May 18, 2017

Speech to Transport Workers Union National Council – The role of government in managing change – Freemantle

It was the sixth century Greek philosopher Heraclitus who noted that the only thing that never changes in life is change itself.

More recently, former US president John F Kennedy put it another way when he said: Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

Our generation has seen more change than any previous generation in human history.

Remember when there was no Internet? When the only way to receive information was on the telephone on your desk or face to face?

It’s not that long ago. Less than three decades ago, in fact.

When I was at school and wanted to do some research for a school assignment, I went to the library and looked in an encyclopedia.

When today’s children need information, they don’t have to leave their desks. The sum of human knowledge is available at their fingertips.

I remember when the arrival of the fax machine was a major breakthrough. Faxes were promoted as the tools that would liberate offices by making it easier to communicate.

But in a dramatic demonstration of the accelerating pace of change, the fax machine is already a museum piece.

Indeed, when you think about how the pace of change has quickened in the past five decades, it is mind boggling to imagine what the world will look like 50 years from now.

Don’t think about that for too long. It will make your brain hurt.

But consider this: Change has no conscience.

Change can improve our lives. It can free us of certain kinds of labour.

It can make life easier in any number of ways.

But change is a bit like the free market. If you leave it to its own devices, people can get hurt.

That is where the state needs to come in.

We need to accept that we can’t stop change.

But we need to manage change so that it serves people, rather than victimising them, particularly working people.

That’s why I am so pleased that the TWU has taken the trouble to sit down today and consider the place of its members in the new economy.

Our friends in the business community are doing their jobs by looking for ways to use technology to cut costs to the benefit of their shareholders.

It is a credit to the TWU that you are doing your jobs by thinking about what will happen to the workers who will be displaced by change in coming decades.

That’s fitting. Your members are in the firing line.

A simple example of what is at stake here is the shift to automated transport, which offers a future in which cars drive themselves.

At some levels, this change will offer many benefits to the community – greater road safety, less traffic congestion and lower carbon emissions.

But as you know, a quarter of a million Australians feed themselves and their families by working as drivers.

We need to think right now about what we will do to ensure that those people are retrained so they can continue to contribute to society through the workforce.

More broadly, we must ask ourselves what we need to do now to reshape our workforce and our culture to a point where they are supple enough to cope with the increasing pace of change.

I’m no futurist.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers here.

But what is clear is that the Turnbull Government doesn’t have a plan to manage change.


I would like to take this opportunity to offer my observations on last week’s Federal Budget, including the way it affects the industries of concern to the TWU.

Budget 2017 was an overwhelming victory for the Australian Labor Party and the broader labour movement.

It was the Budget of ideological surrender.

After years of negativity and culture wars, the Coalition used the Budget to offload much of its ideological baggage and embrace Labor values on some core issues – at least at a superficial level.

They have finally accepted that Australians support universal health care.

…That Australians see needs-based school funding as a right, not a favour.

…That the NDIS is critical reform.

…That it is the responsibility of government to build for the future, investing in the railways, roads, ports and other infrastructure needed to sustain growth and progress.

That’s the good news.

But the bad news is that while the Coalition has raised the ideological white flag, their rhetorical conversions have not come with investment.

For example, they say they embrace needs-based education funding.

But they are still cutting investment by $22 billion over the next decade.

They say they support Medicare.

But the Budget locked in billions of dollars in cuts and maintained the freeze on the Medicare rebate in the short term.

They say they understand the importance of infrastructure investment.

Yet the Budget cuts it by $1.6 billion in this financial year alone, with investment to fall off a cliff over the next four years.

It’s all a bit like Malcolm Turnbull’s attitude to public transport.

He loves taking selfies on trains, trams and buses.

But he won’t make new investments in trains, trams and buses.

It’s also similar to the debate over the National Broadband Network. First Tony Abbott appointed Malcolm Turnbull to “destroy” the NBN.

They declared it couldn’t be funded off Budget.

Then they adopted the principle – but not the substance.

The result is Fraudband, not high speed Broadband.

And this week it has been revealed that Malcolm Turnbull has purchased 15 million metres of copper wire for his second rate network.

Fifteen million metres.

Enough to wrap around Australia.

They have increased the cost and decreased the speed. Only Labor can be trusted to actually deliver on the policies that change the nation for the better.

However, we in the Labor Party and the broader labour movement should celebrate our victories.

It reminds us once again that the Labor Party, working with the union movement, is the driver of progress in this nation.

The conservatives have always resisted change. They’ve always tried to convince Australians that there is something wrong with collectivism and reform that delivers equity.

Medicare, compulsory superannuation, workplace fairness, the NBN, access to university based on merit – they opposed the lot.

But again and again, our leadership, informed by everyday Australian values like the Fair Go, has forced them to shift.

The way forward for Labor is to accept their rhetorical conversion and triple our pressure for investment, while continuing to argue the case for further progressive reform.


One major disappointment in the Budget was its lack of action on road safety.

Mr Turnbull’s abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal in 2016 was wholly political.

Everyone here knows the tribunal was created by the former Labor Government.

We worked with your union and other key players in the sector, including employers and experts, to eliminate incentives for drivers to work long hours and adopt unsafe driving practices in order to make a living.

In creating the tribunal, our shared concern was to save lives.

In abolishing it, Mr Turnbull’s concern was to win votes by union bashing.

In Government we pursued this reform, whilst also using new technology to improve road safety. Measures such as changing Australian Design Rules to mandate Front Underrun Protection Systems in heavy vehicles are making a difference.

To the Prime Minister’s discredit, last week’s Budget did not contain a single new road safety initiative at a time when the road toll is on the rise, reversing decades of decline.

Even worse, it cut funding for road construction and maintenance.

It cut the Black Spots program, the Bridges Renewal Program and the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Maintenance program.

There was no new investment in urban rail to tackle the traffic congestion that is a hand brake on productivity growth and a hazard to your members.

Indeed, there was only one new on-Budget project in the entire Budget over the next four years –$13.8 million for the Far North Collector Road near the NSW town of Nowra in the marginal seat of Gilmore.

This is a project no-one had ever heard about until Budget night.

The business sector saw the infrastructure budget as a dud.

The peak industry body Infrastructure Partnerships Australia offered a devastating critique.

It said:

Foremost, the Budget confirms the cut to ‘real’ budgeted capital funding to its lowest level in more than a decade – using a mix of underspend, re-profiling and narrative to cover this substantial drop in real capital expenditure.

At a time when Australia needs to lift productivity to drive jobs growth outside of the mining sector, a drop in real capital expenditure to its lowest point in more than a decade is that last thing we need.


Turning back to the issue of managing change, the Budget also did nothing to lift our ability to ensure that the workers of tomorrow will be able to cope with the challenges of the New Economy.

Those challenges are intimidating already, but will only escalate in coming decades.

We are already all aware of the massive changes unleashed upon the taxi industry by the rise of share economy options like Uber.

A company that is not even ten years old has revolutionised casual travel. More than 40 million people worldwide use Uber once a month.

Uber has 58,000 drivers in Australia and nearly three million frequent users.

The company’s growth has been extraordinary and it stands as a great example of how in the 21st century, progress is nearly unstoppable.

The taxi industry has, understandably, resisted Uber.

But that has made no difference. The share economy is driven by the Internet, which makes regulation difficult.

But these changes still require a government response.


If you think Uber was disruptive, consider the shift to automated transport, which, I am certain, is one of the biggest challenges facing your union.

A recent paper by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, notes that automated vehicles will offer better road safety outcomes, more efficient transport networks, less pollution and greater liveability in our cities.

Platooning is an application of automated driving technology that uses wireless communications to allow two or more vehicles to safely travel closer together.

While travelling in a platoon, the lead vehicle communicates with following vehicles, sending commands about when and how to undertake steering, acceleration and braking.

As well as improving safety, these systems will reduce costs of fuel consumption, in turn reducing pollution.

Vehicle platooning in both passenger and freight applications is projected to reduce fuel consumption by as much as 20 per cent.

That’s important.

Sixteen per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from cars.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the Department noted that about a quarter of a million Australians earn their living from driving trucks, buses and taxis in 2015.

They will be displaced.

Workers in associated industries may also be affected – insurers, smash repairers and parking inspectors.

Then there’s the car manufacturing and sales industry, which will be transformed by the arrival of driverless cars.

On the positive side, there will be jobs for those who maintain the automated transport system, plus perhaps opportunities for new businesses that will use automated vehicles as a platform to deliver new kinds of services.

But even if you account for the considerable amount of media and industry hype surrounding automated transport, it’s clear that the rise of driverless vehicles will dramatically change the Australian workforce in coming decades.

We might not like it.

But change is going to happen.

The question for today is what we can do to ensure that as a society, we reap the economic benefits of this automation while avoiding its worst potential consequences.

If we let the market rip, the worst case scenario is a situation where companies and their shareholders thrive because of the reduced costs, while their former employees are discarded.

The real danger here is that rather than making life easier for everyone, automation will widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.

We all want a better world, with less work and more free time.

But we have to manage change in a way that is fair.

We want the benefits of the new world to accrue to the many, not just the few.


In that context I find it incomprehensible that the Turnbull Government is cutting funding for schools and universities and has gutted the vocational training sector over the past four years.

It is obscene that the Coalition has cut the number of apprentices in this nation by 130,000 since taking government.

Our national focus should always be firmly fixed on preparing our young people for work – providing them with the skills they need to contribute to society and raise their own families.

But the acceleration of change makes this more important than ever.

A business as usual approach won’t work.

Our education and training systems need systemic change, as does the way in which Australians themselves think about work.

Labor has proposed a practical approach in my portfolio which would ensure a minimum of one in every 10 people employed on Commonwealth funded infrastructure projects being an apprentice.


In the 20th century, people were raised to believe that if they worked hard at school and/or university, they could find a good job and stay in that job until retirement.

But in the 21st century, we must accept as a starting point that people will have multiple careers.

A child born today should have the expectation that his or her first job will probably be made redundant within a decade or two after he or she starts work.

So it’s critical that we teach people to embrace the idea that they will have to constantly upgrade and modify their skills in a process of lifelong learning.

We need to get over the idea that once you’ve done a degree or an apprenticeship, you will be set for life.

Indeed, the real aim of 21st century education and training should be teaching people how to keep learning for their entire careers.

This will require significant additional investment in training.


In some ways, today’s children are already being schooled to think differently from previous generations.

They are already experts in coping with change, because during their short lives, it has been a constant.

For example, anyone who uses a computer knows the software is constantly upgraded and updated, requiring us to amend our habits when it comes to simple functions like creating and sending documents.

While many older people find that frustrating, for young people it is a natural part of life.

In the future workforce, jobs will evolve in the same way.

The role you take on one year could evolve considerably in a very short time to something that looks quite different.

While today’s youngsters are already thinking in more flexible ways, I worry about older people losing their jobs now and in the next few years.

I worry about their ability to reskill, both in terms of personal mindset and in terms of the opportunities that will be available to them.

In particular, I worry about what will become of low-skilled workers who occupy the jobs that will be eliminated first.

Here’s a simple example.

Next time you go to a supermarket, you’ll be encouraged to take your own goods through the checkout, to scan them and pack them yourself, ostensibly for the sake of your own convenience.

While this will cut wage bills for supermarket chains, it eliminates jobs.

Once the supermarket chains have trained us all to avoid the few remaining checkouts operated by people, there will be fewer jobs available for unskilled workers.

That’s why Governments need a major new focus on retraining.

There are far too many people in their 40s and 50s in this country who lose their jobs and never work again in a full-time role.

If a breadwinner loses his or her job, they still have to pay the bills. They can’t take three years off to go back to university.

So we need to develop ways in which older people, particularly unskilled workers, can retrain over time – perhaps even before their job becomes redundant.

As a community we must accept that if the benefits of change are to be shared fairly, many Australians will not only need access to re-training, but will also need income support while they undertake that training.

That will cost money. There’s no way to avoid it.


Another important aspect of this entire debate relates to the power of the individual in the workplace.

Increasing automation will lead to reduced job security and more part-time work, creating greater challenges for the trade union movement to protect the rights of workers.

No doubt such considerations are part of the reason that the TWU is holding this forum.

Industrial relations is your business and I would not presume to tell you how to do it.

However, let me conclude by repeating my earlier comments.

Australians are an egalitarian people.

As we saw with the Budget last week, the forces of conservatism and self-interest are always going to struggle to capture the imaginations of people who live their lives according to the concept of the Fair Go.

The Tories will always preach individualism. They will always seek to promote self-interest.

But they will also inevitably be forced to more progressive positions.

That is because while Australians celebrate individual success, it is part of our culture to reject the idea that it is acceptable to leave people behind.

In the 21st century, the forces of the free market will attempt to use technical change to favour the few over the many.

They will want to bank the financial gains of change and reject the idea that some of those benefits must be used to manage its effects.

We must resist that.

We must put our faith in people, by fighting for a world in which people come first.