Sep 1, 2014

Address to United Voice National Council Dinner – Defending the Fair go

Crowne Plaza, Surfers Paradise

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak tonight.

I’m pleased to be here.

After a week of sitting opposite Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, tonight is a welcome opportunity to spend some time with people who understand the concerns of average Australian families.

Because of the nature of your workplaces, you understand better than most the chaos being visited upon this country by Mr Abbott and his nasty and incompetent government.

Of all of the trade unions that operate in Australia, United Voice is the best-connected to the needs and aspirations of low-income Australians.

Your union represents people who work hard in jobs that are in many cases are neither glamorous nor well-paid.

But this work is essential.

It deserves the respect of Australia’s leaders, not the derision of the out of touch snobs who occupy the ministerial benches.

Many of your members are among the 1.5 million Australians who live on the minimum wage.

You represent honest working people who are too busy just surviving and raising their children to have much time for the intricacies of political and policy debate.

These working Australians rely on United Voice to have their backs.

You do just that.

United Voice stands between low-income earners and a Government determined to abolish the idea of a Fair Go in this country.

A Fair Go for child-care workers;

A Fair Go for cleaners;

For aged-care workers;

For those who work in hospitality;

For security workers.

Indeed, United Voice and its work aspires to the concept that is, in my view, part of the cultural mindset of our nation.

A Fair Go for all.

That’s the Australian way.


Your struggle matters.

You and the rest of the trade unions in this country are not just fighting for industrial justice.

You are fighting against an attempt by the hard right, backed by sectional interests, to redefine our culture, particularly in the way in which Australians treat each other.

The conservatives have always wanted to elevate individualism above collectivism in the workplace.

That’s why John Howard tried to destroy fairness in the workplace with Work Choices.

But Tony Abbott’s conservative ambitions go further.

He wants to extend the primacy of the individual right across Australian culture by breaking down what most people know as the Fair Go.

Through their policies and their rhetoric, Mr Abbott and his colleagues promote the view that the fortunes of the individual are more important than the fortunes of the many.

I’m cautious about politicians who are into flag-waving.

I believe it can be simplistic to ascribe to all Australians a common set of values.

But I do believe there is something very real in the concept of the Fair Go.

There is a generosity of spirit within Australian culture.

Australians respect and celebrate success at the individual level.

But the Fair Go holds that our society is only as good as the way it treats its least-advantaged members.

It holds that people deserve to be judged on the content of their character, not on their financial circumstances or connections.

It holds that if people are unfortunate enough to be disadvantaged, we should not punish them for their circumstances but should give every opportunity to create a better life, or if that is not possible, guarantee them dignity through a proper social safety net.

It is the Fair Go that explains why Australians demand universal health care and equity of access in education – policies made real over the decades by Labor Governments.

It’s also why we reject the culture of nations like the United States, which accords individualism such an elevated status that, for example, many Americans reject universal health care.

The Fair Go explains why United Voice members in the hospitality industry earn penalty rates, while their US counterparts are paid peanuts and need tips to earn a living wage.

But of course the ultimate manifestation of the Fair Go in recent history was the Australian people’s rejection of John Howard’s Work Choices laws.

By tossing Mr Howard out of office, Australians voted for a Fair Go.

They drew a line in the sand because they think fairness is important.

And they will vote to support the Fair Go again.

Despite all this, Mr Abbott is renewing the conservative quest to dilute Australian cultural values and push this nation closer toward a dog-eat-dog model.

His policies and his rhetoric undermine the generosity of spirit that I believe is a significant part of Australian culture.

Like most of us, I’ve seen that generosity of spirit up close.

Throughout my life I’ve also noted that those people who show the most generosity are those who can least afford to.

I went to high school in the city of Sydney and I worked as a paper boy every afternoon to help make ends meet.

I made $10 a week selling the papers on Market Street, in the retail precinct.

With my mates, we got an offer of $16 a week to move up to a Hunter Street corner in the middle of the financial sector and not surprisingly we took up the offer.

One of my observations has stuck with me my whole life.

Given that The Sun and The Mirror cost seven cents each, many papers were purchased with a 10 or 20 cent coin.

The pensioners visiting the city were far more likely to give you a 3 cent tip than the businessmen in suits.

Quite often, my high-flying customers would just pull over in their BMWs and gesture me over to their window.

We’d try to encourage their generosity by fumbling the old copper coins, while cars banked up behind them honking their horns.

These pillars of society showed no shame as they stopped city traffic to wait for their precious three cents.

As my late mum used to say, money doesn’t buy you class.

My real world experience of those times has stayed with me.

The 2014 Budget is characterised by a meanness of spirit and arrogance towards those less well off.


Joe Hockey’s first Budget stands as the perfect illustration of the differences between the Coalition and the Labor Party, backed by the broader labour movement.

Labor supports Medicare, the Tories hate universal health care.

Labor supports creating opportunity through education, the Tories want education to entrench existing privilege.

Labor supports proper indexation of pensions, the Tories want to cut pensions.

Labor supports investment in public transport, Tony Abbott said in Battlelines there is no need for any vehicle larger than a car.

Labor believes in supporting people into work through training, the Tories vilify the unemployed and expect people to live on nothing.

Labor believes in workers right to collectively bargain through their union, the Tories want to leave individuals on their own.

Wrapping all of this together, Labor believes in a compassionate approach to government in line with what we see as Australian values.

But Tony Abbott is trying to erode existing Australian values to discourage the compassionate spirit that has underpinned the development of egalitarianism in Australia.

They genuinely believe that reduced government spending will drive economic growth and that the benefits will trickle down to the rest of us.

But they are wrong.

Australians know this because they have seen Labor Governments successfully govern using a model that balances individualism and collectivism.

Labor does this by using the values of the Fair Go as an ideological starting point for everything we do.


I can’t see how mainstream Australians will learn to embrace Mr Abbott’s hard-line dogma or forgive him for his blatant breaches of fundamental election promises.

I also can’t believe people will put much faith in the Government’s insistence that sky will fall unless we slash government spending to deal with an imagined budget crisis.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The Labor Party has plenty of work ahead, just like United Voice.

I know your organisation has its hands full on a number of fronts, including defending your members against the Government’s obsessive hatred for penalty rates.

I agree with the need for flexibility in the workplace.

But as I explained earlier, in the country I grew up in, people who work deserve a living wage.

I will never accept a US-style situation where workers put in 40 hours a week but don’t have enough money to pay rent and buy food because of low pay rates or a lack of penalty rates.

People who rely on penalty rates in this country deserve a Fair Go.

Abolishing penalty rates would also send the worst-possible message to the community about the value we place on the dignity of labour.

To me, there is dignity in all work.

If we scrap weekend penalty rates, the message we send is that even though shop assistants or hospitality workers are prepared to work hard, they don’t deserve the living wage that we pay to people in other jobs.

If Tony Abbott and his colleagues think that’s fair, they really don’t understand their fellow Australians.

You can rely on me to resist Tony Abbott’s ideological over-reach.

You can rely on my ongoing support as United Voice represents the interests of workers with limited individual bargaining power.

You can rely on me to defend collective bargaining.

Some business people and conservative politicians speak as though collective bargaining is some kind of antiquated concept from the 19th century that has passed its use-by date.

It’s not.

Along with investment in health, education and a safety net, collective bargaining is a manifestation of the Fair go.

Labor will be side by side with you in this struggle to defend the fair go.

And we will win.

Thanks for your attention.