I read with some interest the editorial in The Age on Wednesday. I certainly can’t disagree that the Coalition has made a poor start to government. Like all Australians, I’ve witnessed a failure of leadership on too many fronts. I’ve seen the policy hypocrisy and the internal divisions – and I’ve been as shocked as anyone by the cruelty that underpins the Prime Minister’s first budget.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, I can’t agree that Labor is "staying under the radar". The Age is absolutely correct that the opposition has a big challenge ahead of it. Labor will continue to be passionate but responsible opposition – ferocious in our attack on the Prime Minister’s policy failures, but always ready to work together in the national interest.
What we will never do is be mere spectators as Tony Abbott tries to take our country backwards and wreck our fair society. Some might call that negativity – but I call it doing my job, and I don’t think The Age’s readers would expect anything less from me. Labor will keep fighting Tony Abbott’s $7 GP tax because it is nothing other than the destruction of universal healthcare as we know it.
Four decades ago, the sick and the vulnerable were being let down or left out of a hopelessly inadequate health system – so Labor built Medibank. We became the first developed country in the world to introduce a universal health insurance scheme. A few years later, the Liberals made sure we were the first in the world to dismantle it.
After the Liberals destroyed Medibank, Labor built Medicare. Thirty years later, history is on the cusp of repeating. Medicare was brave and visionary policy in the finest Labor tradition. It stands alongside the minimum wage and the old age pension as a social reform that embodies the best ideals of Australian fairness. We’ve seen the Liberals destroy it once before, and we won’t let them do it again.
Like his GP tax, we will fight the Prime Minister’s retrograde changes to our universities. We’re doing this because his changes – increasing student fees and student debts – pull apart the very notion of an equitable society, and they short-change our future. If we want our kids to get meaningful and well-paid jobs in a globalised and competitive world, they need the chance to get a good education. The Prime Minister says these changes are just "deregulation", but in reality they lock the gate on our best universities, and shut out kids from poorer backgrounds. Once again under the Liberals, higher education will be a privilege for the wealthy few, not a birthright for all Australians.
Labor will oppose this government’s attempt to cut the already modest age pension, because we don’t think it is beyond the capacity of a wealthy and generous nation like ours to provide security and dignity to its citizens in retirement.
And we will stand up to the Prime Minister’s attempt to push young unemployed people off social security and into the margins of society – possibly the cruellest of all the cruel measures in this budget. It is shameful that Tony Abbott’s response to this youth unemployment crisis is to condemn jobless young Australians to poverty and despair. It is a bleak, heartless policy that shows he doesn’t understand the crushing emptiness of long-term unemployment. All this policy will do is turn the middle-class into the under-class, and Labor won’t support it to.
Labor is fighting this budget because it is unconscionably unfair. Underpinning it all is the cold reality that that the Prime Minister doesn’t see Australia in the same way that most of us do. When we look at Medicare, an equitable university system and a reasonable social safety net, we see the pillars of fairness that have helped build our strong society. The Liberals just see the cost, not the value.
There is plenty in this budget to fight – and we’ll keep fighting it because that’s what Australians need us to do. But I know Labor needs to do more than oppose. And I’m not like Tony Abbott – I’m not an ideological warrior. When there’s a sensible idea, I’ll sign up to it. Our task is to offer a better alternative – and it’s a task we’ve begun with vigour.
We know we can’t win the 2016 election with the policies from 2013. That’s why Labor’s shadow cabinet – in consultation with our colleagues, rank and file members and policy experts – has started developing a positive vision for Australia’s future. And we are rebuilding Labor to make sure our party is as modern, democratic and outward-looking as we want our country to be.
As I said at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne earlier this year, Australia has always been at its best when we are pushing the boundaries. With Medicare, with higher education, with superannuation and with the national disability insurance scheme – it has always been Labor that has fought and won the big policy contests to keep building our decent and fair society.
That contest is as important now as it’s ever been before. At stake is the kind of country we want to be – Tony Abbott’s sterile view of a colder, meaner Australia, or an Australia where hard work is rewarded, and those who need our help aren’t ignored.
That’s our challenge – and Labor is up for it.
This piece was published by Fairfax on Thursday, 19 June 2014.
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