Mar 11, 2020










Let me start by thanking the business community for all the support you have given bushfire communities – both during the fires themselves and now in the recovery phase.

I want to especially congratulate everyone involved in BizRebuild and the Volunteer Trust – two initiatives where business is partnering with communities to rebuild and restore.

As the bushfires raged through spring and summer, I visited affected communities and spoke with a great many firefighters, volunteers, families and community leaders.

All of them have expressed their gratitude to those fellow Australians who stepped up.

They also continue to express their frustration at the Federal Government for failing the test of national leadership.

For months in spite of clear warnings of the impending crisis, the Federal Government was dismissive.

They said it was a “state issue”, “we’ve seen bushfires before”, volunteer firefighters “want to be there” and more.

It was as if they couldn’t see through the smoke to what was happening on the ground.

If a single word could define their attitude it was, “complacency”.

If you prefer a phrase it was, “she’ll be right mate”.

It’s also defined them on the economy.

A never ending victory lap is no substitute for an economic plan.

A salesman is no substitute for a leader.

And marketing can never replace substance.

Politics has got in the way of sensible economic management.

Our economy is at a critical juncture.

The Government would have us believe that the economy was doing just fine before the bushfires and coronavirus.

A small reality check.

Before coronavirus and the fires, interest rates were cut 3 times.

The Reserve Bank Governor discussed the possibility of unconventional monetary policy.

Wages were stagnant and productivity had stalled.

Consumer confidence was in decline, as was business investment.

Debt has more than doubled under this Government, from $175 billion to $430 billion.

And unemployment was stuck above that of comparable economies, with 2 million Australians either unemployed or underemployed.

These are the consequences of a Government without an economic plan.

To offer a contrast, the first the Vision Statements I delivered as Labor leader have been about jobs, the future of work, and the economy.

The common thread in these speeches is productivity.

But when was the last time you heard this Government mention the ‘P’ word?

This is not an economy that is back on track. It is an economy that is tracking back.

Considering the Government are already in their seventh year, it is startling just how empty their hands are.

Leigh Sales summed it up neatly last week on the ABC’s 7.30 program when she asked the Prime Minister:

“How is it possible that you don’t have an economic centrepiece beyond a slogan for jobs and growth? You have done nothing on IR or superannuation, nothing on GST reform, nothing big on company tax reform, no target for emissions reduction beyond 2030.”

And then the kicker:

“Business leaders feel there is no agenda.”

We all know it doesn’t have to be this way.

We know what a difference a Government with a plan can make – because we have seen it.

We saw it with the imagination and energy of the Hawke-Keating program, and with how the Rudd-Gillard Government quarantined Australia from the Global Financial Crisis.

The achievements of those Governments are still delivering for Australians.

Today, the floating dollar is the economy’s great shock absorber.

Universal superannuation has created a $3 trillion savings pool adding liquidity and competition to markets.

The increase in the age pension has lifted one million Australians out of poverty.

The Commonwealth continues to be engaged in urban infrastructure including public transport.

And competition policy and the restructuring of government enterprises has established the likes of CSL, the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas – well represented in this room – and who now have a combined private market capitalisation of more than $200 billion.

These are the enduring legacies of good governments with good plans.

This Government pretends that the Global Financial Crisis, the Black Saturday bushfires, the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi never happened.

Their economic impact is wiped from history, as is the fact the economic stimulus of the Rudd Government is revered internationally.

The potential scale of the global economic impact of coronavirus is clear.

That it comes on the back of our already feeble economic indicators is deeply concerning.

Labor has long called for measures to respond to this weakness.

In June last year we called for a bring forward of Stage 2 of the tax cuts, increased support for business investment and infrastructure spending.

We have said that any increase in Newstart would be good not just for those struggling to survive, but also be good for the economy.

Until recently, though, this Government has been dismissive of such calls.

Just as it was dismissive of Labor’s success in protecting Australia from the shock of the global financial crisis.

More than a decade on, we should all be troubled by the Reserve Bank Governor‘s fear that our economy is becoming less dynamic.

The closest this Government has come to innovation was when the Prime Minister invented what might be called future-past tense as he declared:

“We‘ve brought the budget back to surplus next year.”

And that’s been about it.

Parliament has sat for four weeks out of the last five and there hasn’t been a single vote on a second reading of any piece of legislation.

For the Government it’s all short term tactics, with no long term strategic vision.

Ministers and advisers seem to have spent too much time on colour coded lists to divert an extraordinary number of grant funds towards marginal and target electorates.

Not just sports rorts and community grants, but larger programs such as the Urban Congestion Fund have all been distorted to prioritise the political benefit of those giving the grant, rather than the economic or social benefit of the grant itself.

Case after case of the means justifying the means.

This is the same Government that announced a $2 billion program to assist bushfire victims and communities, only to later admit that there is no actual Budget line item and the figure is only “notional”.

This invites and deserves scrutiny.

We know that only $500 million or one quarter will be available this financial year when it is most needed.

And the actual spend is currently just 10% of the “notional” figure.

And last Friday it reallocated a portion of the bushfire tourism recovery funds to areas affected by coronavirus rather than allocate additional funds.

Good grief.

On the ground communities are desperately waiting on support.

On coronavirus Labor will examine any measures put forward by the Government constructively, but it will need to lift its’ game, change its rhetoric and start to look after the long term national interest.

Right now, we need stimulus and strategies to assist specific individuals such as casual workers, as well as our most vulnerable sectors such as small business and the tourism sector.

The immediate challenge before this Government is substantial and nothing less than three decades of continuous economic growth is on the line.

For Labor, economic growth is not an end in itself.  It is the pathway to opportunity and aspiration for more Australians.

Simply put, the test for this Government is whether they can keep workers in their jobs, businesses afloat and Australia out of recession – a test the former Labor government passed.

This is not a time for reluctant economic management or mixed messages.

To restore confidence, we need strong leadership and unity of purpose.

While we must actively and confidently confront the dangers that stand before us now, we cannot afford to lose sight of our longer-standing challenges.

We need longer term plans to lift wages and productivity and an approach that looks at where future growth will come from.

And that means dealing with the challenge of climate change and embracing the opportunity that a shift to a carbon constrained economy brings.

The Government is frightened of the present but terrified of the future.

But there is a reason why the Business Council of Australia, BHP, Santos, the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, QANTAS, Rio Tinto and so many other business leaders have embraced net zero emissions by 2050.

There is a reason why every State and Territory has embraced net zero emissions by 2050.

There is a reason why 73 countries including the UK, Germany and Canada have embraced net zero emissions by 2050.

The same reason Labor has adopted net zero emissions by 2050.

It makes sense.

Action on climate change will create jobs, lower energy prices and lower emissions.

Emissions have increased every year since 2014. We are not on track to meet the Government’s own targets they signed up to in Paris and they are relying on an accounting trick in the hope the rest of the world shrugs its shoulders.

No wonder the Government has done no modelling on the economic impact of climate change during its 7 long years in office.

At a time where the cheapest form of new energy investment is renewables, the Government has actually given a $4 million grant to a small company in Collinsville so it can do a feasibility study into its own proposed new coal fired power plant.

You couldn’t make this up.

Climate action in the 2020s is about unleashing billions of dollars of investment, creating hundreds of thousands of good new jobs, modernising industry, and protecting our communities and environment.

In the century that’s before us, the nations that will transform into manufacturing powerhouses will be those that can harness the cheapest renewable energy resources.

We have the world’s highest average solar radiation per square metre.

We have some of the best wind and wave resources.

We have within our reach an endless bounty of cheap energy that could power generations of high value manufacturing and other energy-intensive manufacturing industries.

Our resources and capability also offer us the scope to be the capital of mining and processing of the key ingredients of the renewables revolution.

Australia is the second largest producer of rare earth elements, among them the lithium that will power the revolution in electric vehicles.

Hydrogen represents an enormous opportunity.

We have an unparalleled capacity for carbon farming.

We can’t continue to hide from the future and be driven by scare campaigns.

We need to plan for our future workforce needs by giving Australians the skills to take up these opportunities.

And we need to plan to meet other challenges such as the ageing of our population.

In the immediate sense, we need a plan to overcome the economic impact of coronavirus.

Less than a year ago I said I wanted to be known as the Labor Leader, not the Opposition Leader.

That I would be constructive.

Labor advanced constructive proposals during the bushfire crisis on a national approach, use of defence assets, increasing aerial firefighting capacity, compensating volunteers, addressing mental health issues and more. Some of these were taken up by the Government after a period had elapsed.

Labor will continue to be constructive and provide expedited support through the Parliament for any reasonable measure that restores confidence, increases economic activity and keeps people in jobs.

One major Party determined to oppose any constructive proposal simply because it comes from the other side is one too many.

We need to use this period to promote resilience in the economy so that we can emerge stronger from these difficulties.

In conclusion can I say that Labor is determined to hold the Government to account, deal with the immediate challenges, and prepare an agenda for the future.

Yes, the pace of change is confronting.

While government cannot stop change, it can shape change.

And Labor’s priority is to shape change in the interests of people.

Labor can lead Australia confidently into this future.

We have done it before and we will do it again.

It requires vision and planning.

And a recognition that our aspiration is about more than individualism.

It’s about the sense of common interest that Australians share.

One that recognises the need to bring business, unions and the community forward to advance the national interest.

An approach that is needed now more than ever.