Bill's Speeches

ADDRESS TO THE JOHN CURTIN RESEARCH CENTRE GALA DINNER - MELBOURNE - WEDNESDAY, 11 OCTOBER 2017

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Good evening everyone

Before I give my acknowledgements I just want to set the ground rules for tonight – we can win the next election.

We are most certainly competitive. But what I believe is the greatest obstacle for us convincing a majority of Australians to give Labor the privilege to form the National Government will be if we are timid: if we are not policy strong, if we are not policy brave.

We live in an area where ideas matter and tonight I want to channel a bit of the Curtin Research Institute who are inspired by Curtin. 

Our greatest obstacle is whether or not we ourselves are as strong, as brave, as authentic, as fair dinkum, as passionate as John Curtin was.

And tonight, I want to establish to you – we will not be timid. We will be as strong and brave and optimistic as the Australian people expect us to be.

Now I would like to, as my first acknowledgement, acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet, and I pay my respects to their elders, both past and present. 

And indeed today I want to make a second acknowledgement. Today is the International Day of the Girl Child, and I combine those two acknowledgments to say that whatever else a Labor Government will do - we will ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls get the same chance in life as every girl, which should be the same chance as everyone else. 

I want to acknowledge my federal colleagues who are here and I'm looking forward to seeing them next week in Canberra. 

And I want to thank Nick Dyrenfurth and indeed the board and all the staff for extending their kind invitation for Chloe and I to attend tonight.

And amongst all of the people who are here, I would like to acknowledge – I don't know about the rest of you but sometimes when you speak there's always someone who made you pull up your socks and pay more attention and focus more on your vowels or on your ideas. And tonight, for me - I love him, I would like to acknowledge Bill Kelty and of course Sue Kelty. Because Bill’s something of a hero.

Bill, I owe much to, he encouraged me over twenty-five years ago, to step move from the law, where my flourishing career had not fully crystallised, and he said: 'Go try your hand at organising'.

And then like one of these people, where you know he's wise, he turned up at our cottage at Moonee Ponds the Sunday after the 2013 election. 

And on a little wooden bench out the front, he was there. It was a hard time.

The Labor Government had some good ideas, we did some good things but the Government had been soundly rejected at the 2013 election and the next day, there's Bill Kelty.

Bill, as anyone who's had the privilege of knowing him, never cuts the cloth of his views to suit the fashion of the day, the fashion of the listener, he just tells it as it is. 

He said: 'You've got to run for the leadership'. Then he gave some less encouraging words about my prospects, you know, is it the right time for you.

He said 'you've got to run'. 

And it's the mark of Bill Kelty that when he says you've got to do something, you feel like the guy in the whale, you're listening to the guy who sat on the boat and got in the whale - you've got no choice. 

And so, can I tell you something I haven't admitted to a lot of audiences and something Bill would never ask me to, but a lot of my good ideas are his. The bad ones are all my own work.

So It's great to see you here tonight Bill, you're a fantastic person. 

We are all here tonight to celebrate the first gala dinner of the John Curtin Research Centre.

I realise we are celebrating the 260-day anniversary of this institution, but they're out there promoting which is important. 

But not only is it the 260-day anniversary of when the John Curtin Research Centre had its first function, but it's about the 100-year anniversary of when John Curtin, a little further upstream on the other side of the river, was earning his stripes in public speaking on the famous Yarra Bank soapboxes.

He would turn up to the park, the crowds were large and the competition was fierce, the debate intense, the audience feedback was free-flowing and in those days, it was frank and frequent. 

And it was where politics would be declaimed from the box - and people would challenge and debate it. 

It taught Curtin, the socialist firebrand, a great deal: as any of us who have been union reps know.

He would stand in a public space and you put your face forward and people don't have to clap, people don't have to agree, in fact what you say matters to them in their circumstances. 

It taught Curtin how to win an argument. It taught Curtin how to overcome hostile audiences. And like all great Labor representatives, he never forgot it.

He never forgot where he came from.

It was twenty-five years later, from that hundred years ago, after one particularly rowdy session in the parliament, where Prime Minister Curtin went on the attack at the conservative Opposition.

Robert Menzies, frightfully offended, accused him of ‘Yarra Bank’ tactics.

When he was asked by reporters, did he find that title derogatory, Curtin replied:

The Yarra Bank was my university.

The Yarra Bank was my university.

What a great retort – and only 32 characters long as well, there's plenty of room for the Twitter handle and a hashtag.

We're all students of history here, you wouldn't be here if you're not interested in our history.

Some people shrink into the Prime Ministership: they're captive to circumstance, they're hostage to events. Others are so obsessed by keeping power, that they’re too frightened to exercise power. 

But our John Curtin, he didn’t just rise to the responsibilities of office, he rose to his moment in history as none have before and none have since.

A Prime Minister in wartime Australia.

Our man was a fighter. He was never guaranteed of success, he always chose his battles and he was never frightened to go hard on behalf of working people.

Now when you think about it - as students of history - sometimes you look back and you say, it was a different era, when giants walked the land. 

If you look at the sideshows now, the stunts consuming Australian politics from our Government, or from the inside:

We have the Deputy Prime Minister in the High Court arguing that he should keep his place in the Parliament because of his ignorance of the Constitution.

We have the former Prime Minister in London, claiming that cutting pollution is the same as sacrificing goats to a volcano - proving there’s no limit to his lack of knowledge.  

And besides that, it makes us all wish we had applied for a Rhodes Scholarship.

But in all seriousness, it makes Curtin’s example all the more powerful, all the more timely.

I want to put to you tonight, in the theme that our timidity is our challenge, that when you strip away all the questions of politics, all of the sideshows such as I just described. 

I want to put to you tonight, as we recognise Curtin, that there is one test in politics and – Bill was making this point to me the other day - there's one question in politics that matters. 

Many of other things come and go but I want to put to you that the one question which matters, the one test, the one measurement, the one standard that regardless of one’s political ideology, affiliation, the one thing that matters, the test is:

Will we leave this country better than we found it?

Will we leave this country better than we found it?

Do we hand on a better set of circumstances to our children than that which we inherited from our parents?

Now, as many of you will know, one of the best moments in one’s life is having children.

There's no better moment for me as a person than when I became a Dad.

And I’m sure people would agree that it straightens you up a bit.  Not that I was a bad person but when you've got kids you realise that there's something more, that's all. 

You've got an obligation don't you, to the future. 

I am sure that the parents, the Aunts, the Uncles, the neighbours – you don't have to be a parent, the point is we all are united by what is it that our kids are going to grow up to be.

We can't make them happy every day but you want to make sure that they're okay. 

I've got two teenagers and my youngest daughter is seven.

I ask myself - when I sit in that Parliament, in that position of privilege, that amazing ability to talk about the moments which, you know people talk about in the news.

I ask myself what kind of country will my seven-year-old daughter live in when she is thirty?

What opportunities will she have: an opportunity to find a job, buy a home, start a family, what opportunity will she just have to live a life full of quality and meaning?

I want to put to you, all of you interested in the direction of this nation, that everyone in Parliament and everyone in public life.

The test we have to answer is - what is our legacy?

We talk about Curtin's legacy. What will be our legacy, what is the difference that all of us will make to this fantastic nation?

What will our country be like in 20 years’ time? 

You take it beyond where I am, you take it - look at the young people, some of them are serving us tonight.

Look at the young people you see on the trains and trams. How are they going to support themselves through university, or working hard at an apprenticeship – what does the future of work hold for them?

But it doesn't just have to just be for our young people. 

Look at some of us, people working in our 40s and 50s, contemplating retirement as you do after a certain point - how will we be going in 20 years’ time?

I look at new retirees now in their 60s: they're comfortable now - but how will they cope, watching every dollar?

Healthy now - but worried about the unexpected, those shafts of fate, as American poet Robert Frost described, the shafts of fate.

The shifting of the financial goal posts; illness, that cursed dementia.

I believe our movement must be able to deliver for Australians in the next generation, no matter where they are in their life cycle now.

And unless we as a movement can answer the question; what is the legacy we leave?

If we were to have this lovely dinner in 20 years’ time or in 10 years’ time, what is it that we collectively will be able to say in 10 or 20 years’ time that we did between now and then? What is the legacy we leave?

I am concerned that politics in this country is failing that test of leaving a greater legacy.

I am worried that amidst the spike on one hand of our growth, and our terms of trade – we are going to be the first generation of Australians who hands down a lesser standard of living to our children than the one we inherited from our parents. 

Are we going to be the first generation of Australians from whom, unless these children have rich parents - that's it, no more hope.

And I want to put to you tonight that at the heart of my concern is this simple economic truth;

We are now currently in danger of having growth without prosperity, where too many of the benefits of economic growth are confined to too few.

Ever since the Global Financial Crisis, there’s been a growing divide between those who derive their wealth from assets – and between those who rely on wages and income.

If you’re someone who has a significant portfolio of assets, a strong asset allocation in property, if you're one of these people, you've done well since the Global Financial Crisis. 

But if you rely on wages, upon income principally – if your only asset is your hard work, if you’ve got nothing to sell but your time and your labour – then your income has not progressed.

And because low and middle-income Australians are paying more to see a doctor, paying more for childcare, paying more at the supermarket and paying more for energy.

There are millions of our fellow Australians who simply feel like they’re stuck on a treadmill.

The speed keeps increasing, they keep working harder and harder to keep up, but for all their time and effort, all their toil and sweat – they’re stuck in the same spot.

And, today, new analysis from the Parliamentary Budget Office reveals that middle-income earners, people with an average take-home wage of $46,000, are carrying the largest share of the burden of income tax increases in coming years.

In fact, under the current Government's plans, their average income tax rate will increase by 3.5 percentage points by 2021-22.

So whilst Turnbull pushes tax cuts for millionaires, far too many of our fellow Australians don’t have enough to make ends meet on a continuing and regular basis.

It’s a message which I hear everywhere I go in all of my meetings – from big cities, to the suburbs, from regional Australian in both big and small towns. 

And it’s not anecdotal, it’s not an imagined grievance.

  • Wages growth is at its lowest since records were first kept, back in the 1950s.
  • Real wages are going backwards.

We are witness to the first stage of a creeping Americanisation of our labour market.

There's much to love about America, but not its labour relations and it's labour market.

What we see is that increases in productivity in the workplace and efficiency aren’t being shared by the people who are creating them. 

Let me give you a couple of numbers, which I suspect will surprise you. 

In the last ten years:

  • Real labour productivity has grown by 20 per cent.
  • But real wages have grown by 6 per cent.

Twenty per cent increase in real labour productivity, 6 per cent increase in real wages. 

Superannuation which would have been 12 per cent under a Labor Government, is frozen at 9.5 per cent - so 2.5 per cent missing of your super. 

And superimposed upon this story, we've seen:

  • Rapid technological change, re-defining work.
  • And the constant and relentless off-shoring and casualisation of work, undermining job security.

Now of course, there are specific challenges which leap out at us:

  • The rapid growth of the use of labour-hire casuals, contracted-in to undercut the pay, conditions and hours of permanent staff.
  • The underground subterranean scourge of wage theft, vulnerable workers systemically and sectorally ripped-off by their employers and too frightened to complain.
  • And of course, the continuing inequality dealt to the women of Australia, by the disgraceful gender pay gap in this country that means our girls, compared to our boys, our girls effectively work the first two months of every year for free, compared to the boys. 
  • And of course, most contemporaneously today, the confirmation that the 700,000 workers in retail, hospitality, pharmacy and fast food, face four consecutive years of cuts to their Sunday penalty rates - and the green light this gives to the award cuts and penalty rates of hundreds of thousands more of workers covered by other awards. 

My good team and I are working hard on policies which go to each of these issues.

But the stagnating wages of Australia, the greater inequality between those with physical assets and those who rely upon income, cannot be laid at the feet of one sector, one unfairness, or one act of neglect or abuse.

It cannot be resolved with one single announcement.

I believe that the set of economic circumstances facing us are unprecedented: both in the speed of change and the complexity of its consequences.

We need business and unions and policymakers and leaders and the Parliament to do something drastic, something radical, something profoundly different that we haven't seen since the 1980s: we need to co-operate.

The national debate about wages of course, is a debate older than Federation, and after all this time, I think there’s a kind of muscle-memory involved in this. 

Usually, when the subject of wages crops up - everyone adopts their traditional combat positions and assembles along familiar battle lines.

  • The workers and the unions on one side – pushing for an increase.
  • Employers and business on the other – less excited by this idea. 

But it's so unprecedented, our set of circumstances, we are seeing unprecedented reactions. 

We’ve got union leaders, business leaders, economists and analysts of every stripe on the same page.

The Reserve Bank Governor has spoken about the ‘crisis in low pay’.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are outlining the economic consequences of deepening and widening inequality.

And business leaders and employers who I speak to around the country are actually saying, "Bill, this is a problem."

They understand that middle and lower income Australians spend every dollar they earn.

When you cut penalty rates you are cutting consumption. 

When you reduce wages, you are decreasing the volume and the circulation of income in the economy. 

They understand that people on lower and middle incomes not only spend every dollar, but if they can't pay the bills they've got to borrow more money to spend it. 

And when you think about it - the rising prices, the financial pressures - you've got income taxes increasing with the increase in the Medicare levy, you've got flat wages, you've got cuts to penalty rate.

The consequences don’t just stop at the individual family budget, they are being played out in the High Street, or every suburban strip shopping centre, of every regional town in this country. 

Household consumption is the key driver of economic growth, it contributed to nearly 60 per cent of the price of domestic product, 60 per cent of what generates wealth in this country. 

And retail trade is the canary in the proverbial coal mine. It's an important component of consumption.

The August figures show the impact of the pressure on households.

We saw retail suffer the biggest two-month decline in the last 7 years, since the GFC. 

  • The money being spent at cafes and the restaurants fell by 1.4 per cent
  • Spending on household goods fell by 3.1 per cent.

This isn’t because Australians went on a diet, it’s got nothing to do with a lack of something decent on sale.

It’s because when you don't have enough regular hours at work, when you’re sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of unpaid bills, when you're trying to work out which bill can be put off for another two weeks or a month, when you can negotiate with your utility provider and installment plan. 

When everything is going up, except your wage -the first things you pull back on are the extras, the luxuries, the Sunday breakfast out with the kids. 

Despite some improvements in the labour market figures, we are in an unusual unprecedented time when more jobs are not creating greater security or better wages.

That’s why, if you’re a business-owner in retail, you are nervous about this Christmas.

And the most dangerous thing about economic insecurity is that it's infectious. Confidence drives an economy and a lack of confidence stalls an economy. Low wages growth and low wages- it erodes an economy, not just in household spending.

It's why plenty of people realise we need to lift wages in this country.

I never thought I'd see a set of circumstances where there was such consensus outside the Parliament of Australia.

For everyone's sake, working Australians need a wage rise. 

Now, I said that the Federal Court today upheld the decision to cut Sunday penalty rates and the public holiday penalty rates – but there is an umpire above the courts on this decision. The ultimate decision will be for the Australian people at the next election.

I think the choice is crystal clear.

A vote for Turnbull’s Liberals means cementing a cut to penalty rates. 

A vote for Australian Labor will mean a chance to restore penalty rates and restore confidence in the Australian economy. 

I can predict the retort from our conservative colleagues who we see again next week in parliament. 

They will say: "There he goes again, Shorten with the union angle, running the workers’ lines."

They'll call me the most anti-business, Cuban-Corbyn-East German-Socialist leader – ever.

But let me say this - when they taunt me, I think of Curtin.

When they taunt me about union soap-box propositions - my university is Australian workplaces and my teachers were Australian workers in Australian businesses. 

I am proud to be a union member. Not because it's the best thing going, but because it's taught me so much. 

I’m proud of the improvements in pay and conditions and productivity that I negotiated with the workers and with the management of so many enterprises. 

But I’m not making the argument about the need to lift the minimum wage and the social wage and the circumstances of middle and working class Australians because I'm a former union rep seeking a better deal for my members. 

I'm not even pushing this point as Labor Leader, as a point of some political differentiation.

I’m here as the alternative Prime Minister of this nation, saying working Australians need a pay rise.

We need economic growth of between 3 and ideally 4 per cent. We need to lift productivity on a regular and continuous basis, more than 2 per cent. 

I do believe the wages of this country need to move up - I make no apology for that. 

Because I understand how an economy is constructed. 

  • When the working class believe they have a chance to get into the middle class.
  • Where the middle class believe they have a chance to stay in the middle class.
  • When we have productive members creating wealth in our businesses.
  • When we have productivity driving the creation of new enterprise, and we'll get a productivity share between reasonable and productive increases in people's wages, with increasing superannuation, and extra income being provided to the social wage of this nation. 

This country sings. We just don't read the notes, we play music. 

This country has been founded on the proposition of cooperation - that when every Australian gets an opportunity to better themselves, this country progresses. 

I know, even before Curtin, that the idea that animated our movement was that a fair day's wage for a fair day's work is a proposition which is evergreen. It animates our movement. 

But the challenge confronting us is bigger than us.

It’s about more than where we’ve come from.

It’s about more than who we are.

The challenge that animates us, is about what our country needs from us. 

This is, to return to where I started, a fundamental test of public life.

The test is not the sideshows and the noise. It is not the soundbites on the television on a nightly basis. 

The test which animates our movement is what legacy will we leave. 

We need to rebuild the bridge between hard work and a fair reward.

We need to restore the link between productivity gains and the legitimate distribution of the benefits amongst all sectors. 

We need to re-affirm the idea that the sacrifices you make, that if you lend the enterprise of the nation your time and effort, your taxes and your hard work, your good parenting and your good neighbourliness - then we need to reaffirm that you can have faith, that you can leave something better for your kids than you found. 

We need to re-animate the faith that the sole determinant in life isn't how rich your parents are.

I’m ambitious for Australia, I’m ambitious for the success our nation can surely achieve – and just as importantly – I’m ambitious to share the success of the nation with all of those who create it.  

And unless the gains in national income are legitimately distributed amongst all of the contributors, then we go backwards.

I believe the government has to be something better, something more, than a mechanism for transferring money from the working and middle class Australian of this country to vested interests.

I believe that higher productivity should not simply flow to higher corporate profits. 

Our success comes from re-investing our wealth in all of our families and all of our institutions. 

We are a very good country. 

I'm proud that we have a strong social wage. 

I'm proud that we have a strong minimum wage.

I'm proud that we have superannuation, although I am dissatisfied at the level which it is currently at. 

I'm proud that we have a world-class education, although I think we could do better, and we should extend its opportunities right through the lives of Australians. 

I'm proud of our Medicare system and our NDIS.

I'm proud that we are a country who treats regions as importantly as the city. 

Who believes that women should be equals of men, and that we should close the gap between our First Australians and all other Australians. 

I'm proud of the fact we are multicultural. I'm proud of the fact that 27 in every 100 Australians is born overseas. 

I'm proud of the fact that we welcome migrants. 

I'm proud of the fact that we can do better because we believe everyone has got something to contribute.

But our future is not guaranteed, our future is not automatically certain. 

We need to be a pluralist country, we need to welcome points of view from all across the spectrum  - we need to understand that we are a country who works best when we bring things together. 

Our political success as a movement is not guaranteed, but as I'm sure Curtin understood, and as I'm sure we understand tonight, that if we are our best selves, if we are strong and bold, if we do not rely on the argument at the next election that we are not Turnbull and we are not them.

If we rely instead on an argument that we have a positive agenda, if we rely upon the proposition that we want to leave the place better than we found it, to hand on a better deal to our kids than the one we inherited - then I believe we can be a successful movement contributing to a most successful country. 

Thank you very much. 

ENDS


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