Nov 8, 2019

Speech – Address to the National Press Club

ADDRESS TO THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB

CANBERRA
FRIDAY, 8 NOVEMBER 2019

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By now you will have seen Labor’s election review conducted by Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill.

Before its release I saw comment from people stating confidently that the review would evade the big issues and gloss over the real reasons why Labor lost.

Well, anyone who has had the chance to read the document would have to admit that it’s a thorough, honest, and for Labor people, sometimes uncomfortable read.

We didn’t create the review to tell us what we wanted to hear.

Unlike Cleo Magazine, there’s no sealed section. Unlike the Mueller report, it hasn’t been redacted. Unlike Angus Taylor’s alleged City of Sydney travel documents, it won’t be disowned. And unlike the Prime Minister’s guest list for the White House reception, you won’t need to put in an FoI request to see it.

I want to publicly thank Craig and Jay for telling it like it is. Our whole democracy, not just the Labor Party needs a dose of honest, plain speaking.

We know the outcome was not due to a lack of effort and I do want to pay tribute to the extraordinary commitment of Bill Shorten who worked so hard each and every day for six years to return Labor to government. Bill was determined to offer hope and genuine reform to benefit all those who depend upon a Labor Government. And in my friend Tanya Plibersek, he had a loyal and dedicated Deputy who campaigned tirelessly for the cause of Labor.

Our Parliamentary team and candidates were assisted by tens of thousands of rank and file members and volunteers and I thank them for their amazing efforts.

And the trade union movement campaigned strongly on wages, jobs and the growing inequality in our society.

I intend to comment on the review briefly today. I’m tempted to say ‘and only today’. But I think in some ways that would be wrong. The media will debate it and Party forums will discuss it and that is to be expected.

The ALP doesn’t belong just to our members; it belongs to our democracy.

And I want those who voted for us in May, and those who didn’t, to know that we are listening to them.

But I do intend to move on very quickly from debating the review.

From examining the recent past, to anticipating and creating a better future.

Part of that moving on is for those of us who were privileged to serve over the last two terms to accept collective responsibility for the disappointing outcome.

I know that Labor’s supporters are already keen for us to get started on developing a new platform. Hurry up, they’re saying.

But in this Melbourne Cup week I got some handy advice, “always have the race won, but never be in a hurry to win it”. Does anyone here remember which horse led past the finishing post on the first lap on Tuesday?

I should perhaps be frustrated at some of the criticism we’ve copped for not finalising our platform for the 2022 election in the first few months of this term. But in a strange way, I’m not. It actually gives me hope.

You see, I love the passion and belief that lies behind it.

I got that passion and belief myself at school at St Mary’s Cathedral, and particularly from my single mum, Maryanne who raised me in the Council house she herself was born in. Mum had a tough life but never wavered in her support for the Catholic church, the cause of Labor, and love for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. My passion and belief gives me energy.

The True Believers are angry and hurt at Labor’s loss – and so am I.

They’re itching to win next time around – and so am I.

They’re ambitious to change the world – and so am I.

Although in truth life would be easier if they gave us just a little bit of time to do it.

You know, they’re a passionate bunch. I sometimes think that if they’d been there to see Jesus rise on the third day, some of Labor’s supporters would have said: “Well, what took you so long?”

As someone born Labor, I understand the disappointment and frustration with the unexpected result. But one of the lessons is that elections are actually won on election day, not one month or even six months before.

And certainly not two years before.

The review has many technical elements about polling and campaigning that I will leave to the pundits and campaign professionals to talk about. The Australian people aren’t interested in the minutae. Indeed, they want us to talk less about insider stuff and more about our positive vision for the country.

They also want less conflict.

I said in my first statement as Labor Leader that people had conflict fatigue. I’m going to fight hard to hold this Government to account – each and every day. It’s what an opposition leader must do. But I want to do something more. I want to offer the Australian people something better. And to do that, I want our party to change.

So let’s cut to the chase.

The message to us is that too many people were confused or even frightened by our policies or didn’t trust us to implement them. We failed to present a clear and concise narrative which explained an optimistic sense of what our country could become.

I am going to change that.

I am going to change the culture of our party and ensure we are worthy of the people’s respect and trust.

I am going to give Labor a new policy direction that will create an optimistic future for our people.

One with aspiration at its heart. Not just for individuals, but for families, for communities and for our nation.

And by doing that Labor will be in the strongest position to win the next election.

Let me start with the restoration of respect and trust. Without them we can’t achieve anything and won’t deserve to.

Any honest assessment of our organisation will admit that in some places our moral image is poor. It breaks my heart to admit that, but it’s true. I want that to change.

I’m old fashioned in my loyalty to the Labor cause. I believe Labor is a movement with the capacity for greatness. During our long history, it’s been populated by heroes. I’ve had no greater hero than Tom Uren –– my mentor and the father figure I never got to grow up with.

Tom fought hard against the Japanese in Timor, was taken prisoner, was incarcerated in Changi and worked on the Thai-Burma railway where he watched his friends die of beatings, disease and malnutrition. Despite himself being sick, he often received severe beatings for standing up for the weaker men. Think of the courage that took!

Then near the end of the war, he was sent to Japan as a slave labourer, where he witnessed the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. Despite all his sufferings at the hands of the Japanese military and all the hunger he endured, which reduced him to skin and bones, when he was given the only Red Cross food parcel he ever received, he shared it with the malnourished Japanese men who worked alongside him.

That’s greatness.

It’s no wonder that public figures back then enjoyed a level of respect seldom enjoyed today.

In recent times, the behaviour of some individuals, including the senior officials of branches and affiliated organisations has been completely beyond the pale. It has left many party members, me included, feeling embarrassed. It must change and it will.

Tom Uren taught me to fight –– through actions, not just words.

And that fight to repair Labor’s moral fabric is already underway.

John Setka has been removed from the Party, at my insistence. His opinions and his behaviour will not be tolerated in the modern ALP. I don’t want his image to represent me or our party.

And Michael Lavarch’s review of the structures and processes of the New South Wales Party Office will report soon with recommendations to clean up Sussex Street once and for all. The bad culture of the New South Wales branch office has been allowed to continue for too long. I’m calling time on it.

The moral shadows cast over the Labor Party by the Setkas and some in the NSW Party Office are being removed by a strong and self-administered dose of sunlight.

We need to win back the Australian peoples’ trust and respect because we want them to embrace the positive plans we will lay out for the future of our country.

Due to the lack of a coherent narrative, the confusion caused by too many policies, the raising of fear campaigns – some based on outright lies – the Australian people didn’t have the confidence to elect Labor. It’s all outlined in the review document.

I’m not interested in excuses. We got it wrong. Not everything was wrong of course, but enough was. We lost an election, which given the chaos on the other side, we should have won.

So our agenda must change. If you do the same thing, you should expect the same result.

I am going create a new policy agenda to modernise our country for the benefit of all its people.

History shows that Labor only wins from opposition when our vision is positive, aspirational and modernising.

Labor only wins when we spell out how we can all work together to make our country a wealthier and better place.

Labor only wins when our agenda embodies the future.

It’s a big job, and I’m going to spell out a timetable for achieving it today. A timetable that is strategic and ensures proper input into orderly and detailed policy development.

It’s obvious that there was resentment towards some of our 2019 election policies including franking credits. Whilst the call on the Budget of franking credit arrangements is large, many small investors felt blindsided and it opened up a scare campaign.

Having said this, for Labor a progressive tax system is the foundation stone for building aspiration and upward mobility, as well as looking after those who need assistance.

To me it’s one of the great ironies of our times that Labor has been labelled anti-aspirational.

Our movement was founded at a time when your destiny was anchored to your class. The Labor Party’s historic mission has been to sever that anchor chain.

No one held back and no one left behind.

I stand before you as an embodiment of Labor’s belief in aspiration – the son of a single mum who wanted more for the son she raised in public housing.

I judge people by their character, not their background. That’s why I have so many friends from all walks of life.

Our objective should be to promote unity, but we have a Prime Minister who is moving closer to the divisive politics we see in the United States and the United Kingdom.

There’s something increasingly transparent about his behaviour and his political trajectory.

His attacks on the right to protest, his denunciations of business people who dare to have a social conscience, and his Lowy Institute speech parroting dangerous foreign ideas – “negative globalism” – are all characteristic of a reactionary, not a conservative, let alone a liberal.

Frankly, some of it is a bit weird. Maybe even a bit sinister.

In its place I want a modernising, aspirational, optimistic approach to Australian politics that everyone can get behind.

I therefore intend to engage with those who have kept the Labor faith, but also reach out to the people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for us last time.

I understand why many of them were reluctant to support us. When you have to work hard for every inch of advancement in life, success can seem fragile, and it’s easy to see why some are nervous about the results of their hard work potentially being threatened.

And it’s only natural in such circumstances to feel nervous about policy change, especially when the sheer number of proposed changes makes misrepresentation by our opponents too easy.

On the campaign trail and since I heard people saying how much they resented being called “the top end of town” when they came from backgrounds much like my own. I heard them say that Labor needed to be more in touch with the realities of the modern economy and the difficulties of running a small business.

I say to those people, I hear you. We hear you.

They’re the sort of criticisms you can easily dismiss in the heat of an election campaign, particularly when every poll puts you ahead, but upon reflection, it’s obvious those people had a point.

The economy has changed, maybe even more than we think.

People who years ago stood out in the workplace because they had the organising ability to become shop stewards, are now organising their own businesses.

As the economy and society changes, so too must Labor.

As we approach the third decade of the 21st Century our Labor agenda must differ from the days when only a handful of people were university educated and over half the workforce were members of unions.

And that Labor agenda has been changed by 28 years of uninterrupted economic growth.

Uninterrupted because Labor’s economic leadership kept us out of recession during the catastrophe of the Global Financial Crisis.

After those 28 years we’re far wealthier than ever, though in many ways less equal than ever and some groups of people, like our farmers right now, are facing particularly hard times.

We have to respond to these changes, update our approach and ensure Labor is seen as the Party of the future, not a Party of grievances.

The Australian people are looking to Labor to chart a new course toward a stronger nation and a better quality of life.

We took a lot of policy to the last election. But not enough of a story.

The review has found that people were less sure about our narrative, or big picture.

How it all fits together.

If people feel unsure they’re more likely to side with the status quo.

We need to emphasise that Labor seeks government to increase the economic security of the vast majority. Our opponents think government should get out of the way and let the market rip and somehow wealth will trickle down.

We know that an adherence to trickle down economics means it rains misery on working people.

Our opponents pretend that change can be stopped. Labor wants to shape change in people’s interests.

Our policies will be built around five themes which we have already started to roll out through our Vision Statements. They are:

  1. Jobs and a strong economy that works for people, not the other way around.
  2. A fair Australia where no one is left behind – where education drives opportunity, health care is delivered through your Medicare card, work security and conditions are improved and older Australians are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
  3. Infrastructure that boosts productivity and is capable of transforming our economy, such as High Speed Rail to tackle urban congestion, promote decentralisation and build stronger regions.
  4. Climate change action that recognises that this is an opportunity as well as a threat.
  5. Providing national security through foreign policy that stands up for our national interests in the globalised world, while recognising our three policy pillars of support for multilateralism, regional engagement as well as the US Alliance.

The review released yesterday was the first of four stages of our big Labor Renewal Project.

This first stage –– Review –– rules a line under the period of trying to understand and come to terms with the devastating loss we suffered in May.

The second stage –– Vision –– will see the release of a series of Vision Statements that will map out the new directions our policies will be heading in. They began last week and will continue up to the May Budget.

The third stage –– Platform –– will rewrite and consolidate the Labor Platform, which has been described as possibly the longest of any comparable centre-left party in the world. I want it to tell a positive and compelling story about the future of our country and how it can be renewed to the benefit of all our people. This stage will culminate in the Labor National Conference held here in Canberra in December 2020.

And the fourth and final stage –– Policy –– will see the release of Labor policy over the course of the term, but particularly closer to the election.

We’re going to be focused very firmly on the future.

But at every step we will be also holding the Government to account as we have been this week on the aged care debacle this Government has presided over.

We’re not going to make the mistake of rushing it and putting out all our policies before we know the economic and political context of the next election.

But let me assure you of this. The Labor Party is going to advance a progressive and practical agenda consistent with our values. Our policy agenda will be bold and clear. And by the time the next election comes about, Labor is going to be back as the party of growth, the party of aspiration, the party of social justice, the party of nation building, the party of our natural environment, the party of science and the party of the future.

I’m not interested in just changing the appearance of the party and its policies. I’m going to change their substance.

Labor’s been a wonderfully unified organisation for the past six years. This big Labor Renewal Project will engage all our members, affiliates and supporters in a bid to confound the trend away from centre-left parties across the world. It will bring us even closer together.

By allaying unnecessary fears.

By helping everyone aspire to something better for themselves, their families and their communities.

And by exciting people about the possibilities of a more prosperous and better future for our country.

We can start a movement for change and reform that will return Labor as the party of aspiration, the party of the mainstream and the party of government.

ENDS