Bill's Speeches

SPEECH - HARVESTER ORATION - MELBOURNE - FRIDAY, 18 NOVEMBER 2016

HARVESTER ORATION

MELBOURNE

FRIDAY, 18 NOVEMBER 2016 

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Good evening everyone

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, I pay my respects to elders past and present.

It’s great to be here in Sunshine:

Home, at one time or another, to: 

Founder of the Royal Flying Doctors, John Flynn, legendary all-rounder Keith Miller, AC-DC frontman Bon Scott, world champion Lester Ellis…and Tim Watts MP.

The spiritual home, also, of the minimum wage, the birthplace of an idea still central to our national identity. 

Ten years ago, the Institute of Public Affairs published a list of what they called ‘The biggest 13 mistakes in Australia’s history’.

•           Creating Canberra was 13.

•           The introduction of the cane toad came in at 10.

•           The White Australia Policy at seven.

•           And at number two – the Harvester decision. 

Apparently, only the defeat of the short-lived Reid Government in 1905, was considered a more serious error than the moment we are here to celebrate.

If you’re wondering, George Reid was a wealthy Liberal from New South Wales with such a reputation for dithering and indecisiveness his nickname was ‘Yes-No’.

Lucky they’ve learned their lesson.

And yet, friends, Canberra is now in its second century.

The 102 cane toads released near Cairns and Innisfail in 1935 have become a population of over 200 million – poisoning native wildlife from Kakadu to Byron Bay and spreading south and west at faster than 30 kilometres a year. 

The White Australia policy - in one form or another - lasted until the 1970s.

But the Harvester Decision of 1907 was overturned in 1911.

Yet it remains a touchstone in our history - revered and reviled.

A lightning rod for conservatives – a monument for progressives.

Why?

Because that decision, applied to the company that gave Sunshine its name, reached far beyond one wage deal with one workforce.

It spoke for a far bigger ideal.

Not just an employment agreement – a social contract.

A simple, powerful concept:

Australians who work hard, who do the right thing, who play by the rules – should earn enough for, in Justice Higgins’ words:

“food, shelter, clothing, frugal comfort and provision for evil days”

For the first time, in the lawbooks of this land, a Commonwealth judge said wages should be calculated to support:

“a human being, living in a civilised community”

A human being.

Not a unit, or a factor. Not a cost, or a commodity.

Not a number in a column - a citizen, a person, with rights and responsibilities.

With loved ones to care for, with a life to live.

And- 109 years later - that principle, the principle of a minimum wage that kept people out of poverty, that conferred dignity, that allowed an individual to provide for their family.

That belief remains at the very heart of who we are.

As a Labor party, as a labour movement.

And as a nation.

It remains one of the most powerful expressions and measurements of the oldest, most Australian aspiration: a fair go all round.

Friends

In a hundred different ways, the Australia of 1907 is unrecognisable to us today.

In the 6th year of our Federation, Australia’s official population was just over 4 million.

Of course, it would be another 60 years before that count included the people who’d called this continent home for over 40,000 years.

The First World War, which would claim and change so many Australian lives, was still eight years away.

The avenues of honour, the quartz and granite monuments, the RSLs and honour rolls in community halls that are such a fixture in every Australian town were absent from the landscape.

It was a vocally, aggressively white, assertively male Australia.

A closed-off, walled-up fortress, perched fearfully on the edge of a region we didn’t understand.

You took a job in the expectation of doing it for life.

Few Australians stayed at school beyond 14 – fewer still sought, or achieved a university education.

And the tyranny of distance still held us in its grip.

The Harvester Decision came just two months after the first ever phone call between Melbourne and Sydney.

But – remote as it seems from the modern rush of 21st Century life – that young Federation was already acquiring an international reputation.

As colonies, we’d been marked apart from the world by our climate and our wildlife.

As one writer observed – Australia was the home of:

The Grotesque, the Weird, the strange scribblings of Nature learning how to write.

…trees without shade, flowers without perfume, birds who cannot fly, and beasts who have not yet learned to walk on all fours.

In the 20th Century, we showed ourselves to be a country unafraid of doing things differently.

This Australia became known as a ‘social laboratory’.

Indulging in subversive ‘experiments’ like:

-           The vote for women

-           An aged pension

-           Family support

A ‘workers paradise’ home to:

-           The 8 hour day

-           Compensation for workplace injuries

And every generation has added to that.

Facing challenges, finding solutions, forging ahead.

Expanding the social contract, building a nation of common effort, shared reward.

When fair day’s pay was a radical notion, Labor made it a universal right.

When a university education was a privilege conferred by wealth, we made it an opportunity earned on merit.

When once Australia looked only inward – we faced our economy, and our society to the world. 

When getting sick meant going broke, we created Medicare.

When Australians worked hard all their lives yet retired poor, we built universal superannuation.

When Australia’s refusal to face the dark shadow of our history shamed us all, we said Sorry.

When Australians with disability were exiled to a second-class life in their own country, we created the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Ours is a legacy older, better and more profound than any other in Australian history.

But we aren’t here to be curators in the Labor museum, carefully polishing the silverware of a past generation.

We need to rise to the challenges of this moment.

To fix the fractures and faultlines in our society and our economy.

To renew the contract between government and citizens, the pact between generations, the promise at the heart of who we are as Australians.

If you work hard, if you do your part, if you add your energy to our national enterprise – then you will share in our Commonwealth.

Because every time Australia extends itself to include more people in our national story, to offer opportunity and the fair go to more – we all win.

And what’s the alternative?

We heard it, again, in Malcolm Turnbull’s speech to the Business Council of Australia last night.

The same old Liberal story – the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest.

The idea that it’s up to every individual to fend for themselves – and if you fall behind, you get left behind.

That’s the reason the government are still pushing the old, flawed, failed experiment of ‘trickle-down’ economics.

The idea that if we spend $50 billion to make the wealthy even wealthier - the rest of the population can pick up the scraps. 

If we put on a banquet for those who’ve already got plenty – everyone else will be happy with a few crumbs from the table. 

The Prime Minister has the nerve, the arrogance to say we shouldn’t talk about ‘winners and losers’ in the ‘short term’.

That it all works out in the end.

Well, Malcolm, to quote another economist: “in the long run, we are all dead”.

The short-term matters, the here-and-now matters.

A job matters, your income matters, dignity matters.

The costs and pressures faced by ordinary Australians can’t be written off as ‘short term’.

Life doesn’t take a holiday.  

Australians know who wins in Malcolm Turnbull’s Australia:

-           people making millions

-           companies bringing-in billions

-           and the big four banks.

And we know who loses out: working and middle class Australians. 

•           Families who rely on Medicare.

•           Pensioners living on a fixed income.

•           Students in under-funded schools.

•           Nurses in under-resourced hospitals.

•           Patients waiting months for operations

•           Carers and veterans

•           Working parents having their wages devoured by childcare costs

•           Renters, locked out of the housing market

•           People sleeping rough or battling substance abuse.

•           Indigenous Australians and new migrants

•           Women, seeking refuge from family violence

These are not people who think there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.

What this Prime Minister doesn’t understand – and never will – is that for people who stretch every dollar, week to week, economic change isn’t a game.

Losing your job, losing your home, losing your support – isn’t something you shrug off as ‘the cost of doing business’. 

That’s what makes Labor and Liberal different.

We don’t think everything can be solved by letting the market rip, by the magic touch of an invisible hand.

We don’t see the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalised – the unlucky Australians – as collateral damage in the quest for economic reform.

We don’t subscribe to ‘poor-blaming’, that idea that if you are doing it hard – it’s your fault.

We don’t accept the complacency that one Australian’s misfortune is someone else’s responsibility.

We believe in making economic change work for people.

In including Australians – all Australians -  in the progress of this nation.

Not just because it’s fair.

Not just because it’s right.

But because it’s the best growth strategy this nation has ever had.

It’s the greatness of Australia.

A rising tide that lifts all the boats – not just the yachts.

Friends, that’s why we need to bring new energy to an old fight.

A cause as old as the movement we serve.

The right to a fair day’s wage, for a fair day’s work.

Right now, dodgy employers across this country are manipulating Australian visa laws to exploit workers.

Rogue companies are ripping off guest workers, so they can avoid paying Australian wages.

We saw it with 7-11 and Pizza Hut.

Multinational companies, paying student visa-holders less than half the minimum wage.

Keeping their employees silent, with the threat of being deported.

We saw it at Bendigo Hospital.

Labourers, carpenters, plasterers paid nothing for months of work.

This was not an oversight in the paperwork, or an accident - this is the business model.

Disgracefully, shonky labour hire firms and unscrupulous companies are engaging in industrial-scale exploitation. 

In fact, just this week, WestJustice released their own report detailing, and I quote:

“widespread abuse across numerous industries including hospitality, retail, construction, food processing and care work.”

-           Two workers paid one salary between them

-           Others paid as little as $8 an hour

-           Abused, bullied and mocked by employers only to happy to fire those who complain.

This is not the Australia we celebrate at Sunshine.

This falls short of the nation we imagine ourselves to be.

It’s not the Australia we tell our kids to believe in.

It’s not the country we want to see in the mirror.

It’s a breach of the great Australian social contract we have written and reworked, time and again.

And – while they say you should never judge a book by its cover – the cover of the WestJustice report is instructive.

Because – of course - it shows the famous gates of the Sunshine Factory.

Still standing – and still standing for a different, better idea of what it means to work in Australia.

Friends

No-one wins when people are brought in to work in worse conditions, for less money.

Good employers and companies who do the right thing are put at a competitive disadvantage.

And the wages of working Australians are undercut.

This is about the oldest truth in the Labor tradition: if one worker is exploited, underpaid, treated badly – then we are all diminished, we are all worse off.

That’s the point of solidarity, the purpose of collective bargaining, the reason we organise and work together.

The alternative, the low road, is a path Australia rejected a long time ago: the law of the jungle.

An easy-to-hire, easy-to-fire, low wage society.

A race to the bottom on pay, conditions and safety.

That’s not who we are – that’s not what we stand for.

In a movement with a history as grand as ours.

In a party that has produced so many of the giants of the Australian story.

There is a temptation to imagine that all the decisive battles have been fought.

That all the great races have been run and won.

That the sun has set on the Labor cause.

Don’t buy that, don’t believe it.

The modern Labor mission has never been more relevant.

The spirit of Sunshine has never been more vital.

The challenges may be new, the battlegrounds are different.

But the principles we defend, the values we champion, live on.

At its heart, we serve the same ideal our forebears pledged themselves to, 125 years ago.

In their words – ensuring everyone ‘has a share in those things that make life worth living.’

I can’t think of a more worthy goal, a more noble cause, or a more important time to fight for it.

Thank you very much


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