GOVERNOR-GENERAL’S SPEECH: Address-in-Reply
6 May 1996
Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (5.00 p.m.) — I am very honoured to enter this chamber as the representative of the Australian Labor Party for the electorate of Grayndler. I would like to sincerely thank the electors of Grayndler for showing confidence in my ability to represent their interests. I would also like to thank the over 1,000 party members in Grayndler who worked so hard during the election campaign to ensure the seat remained with Labor. I believe that my campaign team, led by the best young campaign director in the country, Tim Gartrell, was second to none.
I am proud to be here representing the seat of Grayndler, named after a trade unionist, Ted Grayndler, of the Australian Workers Union. I succeed one of the greatest local members and campaigners this House has known—the first woman elected to the House of Representatives from New South Wales, my friend and comrade, Jeannette McHugh. Jeannette has only retired from parliament, not from politics. I am sure that she will continue to play a progressive role on issues such as uranium mining, peace and disarmament, consumer affairs and the rights of women.
Grayndler has always returned Labor members to this House. Jeannette followed the current Chief Opposition Whip and now member for Watson, Leo McLeay, the late Frank Stewart, Tony Whitlam and, of course, the first member, one of the greats of the Labor movement, the late Fred Daly. Fred’s farewell at St Brigid’s, Marrickville, last year was the sort of tribute that only a Labor member could have had and a member on the other side of the House could only dream about.
My presence in this House today is the result of a collective effort. First, I would like to thank my mother, Maryanne Albanese, who raised me under very difficult economic circumstances. She instilled in me a strong sense of social justice and fairness. My special thanks go to my partner and best friend, Carmel Tebbutt, for her constant support, advice and outstanding political judgment. I have been extremely fortunate to receive the support of many party members and trade unions. I owe a great deal to people such as Tom Uren, with whom I worked for four years. They have, I hope, instilled in me a sense of history and purpose to my activity in the labour movement and now as a parliamentarian.
I joined the Labor Party in 1979, while still at school. This was a natural choice, for I come from three generations of rank and file party members. My time as Assistant General Secretary of the New South Wales branch confirmed my belief in the importance of fighting for genuine participatory democracy and I am proud to have been selected through the rank and file preselection system. It is the strength and values of rank and file members and trade unionists that make the ALP the greatest political party in Australia and perhaps the world.
There were many in the media who confidently predicted that I would not be in this chamber today. Well-known psephologist Mr Malcolm Mackerras wrote in the Australian on 5 October 1995:
Grayndler will go to NAN, the No Aircraft Noise Party, . . . make no mistake about the ability of NAN to achieve its objectives.
His view was supported by the former left- wing anarchist—and now right-wing individualist—Mr Paddy McGuinness. McGuinness wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10 February 1996:
There is a fair chance that the No Aircraft Noise Party will win the seat of Grayndler in the airport- [start page 383]blighted inner Sydney from a scion of the Labor left, Anthony Albanese, which will benefit the Liberals.
I am pleased to have disappointed them. The negative coalition which made up the No Aircraft Noise Party—Tories, Trotskyists and political opportunists—were united only by their vehement hatred of Labor. In the words of Martin Luther King: `There is no progress in hate . . . like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity.’ We saw that objectivity disappear with NAN and it has progressed only into political oblivion.
The Labor Party was written off in Grayndler due to the backlash caused by the opening of the third runway at Kingsford Smith airport on 4 November 1994. While I believe the previous Labor government had an outstanding record, with which I am proud to be associated, no government is free of mistakes. The reversal of Labor’s commitment to the third runway and the prevarication on Sydney West Airport was about economics, not aviation or even politics as some have suggested. It stands as a sad example of decision making on a short-term accounting basis without due regard for the long-term economic and social impact on people.
Governments and commentators must look beyond the bottom line in the monthly and annual accounts. Such an approach distorts the policy making process to the detriment of medium- and long-term vision. It is imperative that there be a clear distinction drawn between capital and recurrent spending in all budgets so as to facilitate effective planning. For government business enterprises the failure to do this has led to false constraints, which has hindered their ability to raise capital and given encouragement to those who favour privatisation as an ideological creed.
The decision to build the third runway was the culmination of a concerted campaign by the then federal opposition, the New South Wales Greiner government, the airline industry and the media. Of course, the new Prime Minister (Mr Howard) was a vocal and strident longstanding supporter of the third runway. On 28 February 1989, he described Labor’s opposition to the third runway as `disgraceful political featherbedding’ and `one of the most shameful exercises in political cynicism at the expense of the interests of a great Australian city’. Mr Howard repeated this view on 21 March 1989 when he said:
I’ve always regarded the issue as being grossly exaggerated in terms of the impact on the local residents.
He went on to reiterate his support for the third runway, saying:
I think the case for it on general interest grounds is absolutely overwhelming.
In spite of strenuous opposition from Labor members in New South Wales, and its near defeat in the Labor caucus, the Hawke cabinet approved the building of the third runway on 22 March 1989. Gary Punch, the then minister for aviation, showed great courage in putting principle before his career and resigning from the ministry. The decision was an act of vandalism against the urban environment of inner Sydney. It is crucial that the lessons of this monumental mistake are learned.
The third runway cost $243 million to build. As the enormity of the noise problem emerged, noise amelioration measures became necessary. Their cost will far exceed the $270 million already allocated. The Keating government moved to minimise the impact of the noise. It launched a project to acquire 151 of the worst affected homes and insulate 20 schools, 21 preschools and child-care centres, 24 places of worship, eight nursing homes and 4,380 homes. In the longer term, however, the solution must be to lower the number of aircraft movements over the inner west. It must not be forgotten that this area is the most densely populated in Australia.
Since the election we have seen the motto of the new government in practice: let the planes fly anywhere but not over Bennelong. The new Prime Minister clearly believes that as the residents of Hunters Hill have higher income levels they have more rights than working class people closer to the airport. We all know that, thanks to Labor, all Australians have access to universal health care. Therefore, I remind the Prime Minister that there is no evidence that the rich have better, as opposed to more sensitive, hearing. The only [start page 384] real solution is to provide the public infrastructure for Sydney West Airport. This airport must be developed in such a way as to ensure that residents throughout Sydney are protected. I do not support simply transferring the problem.
I have raised the airport issue in my first speech not only because it is the dominant local issue in my electorate but also because the third runway continues to be a noisy reminder of the need for vision and proper environmental assessment in the provision of public and social infrastructure. Proper planning in areas such as transport, communications and community facilities is vital for the living standards of future generations of Australians.
This brings me to a disturbing trend that is emerging throughout the Western world—that is, the contraction of the public sector. In particular, cuts to infrastructure spending are the easy option for conservative governments looking to slash budgets. For more than a decade, governments throughout the Western world have been cutting vital spending in order to impress financial markets with their fiscal rectitude. Ironically, this spending would have paid for itself many times over in increased production and revenue.
There is overwhelming evidence that spending on public infrastructure has a positive impact on private sector growth. For example, in the United States, if the level of public infrastructure spending between 1950 and 1970 had been maintained for the next two decades, the average rate of private sector productivity growth would have been 2.1 per cent rather than the low figure of 1.4 per cent.
This has deprived the United States of associated income, employment and growth. Given the Howard government’s commitment to outdated, right-wing economic rationalism, Australia now runs the risk of underproviding in this important area. Unless the government recognises this, their rhetoric about economic growth and prosperity will remain hollow. Australia must have an interventionist economic policy that is targeted at the specific needs of different regions and communities. Some regional areas are experiencing negative growth as industries relocate or are supersed ed. Other urban areas are struggling to deal with the impact of population growth and unplanned urban development.
These unique problems cannot be solved with the blunt instruments of macro-economic policy. Governments need responsive planning that meets with the individual needs of regions and communities. This approach was pioneered by the Whitlam government through the Department of Urban and Regional Development. It was resumed by the Hawke government, again under my former employer Tom Uren. This work continued in the form of the Better Cities program under Brian Howe in the previous government.
Those on this side of the House do not support a stagnant public sector. I have always been a strong advocate for a pro-active, efficient and dynamic public sector. The ideologically driven view that the public sector is a huge monolith which exhausts economic and human resources must be challenged. A recent survey by the International Monetary Fund has shown that the Australian public sector, as a percentage of GDP, is the third smallest in the Western world after the United States and Japan. I would much prefer Australia’s current values as a society than to look to the US and Japan as role models.
I am therefore deeply concerned by the new government’s razor gang approach to the Commonwealth budget. The fudging of figures to distort budget forecasts is nothing more than an excuse to make savage cuts to pay for unfunded election promises and fulfil ideological obsessions. There is perverse irony in the Howard government’s plan to cut public services such as the Commonwealth Employment Service. If the government presses ahead with its ill-advised attempt to cut up to 20,000 public sector jobs, these are exactly the services that will be most in demand.
It appears that the new government is determined to reverse the trend established in the last term of the Keating government which saw the creation of over 700,000 new jobs and the target of five per cent unemployment by the year 2000 well on track. I might add that this employment growth was [start page 385] achieved whilst improving real wages, improving living standards and protecting those who need protection in our society.
There is another good reason for maintaining and increasing community services expenditure. The community services sector is very labour intensive. As well as providing vital services to those most in need, spending in this area has the highest employment multiplier effect of any sector. Social policy is another area that always bears the brunt of those obsessed with advocating smaller and smaller government. What they fail to recognise is that the legitimacy of market economies is only maintained by the provision of a substantial and comprehensive social security system. Rather than attacking social security recipients, I would like to see all of Australia’s wealthiest individuals and companies pay their fair share of taxation. I would also like to see companies in Australia pay a minimum tax rate rather than the current system which has been open to manipulation by some unscrupulous companies.
I believe one of the most outstanding reforms of the previous government was in the area of superannuation. I might add, however, that it would be a catastrophe if the successes of the Labor government’s super policy were used to undermine the age pension in the long run by a conservative government. We should never forget that there are many in society who, through circumstance, never secure long-term employment or advance beyond a very low wage. We must also remember that women’s wages are still not equal to those earned by men. Their lifetime participation in the work force remains irregular. As a result, their access to superannuation entitlements will be less at the end of their working life.
The enormous growth in superannuation funds under the Labor government provides a real opportunity for growth in productive investment. Currently, about six million working people in Australia own over $240 billion in superannuation assets. These assets are growing at an impressive rate. During the December quarter alone, superannuation assets rose by $8.7 billion. More than 93 per cent of full-time employees, 60 per cent of part-time and 59 per cent of casual employees are now covered by superannuation.
This is the first time in our history that working people have had ownership of such volumes of capital. It is our responsibility to ensure that they also have control of these assets. I am concerned that working people’s savings can too easily disappear in a maze of administration fees and irresponsible speculative investment. The stock market crash of October 1987 demonstrated the insecurity of the financial markets as a place to invest the savings of working people. We must ensure that these savings are used to contribute to the future long-term assets and infrastructure of the nation.
The Hilmer report had much to say about the public sector and competition. Whilst supporting a dynamic and accountable public sector, we must ensure that in genuflecting before the god of competition we consider the social and environmental impact of these changes. Econometric models fail to take into account real world economic factors and, most importantly, they often fail to take into account people. Unless people are put back into the equation, strict adherence to dry economic philosophies will have negative social and environmental consequences.
On 2 March, the electors of Grayndler voted to preserve the best of Labor’s agenda: Medicare, multiculturalism, support for the Mabo decision and the Native Title Act, the social wage, the sixfold increase in child-care places and the Working Nation programs.
Grayndler is very much a working class electorate. Alongside the more established families, the 1991 census showed that 46 per cent of the total population of Grayndler were born overseas. Many of these Australians have struggled against the odds both in their country of origin and on their arrival in Australia. They have raised families and made vital contributions to the wealth and cultural diversity of this nation. Their special needs should be met and their efforts acknowledged.
Multiculturalism provides Australia with a unique opportunity to be a microcosm of the world—to show that cultural diversity and respect can lead to a more peaceful, equitable and fulfilling life for all. Of course, the [start page 386] continuation of the process of reconciliation with indigenous Australians is a precondition for this vision. Defending and extending multiculturalism and reconciliation with indigenous Australians will be one of my primary concerns as a member of parliament.
In this context, I am deeply disturbed at the election of candidates espousing racist views. We must never take the gains we have made for granted. When those critics of Labor’s equity programs spoke about `all of us’, there was an implied imagery of a nation of Anglo-Celtic, middle-class nuclear families. The bigots who criticise programs aimed at the special needs of sections of our community ignore the fact that there is not equality of opportunity across class, gender, sexual preference and ethnicity.
Mr Deputy Speaker, during the 1980s a substantial redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich occurred throughout the Western world. Australia was not immune from this but its impact was minimised by Labor’s progressive social agenda. So I conclude by saying that my generation has Labor governments to thank for our relative prosperity.
I grew up in public housing in inner city Sydney, the son of a pensioner. I remember all too well how Liberal governments failed to keep pensions at pace with inflation. This stands in stark contrast with Labor’s record of increasing pensions to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. Indeed, my politics as a democratic socialist have been developed from my experience in life.
As the youngest Labor member of this House, I was particularly disappointed by the overall result on 2 March. (Extension of time granted) Labor’s exciting vision of a diverse and just Australian republic for the 21st century struck a chord with young people. However, it has to be acknowledged that Labor’s embrace of change sometimes was not accompanied by a recognition of the need to cushion people from its adverse side effects. I have no doubt that the electorate soon will become all too aware that the previous opposition was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I am therefore confident that the present Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, will lead Australia into the next century as the next Labor Prime Minister.
For myself, I will be satisfied if I can be remembered as someone who will stand up for the interests of my electorate, for working class people, for the labour movement, and for our progressive advancement as a nation into the next century. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.