Speech to the Sydney Institute – Governing for the long term national interest
The Hon Anthony Albanese MP
Minister for Infrastructure & Transport
Leader of the House
Member for Grayndler
28 June 2011
One of my favourite movies is Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
My favourite sketch in that movie is “what have the Romans ever done for us?”
I am sure that many of you here tonight are familiar with it.
Reg, who heads the People’s Front of Judea – as opposed to its splinter group the Judean People’s Front – launches into a polemic about the atrocities of the Roman occupation.
Reg asks rhetorically “What have the Romans ever given us in return?”
A member cautiously pipes up with “the aqueduct?”
“And sanitation” adds another.
This process continues until finally, Reg despairingly asks: “All right, but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water systems and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
The story of Labor’s current challenge can sometimes feel a bit like this.
Certainly it does when discussing the Australian political landscape with international observers.
They talk of the remarkable Australian economic performance under Labor and are surprised that this has not translated into increased political support.
Comments abound, such as that from American Joseph Stiglitz, who said last year about our economic management of the global downturn:
“It was, I think, probably the best-designed stimulus program in the world and you should be happy that in fact it worked in exactly the way it was designed to work.
“Not only was it the right amount, it was extraordinarily well structured, with careful attention to what would stimulate the economy in the shorter run, the medium term and the long run.”
A big tick there from someone who is a Nobel laureate for his work in economics.
The fact is while the advanced world shed 30 million jobs, there are now 740,000 more Australians in work than before the GFC began.
We expect to create another 500,000 jobs in the next two years.
The IMF recently highlighted our strong fiscal position saying: “In Australia, gross and net debt are among the lowest in the advanced countries.”
And it went on to identify Australia and South Korea, as the only advanced countries in the G20 coming into surplus by 2013.
This surplus deadline is three years ahead of the target set by the G20.
Our fiscal turnaround is the fastest in 40 years.
It is worthwhile pausing a moment to remind you what the Opposition said of the stimulus package and the prospects for the Australian economy.
In early 2008, the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey told the ABC: “I firmly believe we are heading into recession.”
In February 2009, Tony Abbott said: “I think what we’re going to get is massive debt and deep recession.”
Later in 2009, the Shadow Finance Spokesman, Andrew Robb said: “The recession will be deeper and longer because of the Government’s misguided spending…”
So what we faced during that difficult time from the economic leadership of the Opposition was pretty much what we’re still getting today – relentless negativity and a focus on short term politics.
Today I want to put the case that this is symptomatic of the great divide in Australian politics.
A divide where Labor is committed to tackling long term challenges, not just for the economy, but for climate change and social policy.
It is one where our opponent’s horizon is usually restricted to the needs of the electoral cycle.
Labor believes in a strong and prosperous economy – not as an end in itself.
We see this as a precondition of creating opportunity, improving living standards and creating a sustainable environment and a society where a collective sense of community is recognised as central to the quality of life of each person.
We want to make sure that the mining boom is an opportunity boom.
Throughout our history Labor has fought for the long term.
Reforms have been pursued which have not always been immediately popular, but ones that have made us a fairer and more prosperous nation.
The sort of tough reforms we saw under Hawke and Keating that set us up for years of productivity growth.
This focus on the long term is why I am attracted to the nation building agenda of infrastructure development.
The opportunity to really improve this nation’s fortunes, by setting in place long term improvements to our road and rail and port infrastructure that can vastly improve our economic productivity, our international competitiveness and our national prosperity.
These changes lie well beyond an election cycle.
It is true that the Government has a large and ambitious agenda looking forward – pricing carbon and getting a better return for our mineral resources to name just two.
But it is also true that we have already delivered an impressive list of achievements.
Over the three and a half years of government:
- We steered Australia through the global financial crisis
- We have begun the education revolution by increasing capital expenditure to $65 billion, almost double that spent by the Coalition
- We improved the accountability of schools to parents with the My School website – with 4.6 million hits since it was launched last year
- We have embarked on the biggest reform to health care since Medicare, with tough national standards to make sure money goes to hospitals and patient care with less bureaucracy
- We abolished Workchoices and restored fairness to the workplace
- We have alleviated some of the pressures on cost of living by introducing paid parental leave, increased the education tax refund, and increased the childcare rebate to 50 percent
- We are rolling out the National Broadband Network with serious microeconomic reform through the structural separation of Telstra
- We’ve introduced the most significant package of support for mental health in Australia’s history
- We have created Infrastructure Australia, doubled the roads budget and increased the rail budget tenfold
- We have passed legislation to rebuild Queensland and other areas affected by floods and Cyclone Yasi
- We have introduced a renewable energy target of 20 percent and have approved some of the largest solar energy plants on the planet
- We have advanced reconciliation through an Apology to the first Australians – a precondition for the further work needed to Close the Gap, which remains unfinished business.
Across the board there is much to be proud of in our achievements.
And we’ve done this over the last nine months from a position of minority government – the first in 60 years.
We have made some mistakes and these have been acknowledged.
But those who expected this Government not to last continue to be proven wrong.
By the end of last week we had carried 153 pieces of legislation this term without being defeated on a single occasion.
By comparison there were only 108 Bills passed by the Howard Government in its entire first year.
The Opposition has failed to amend one single piece of Government legislation.
Last week our Budget passed through both Houses of Parliament with remarkable ease.
This included changes to family assistance that was the subject of such media criticism in the immediate aftermath of the Budget.
Given this record of achievement it can be frustrating that the political situation is challenging for Labor.
But this is something that we must respond to rather than complain about.
And we must deal with the situation as it is, not as we’d like it to be.
Tony Abbott has had some success in channelling people’s anxiety and fears.
In the wake of his relentless negativity our task is to re emphasise what we stand for and what we are achieving.
Labor stands for hope over fear.
Because we seek to change power relationships in society, it is a more difficult challenge than those who seek to entrench privilege.
Social democratic parties throughout the world are experiencing a difficult period.
In the 27 nations making up the European Union, there are only four Centre Left governments.
Indeed, there is a perception from some that the progressive movement has largely achieved its objectives.
I disagree with this assessment.
The task of social democratic reform is an ongoing one. It is true that some of the long term battles have been fought and won or at least significant advances have been made.
No longer is blatant discrimination on the basis of race, religion or gender acceptable.
However imperfect, our society has never been more tolerant of diversity.
Real wages have grown by around 37 percent over the last 20 years, based on average weekly earnings.
Seventy percent of Australians now own their own home, compared to 50 percent in 1947.
The proportion of Australians with a tertiary qualification of some kind has been rising for decades.
By 2008, 61 percent of us had a post-school qualification.
When the values of fairness were threatened by WorkChoices, it was rejected by the Australian people.
Fundamental reforms implemented by Labor have been entrenched in a way that it is easy to forget how hard they were fought.
Universal pensions, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Medicare, Native Title Rights, protection of the Daintree, Kakadu and the Franklin River, universal superannuation and the apology to Indigenous Australians to name but a few.
The list goes on and on.
Today, we’ve got wholesale opposition to a national broadband network – a nation building program that will transform the way we live and work in this country and overcome the tyranny of distance.
We’ve also got the extraordinary fear campaign by Tony Abbott and his team over climate change and sustainability.
A campaign that has seen him barnstorming the country telling people that under a carbon tax their jobs will go, their families will suffer, they’ll be living in a ghost town.
Yet it is the sort of reform that was accepted quietly and with no drama by his conservative counterpart across the Tasman, John Key.
“What I can tell you about an emissions trading scheme in New Zealand is that it’s worked,” he said during his visit to Canberra last week.
While Labor romanticises our past, too often we fail to celebrate our present.
Labor instead wipes its hands when the job is done and moves on to the next challenge.
Because we are committed to reform, we are tempted to keep moving forward from issue to issue, without properly embedding in the national consciousness what we have achieved.
While it is true that Labor has delivered on many of our historical objectives, there is much more to be done.
Disadvantage can still be determined by where people live or by circumstances beyond their choosing.
The GFC showed the result of those who believe that unfettered markets provide a way forward for future economic development.
Labor has been implementing a big agenda across the Government.
In my portfolio alone, let me list just ten achievements which have been advanced since we came to office:
- The creation of Infrastructure Australia – and it’s hard to over-emphasise the importance of this body. What it is doing is finally breaking the nexus between the short term-ism of the political cycle and the long-term vision necessary for the infrastructure investment cycle
- We created the Building Australia Fund in our first Budget
- We’ve doubled the federal roads budget
- And we’re rebuilding of 1/3 of the interstate rail freight network
- We’ve committed more to urban passenger rail than all other Commonwealth Governments combined, since Federation
- We have developed a National Ports Strategy and are consulting over a draft National Freight Strategy
- Our Aviation White Paper, the first ever Australian aviation policy, is regarded by global peak organisations as the world’s best practice. We have successfully negotiated an Open Skies Agreement with the US, so there are no longer limits on the number of flights that can operate between the US and Australia.
- We are revitalising the Australian shipping industry with the support of industry and unions.
- We are reducing the number of transport regulators from 23 down to three with projected economic benefits of $30 billion over the next 20 years. I should point out that no Government since Federation has been able to achieve this much needed reform – a myriad of costly, confusing and conflicting rules covering our roads, rail and coastal waters for the past 110 years.
- The development of a National Urban Policy – Our Cities our Future – to make our cities more productive, sustainable and liveable.
These ten reform areas represent just some of the Government’s activity in infrastructure.
Each one of my ministerial colleagues could tell a similar story.
The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has today released figures that show that our investment in large scale capital works program will deliver great benefits for the economy.
Every dollar we’re investing on new and better road and rail tracks is returning $2.65 in economic, social and environmental benefits.
For roads the figure is $2.75.
For urban public transport it is $2.10.
And for Interstate Rail Network projects it is $2.45.
These figures are calculated on increased productivity through faster, smoother roads and rail tracks, safer roads with fewer deaths and injuries – and cleaner air with fewer greenhouse gases being pumped into the air we breathe.
The agenda above lists just some of programs and initiatives underway in my portfolio of Infrastructure and Transport.
Each one of my ministerial colleagues could tell a similar story.
And that’s one of the differences between us and the Coalition.
Labor must govern for the long term national interest – to undergo the hard fought reforms that won’t happen overnight but are crucial for future productivity and fairness.
As we can see with tackling climate change and the NBN, if we’d wanted a simple life, we would never be taking this road.
But we are prepared to fight for what is right, because the light on the hill burns just as brightly today for all those who need Labor to succeed as when Ben Chifley used those famous words 60 years ago.