SPEECH TO THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB, CANBERRA
“REACHING FOR HIGHER GROUND”
WEDNESDAY, 26 NOVEMBER 2014
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Thank you Laurie. Good afternoon, everyone, it's a pleasure to be here again.
I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet and I pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.
I'd like to acknowledge the generous presence of so many of my colleagues, led by my Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek.
The ultimate responsibility of government is translating present opportunities into future success.
This takes vision.
A vision for Australia’s place in the world – and a plan for us to compete in it and succeed.
It takes trust.
Because unless Governments earn and keep the trust of their people, their agenda will certainly fail.
This is the story being played out in front of our eyes.
It’s been the story of this year, this Government.
On every issue – the same problem.
No vision, no plan, no trust.
Tony Abbott has no vision for Australia’s foreign policy future or for our economic future.
And he is deliberately and wilfully deepening the trust deficit, ignoring the wishes and wisdom of the Australian people.
At home and abroad, Tony Abbott and his government are out of touch – and they have let our country down.
First, to Foreign Policy.
Earlier this month, Brisbane hosted the leaders of the world’s largest economies.
Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan worked incredibly hard to elevate the G20 to a leader-level gathering – and to secure the 2014 summit for Australia.
This was a once-in-a-generation chance to showcase our nation to the world – and all of us in Labor wanted it to be a success.
Then, on that Saturday morning, in eight excruciating minutes, the Prime Minister delivered a weird, cringe-worthy, ‘little Australia’ lecture to the global community.
And in those eight minutes, he writ low the greatest foreign policy opportunity our nation is likely to have for the next 20 years.
There he was, boasting about taking Australia backwards on climate change.
There he was, bemoaning the ‘massively difficult’ job he has as Australian Prime Minister.
Whining about the unpopularity of his GP tax and plan for his $100,000 degrees.
And presenting, live to the world, a negative character reference of his own people – the Australian public: blaming them, our people, for his government’s failures.
Damning our country as selfish, anti-modern, anti-reform and anti-change.
This is a room full of experienced journalists and political commentators - can any of you nominate a single Australian Prime Minister in your lifetime who would have embarked on such a mindless melee?
Even Billy McMahon would have drawn the line at such depreciation – to an international audience.
Even Billy Hughes would have thought those remarks narrow and parochial.
But more than that, unbecoming.
It was a moment that shrieked Tony Abbott’s unsuitability for the job of Australian Prime Minister.
And in the end, it became the story of the G20 – missed opportunities and a Prime Minister without bearings.
It is not too much to say that at the G20 Tony Abbott was left loitering.
On the global stage, Tony Abbott was blindsided not once but twice in three days.
On the eve of the G20, the world’s two largest economies announced a historic deal on climate change.
The one economic issue the Prime Minister was determined not to talk about, was thrust to the centre of the Brisbane summit – despite his stubborn isolationism.
President Obama’s call to arms on climate change delivered at Queensland University, invoking the Great Barrier Reef, had Tony Abbott privately seething and Julie Bishop publicly rebuking.
Australians, however, were cheering.
Then, the Prime Minister failed to see China coming.
President Xi, in our parliament, outlined a new idea, “a higher level platform”, a new concept of China-Australia relations – but the Coalition missed it.
Blindsided, the Prime Minister didn’t see President Xi coming, any more than he saw President Obama going.
The Prime Minister awkwardly misquoted and misinterpreted the President’s ambitions for a modern China – demonstrating, to Australia and the world, his incapacity to broaden our relationship with our largest trading partner.
The Prime Minister was lost in space – while real world events were moving around him.
Even the hyped-up ‘shirtfront’ with President Putin turned into a butterfly kiss.
The uncompromising words were left to Germany’s Angela Merkel and Canada’s Stephen Harper, while our Prime Minister settled for a photo with Putin nursing a couple of bewildered koalas.
The ignominy of it.
And it wasn’t just President Obama’s inspirational speech – or his decisive actions alongside President Xi – that threw Tony Abbott’s stubborn reactionism into such sharp relief.
Soon the Tories in Britain were calling him a flat-earther.
Japan and Canada announced their substantial contributions to the Green Climate Fund - an institution our bewildered Prime Minister has previously dismissed as ‘socialism masquerading as environmentalism’.
You know you’ve strayed a long way from reality when you’re accusing your Canadian ‘brother’ Stephen Harper of being a socialist greenie.
You know you’re off your game when you can’t spot China reaching out for new and deeper basis of engagement.
And what defence did the Prime Minister offer for being caught on the wrong side of every question?
How could he explain his lack of bearings - his inability to identify the trends shaping our world?
The best he could offer was:
‘It’s all very well to talk about what might happen in the far distant future…I’m focusing not on what might happen in 16 years’ time, I’m focusing on what we’re doing now’.
Tony Abbott dismissed the Australia of 2030 – the nation our children will live in, the economy they will work in, the community they will raise their own children in, as the ‘far distant future’.
That’s the real issue with Tony Abbott on the world stage – not that he looked a fool – but that he squandered the opportunities of a lifetime, showing himself to be entirely lacking in vision.
A Prime Minister with no knowledge of where he is – with absolutely no sense of longitude or latitude.
A man adrift.
You might have thought the Prime Minister would have had a clue as to China’s real intent, arriving as President Xi did, with a comprehensive market access agreement.
But even this didn’t tweak Tony Abbott’s intuition.
Instead of anticipating President Xi’s radical, bold ideas for a deeper relationship, the Prime Minister maintained his Government’s clumsy old-fashioned disposition towards China’s rising economic influence.
Dividing every complex foreign and economic policy decision into “goodies” and “baddies” and being satisfied with simply focusing on our significant trade relationship with China rather, than reaching for higher ground.
He missed an unparalleled economic opportunity for Australia.
Forfeiting membership of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral attempt to fill an $8 trillion infrastructure gap in our region.
If Labor was in Government, we would have got the details right, and we would have signed up.
When we are in Government, we will get the details right, and we will sign up.
Tony Abbott revealed himself as unable to craft a nuanced and sophisticated foreign policy – translating present opportunities into future success.
He showed he has no vision, no plan for our future foreign policy.
He let our country down.
You cannot govern today without a vision for tomorrow.
And we should look at what Tony Abbott’s lack of vision has done to Australia’s economy.
Growth has slumped, the deficit has doubled.
We’ve reached a 12 year high in unemployment, and a 13 year high in youth unemployment.
Confidence is down – and the tax burden is up, on income, super and small business.
Real wages are falling – eroding our standard of living.
And the cost of living is up- in health, education and childcare.
Australians live with these symptoms and they know the cause.
Tony Abbott’s unfair Budget is throttling our economy and starving our future sources of growth.
And oh yes, there are some in the Government who think that this Budget is just the unfortunate victim of a botched sales job.
They play an ‘if only’ sort of game.
If only Tony hadn’t made so many wild, innumerate promises before the election.
If only the Treasurer and the Finance Minister hadn’t been busted savouring a post-fiscal cigar.
If only Joe Hockey would stop comparing the GP tax with a couple of beers, or if Joe Hockey would only stop telling pensioners they’ve never had it so good, or if Joe Hockey would only stop claiming that poor people don’t drive cars…in fact…if only Joe Hockey would just stop.
But it is not about fixing the message really.
It’s not about the awful sales job, or the stumble-footed sales team – it’s the product itself.
The problem is the excuses and the surprises.
The lies and the consequences of the lies.
The spin and the substance it is hiding.
We, the Australian people aren’t stupid.
We don’t recoil from the Budget because we don’t understand it – we recoil from it because we know exactly what it represents.
That’s why none of the much-trumpeted Budget ‘reboots’ have made a scrap of difference.
Every time they scrape off a barnacle, they just reveal another hole in the hull.
A new set of talking points won’t fix this Budget.
It’s like raising the Titanic, or remarketing the Hindenburg – and that’s really hard.
Australians ‘got’ this Budget from day one: an unfair, dishonest, ideological, foul-hearted attempt to bring down fairness in our society.
Six months after the Budget, the Prime Minister is an embarrassment on the world stage, adrift in our national debate and ‘box office poison’ in Victoria.
And don’t imagine that the Prime Minister is dumping any of his Budget measures because he has learned – or changed his mind.
The Government are only talking about making changes because they have been forced to.
In their heart of hearts, they have not changed, they will never change who they are.
And as soon as they get a chance – everything will be back on the table, everything will be up for grabs.
This Government does not understand how much fairness means to the Australian people.
We will never change this Prime Minister’s mind, all we can do is change the Prime Minister.
The word ‘reform’ gets bandied around a lot by this Government – but this Budget is not about reform.
Let’s be clear: putting a tax on the sick and the vulnerable is not reform.
Let’s be clear: leaving young jobseekers with nothing to live on and pushing the price of unemployment onto Australian families, is not reform.
Let’s be clear: burdening Australians who get a degree with a lifetime of debt, that is worst for women, is not reform.
Building new legislative conveyor belts to shift costs from business to consumers, from government to citizens, is not reform.
If Tony Abbott really believed these measures were ‘reforms’ – then he would take them to an election.
Real reform takes values, vision and courage.
It takes leadership.
And real reforming governments keep faith with the Australian people – not mess around with their heads and let them down.
They take people into their trust – and they repay the people’s trust.
Because the Australian people know when Governments keep the faith.
Because in 2014 the new challenges of the 21st Century are already upon us.
In our world, the economic, environmental and security challenge of global climate change.
In our region, history’s most profound economic transformation: bigger markets, new opportunities, more competition.
And at home, we live in a time of slow yet certain demographic shift, two generations of retirees alive at the same time.
These are the challenges that will define our future.
We cannot ignore them, we cannot spin them, and we cannot delay.
We can’t just hope that the cards will fall the right way for the lucky country – that something will just turn up.
Competing in the new world order, creating jobs in a global economy, building national wealth for the long term depends upon Australia getting smarter.
I believe we can be the world’s smartest, most skilful nation.
An international clean energy powerhouse, a services hub in the Asian century, a knowledge centre for the Indo-Pacific. A social justice model for the world.
We can be, we must be, we have to be.
We have no other historic choice.
And an affordable, accessible higher education system is essential to this vision and this future.
If Australia is to prosper, if we are to thrive, go forward not backwards – if we are to take glad confident steps into this new millenium – our future workforce must be well-educated, highly skilled and internationally competitive.
That is why higher education has never been more important – to our economy, to our prosperity, to our place in an ever-changing, challenging world.
Yet, at this very moment, this tipping point, this crunchtime in our economic destiny, the Government is building high walls around our universities – keeping some of our smartest out.
Labor supports reform in higher education – but dousing opportunity is not reform.
A lifetime of student debt is not reform.
Making your parents’ income an almost perfect predictor of whether or not you go to uni, is not reform.
Keeping the vast majority of families in the bottom half of incomes from going to uni – what we’ve seen these last 40 years in the United States, is not reform.
In a changing economy, where new jobs require higher qualifications – Australia cannot afford to slam the door on aspiration.
For Labor, this is heartland and core belief: we should equip our people for the future, not make it harder to go to uni.
Kids must be able to fulfil their potential – they must have that chance.
In the last year, I’ve visited communities reeling from closures and job losses – from North East Arnhem Land, to the West Coast of Tassie.
I’ve met with the skilled and productive shipyard workers in Adelaide and Newcastle, auto manufacturers in Altona and plant operators in Geelong.
Everywhere I go, I hear the same question: “Where are the new jobs going to come from?”
By 2020, our nation will need 60,000 new teachers and education assistants.
The Whitlam generation of teachers are over 60 – it’s time to train their successors, in maths and science especially.
We’ll now need 90,000 new technicians and tradespeople.
Engineers, designers, architects and scientists to build the clean energy revolution and modernise our urban life.
100,000 new medical, allied health and carers to help our ageing population and the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
By 2020, half a million new jobs will require a diploma qualification or higher.
All of us will need the flexibility and resilience to change jobs, to apply skills in different contexts and to keep learning, keep learning throughout our several careers in our longer working lives.
By 2050 there will only be around two and a half taxpayers for each Australian aged 65 or older.
What kind of skills do we want these Australians to have, what level of education will nourish them?
For me, it is straightforward.
I believe in Australians doing high-skill, well-remunerated work – jobs of the future and jobs with a future.
Australia should not be a high-unemployment country, like some vitality-sapping enclave, importing our skills.
I believe the next generation of Australians can – and should – do the jobs our country needs.
And a world-class university system has never been more important to that.
A university system, underpinned by three principles:
One, Accessibility and affordability: university places for everyone who has worked hard to meet the entrance requirements, and prevailed.
Two, Excellence: because higher education should be life-changing, life-enhancing, world-illuminating.
Three, Balancing autonomy with accountability: engaging with our universities as a system – not just as a random collection of competing enterprises – encouraging universities to focus, as they always have, on their core strengths.
Yet NATSEM modelling reveals the catastrophic injury of the Government’s plans for our universities and our students.
Right now, a young woman who’s just finished her Year 12 exams, and is considering studying science would expect to pay off her HECS debt in around eight years.
Under Tony Abbott’s changes – the repayment would take 20 years.
She would pay, under Abbott, $100,000 more – a debt of $140,000.
She would pay $63,500 in interest alone.
And it is not just science that is so afflicted and persecuted.
For every faculty and in every field, the Government is determined to burden our students with a massive debt.
The Government is locking young Australians into an interest trap.
For people in lower-earning careers – like teaching, nursing and community work, and for women in particular – Christopher Pyne is playing loan shark.
Today it takes a woman social worker around nine years to pay off her degree.
Under Tony Abbott’s changes – she would never pay back her total HECS bill.
Despite making over $300,000 in repayments over her lifetime, she would never be free of the Abbott debt sentence.
She would retire with a student debt – she will die with a student debt.
Imagine dedicating your working life to helping some of the most vulnerable in our community, doing the work of modern secular saints, and having every single paycheck of your career, from your induction to your farewell card, docked by the Government for HECS repayment.
This is the Government’s bleak, nasty plan for higher education.
The examples I’ve used today are about women graduates.
This is because at the very top of the litany of erosion, the Government’s plans will have a catastrophic impact on working women.
Our economic prosperity, the progress of our society, depends on the equal treatment of women, on having more women in the workplace, on assisting the march of women through the institutions of power – yet the Government has designed a system to hobble the advance of women.
The Abbott Plan puts women at a massive financial disadvantage and it inflicts the biggest pain on women who take time off to start and raise a family.
Ratcheting up the interest rate on student debt inflicts the most pain on women who take time out of the workforce.
Each year she spends at home with her children, enlarging and empowering their lives, compounds her debt to Christopher Pyne.
And if she goes back to work in a career that is not high-paying: teaching, nursing, social work…and indeed, journalism.
Then she will find it almost impossible to clear her debt…to Christopher Pyne.
The Abbott plan is not reform – it is regression.
My mum was an educator.
She instilled in me a passion for learning and a belief in the power of education.
But I wonder if she would have been able to afford to become a teacher if it meant 20 years of debt?
Would she have taken time out of work to start a family if she was being slugged with compound interest?
Would she have returned to study law if it meant a $100,000 student debt?
Would, indeed, under the new Abbott punishments – would I and my twin brother had our own opportunities?
When I think about that, it only strengthens my conviction that we must oppose these short-sighted and unfair class-war changes to our university system.
This is part of who I am, and I am not for turning.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Yesterday’s Question Time was an almost perfect metaphor for everything that is wrong with this government.
A good part of the national debate – and certainly the theme of Question Time – was about the Government’s petty and malicious attacks on the ABC and SBS.
The Prime Minister and his front bench said nothing about their ideas, they offered no explanation for their policies.
The Prime Minister spent almost no time defending his policies – because he knows there is no defence.
He knows that he has let Australians down.
Today, I would say this to Tony Abbott – at some point, leadership is required.
At some point, you have to stop thinking about saving yourself and start thinking about the Australian people.
That’s what Labor is doing.
2014 was defined by the force of Labor’s resistance, today I commit to you that Labor will be defined in 2015 by the power of our ideas.
I am always prepared to work with the Government on matters where there is bipartisan agreement – as I have on fighting terrorism.
But I will never support the creation of an underclass.
I will never accept the Abbott Government’s attempt to dumb-down the national debate or weaken the ABC and SBS.
We cannot allow belief in our democracy, the legitimacy of the political process, to be reduced.
We cannot allow our people to drift from the centre to populism and extremism and the political equivalent of cults.
Searching not for higher ground, but grovelling in the mire of mediocrity.
We know that Australians want to believe in politics, in an authentic, sincere, political process that can speak to their lives and allow people to believe they can make meaningful change to their world.
It’s our job to live up to that – we embrace that responsibility.
I recognise that Labor has to rebuild the nation’s faith in us.
We are determined to earn the trust of the Australian people.
We will earn their trust – and we will repay their trust.
Today I give Australians this commitment.
We will seek a mandate based on a positive plan.
We will not ask the Australian people to vote for us, just because we are not the Abbott Government.
Australians deserve better than the Government they are suffering through.
They deserve better than a Prime Minister and government whose contempt for our people debases our democracy.
But at the next election, Labor will offer the nation more than a list of Tony Abbott’s lies.
It will offer more than what the Government is not.
We are prepared to work on the big policies that go beyond parliamentary terms and go to intergenerational changes – changes which will require the interests of our grandchildren as well as our parents to be considered.
And we will earn the trust, by hard work, of the Australian people – with our ideas, our principles, our vision.
This is what Australians expect, this is what Australians deserve.
An alternative government, reaching for higher ground.
This is what we shall offer, in the year ahead.
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