LOSING GOVERNMENT IS HARD. IT MEANS WE LOSE THE CHANCE TO PURSUE POLICIES FOR A FAIRER SOCIETY, AND FOR GREATER PROSPERITY AND OPPORTUNITY FOR MORE AUSTRALIANS.
But there is a greater sense of loss. Not of power, not of position. It is the sense that the nation we hope for is being put beyond reach. Paul Keating’s aphorism ‘when you change the government you change the country’ speaks to this.
When the rights of the bigots are extolled; when knights and dames abound; when inequity is defended on the grounds of ‘aspiration’; when age pensioners are targeted; when privilege is protected; and when our Prime Minister asks ‘where are the ladies?’ – then Labor people feel the diminution of Australia as well as the adverse impact on the people we represent.
Make no mistake – this Government is set on creating a very different Australia to the one that Labor values. That is why our discussion tonight and beyond must be driven by a sense of purpose and passion.
What is the future we want for this nation? The face of this nation has changed over our lifetimes. And Labor has played a critical role in these changes.
PARTY OF GOVERNMENT
Unlike some of those on our left, like the Greens Party, we know that translating our progressive values into outcomes for Australia requires leadership. Because a true party of reform knows it must also be a party of Government.
In 2012, the Grattan Institute listed 10 of the most important economic reforms in Australia over the last 40 years. Labor Governments were responsible for the vast majority of those top 10 reforms.
Labor introduced Medicare. Labor opened the economy by floating the dollar and reducing tariff barriers. We created superannuation, which has given all Australians decent retirement incomes. We introduced National Competition Policy, which has boosted national productivity.
And a strong argument could be made that the reforms of the Rudd and Gillard Governments – like the Gonski school funding changes, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and carbon pricing – will be some of the most important economic reforms for the next 40 years.
Australia is now a more diverse country than it has ever been. The latest Census revealed that 46 percent of Australians were either born overseas or had at least one parent who was born overseas. More than 300 different languages are spoken in Australian households. Australia is a fairer and more equal society.
For women, the workforce participation rate has increased steadily over a 30-year period, growing from 44.5 percent in July 1983 to 58.5 percent in July 2013. In education, more women than men are now graduating from university.
But we still have a long way to go.Thegenderpaygapremains at 17.1 percent between women and men. And in corporate Australia, just 18 percent of the directors of ASX 200 companies are women.
Employment in service industries has grown while employment in manufacturing has declined. And people are choosing a greater variety of employment and working arrangements. Almost 2 million Australians describe themselves as self-employed.
CHANGED UNION MOVEMENT
The role of the labour movement in organising and representing workers has also changed. In 1990, 40.5 percent of employees were union members. Now the proportion is down to 18.2 percent. Nonetheless, with some 1.8 million members, the trade union movement is still one of the largest and most representative organisations in Australia.
But it is a different union movement from that of the past. As the Sydney Morning Herald has said: ‘The typical unionist is now more likely to be a teacher, nurse or childcare worker than to wear a hard hat’.
Australia is more wealthy. We have recorded 22 years of uninterrupted growth, due in no small part to the leadership of the Hawke-Keating and Rudd-Gillard Governments.
We are well placed in our region.We know that global economic power is shifting east. By 2030, Asia will become the largest consumption zone in the world, with 2.5 billion consumers.
So this is an Australia on the cusp of a bright future. But there is a risk that too many Australians will be shut out and left behind.
Our opponents came to office on a negative and cynical approach to politics which fomented fear and anxiety.
TWO KEY ISSUES
Let me now focus on two key issues. The first arises from the changes in Australian society – the need for Labor to defend and develop multiculturalism.
The second issue arises from the importance of ensuring Labor remains a viable alternative government – the need to revitalise our Party so we can better prosecute our vision for the future.
AGAINST FEAR AND HATE
The Abbott Government’s push to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and to introduce wide-ranging exemptions that effectively neuter protections against hate speech, is an attack on fundamental values of acceptance and tolerance.
These values are the necessary preconditions for a diverse multicultural society.
The Attorney-General has arrogantly declared that the Government will be protecting the rights of bigots. This is a threat to Australian multiculturalism.
Labor believes that every Australian has the right to be protected from speech that offends, insults or humiliates on the basis of race. By contrast, the Abbott Government believes in the rights of the bigots.
We instinctively understand that our social norms provide a sound foundation for multiculturalism. By contrast, those backing the changes are a small and narrow collection: Senator Brandis, the Institute of Public Affairs, and Andrew Bolt.
Racism, including racist speech, can undermine a person’s self-perception, diminish their sense of worth, make them feel unsafe or insecure and lessen their capacity to fully participate I society. If an elite athlete like Adam Goodes is hurt by a racist remark, how does a child in the playground feel?
Labor will defend the values of acceptance and tolerance in the debate over the Racial Discrimination Act – and I encourage everyone here to join the hundreds of people who are making submissions to the Government on its proposed legislation.
We must make a case for multiculturalism as intrinsic to Australian nation building and we must connect multiculturalism to Australian citizenship.
But the values that sustain it demand leadership. Whether in the context of the attack on the Racial Discrimination Act or other risks, Labor people must demonstrate that leadership.
It is now a social institution which stands as a ballast against the fear and the hate engendered by some on the far right and the far left of our community. Multiculturalism is not just about ethnic communities, it’s about all of us.
I now want to turn to the issue of Party reform and to add my voice to the campaign to revitalise the Australian Labor Party.
We need a better, stronger, reinvigorated Party – not for ourselves, but for the country.
That means more people and more ideas. I am a supporter of Party reform.
Last year I supported the change we made to the way we elect the Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. In that election we saw the Party at its best – two good candidates, a contest of ideas, and the opportunity for every member of our Party to be involved.
For the first time, members were participants, not spectators, in the ballot for the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.
I support more reform of our internal processes to increase membership, and enhance participation in our preselections, in our policy debates, and in our campaigning for office.
This is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the Labor Party and the millions of Australians who belong to trade unions.
Like everyone in this room, members of unions know this country needs a strong Labor Party.
I ask that you assess proposals for change against the following checklist:
- Will this change make the Party more, or less, democratic?
- Will this change enhance, or diminish, participation in things that really matter?
- Will this change build a better Party which means we can build a better country?
We must never forget the contribution that Labor has made to the fabric of our nation.
Australia’s economy is stronger, our society is fairer, and people have greater opportunities because of Labor Governments.
It would be an Australia that lets postcodes, not ability, determine a child’s full potential.
This is an Australia where Holden, Ford and Qantas workers are worried for the future of their jobs and where the Government has washed its hands of their plight.
An Australia where pensioners foot the bill for a millionaire’s paid parental leave scheme.
An Australia that ensures 3.6 million low-income earners will now have less superannuation and security when they retire.
An Australia that gives racial bigotry free reign, and dismisses the hurt it causes. This is not the Australia we want for ourselves or our children.
Ultimately, we must always keep sight of the reason why we seek to revitalise and reinvigorate Labor.
We are a party of Government.
Australia is a better place because of Labor.
And the interests of the people we fight for must always be at the heart of what we do now and into the future.
PENNY WONG IS LABOR’S SENATE LEADER. THIS IS AN EDITED VERSION OF HER SPEECH ON 15 APRIL AT THE INAUGURAL BRUCE CHILDS ANNUAL LECTURE SERIES.