning, he will use his overblown claims of a debt crisis to justify his real aim – an ideologically based attack on fairness in this country.
This in spite of the fact that he inherited a growing economy with relatively low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates and a Triple A credit rating.
Broken promises, cutting pensions and services, new taxes, public transport cuts and cuts to the ABC are all on the table.
The pathetic attempt this week to call a new tax a “levy” just adds insult to injury.
The savage Budget cuts we are being softened up for are a threat to the very principle of a fair go so central to the Australian story.
So like a lot of other people, I’m going to stand up for the values I cherish.
I won’t cop Tony Abbott’s small-minded politics of exclusion.
Nor should you.
But if we are going to do more than just talk about our heritage and our achievements; if we are going to return to office and deliver progress with fairness, we must ask ourselves some critical questions in the light of last September’s election result.
- How do we make sure our policies will appeal to progressive Australians outside our movement – the sort of people who in the last election voted Green, Liberal or for Clive Palmer?
- How do we find candidates with broad community appeal and the ability to argue our case?
- And how do we improve our standard of communication with the Australian people?
These are not just questions for the Labor Party, but the entire labour movement.
LABOR PARTY REFORM
As Bill Shorten said in his important speech last week, we need to reform the Labor Party.
It’s a debate that is fundamental to the future of our movement – a movement that has stuck together through good times and bad for more than a century.
Here’s my starting point: I don’t accept a view that says unions have no place in this Party.
The union movement and the Labor Party are bound by a shared vision of justice.
History shows us that Labor Governments are at their best when they work with unions and with business to deliver reform.
The Hawke Governments’ Accord delivered structural economic reform that set Australia up for decades.
It required the key players from labour’s political and industrial wings to recognise that if each put aside their individual aspirations – if they each gave ideological ground to the other – their work together in delivering economic reform could deliver something special for the entire nation.
It also required courage from all sides – a recognition labour’s grand and ongoing push for a better society was more important than their ambitions as individuals.
This is a time for courage.
I have no doubt that unions will continue to operate in close partnership with the Labor Party.
But for our partnership to be successful, we must broaden our appeal.
To do that, we must broaden our membership.
As Bill said last week, we need a bigger party. But as he also indicated, size isn’t everything.
If the best we can offer members is the chance to sell raffle tickets and hand out how-to-vote cards, it won’t work.
If we use our members as little more than a cheap labour force while a small number of people retain all power to make the decisions that matter, particularly on policy and candidate selection, they just won’t stick around.
The bottom line for Labor Party reform is that unless some people who hold power now are prepared to share it with others, it will fail.
You can’t give more power to the membership without taking it from the powerbrokers.
Just as we embrace the idea of collective bargaining in the workplace, we must accept that we have a collective responsibility to reform our party – even if that means some of use lose individual power or influence.
I include myself in that.
This will mean uncertain outcomes.
But that’s the point.
When Bill and I contested the federal leadership last year we were both energised by the enthusiastic response from the membership.
This active engagement empowered the membership, led to thousands joining up and hundreds of thousands outside the party paying attention to the process.
It was a great example of how an internal reform can produce external benefits and allowed the new Labor Opposition to gain momentum.
But we need to go further.
I support the rank and file membership having a direct say in electing delegates to state and national ALP conferences.
The same goes for the selection of Senate and Upper House candidates.
For too long all of the political parties have treated the Senate as a sort of pressure valve for internal tensions.
We can do better.
In the Labor Party, we’ve had some great senators, such as John Faulkner, who announced this week that he will not contest the next election after a long and distinguished career.
But we haven’t always put our best foot forward.
There is no question that Labor suffered in the recent WA Senate election re-run when the public scrutinised our processes.
The public delivered an unambiguous verdict.
If we want to advance our great movement we need to find a better way.
A good start would be to have more open and transparent processes in which candidates have to argue their case to rank-and-file party members.
We also need to get more serious about democracy on the floor of our National Conference.
Too often policy debates take place in the backrooms, rather than on the conference floor.
The rank-and-file leadership ballot showed that the public would respond to open but respectful political discussion.
The best debates at recent conferences have been on issues like uranium and marriage equality, where there has not been a disciplined predetermined outcome.
Our conference must be a producer of ideas – a driver of policy.
And we need to draw those ideas from far and wide, not just from our existing circle.
Ideas must come from the parliamentary wing and workplaces, but also from business people, mums and dads in the suburbs, young people, professional people, churches, and ethnic communities, even the local footy club.
This is critical because these are the places inhabited by the uncommitted voters we must engage with.
If we do not craft policies with these people in mind, we can look forward to a long period in opposition.
We must change the culture of party processes to harness the broader participation that will broaden our access to new ideas and potential candidates.
And the opportunities for broader participation have never been greater thanks to new technology.
The new ideas that will sustain our success must come from diversity and openness.
There are some who say internal debate on party reform is a distraction from the real issue of crafting policies that will mobilise public support.
I think they miss the point.
Party reform is not the end objective in itself. It is the enabler – the path to success.
Our internal deliberations must always be driven to how we project outwards as an effective political force, rather than looking inwards.
Party reform needs to be used as the vehicle to ensure Labor can find the ideas and the candidates who will win that very public support.
CIVILITY IN PUBLIC DEBATE
Labor can beat Tony Abbott.
I mentioned earlier that Mr Abbott’s negativity during his years in Opposition prevented him thinking much about policy.
He won office largely on a policy of undoing every reform of the previous Labor Government.
Where Labor was looking for a contest of ideas, Mr Abbott chose a different battlefield – negativity.
He turned the Coalition into the Noalition.
This provides an opportunity for Labor.
Mr Abbott still has no new ideas. He is a reactionary and a conservative.
He opposes change and finds new ideas too confronting.
His announcement of a return to Knights and Dames is almost a parody of himself, worthy of a Clarke and Dawe sketch.
If we can craft progressive policies and endorse candidates drawn from across the community – not just from our existing circle of insiders – we can make Mr Abbott a one-term Prime Minister.
But I’ve got one word of warning.
We must channel our passion.
I know progressive Australians are angry about Tony Abbott’s broken promises and his scorched-earth attitude to the achievements of the previous Labor Government.
But while it is good to be passionate, anger gets you nowhere.
A genuine debate is not a shouting match – it’s an exchange of ideas.
Who could forget Mr Abbott’s decision to address a rally outside Parliament House in front of posters denigrating the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard in misogynistic terms?
In 2011 I had a group of these angry climate change sceptics march on my electoral office, with Sophie Mirabella in tow.
They brought a coffin and banners loaded with offensive, personal abuse. The most remarkable banner, given the multicultural nature of Marrickville, said “tolerance is our demise”.
I addressed them and put my position on why action on climate change was important.
They shouted abuse and pushed and shoved.
In doing so, they alienated mainstream members of the public who saw the news that night.
A genuine contest of ideas needs to be conducted with civility, or else people just won’t listen.
Labor’s starting point on the road to political recovery must be acceptance that negativity and name calling won’t advance our political cause.
It is a shame that when 100,000 Australians joined in the March in March protest, the message was undermined by some of the banners.
The vast majority of participants marched peacefully and maintained their courtesy despite their anger at Mr Abbott and his government.
But one banner I saw actually condemned democracy.
That’s not progressive. That’s unacceptable. Full stop.
In this country, peaceful demonstrations are a sign of a healthy democracy.
I am proud to have participated in demonstrations about a range of issues over more than three decades.
However, in this country we change governments at the ballot box, not in the streets.
I am vehemently opposed to many of Mr Abbott’s policies and to the entrenchment of privilege that he stands for.
But in the words of Martin Luther King that I quoted in my 1st Speech to Parliament in 1996:
There is no progress in hate… like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity.
We should leave the abusive slogans and offensive posters to the fringe.
Labor seeks to govern with majority support of the nation, not to be just a party of protest.
We will beat Tony Abbott with ideas and values, not with clenched fists or raised voices.
Today is May Day. It’s celebrated around this country as Labour Day, although the dates of its observance vary from state to state.
But whenever we celebrate it, Labor Day reminds us of where we came from and what we stand for.
It unites us with a common view of humanity.
Today, let it also cause us to consider our future and what we need to do to ensure we can continue to deliver progress with dignity and fairness for our country.
Let those of us who hold leadership positions in the movement embrace the principle that lies at the heart of our movement – that justice for all is more important than the power of the individual.
The launch pad for Labor’s recovery is the resumption of a respectful battle of ideas – a battle we can win and which Mr Abbott is ill-equipped to fight.
We need to reach out to the community about our vision for its future, stressing issues like education, health care, housing affordability and the cost of living.
But importantly, we need to be open to take on ideas that come from the community.
We should also point to our achievements.
They are considerable in areas including the economy, health, education, housing, childcare, infrastructure provision and care for people with disabilities – areas which, I am sad to say, are right now endangered by Mr Abbott’s ideological crusade.
We owe this to ourselves and to our country.
Thanks for your attention.