It’s often said that the greatest speech ever delivered was Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
In less than 300 words, Lincoln’s tribute to the sacrifice of those who died in the cause of freedom drilled deep into the heart of the American spirit.
It was a landmark in human expression, not just for its lyrical beauty, but because it spoke directly to Americans about their national identity.
Because it focused on the great American dedication to the pursuit of liberty and sacrifice in the cause of freedom, it touched all Americans.
It still does.
Ben Chifley’s Light on the Hill speech was 484 words long.
But Chifley’s thoughts on the nature of the Australian labour movement are, in many ways, our equivalent of the Gettysburg Address.
When Chifley spoke of “bringing something better to the people’’ and praised those who gave freely of themselves to advance the circumstances of others, he was outlining the Labor Party’s mission statement.
But the Light on the Hill is not only about the ALP.
It’s a mission statement for the entire Australian people.
Chifley’s emphasis on selflessness, compassion and social justice speaks directly to all Australians about our national values.
Values like the Fair Go; the rejection of entrenched class divisions; equal respect for the highest achievers and the most humble of battlers; and our concept of community that is so recognizable in regional cities such as Bathurst.
Indeed, Chifley’s modestly stated aims promote the concept that while individualism might provide us with financial rewards, what Australians really seek are the greater rewards that come with living their lives to their fullest potential.
That is so much more than simply advancing our personal interests.
Australians want to be a part of something bigger than themselves – something that speaks to their deeply held values.
That spirit encapsulates the Light on the Hill.
It extinguishes the darkness of self-interest.
It illuminates what Abraham Lincoln himself referred to as the better angels of our nature.
It resonates deeply with a people who pride themselves on egalitarianism and mateship.
That’s why so many people invoke Chifley when they refer to Labor as the Party of the Light on the Hill.
They understand its power.
Labor’s call for collectivism, progress and shared prosperity is much closer to the values held by most Australians than the individualism that so excites the conservative parties.
When Labor gets it right, we have a compelling narrative.
Tonight, as we think about Ben Chifley and his contribution to our nation, I’d like to offer some ideas about how Labor can make sure we get it right now and into the future.
The conservatives have provided us with a clear example of how to get it wrong.
They admitted as much this week by knocking off the most-negative leader I have seen in my time in Parliament in Tony Abbott.
Mr Abbott had a plan to get into government, but no plan to govern.
That’s why there’s no sense of purpose or narrative emanating from our conservative opponents.
For them, the attainment of power is the end in itself.
The change in the conservative leadership doesn’t change that fundamental problem.
It is clear from Malcolm Turnbull’s first days as Prime Minister that he has put his personal ambition ahead of his convictions in critical policy areas including climate change, renewables, water sustainability for the Murray Darling Basin and marriage equality.
We all know what Mr Turnbull has said about these issues in the past.
But he has exchanged those principles for the keys to the Lodge.
Policy and intellectual integrity matter in public life.
Mr Turnbull has sacrificed both to become PM.
In doing so, he has given up the authenticity that Australians are seeking from their political leaders.
These actions also represent a breach of trust from the legitimate expectations that people had of Mr Turnbull.
Labor always performs at our best when our policies target the aspirations of the Australian people.
Those aspirations have motivated generations.
Above all, Australians want to ensure that their children have better opportunities than they enjoyed.
They don’t want a free ride.
They do want a Fair Go.
They want a chance to make something of themselves in life without artificial impediments like the circumstances of their birth or other factors outside their control.
Understanding these basic aspirations must always sit at the heart of Labor’s thinking.
While our opponents seek to empower the individual, we must dedicate ourselves to the many, not the few.
Our opponents believe that if the state just gets out of the way, everyone will be better served.
Labor seeks office so we can use the power of the state to intervene to make a real difference to people’s quality of life and their access to opportunity.
If we see a barrier to fairness, we are prepared to use the power of the State to make a difference.
Or, in the words of Ben Chifley:
I try to think of the labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people.
Our long history is adorned with great leaders.
From Chris Watson through to John Curtin and Chifley himself and on to Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, our record speaks to our ideals.
We build in a real sense through the delivery of great infrastructure.
Think of Ben Chifley’s Snowy Mountains Scheme, the transcontinental railway, the major national highway network and the National Broadband Network, to name just a few.
While others talk about infrastructure, Labor builds it.
But Labor’s most cherished capital project has been building up the social capital of the Australian people.
We empower Australians with education and training, delivering opportunity and unlocking human potential.
We introduced universal health care, building in people the sense of security that comes with knowing that if they become ill they will receive care, whatever their financial means.
We built the social safety net that ensures that all people, regardless of their economic means, are treated with the dignity that we regard as a birthright.
Indeed, when you consider all of the game changing social and economic reforms in our nation’s history, they were delivered by Labor governments.
Action on climate change; childcare; education; fair industrial relations; the National Disability Insurance Scheme, compulsory superannuation.
The list goes on.
Labor is also the author of the great statements of national leadership that have helped Australians come to terms with our past and set the scene for a better future.
Once seen, the great photograph of Gough Whitlam pouring red soil into the hands of Vincent Lingiari can never be forgotten.
And the proudest moment of my time in Parliament was when Kevin Rudd rose to deliver the historic national apology to our stolen generations
Labor always leads the way.
In 2015, as we prepare to write the next chapter of the great Labor story, our history must be our reference point.
We must always deal with the urgent needs of present circumstances.
But we must also always be looking to anticipate the future and, by doing so help to create that future.
A future where people come first.
Whilst this principle has guided my political engagement, I was struck by a QANTAS billboard when travelling through an Airport this week.
It depicts a QANTAS pilot saying, “I don’t just fly planes for a living, I fly people and there’s a difference”.
Indeed there is.
It’s a powerful message that shows that keeping people at the centre of the business equation is just as critical as putting people first politically.
Tonight, I want to raise five points that encapsulate a plan for an approach that puts people first can drive the agenda of the future Labor Government.
- Future job creation and the economy.
- Developing our cities and regions.
- Building communities.
- Advancing equity.
- Environmental sustainability.
1. FUTURE JOB CREATION AND THE ECONOMY
Building a strong economy is a core responsibility of Government working with the private sector.
For Labor however, a strong economy is not an end in itself.
It’s about creating jobs for Australians.
And it’s about generating the national wealth to fund nation changing reform.
As the resources sector moves from the construction to the production phase and beyond, the current Government has failed to identify and prepare for the jobs of the future.
Our location in the fastest growing region of the world gives us an advantage. China and India have increased their economic size by 6 times in the last two decades. In just one decade the Asian region will account for half of the global economy.
Our superb natural environment is another advantage. Our biggest advantage is the ingenuity and creativity of our people.
We must identify future opportunities now and create policy frameworks that facilitate the realisation of those opportunities, including the provision of education and skills appropriate to these future jobs.
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 are all sectors primed for expansion.
The shift to a carbon constrained global economy provides extraordinary opportunities if we end the distraction of the climate skeptics in our national discourse.
Australians have been responsible for some of the world’s greatest advances from WiFi, the bionic ear and breakthroughs in solar and wave technology.
What we have not done as well as maximise the commercial opportunities that these advances have made possible.
Australia stands at a crossroad when it comes to the nature of future job creation.
Labor rejects the idea that we should compete in our region by lowering wages and conditions.
We must create high value jobs that allow for a continued improvement in living standards and fairness in our workplaces.
And we need to understand that while Australians want jobs, they don’t want their jobs to rule their lives.
We want to retain room to meet our commitments to our families, our friends and our communities.
Otherwise, we start to feel like units of production, rather than human beings.
For our political opponents, the nature of employment is solely about meeting the needs of business.
The current government goes even further.
It is prepared to destroy Australian jobs as though an individual’s job security is meaningless.
There’s a stunning example of this phenomenon in my own shadow portfolio of transport.
It’s in Australia’s economic, environmental and national security interests to maintain a vibrant domestic shipping industry.
Yet legislation before the Parliament would allow foreign ships to compete on domestic routes, paying third world wages.
No other advanced nation has such a regime.
This is a case of unilateral economic disarmament.
Evidence before Parliament from Mr Bill Milby of North Star Cruises has confirmed that he was advised that in order to compete he should reflag his ship and replace his Australian crew.
The Australian flag should not be replaced with the white flag on Australian jobs.
We need to balance the legitimate hope of business that governments can reduce costs with the equally legitimate aspirations of average Australians to employment with fair pay and conditions.
2. DEVELOPING OUR CITIES AND REGIONS
The current government’s is not interested in shaping our cities and regions.
This is evident in their approach to traffic congestion which has been exacerbated by a major shift that is under way in patterns of work in our cities.
In previous decades, jobs growth was strongest in the outer suburbs of big cities, close to affordable housing.
But this is changing.
The rise of the Digital Age means jobs growth is now concentrated in services industries like insurance and information technology which are based in inner suburbs.
This result is longer commuting journeys for average workers.
It is a tragedy that many working parents spend more time travelling to and from work than they do at home with their kids.
The suburbs of middle Australia are being transformed from lively communities where people lived, worked and played into drive-in, drive-out suburbs where people can afford a home but can’t find a job.
The problem here is not simply inconvenience.
Here we have millions of people literally watching their quality of life drifting away like the white line in their rear-vision mirror.
And the current government is doing nothing.
It sees no role for itself in urban policy or the provision of the public transport that could make a real impact on this problem.
But when Labor returns to government, we’ll begin a major attack on the problem of traffic congestion.
We won’t just build a few extra toll roads.
We’ll attack this problem at multiple levels to give all Australians the time and space they deserve to be more than just numbers on someone’s payroll, more than just cogs in a machine.
But it’s not just about what we do in our big capital cities.
It’s also about what we do to harness the ability of our regional cities and towns like Bathurst to take some of the development pressure off the major cities.
Many Australians stuck in the traffic jams I just referred to would happily consider moving to regional Australia for its lifestyle advantages.
What they need is the confidence they will be able to find work in those regional areas and access the services that are available in capital cities.
That’s why Labor is focusing heavily in boosting regional development and promoting quality of life through close attention to urban policy.
We must strengthen regional centres by working with local businesses to promote jobs growth.
We must also focus on consistency of quality of government services across the nation.
I’m not just talking about good schools and hospitals, but also tertiary education via well-resourced regional campuses of universities and vocational training.
Infrastructure is also critical.
If we hope to see rural and regional Australia taking some of the pressure off our cities, they need to be linked to those cities by good roads and, critically railways.
The recently opened Regional Rail Link, in Victoria, allows commuters from Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong rapid access to Melbourne on a new rail line that is separate from the existing Melbourne passenger train network.
It’s a game changer.
The Regional Rail Link was the largest ever commonwealth investment in a public transport project.
It’s projects like this and the proposed High Speed Rail Link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra that show how carefully targeted commonwealth investment can make a real difference when it comes to strengthening links between cities and regions and, in the process, lifting productivity for both.
The most important way to boost regions in the Digital Age is to ensure they have access to a National Broadband Network connected directly to homes and businesses.
A half-baked, second-rate NBN of the type being delivered by the current government not only shortchanges cities like Bathurst.
It also shortchanges the entire nation.
It denies us the chance to bring our country into the 21st century – a century where technology is overcoming the tyranny of distance and allowing for greater connections between regional and metropolitan Australia across a whole range of areas.
3. BUILDING COMMUNITIES
Australians want stronger communities.
They understand that the rapid changes that are a constant in the 21st century risk isolating people from each other in a personal sense and seriously damaging the community fabric.
Governments have a role to play in strengthening communities.
I’m not just talking about handing out grants for community festivals, although this is money well spent.
I’m talking about, for example, focusing on quality of life by tackling traffic congestion in cities.
I’m talking about working with councils on urban design to ensure that our cities evolve in ways that promote a sense of community by providing opportunities for the interaction with others that most of us crave.
Designers pay great attention to the look of new apartment buildings.
But to promote healthy communities, we need to think more about the design of the spaces between those buildings.
We need better designed cities and towns, more public transport and better roads.
We need support for the arts and encouragement for local councils which, reflecting the closeness to their community, want to focus on development and sustenance of those strong community links.
It’s not just in big cities.
Every small community in Australia – from Bathurst to Bamaga – adds something to our nation by providing Australians with a home base for their broader activities and a context for their lives.
Governments need to value communities as more than simply places where houses exist.
They are people’s homes – places where they live, work and play.
A future Labor government will provide policy leadership to the states and local government and collaborate with both so that the great gains this nation has made in personal prosperity in recent decades are backed up with commensurate enrichment of community life.
Our task will begin with addressing the drive-in, drive-out suburb phenomenon and extend into any area where we can make a difference.
The best place to start is to work with the local councils, because they are in the closest contact with the needs and aspirations of communities.
The former Labor Government did exactly that in my own area of infrastructure and transport through programs Regional Development Australia Fund and the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure program.
In this region, these programs delivered, for example an upgrade for Mount Panorama, the refurbishment of the Chifley House, the expansion of the Orange Airport and the upgrade of the Orange Aquatic centre.
We also delivered projects like the Orange Bypass and the Great Western Highway upgrade.
A commonwealth government that listens to communities about their needs, rather than seeking to impose upon them some outcome dreamed up by bureaucrats in Canberra, stands the best chance of enriching community life.
4. ADVANCING EQUITY
The next Labor Government must be also address inequality.
Whilst growing income inequality is central, there are also aspects of social inequality.
That’s why a Labor Government will legislate for marriage equality within 100 days of its election.
It’s why we will promote racial equality by getting on with a referendum to recognise indigenous Australians in our Constitution.
We’ll enhance universal health care and promote a higher education system in which wealth does not determine access to self-improvement.
We’ll attack digital inequality by giving all Australians equal access to a world-class NBN that is based on fibre to the home and business.
In the 21st century economy, all Australians should have the best available Internet access.
Australia needs broadband, not fraudband.
That means fibre, not copper.
That means universality of service.
Otherwise those who can’t afford it won’t have access to the tools of social mobility.
That’s not only unjust.
It is just plain stupid because it will also limit this nation’s future economic growth.
Labor will also insist on equity measures in taxation.
We’ll require the big multi-nationals that fill their coffers off the backs of Australian consumers to give something back by actually paying tax in this country, rather than playing accountancy tricks to send their profits offshore.
We’ll also consider the introduction of a Buffet Tax under which individuals will be required to pay a minimum tax rate beyond which they cannot reduce their exposure with tax deductions.
The Buffett rule is named after American billionaire Warren Buffett, who found to his shame a few years ago that his accountants had ordered his affairs so that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary.
We also need to deliver gender equity by escalating the battle against domestic violence.
This requires the entire community to be mobilized to address this national crisis.
Striving for equity is central to the Labor mission.
It cuts across just about every policy area on the political radar screen.
There is no greater intergenerational issue than the environment.
The current Government’s refusal to take serious action on climate change not only isolates us from the international community, but also creates a situation where our inaction will impose costs on our children.
Their prevarication and whining about taking any action will do nothing but kick the problem down the road for our children and our grandchildren to deal with.
I don’t want to leave my son and his children a massive bill to make up for the current generation’s inaction on climate change.
I’d rather they inherit a clean environment; a healthy Great Barrier Reef; an Australia that has invested in renewable energy sources.
Labor must not be intimidated by our opponents into turning away from policies that focus on sustainability.
Indeed, sustainability must be promoted to the very centre of our policy considerations across the board.
Sustainability is not just about the environment.
It’s also about the way we design our cities and our communities.
It’s about the way we use government intervention to promote sustainable industry.
It’s about transport policy.
For example, one crowded commuter train can take hundreds of carbon emitting cars off the road.
So public transport not only boosts economic productivity by reducing congestion; it also provides an environmental outcome.
In the future Labor Governments should bring the concept of sustainability to the centre of policy making by considering the sustainability implications of all decisions.
And of course, we must act on climate change.
While the former prime minister became so irrational on the issue that he reduced this critical issue to arguing that wind turbines were ugly while coal mines were beautiful, most Australians understand the arguments for action.
That includes the new Prime Minister, although he agreed to shackle himself to inaction on the issue as a precondition to winning support among his colleagues.
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.
We can kid ourselves as much as we like to avoid the truth, but the world is moving toward a low-emissions future.
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.
We’ve already lost the first mover advantage.
But it’s not too late for a Labor Government to get things back on track.
We don’t underestimate the complexity of managing a transition from an economy where mining is a key employer to one where the influence of mining declines over the long term.
But we need to manage the shift to renewable energy whether we like it or not.
We can’t stop it.
That’s why Labor remains convinced that a market-linked mechanism is the best way to deliver genuine outcomes.
It’s hard not to conclude that Ben Chifley had real enthusiasm for his life’s work; that he took joy in fighting the good fight on behalf of those who needed a hand.
While I’ve got no doubt Chifley was a political warrior, his real interest was in delivering progress.
In 2015, we need to follow his example.
For the past decade I have watched the quality of political debate in this country deteriorate into hyper-partisanship and negativity.
Tight electoral margins, the rise of the 24-hour media cycle and the particularly combative approach of Tony Abbott have led the decline.
I believe that Tony Abbott became so comfortable with being Opposition Leader he failed to transition.
Malcolm Turnbull’s repudiation of long held political positions is also a win for short term tactics over long term policy implementation.
Mr Turnbull should take the opportunity to explore ways to collaborate to achieve real progress for our nation.
He could start by accepting Bill Shorten’s invitation to join him in a bipartisan national summit on addressing the domestic violence crisis.
US actor Kevin Spacey, who plays the President of the United States in the series House of Cards, has obviously reflected seriously on this issue.
Spacey once said in an interview:
He’s spot on.
If the only language between politicians is the language of conflict, we’ll make a lot of noise but less progress.
Indeed, that is pretty much the story of the recently departed Abbott Government.
Lots of noise, no progress.
Tonight I’ve tried to explain why I think Labor can and should return to government.
But I know one thing.
We won’t return to government unless we put people at the top of our agenda.
Putting people first requires that we speak to them respectfully; communicating with them in an authentic manner.
We should look no further for inspiration than former US President John F Kennedy.
On 15 July 1960, as Kennedy accepted his party’s nomination to run for the presidency, he declared,
“We are not here to curse the darkness. We are here to light a candle.’’
Whenever I hear that Kennedy quotation and its focus on bringing light to the political darkness, I am reminded of the quiet dignity of Ben Chifley.
Chifley did not curse the darkness. He pointed to a better future – one in which people came first.
Let me thank the Labor Party Bathurst branch for giving me the great honour of delivering tonight’s address.
For me, being given such an opportunity is a dream come true.
But that’s the thing about the labour movement. People’s dreams can come true.
A train driver can become prime minister.
A boy who grew up in a council house with his single mum can become deputy prime minister.
Forty years after Chifley, the Manchester band The Smiths sang: ”There is a light that never goes out’’.
As long as the Australian Labor Party has true believers working for the advancement of all, that light will indeed continue to be a beacon of hope for us all.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.