Nov 16, 2018

Speech – John Button Lecture – Thursday, 15 November 2018

I am honoured to have been asked to deliver the John Button Lecture for 2018.

Tonight I want to discuss progressive political change and offer some views about how it is achieved.

Secondly, I want to address the changes in technology and political discourse that have transformed the nature of political engagement over recent decades since John Button’s period as Minister, to what some have called the “age of disruption”.

If ever there was anyone who understood the power of policy to change lives, it was John Button – Australia’s greatest Industry Minister.

John’s ambitious industry policy program across a range of sectors during the period of the Hawke Government helped to set up Australia to succeed in the global economy of the 21st century.

We in Labor are justly proud of the economic achievements of the Hawke-Keating era. They set the scene for 27 years of continuous economic growth.

John Button manned the engine room of that reform process.

With Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and the rest of that formidable team, John created opportunities for literally millions of Australians.

It was not easy.

His victories sometimes came in the face of opposition from business, the bureaucracy, and some in the labour movement concerned about the impact of change.

He had to work doubly hard to ensure his reforms were gradual and included measures to minimise job losses and offer retraining opportunities and adjustment packages.

He understood that change was constant and inevitable, but its consequences were not. The Labor Government worked with unions and many in civil society through the Accord process to manage change in the interests of working people.

John Button, working off Bob Hawke’s model of consensus-building, revolutionised a range of Australian industries, starting with steel.

Then came automobiles, pharmaceuticals and textiles, clothing and footwear.

The objective was an interventionist industry policy that would allow these sectors to compete in a global economy.

At the same time Labor was increasing the social wage, introducing Medicare, compulsory superannuation and enhancing the urban and natural environment.

It was addressing entrenched disadvantage by increasing Year 12 completions from 3 to 8 out of every 10 students and opening up access to university.

It was supporting women’s campaigns for gender equality and promoting respect for multiculturalism and opportunity for the First Australians.

This record stands in stark contrast to the rabble that is the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government which seems bereft of an agenda besides entrenching privilege and occupying the Ministerial Wing.

Five years without troubling the scorer, except perhaps for throwing in the towel on the car industry that John Button did so much to reform.

Australia does have marriage equality.

But Malcolm Turnbull had so little authority in his own party room that he had to outsource that decision to the Australian people by holding an unnecessary voluntary postal survey.

The lesson here for contemporary Labor is simple.

The path to achievement in Government is policy development that both addresses the urgent necessities of immediate challenges, but does so in a manner that both anticipates and creates the future.

At our best, Labor does not just seek to win power. We wield the power of the state in ways that change our nation for the better.


By contrast, our opponents fear change.

Their whole ideology is based on maintaining the status quo.

The most extreme among them, like Tony Abbott, are not even conservatives, but reactionaries bent on destroying the hard-won gains of the past.

That’s why, for example, Mr Abbott, the most divisive political figure of his generation, held a Royal Commission into trade unions.

He’s offended by collectivism. He feels threatened by it.

For him, everything is about reconstructing an imagined past – a place of knighthoods and the preservation of privilege.

The problem isn’t so much that Tony Abbott wants to live in the 1950’s; it’s that he wants the rest of Australia to go back there and keep him company.

But with all that looking backwards, neither Mr Abbott – nor his successors Mr Turnbull and Mr Morrison – left themselves any time to confront the issues of the present, let alone the challenges of the future.

Take climate change.

It’s real. We must reduce carbon emissions.

But as of today, the Government of Australia has no policy on climate change.

They used to have proposals for emissions trading, then an Emissions Intensity Scheme, followed by a Clean Energy Target and then numerous versions of the National Energy Guarantee. And Labor was ready to work with them in the national interest.

But since the last spin of the revolving door outside the Prime Minister’s office, they have just given up.

Australians want a Government equipped to deal with the challenges of today and to build a better tomorrow.

Instead, they are led by a Government with no ideas.

A Government that is frightened of the present, but terrified of the future.

The problem is a reactionary ideology, coupled with a lack of preparedness for Government.

When Mr Abbott took office in 2013, he had plan to get rid of Labor, but no plan to govern.

Likewise, Malcolm Turnbull had a plan to get rid of Tony Abbott, but also had no plan to govern.

There was a time when Mr Turnbull had policies. He used to be in favour of an Australian republic and genuine action on climate change.

But he was so possessed by his sense of destiny that he would be prime minister, that he was prepared to trade in all of his principles in return for the keys to the Lodge.

And we all know how that ended up.

As for Scott Morrison, it remains a mystery why he is Prime Minister, much less what he stands for.

In the weeks since the Morrison Coup he has shrunk in the job and increasingly looks like the product of marketing, rather than conviction.


This brings us to the current election here in Victoria.

An election with much at stake.

Where the hard right wing elements of the modern Liberal Party are on the march, recruiting thousands of new members modelled on Donald Trump’s usurping of mainstream views on the conservative side of politics.

The Branch that produced Ian MacPhie and Petro Georgiou, now produces James Paterson, Michael Sukkar and Sophie Mirabella.

And we have the extraordinary circumstance of the Liberal Party not nominating a candidate in the Electorate of Richmond, abandoning their supporters in a strategic act of contempt.

This has exposed the informal alliance of the Liberals with the Greens political party that we saw demonstrated when after the 2014 election they combined to elect a Liberal to preside over the Legislative Council.

It also represents an acknowledgment by the Liberal opponents of progressive reform that it is Labor that is the vehicle for that change.

Whereas the Liberals seek to use government to promote a reactionary agenda, the Greens Party seek to wait for whoever is in Government to make decisions and then determine whether to support or oppose them.

They are the observers and would-be judges of Australian politics, rather than the participants.

My friend Richard Wynne is a participant in the tradition of John Button, Brian Howe, my mentor Tom Uren and many others in the progressive Labor tradition in a Government led by Daniel Andrews, who is leading the nation with his progressive economic, social and environmental agenda.

Richard is making a real difference, with real policies, improving the lives of real people in the Richmond community and beyond.

The new high school on the gasworks site in Fitzroy, Collingwood Arts Precinct, upgrading Victoria Park, better bike paths, enhancing the Yarra River with trees on its banks, not high rise development, are all real measures that make a difference.

As will the massive expansion of rooftop solar, as well as the Royal Commission into Mental Health, the expansion of social housing and the massive investment in public transport through the Metro and other game changing initiatives.

All of it being made possible by having the fastest economic growth of any State as well as the highest jobs growth.

Only Labor in Government can deliver on these reforms and the Andrews Government needs Richard Wynne around the cabinet table arguing for a future progressive agenda.


This brings me to the new politics in context. By that I mean not just in Victoria, or even Australia, but the phenomenon we have seen globally in western democracies.

The polarisation in global politics has seen the demise of many of the historically successful progressive political parties such as France’s Socialist Party, Pasok in Greece, the Partito Democratico in Italy, the Social Democrats in Germany and many other affiliates of the Socialist International.

In many countries parties of the radical right have emerged with disillusioned working class people as their social base. The disruption of economic change in these economies has incubated a group of people who are angry that change has not benefited them.

Opportunist politicians such as Donald Trump have found an audience from those looking for answers as to why their expectations of quality of life have not been met.

On the progressive side of politics, some have retreated into the comfort zone.

Social media has aided this process.

It is easy to forget that at the time John Button was advancing his agenda, emails, the Internet, Twitter and Facebook did not exist.

Social media means that every consumer can also be a news producer. Algorithms are designed to encourage people to engage with the content of people who share their world view.

The term, “everyone thinks” is more and more common, as genuine political discourse and problem solving is discouraged.

Alternative views are not just dismissed, they are not even considered.

This creates a shock when the outcomes of elections are not what was anticipated, the most notable of which is the election of Donald Trump as US President.

To a lesser extent the fact that many Labor electorates in suburban areas returned solid votes against marriage equality surprised many activists.

I argue we need to talk with people who disagree with us. Engage. Debate. Advance.

To put it simply, we need to argue our case – every forum, every opportunity.

Conducting politics in an echo chamber does nothing to advance a progressive agenda.

If you have faith in your ideals and policies, there is nothing to fear from debating them.

What’s more if one of the distinguishing characteristics of being on the left of the political spectrum is a faith in humanity, there is an obligation to engage as broadly as possible.

Too often progressives have romanticised the past, while dismissing the recent gains that are made.

Marriage equality, the rights of First Nations and representation of women in Parliament have seen significant reform in recent years.

The gains of the Andrews Labor Government have been dismissed by the Greens Party as inconsequential.

As we have seen on issues like Climate Change, gains can be reversed if you don’t have long term Government.

And one of the consequences of the increased polarisation of politics is that compromise and searching for outcomes are seen as weakness.

Australian politics and climate policy would be very different today if the Greens Party Senators had voted for a price on carbon in 2009.

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was economy wide and had fewer concessions that the Emissions Trading Scheme that was eventually adopted. It also had a more ambitious emissions reduction target.

Penny Wong led an extensive consultation process with industry, unions, the environmental movement and the broader community to produce a comprehensive plan.

On the crucial votes all that was required was for the five Greens Party Senators to vote with Labor and the two Liberals who crossed the Senate floor and the system would have not only been adopted, it would still be reducing emissions today.

Instead opportunism and transactional politics took priority over long term reform.

A major lesson of the Hawke and Keating legacies, is that long term Government entrenched Medicare as the cornerstone of health policy and compulsory superannuation as a key element of economic policy.


As the moderates in the Liberal Party concede ideological ground to the reactionaries, there is an opportunity for Labor to gain hegemony as the future Party.

The Greens have a common characteristic of defining themselves by what they are against.

It’s not enough to say what you want someone else to stop.

You have to be able to say what you are going to advance.

And Labor is leading the policy debates about the future whether in Government under Daniel Andrews here in Victoria, or from Opposition under Bill Shorten in Canberra.

Chris Bowen’s great policy work in areas including negative gearing, tax avoidance and family trusts have shown Labor is prepared to be bold in advancing a progressive economic agenda.

In health, education and across the board, Labor has done what Mr Abbott failed to do – we have used our time in Opposition to create a program for a better Australia.

In infrastructure we have plans for public transport including the Suburban Rail Loop, including the Airport Rail Link, and building on the Melbourne Metro.

We will once again lead on urban policy through City Partnerships focussing on productivity, sustainability and liveability. We will improve the quality of our urban waterways and promote green space.

We recognise the diversity of our community is a strength to be cherished, not an opportunity to promote division.

And we will through our actions promote discussion of further ideas, rather than yelling.


Should we be privileged to return to Government, our immediate challenge will be transit swiftly away from being in Opposition.

When you are in Government, you actually have power to do things; to make a real difference.

So you need to make an intellectual and tactical transition of the kind the current Government has failed to do.

Next time you turn on Question Time watch and see how minister after minister in the current government, when asked to respond to a reasonable question, will blame the former Labor Government.

This after five years in office.

It’s a pattern reflected in their media messaging, where their focus is about trashing our achievements rather than writing their own story of positive reform.

This Coalition has never looked like a Government.

It has operated as an Opposition in exile.

The current Government has made the mistake of believing Australians are as interested as they are in the preoccupations of the Menzies Institute, the Institute of Public Affairs or the hard right echo cave that is Sky News After Dark.

It is indeed a mistake for anyone in public life to think their Twitter feed is representative of broad public opinion.

Complex issues cannot always be reduced to 280 characters.

What characterises the most valued reforms is the consideration of detail, and successfully arguing the case.

Maintaining a serious and reformist Labor Government across many electoral terms requires a vision and clear objectives, but it also requires outcomes.

My view of what Australians want is pretty simple.

We want fulfilling lives in which we can find work and the means to live and raise our families.

Labor’s direct and enduring connection to the trade union movement means we can never forget people want to be respected at work and have pay and conditions that show they are valued.

Australians want to create a world in which our children have more opportunities than we enjoyed.

In practical terms, that means government should focus on basic services like health, education, workplace training and housing affordability.

They also want future generations to inherit a natural and urban environment that is in better than they enjoyed.


There are many lessons to take from John Button’s political activism.

The first is that we must mobilise support for reform.

Engage with working people to ensure change benefits them as change occurs.

Engage with business to promote employment and fairness.

A big lesson of the Hawke era is the value of consensus building.

Through the Accord, Bob Hawke got business and trade union leaders to sit at the same table and recognise their shared interests.

Compare that mature and constructive approach to the division promoted by the current Government.

It attacks unions, rather than engaging with them.

It cuts services relied upon by Australians, particularly disadvantaged Australians, while arguing for tax breaks for the rich.

And when the First Australians offered to collaborate on reconciliation via the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Malcolm Turnbull falsely claimed they were asking for a third chamber of Parliament, which was never the proposal.

Governments should promote consensus and seek to create prosperity that can be shared among the many, not monopolised by the few.

But the Coalition’s business model has been division.

Instead of working with institutions, they want to tear them down.

Ruthless partisanship is a failed model of Government.

It produces plenty of heat. But no light.

It saps your energy, but gets you nowhere.

Part of their problem is a slavish devotion to the fantasy that the free market holds the solution to everything and that everything will work out perfectly if only governments would get out of the way.

But the market has no conscience.

There is a role for government intervention in circumstances where market failure is working against the public interest.

That is why Labor seeks government – as participants, rather than observers.

Not as an end in itself but to improve the lives of the many, rather than the few.