Australia – where to next?

syd_institute.jpgThe Sydney Institute - September 2, 2013

At the turn of the last century a new nation was born.  Crafted in the Antipodes from the colonies of Britain.  As inspired by the new democracy in North America – as it was loyal to its imperial sovereign.  In the 112 years since, we have built one of the most successful, peaceful and wealthiest nations on earth. 

Not without fault or cost.  For too long we denied the rights of the Aboriginal people.  We have not always been good custodians of the land.  We persisted with the idea of White Australia, long after we knew it was wrong.

But – today – we are a peaceful, wealthy, resilient and energetic nation, with every reason to be optimistic about our future.

As we look around the world we know that this future is not guaranteed.  Our future will be forged in the suburbs of our cities, in the regions – and in the Parliaments of our nation. 

It will be imagined – and contested – by the next generation who offer themselves as leaders. I enter this election confident of where our best future lies.

I believe that our future prosperity and security lies squarely within the Asia Pacific.

We have it within our grasp to build an economic powerhouse – an open trading nation that is truly integrated with the nations of this region. 

A prosperous, stable, outward-looking democracy.  Reconciled with its Aboriginal people, confident as a new Republic – but proud of its British ancestry.

A country as good at tackling inequality as it is at generating wealth.

A country that can foster a new generation of entrepreneurs who are as conscious of their obligation to community and the environment as they are of their obligation to their shareholders.

A country that that does not see our social, cultural and religious diversity as a threat but as an essential part of our national identity.

This future can be built by leaders who are economically literate, socially progressive, engaged with the region, entrepreneurial by instinct and committed to prosperity with equality.

I believe that Australia needs the Australian Labor Party to build this future.  I believe the Australian Labor Party needs leaders who can make this future happen. 

By way of introduction

For those who know little about me, I was elected to Parliament in 2010.  This followed a long career as a community worker, a lawyer and a union official. 

In many ways I have the archetypal background for a Labor MP.  I grew up in a large Catholic family in the industrial heartland of Wollongong.

I did not follow the same path as many who came before me – into the steelworks or mines of the Illawarra.  There were a few reasons for this.  The year I left school the steel industry and mines were plunged into a recession.  Thousands lost their jobs. The capacity to take up a trade of your choosing that had been the path of my older friends disappeared.

Luckily, I was a good student. My parents had always impressed upon us the importance of education and hard work.  I finished school, worked as many casual jobs as I could find, travelled the country and then went to University.

My political conviction was born of this early experience. I saw first hand the devastation caused by mass unemployment.  It is not just the poverty wrought by loss of livelihood, but the loss of hope, of optimism, and the waste of human potential.  I determined that I wanted to make a difference. I did not then know how.

I have been lucky to find work which was an expression of my personal values. 

When I joined the Labor Party it was because I believed that community organisations needed to work with – and within political parties to pursue their objectives.  I had no idea that I would one day become an Member of the Australian Parliament.

Labor’s contribution to the Australian Identity

It is customary to recite the achievements of our Party as a prelude to an exploration of the new frontiers. 

For good reason. 

Political movements draw strength, inspiration and identity from their past, purpose from future.

For over 100 years Labor’s contribution to Australia has been to build a prosperous but fairer nation: by providing employees with rights at work, the creation of a social safety net, by providing access to health care and education and by building the economic infrastructure that the private sector could not or would not build itself.

Labor legislated against discrimination, gave land rights to the first Australians and legislated to protect our environment. 

These were powerful, new ideas producing hard won reforms, the result of tough political battles.  Often the first battleground was within the Party itself. 

The important point to make is this: once Labor adopted a position on these issues – it gave the idea an opportunity to enter the political mainstream.  Only a major political party can achieve this.  The reason is simple: Government in Australia is the battle between the major parties for the middle ground.

This middle ground is not fixed – but it moves with the political tides.  But unlike the ocean’s tides – once a shift has occurred – we never return to the same place.

When Labor adopted the idea of a National Disability Insurance scheme – we argued the case and succeeded in convincing not only the nation but our political opponents that this must happen. 

Other examples abound  – Medicare, native title, industrial awards – even Paid Parental Leave – which Tony Abbott once famously said would occur over his dead body – is now firmly in the mainstream.

The same can be said of our economic reforms – opening up our financial markets, reforming trade and tariffs, establishing occupational superannuation and share market reforms like franking dividends.

Labor argued the case to bring these ideas into the mainstream.

Once the middle ground has been established, the reforms endure and the bitter political battles that preceded them fade from memory;

Labor’s enduring contribution to Australia's social and economic fabric has been to shift the marker of the middle ground through landmark reforms which define a nation.

New Frontiers

Can I turn to the new frontiers for Progressive Politics?

The fight for equality, a Republic, building national productivity and addressing Climate Change will feature strongly.  Marriage Equality is another.  On this I will not linger for one reason. The debate has been won in the community.  It is just taking a while for the message to get through.  It will happen.

I’d rather spend a few moments addressing three issues that I believe the Left does not spend enough time talking about – but should.

Our role in the region

The first is our role in the region: Australia’s future prosperity and security lies within our region.  Our economic, cultural and security will be built on enduring and reciprocal relationships which focus on long term mutual benefits, not short term opportunism.

In this I would like to emphasise our relationship with Indonesia – one of our nearest and most populous neighbours.  Our relationship with this fast growing nation will – in part – define our place in the region.

This is not a foregone conclusion. 

We need look only at the debates around foreign investment and our engagement with Asia to see where threats may lie.  Our generation of leaders still has work to do to shift the common sense on this.  To remain an open trading nation we have to convince a sometimes reluctant nation that there is more to be gained than lost. 

We need to deepen the understanding of the importance of our relationship with Asia Pacific nations.  We also need to do more to assist the economic and social transitions that occur.  This is critical in regions like my own which have benefited from the growth in education services but suffered from decline in manufacturing.

On this last point – the need to assist regions through economic transitions - the fight for equality is the handmaiden of economics and business. 

A worker who loses his or her job because their employer can’t compete with low priced imports is little interested in Adams Smith’s theory of comparative advantage.  Without a job they benefit little from the cheaper consumer goods on offer.  They become a willing ear for simple slogans. In this election – there are plenty on offer.

I would also make the point that we should not think that the rhetoric from one policy silo – like immigration – does not spill over to other areas. It does. The emotive resonance from one statement can have unintended consequence for the acceptance of other policy.

Small business

The second issue I wish to talk about is our relationship with small business. It can and should transcend the campaign driven transactional exchange of request and policy concession. 

Labor was born of the aspiration of working people – our name reflects that.  But our Party needs to recognise that the way we work has changed. In increasing numbers, we are now working in small businesses, or running them.

Labor has to extend its gaze to this new world of work and apply our traditional values of equality and fairness to the needs and aspirations of this world. 

We have much to offer.

For a Party formed on the idea of the dignity of work – it should be common sense that a small business – is not just a means of making a living and generating wealth– it is also an expression of aspiration and creativity by the individuals involved;

For a Party formed on the idea of that individuals who bargain collectively can overcome the imbalance of power between Labour and Capital – it should be common sense that the same imbalance exists between the small and large businesses today.

For a Party that is committed to ensuring the tax burden is distributed so that those with more pay proportionately more than those with little – it should be common sense to see that our Tax system should be both efficient and fair to small businesses.

For a Party that is committed to building and providing the infrastructure and service that the private sector can’t or won’t – we should be natural partners of the small businesses that rely on our roads and rail, our NBN and the graduates of our schools TAFES and Universities. 

Labor is building the infrastructure of the future – the NBN will connect fibre optic cable to 93% of Australian homes and businesses.

But – with this project, we are also building equality. We are building equality between cities and regions;

Equality between high – and low-income families;

Equality of access to markets between big businesses and small businesses.

That is why it is a Labor project and why it took a Labor Government to conceive of it– and to build it.

Small businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises will thrive and prosper through fibre optic connectivity to the ideas and markets of the Asia Pacific region – and the world.

With the National Broadband Network, the next big thing for our economy will quite likely be lots of little things.  Small enterprises founded on big dreams and able to reach out to the world beyond;

The Progressive Entrepreneurs

The third and final point I make is about progressive entrepreneurs. 

It is folly to assume that those who work in business are unyielding in their support of one side of politics over another. 

I know of  many successful entrepreneurs who firmly believe in generating social wealth, yet who are appalled by the intellectual paucity of Australia’s political debate.  They believe in marriage equality, in Australia as a republic, and in the fair treatment of asylum seekers.  They also believe in climate change and the use of sensible market based solutions to reduce carbon emmissions.

They do not believe that their success rests on the exploitation of those beneath them.  They believe in equality and fairness.

Their politics embraces the future, not the past.

I do not believe they have a natural place in the Conservative Coalition of today.   

Over the next 10 years Labor must – and will – extend its gaze and embrace the entrepreneurial innovator and the progressive thinker.

As we extend our gaze - these are the people that I would seek to give a voice to in the Australian Parliament.

Thank you.