Nov 27, 2019

Speech – ACOSS Conference – Canberra – Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Advance Australia Fair



Thank you for your invitation to speak today.

I begin by acknowledging we meet on the lands of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

As many of you know, I grew up the son of a single mother in a council house in the industrial heart of Sydney.

We were short on money, but in the strip of brick houses where I lived we were big on community.

It wasn’t uncommon that if someone couldn’t pay their electricity bill, the neighbours would chip in.

We looked out for each other.

And when Sydney City Council decided to sell off the council housing, where I was born, where my mother was born and where her parents had lived, we came together as a community to fight the privatisation of our homes.

We eventually won but this victory followed a year of uncertainty and it felt like we weren’t treated with respect.

That because we didn’t have much, we didn’t matter as much.

I learned a lot from this experience.

About treating people with respect – no matter their background.

About the power of community and working together – that when you harness this you achieve more than if you go it alone.

If you’d told me then that I would become Deputy Prime Minister or Leader of the Labor Party, I would have said you were dreaming.

And while my story is not every person’s story, it does say something about Australia.

We are a great nation.

A land of opportunity.

But we can’t say it’s perfect when more than one in eight adults and one in six children live in poverty.

Social mobility is getting harder.

We know that entrenched inter-generational poverty, in particular, remains a challenge.

There are 320,000 households with dependent children aged under 15.

And the average gap in life expectancy between the bottom 20 per cent of the population and top 20 per cent is six years.

That’s why your conference theme about harnessing community for effective action is so important.

Because there’s immense power in bringing people along with you.

But equally, it’s important to recognise the strength of community itself.

And ACOSS does this well, advocating for action by working with communities, producing reports such as Poverty in Australia, which explain the challenges facing millions of Australians, all while working with governments to achieve meaningful change.

You are at the front line.

Each day you see that for many Australians poverty is real, a hard and unforgiving fact of life.

Inescapably embedded in the decisions people have no option but to make.

Skipping meals or even the doctor, avoiding heating and cooling in sweltering summers and cold winters, and having to choose between bills – all of which need to be paid.

Then there are also the opportunities that can’t be taken.

School excursions and Saturday sport for the kids, holidays anywhere other than home and study or training.

Poverty holds people back.

You can’t reach your full potential if you’re not making rent and worried about whether you’ll keep a roof over your head.

Poverty holds our nation back.

It creates stress, anxiety and hopelessness.

We are all diminished when kids in Australia are turning up at school hungry, or not turning up at all because they hate feeling like they’re different.

It’s untapped potential.

As Gough Whitlam once said, ‘poverty is a national waste as well as an individual waste.’

In recent times poverty has risen to prominence in several countries.

New Zealand has passed its Child Poverty Reduction Act, which aims to halve child poverty in ten years.

Canada has also set targets of a 20 per cent reduction in poverty by 2020 and a 50 per cent drop by 2030, relative to 2015 levels.

But Australia lacks such a plan.

That’s just one part of the challenge.

The other is raising public awareness so that we have the support we need when we put forward policy solutions.

According to the latest Ipsos Issues Monitor, Australians rate healthcare, the economy and cost of living as their top three issues.

Poverty sits much lower down, but concern over it has increased in the past decade, which I’m sure is, in part, a reflection of your advocacy and hard work.

I’m bolstered by this fact.

Australians do care about the fate of their neighbours, their friends and family.

Indeed, even strangers.

The other day I read about how members of Australia’s Muslim community organised for 20 semitrailers worth of hay and water to be driven into drought-affected Stanthorpe, in Queensland.

Of course it’s just one example of many when it comes to community action.

But to achieve policy outcomes that make Australia a more equal place we need to work together across government and across the various sectors.

Only a holistic approach can properly address poverty and inequality in Australia.

And, as you rightly point out, we need to work with communities.

To inspire action we need to make it relatable and achievable rather than some nebulous or insurmountable task.

And we need to show how much the nation can gain – economically, socially and culturally – from lifting people out of poverty.

Labor, as a party of progress, has always sought to make a positive difference to the lives of all Australians because we understand precisely this.

Our proud legacy is reflected in the existence of today’s social safety net.

As I said in my first Vision Speech last month – supporting protections is not the same as supporting protectionism.

Protections are the insurance we take on to reduce uncertainty, strengthen confidence, manage risk and support enterprise.

This includes the age pension introduced by Andrew Fisher.

The national unemployment benefits scheme introduced by Curtin and Chifley.

Universal superannuation and Medicare introduced by Hawke and Keating.

The NDIS and paid parental leave introduced by Rudd and Gillard.

There is a common theme here: all of these reforms help protect Australians against uncertainty and the risk of loss.

And Labor will always seek to do this.

Others in the Parliament, though, don’t share our values.

The Social Services Minister has described the pension as “generous’ and said that “giving (people) more money would do absolutely nothing … probably all it would do is give drug dealers more money and give pubs more money.”

The Coalition talking points say, “the best form of welfare is a job”.

In some areas of Australia, like Queensland’s outback, unemployment sits at 12 per cent.

Many Australians try their hardest to get a job, but can’t because they’re perceived as too old…

Or they’ve taken a break from working to care for family and then don’t have the right experience…

Or there just aren’t any opportunities where they live.

Indeed, Anglicare’s most recent Annual Jobs Availability Snapshot found that there were at least five people competing for each entry-level job.

And the truth is that some Australians, for whatever reason, can’t work at all.

It’s not that they aren’t having a go – it’s more that the odds are stacked against them.

But the Coalition doesn’t even have a plan.

Instead we’ve seen them inflict stress on more than 230,000 vulnerable individuals and families, pursuing them for debts that are incorrect or not owed.

Thank goodness they’ve had the common sense to no longer raise a debt where the only information is the averaging of ATO income data.

There’s a long road between now and the next election.

I would be lying if I said it will be easy.

What I can tell you though is that Labor is looking forward.

We want to work with you, NGOs, business, unions and communities from across the nation so that we can put forward an alternative vision premised on a fair go for all.

That allows Australians to build upon their dreams and gives people the opportunities they need to be the best they can be.

Just over a month ago I spoke in Perth on jobs and the future of work.

We know that the unprecedented pace of change and spread of new technologies are leaving many workers unsettled, and others left out of the labour market altogether.

And while government cannot stop change, it can certainly shape change.

Labor’s priority has always been, and always will be, to shape change in the interests of people.

That’s why I announced that Labor in Government will establish a new national partnership to drive improved outcomes in the vocational education and training sector and to strengthen workforce planning, particularly in the growing sectors of our economy.

Jobs and Skills Australia will be a genuine partnership across all sectors – business leaders, both large and small; State and Territory governments, unions, education providers and those who understand particular regions.

And for the first time, I want this to be a data-driven exercise, working in real time with labour markets technology – such as Seek and Linked In – to drive real outcomes.

Some of its functions will include undertaking specific plans for targeted groups such as the regions, over-55 workers and youth.

Because we understand higher productivity and greater economic growth will only be sustainable when everyone can access the job opportunities and the resulting prosperity.

A strong economy and an inclusive society go hand in hand.

Of course we also need to ensure our social security evolves to meet the needs of Australians in today’s world.

The Senate Committee Inquiry into Newstart has heard some heartbreaking stories.

People unable to afford the basics and essentials.

Who are looking for work but keep getting turned away.

And simply aren’t treated with respect.

The truth is that one in five Newstart recipients have a job, but don’t receive enough hours or income to get them off the payment.

And we also know that almost half of those on Newstart are over the age of 45.

Labor has called on the Government to increase Newstart and we will continue to do so.

An increase would be good for those on Newstart and it’s good for our economy.

We also need to make sure we’re putting in place measures that aim to overcome disadvantage in our regions.

While regional cities are rapidly developing as economic and service hubs, like the major capitals they are facing the need for supporting investment in enabling infrastructure.

We need to consider diversity in the jobs market to retain and attract workers, access to aviation to connect with capital cities and sufficient high quality infrastructure to support the population.

This includes well-resourced hospitals, universities, schools and TAFEs and a properly implemented National Broadband Network built on more 21st century fibre.

Yet we know that schools in regional and rural Australia often struggle to attract teachers, particularly across STEM and specialist areas such as special education and languages.

Our teachers work incredibly hard to educate and support our kids.

But in regional areas the adversity faced by many children and teenagers can be particularly complex, particularly with fewer support services.

Deep poverty.

Poor mental health and higher suicide rates.

Family violence.

This especially impacts First Nations children.

And while these challenges often manifest in the schoolyard, teachers cannot be expected to resolve them alone.

Compared to 80 per cent of students in metropolitan areas, only 64 per cent in inner regional and 40 per cent in very remote regions complete Year 12 or equivalent.

Even when kids move away from home we need to recognise the job is not done.

Individuals from regional and remote Australia are 40 per cent less likely to gain a bachelor and above qualification by the time they are 35 years old compared to individuals from metropolitan areas.

But of course from regional Australia we also see many stories of strength, resilience and success.

We talk a lot about what mateship means.

I often think nowhere embodies this more than our regional towns.

Where even in times of extreme drought and horrendous bushfire people look out for each other.

Regional Australia forms the backbone of our nation and we need to make sure that people living there are supported and get their share of opportunities.

This includes for our First Nations people.

It is a travesty that of the seven Closing the Gap targets only two are on track to be met – early childhood education and Year 12 attainment.

Others including child mortality rates, school attendance, life expectancy and employment are not where they should be.

To improve social justice outcomes for First Nations people our approach needs to change.

We have a real opportunity to do this through the COAG Peaks process and we want this to be a bipartisan process that will be enduring.

But it’s got to be matched by investment and self-determination.

We need to listen to the community about how to best work with them, not impose on the community.

This includes understanding the challenges people face in remote Australia – as well as the importance of connection to country, connection to culture, and connection to language.

At Garma this year I spoke about the Community Development Program, which I know has been punitive and unfair and caused much hurt in communities.

That is why Labor promised before the recent election to abolish the CDP and establish a new program to be developed with First Nations people, which we thought could have some of the same features as the old CDEP.

We remain committed to our proposal.

Of course our approach should also be complemented by constitutional change.

Labor supports the Uluru Statement in its entirety.

We will engage with this process collaboratively, but bipartisanship or agreement across the Parliament cannot become a race to the bottom.

And we must ensure that First Nations people, views and wishes, are properly and comprehensively understood by this process.

As we work towards the next election, part of Labor’s task will be reminding Australians that not only are we the best managers of the economy, but we are also the fairest.

Labor put in place the reforms that set Australia up for 28 years of consecutive economic growth.

Labor, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan, saw the country through the Global Financial Crisis.

Labor understands that trickle-down economics only succeeds in raining misery on working people and people on social security.

Aspiration is at the heart of Labor’s mission.

People aspire for better things not just for themselves, but also for their family, for their neighbours, for their community and for their nation.

And while you won’t see all of the detail of every one of our policies next week, or next month, you can count on us to take to the election a vision that’s true to Labor values.

And we will work with you to make the issue of what’s fair a national discussion, providing leadership and vision.

A vision that’s premised on the fair go.

A vision that drives growth, while ensuring that all Australians get theirs.