Nov 16, 2015

The Challenge of Reform – The Michael Joseph Savage Address – New Zealand

Manawatu Golf Club, Palmerston North

I’m honoured to be invited here tonight to give the Michael Joseph Savage address.

The first Labor Prime Minister of New Zealand was a man whose strong human values and dedication to the welfare of others are as relevant today as they were when he died in office, at the height of his popularity, in 1940.

In the spirit of the friendly rivalry that exists between our two nations, I am often reminded that New Zealand has given Australia many of its most successful international figures.

Russell Crowe.

Neil Finn.

Sam Neil.

But tonight, let me turn the tables.

Michael Savage was in fact born in Australia, near Benalla, in the Australian state of Victoria.

It was 1872 and at this time, as bushranger Ned Kelly was causing chaos around this region, Michael Savage grew up to dream of a more just world and to take action to advance this objective.

Savage is revered in this country as the father of the social security system.

In the difficult years before World War II, he was one of the few national leaders prepared to criticize Britain’s appeasement of Germany, Japan and Italy.

He is known as a fighter, not just because he was a boxer as a young man.

He fought for people who most needed his help.

Told by doctors he had cancer and needed immediate surgery, Savage knocked them back, saying he wanted to focus on his getting his social reform program through the legislature.

Savage is remembered as a great communicator; a man who rallied those around him to the banner of justice.

A man who sought to unite, not divide.

A straight talker fond of putting decisions in their proper context.

For example, during World War II, as Prime Minister, Savage warned that it could become necessary to conscript “human flesh and blood’’ to fight World War II.

But he added that people should understand it would also be necessary to conscript private wealth to care for the families of servicemen who lost their lives.

This kind of spirit is reminiscent of one of Australia’s greatest prime ministers, Gough Whitlam, who in only three years from 1972 to 1975 pursued the same type of social reforms as Savage.

Both men hungered for justice.

And both kept their eye on the main game.

They did not use the power of high office to serve existing entrenched interests.

They challenged and redistributed the prevailing power relationships, such that New Zealand and Australia respectively were never the same.

By the time of their passing – Savage in 1940 while still in office and Whitlam just last year – both were seen as national heroes.

Tonight I want to argue that in 2015, any progressive party that wants to win elections needs to start from the proposition of putting people first by demonstrating how their lives will be improved by government policy decisions.

They must do something more.

They must also argue the case for long term reform that will make a positive difference to society beyond the short term interests of any individual member.



In sport and in politics, focus is important.

Just as the All Blacks won the World Cup by putting aside the hype and focusing on what mattered most, politicians must, like Savage and Whitlam did, keep their eyes on the main game.

Concepts like fairness, sustainability, the creation of opportunity and shared prosperity must be firmly in our sights.

In 2015 there is no doubt that such concepts are gathering favour globally.

Across the world right-wing governments are on the nose.

People are looking to the progressive left for a way forward.

The shift has also found its way to Australia, where the conservatives have dumped the aggressive and divisive conservatism of Tony Abbott in favour of Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Turnbull is now busy appropriating Labor Party rhetoric across many areas and is presenting himself as the conservative you have when you don’t really want a conservative.

Of course, the truth is that Malcolm Turnbull has not changed the substance of the conservative Government.

But, in recognition of the public mood, he is attempting to engage people by talking about important policy areas including investing in cities and public transport – both banned by his predecessor.

The problem is that the Australian Government’s core policies have not changed under Mr Turnbull.

They still want to destroy trade unions.

They want to increase the regressive goods and services tax.

They still propose huge cuts to health and education.



Former Australian Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley once described the labour movement as “bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people.’’

Chifley was articulating the idea that the labour movement encapsulates a spirit of selflessness – the idea that we are all here on this earth to do something more than feather our own nests.

While we seek personal success, most of us can’t tolerate seeing others being prevented from being their best because of their gender, colour or the circumstances of their birth.

This spirit points us toward a better place for all, while all the conservatives offer is a continuation of the status quo.

Ours is a compelling vision.

It speaks loudly to people who want their children to grow up in better circumstances than they did, an aspiration held by all parents.

The current shift toward progressive politics is confirmation that the real human mission in the 21st century is not to limit fairness, but to extend it.

Tonight, I want to offer five areas that should be core business for progressive parties in 2015 as we seek to respond to the public shift in sentiment.

1.    Future job creation and the economy.

2.    Developing our cities and regions.

  1. Building communities.
  2. Advancing equity.
  3. Environmental sustainability.



No government can survive if it cannot maintain a strong economy.

That’s part of the job description whatever your political affiliation.

But the difference between the left and right of mainstream politics when it comes to the economy is the reason we want a strong economy.

For the conservatives, a strong economy is an end in itself because it means more profits for business.

But Labor wants a strong economy because it generates jobs and government revenues that allow us to deliver ongoing reform.

It’s critical that we explain this difference to voters because it goes to our motives – what we actually stand for.

From this side of the Tasman you would be aware that Australian economic growth has declined in recent years due to the decline of the mining boom.

In my country, the competing political visions about how to deal with economic policy sum up the policy divide.

So far, Malcolm Turnbull has articulated two possible solutions.

The first is to increase the goods and services tax, which as New Zealanders know only too well, will hit pensioners and low-income earners harder than the wealthy.

The second, which is even more worrying, is to attack the wages and conditions of average workers to boost corporate profits.

Mr Turnbull, for example, wants to abolish Sunday penalty rates for workers in hospitality and tourism.

Existing arrangements mean many low-income workers rely on weekend penalty rates for a living wage.

There is ample scope in existing enterprise bargaining arrangements for workers and their employers to trade off penalty rates for higher base rates.

But Mr Turnbull is not looking for trade-offs.

He just wants lower wages.

In the same way, he proposes to destroy the Australian domestic shipping industry by exposing it to unfair competition by foreign-flagged cargo vessels paying third world wages.

On my last visit to New Zealand in 2011 I saw firsthand the extraordinary damage the Liberian flagged MV Rena caused off your pristine north coastline.

The jailing of the captain and navigation officer provides little comfort, given the damage.

Mr Turnbull has decided that because foreign vessels carry freight more cheaply than Australian vessels, he should run local operators out of business or force them to sack their Australian crews and replace them with cheaper foreign labour.

What a betrayal of the national interest.

Labor takes a different approach.

We seek to balance the legitimate hope of business that governments can reduce costs with the equally legitimate aspirations of average people to access employment with fair pay and conditions.

Instead of firing the starting gun on a race to the bottom on wages and conditions, we want to develop new, well-paid jobs in new industries, particularly in areas we can support by investing in innovation and research.

We want to see Australians working in areas like high value manufacturing, infrastructure development, financial and legal services, food and agricultural production, tourism, renewable energy, information technology, urban design, the arts and creative sector, education and health services.

To support those emerging sectors, we also need to invest heavily in our education and training systems to ensure that they produce graduates with the skills to fill these jobs of the future.

That’s an approach that takes people’s legitimate individual aspirations into account while also advancing long-term reform to broaden the economy.

And it’s a whole lot smarter and more sustainable than simply cutting people’s wages.



In an increasingly populous and urbanised world, no political party can be taken seriously if it sees no role for itself in promoting the productivity, sustainability and liveability of cities.

Across the world, cities are clogged with traffic congestion and held back by inadequate infrastructure.

In Australia, for example, a recently produced Infrastructure Australia report found that if we fail to act, congestion will cost the Australian economy $53 billion a year by 2031.

Part of the problem is a shift in work patterns, with the Digital Revolution driving jobs growth in service industries in central business districts and inner suburbs of cities.

The result is longer commuting journeys for average workers, who can’t afford homes close to town and live in the outer suburbs.

Governments must confront these trends head on.

We need better roads, public transport and where appropriate, greater housing densities to make our cities are as productive as they can be.

For governments in 2015, urban design cannot be ignored.

It requires that national government work with councils and industry on better design that creates more vibrant neighborhoods featuring more than just residential development, but also retail and entertainment opportunities and open space like parks, bikeways and walking tracks.

We need to accept that people are not just cogs in some economic machine that we can shift around at will without any consideration of human needs.

That means that wherever people live – close to town or further out – governments need to think about liveability.

In a carbon-constrained world, we also need to ensure that new developments optimize the use of renewable energy, water conservation, and other sustainability measures.

If we want to engage voters, we need to talk about their genuine concerns.

Those genuine concerns start with sustainability and everyday quality of life where they live.



The challenge for governments is what they can do in practical terms to promote liveability.

Australian demographer Hugh Mackay has done much work in this area, reminding us in his book The Good Life, that humans are sustained by deep social links.

It’s not up to governments to build those links.

That’s up to individuals.

But governments need to do more to promote and sustain human relationships by nurturing and maintaining local communities, which are the stages upon which people live their lives.

We can have all the money in the world, but, as Hugh Mackay has noted:

The thing we need most is each other.

Governments underappreciate the strength of the positive bonds that exist within functional communities and the desire among people to see those bonds strengthened.

Communities are more than simply places where houses and shops exist.

Too often, national governments turn their back on communities, ignoring the potential to collaborate with people to achieve better outcomes.

That needs to end.

We should support churches, sporting groups, clubs and other community based organisations.

We should invest in community based infrastructure and services, local cultural events and sporting festivals.

People want to work together.

Governments can help them to do so.



Equity must always be the guiding light for progressive political parties.

We insist that people have a fair chance to be the best they can be by having fair access to education and training.

We retain and protect a social safety net so economic disadvantage is not allowed to become so great that it holds people back.

We oppose discrimination against people on the basis of their sexuality, gender or colour.

The progressive left has long been the trailblazer in the cause of equity.

Much has been achieved, but there remains unfinished business.

In my country that means joining New Zealand in the 21st century by embracing marriage equality.

In a digital world, genuine equity means freedom of access to new technology.

There’s an interesting ongoing debate in Australia about the development of the National Broadband Network.

The former Labor Government designed the NBN to provide fibre optic cable carrying high-speed broadband directly to homes and businesses in Australia.

It was to be universal, the 21st century equivalent of providing water or energy.

But the Coalition has changed the project so that it will provide fibre to the node – a fancy way of saying that the fibre will be connected to a box on the street corner.

Consumers will pay to have it connected and the signal will travel from the street corner box to their home or business via copper networks.

This means that while Labor wanted everyone to have broadband access, Mr Turnbull wants to ration that access according to person’s ability to pay.

First rate access will be restricted to those who can afford it.

Our political opponents insist that their way will cost less and produce the same result, even though the truth is their NBN will cost twice as much as they promised and deliver half the Internet speed.

Compare this approach to that being taken here in New Zealand, where a similar debate is being conducted at a far more mature level.

The current government was wise enough to understand the importance of rolling out broadband to the home.

Under current planning, it is hoped that 75 per cent of New Zealanders will be connected via fibre to the premises by 2019.

And New Zealand Labour, unlike the conservatives when Labor held office in Australia, is not trying to undermine the project – only to hold the government to account in its performance in delivering the rollout.

That is as it should be.

As NZ Communications Minister Amy Adams said in Australia during a visit in August 2012:

It made better sense to do it now rather than have to come back in the future and retrofit fibre-to-the-node to fibre-to-the-home connection.

I understand there is dissatisfaction in this country at present over Internet services in rural areas.

That’s not surprising.

Equity matters, geographically as well as within individual communities.

Labor also insists on equity measures in taxation.

That means requiring multi-nationals that fill their coffers off the backs of consumers in nations like Australia and New Zealand actually paying their taxes in the places where they generate the profits, rather than playing accountancy tricks to send their profits offshore.

It also means taking action to ensure that the wealthiest individuals pay their fair share of tax, rather than using accountants and lawyers to not only minimise their exposure, but reduce their tax liability to zero.



There is no greater intergenerational issue than the environment.

Our world needs to deal with climate change, not prevaricate and kick the problem down the road for our children and our grandchildren.

Climate change is not some kind of international scientific conspiracy dreamed up by extremists who simply hate the mining and energy sectors.

It’s an economic issue.

The world is moving toward a carbon constrained future.

In Australia, our choice is simple.

We can do nothing and wake up one day in the future to find the market for coal is shrinking and that our international competitors have cornered the market on clean-energy technology.

Or we can embrace change as an economic opportunity.

There are fortunes to be made in emerging renewable energy sectors but the current government is turning its back on the reality of change.

Sustainability must be promoted to the very centre of our policy considerations across the board.



Let me conclude tonight by noting that progressive political parties all around the world are generally motivated by altruism.

We want people to get a fair go, to have a decent opportunity to be their best and to live rich and fulfilling lives.

Most human beings, whatever their political affiliation, would identify with that concept.

The task for the great labour movements of Australia and New Zealand is to tap into that egalitarian spirit and ensure it is reflected in our policies and in the way in which we explain them to the community.

Around the world, people are turning away from rigid ideology.

They are sick of mindless aggression and needless partisanship.

They want pragmatic government focused on them and on building them a better future.

That provides genuine opportunities for Labor, here and in Australia.

In New Zealand, Michael Savage responded to the challenge all those decades ago.

We must defend the gains that have made our respective nations successful and build on them.

It’s up to us to respond to the challenges of today.