Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek your indulgence to make some remarks. First of all, I want to thank all of the people who have travelled here today and, in particular, all of those who are listening to and viewing this broadcast. When I announced my impending retirement some time ago, there was a crusty old COMCAR driver who said to me as I was opening the door at the side entrance, 'I see you're getting out while you're still alive.' I thought at first he was referring to his driving, but I soon realised he was congratulating me on making a wise life decision. There was a time, when Australians didn't tend to live so long, that the only two ways out of this place were through the ballot box or in a wooden box. Thankfully I've survived long enough to make the decision all on my own.
I've been a member of this parliament almost continually since 1993, with a one-term 'holiday' at the suggestion of the voters between 1996 and 1998. So I've had eight wins and one loss. That loss in 1996 was a crushing defeat for the party and a gut-wrenching loss for our family—a family anxious about the future with three young children under 10. That was very uncomfortable, but it did make me a much better politician, so I was re-elected in 1998, and now I've attended 1,422 sitting days—that's just under four years of continuous parliament. Just imagine all that before you! In that time, there have been seven Treasurers and 11 Speakers. Had the Speaker been here, I would have said I regarded him as one of the best. I wasn't expecting to have that compliment returned!
The pace of political life is now absolutely brutal, particularly when it involves shadow ministerial responsibility or ministerial responsibility, and that was the case with myself—six budgets, three budget replies, stimulus packages, IGR, and trading schemes. The list is long, and it is for anyone who's serving in a very senior position. Three years in the House of Representatives in the early nineties would easily squeeze into two years today, perhaps even one, and that's only taken place in over a quarter of a century. Of course, we all know how much more demanding political life is because of modern technology. I certainly do regret, as a member, as a minister, as a shadow minister, that I didn't take enough time to refresh and recharge with my family.
On our 30th wedding anniversary, I told my wife, Kim, that we'd really only been married for 25 years, as five years had been spent away. And on reflection, that was probably a conservative estimate. I notice the Prime Minister's wife made a similar comment just recently. Yesterday was our 35th wedding anniversary, but today is even more special. Today marks the birth of our second grandchild, just two hours ago in Denver, Colorado. A sister for a toddler, Eala, and a daughter for John and Erinn. I also want to give a huge shout-out to nanna and great-nanna up there today. They are very, very happy.
Labor politicians have a 'great objective'. It's the light on the hill, and I am both proud and grateful to say that that light always shone in my home. My family has always believed in the very same labour values the light illuminates, and we're very much aware of what it takes to pursue it. My work in this place and my electorate of Lilley was only ever possible because of my family—Kim, Erinn, Libbi and Matt. They believed in it, and they believed in me. Their love and support knew no bounds. No sacrifice was too much, because the Swans are Labor, and I owe them such a debt of gratitude for that and love them very much.
A political career, I think, is worthless if it's not grounded in the lives of the people that you represent—the people who get up in the morning, go to work, go home, cook the tea, put the kids to bed, get up and do it again the next day and never expect anything other than a fair day's pay for a fair day's work; people who understand we're all connected to each other and we have to reach out and look after those who are vulnerable and left behind.
I was reminded of this only just the other day in my electorate, but it happens continuously, when I attended a volunteer function for Charlie's Angels at the Prince Charles Hospital. There were over 40 volunteers who had between them hundreds of years of volunteering at the hospital. These are the people who ask for no reward more than the joy of helping others, and Australians like this inspire. They embody our nation at its compassionate best, and they inspire me just as much now as they did when I became the member.
I want to offer my deep thanks to the people of Lilley for their support and, in that same breath, also to my dedicated Labor Party members. I never took for granted my responsibility as a local representative, and their views were always the first I sought when trying to make difficult judgements about policy.
As Kate said yesterday in her fantastic speech, you cannot be an effective local member without dedicated electorate office staff. A good local member needs to listen, work hard, fight hard and get results—I wish Tanya wouldn't start crying—and, for that, you need an effective local team. I'm honoured to have served here with so many great Australians. Some of them are not household names, though they should be. They're the public servants and advisers—some of them in the gallery today—who sacrifice so much to serve our democracy. All of us owe them an enormous debt.
After so long here I've worked alongside so many people that, in attempting to mention all, I will inadvertently leave others out. So, to avoid embarrassment, I'll be thanking them all personally. But there is one person that I particularly want to mention today, and that is Barb Pini. Barb Pini has served the Labor Party in this House over decades with exceptional dedication, and we are all very thankful for her service.
Others I've served alongside are well known—like Mick Young and Gough Whitlam, who joined together and launched my election campaign for the 1993 election. These are two people who instilled the values that inspire and sustain so many of us to this day. There is of course the late, great Wayne Goss. There's no prouder boast for any Queenslander than to say you worked with Wayne to take our state out of the dark and broken Joh Bjelke Petersen era. Another Queenslander, Bill Hayden, a great Labor activist, never let go of his vision and fight for Medicare—and that is a fight which continues.
That, of course, brings me to Kim Beazley, a towering figure in both the Labor Party and Australia's defence and foreign policy. Kim's record of service to this country and this place requires no embellishment from me. He is rightly valued and admired across the chamber. His name is a byword for passion and decency in public life. I'm not the only one to believe that our recent political history would have been immeasurably more stable, successful and dignified had he become Prime Minister a decade ago.
It's difficult to serve effectively over the years in this House without having the support of longstanding friends. It is just so important when you are in the pressure of the moment to have friends in this House that you can talk to—and I have many. I want to particularly highlight my two Monday night dinner companions, Tanya Plibersek and Jenny Macklin, but there are many others—Stephen Conroy, Stephen Smith, Anthony Albanese and the late Steve Hutchins, Rob Mitchell, Chris Hayes, Tony Bourke, Amanda Rishworth, Kate Ellis and the list goes on. Of course, there is also the fantastic class that came in in 2013 and 2016—Jim Chalmers, Anthony Chisholm, Milton Dick, Joanne Ryan and of course that great representative of the Swan Left, Graham Perrett. I've mentioned a lot of names, and I don't really want to embarrass anyone else by putting them out there as being in the Swan Left.
Being in this place is actually about service, and that is what I have striven to give to the Australian people for my 24 years as a member, including my nearly six years as Treasurer, which makes me behind only Paul Keating and Ben Chifley as the third-longest serving Treasurer. It's a record I'm very proud of and one that I will be absolutely happy to surrender to Chris Bowen, who has done the hard yards in what is one of the most difficult jobs in both opposition and in government. There's a special place in hell for people doing that job from time to time.
I'm not the first Swan to serve this country, and I won't be the last. My grandfather fought on the Somme during the winters of 1916-17 and 1917-18 and later as part of the 3rd Division under General Monash. He was gassed at Messines and later at Broodeseinde and was wounded again at the start of the great German Spring Offensive of 1918. That generation never spoke much about its war service. He died young. His health was broken by the physical and psychological effects of service. His son, my father, then served in the Second World War across the Pacific, and saw fighting at Balikpapan. Today, members of parliament are now more likely to be the children of Vietnam veterans and the veterans of various conflicts and peacekeeping missions since then, and we must always do the right thing by them.
And how fortunate our generation and our children's generation have been by comparison. We've largely avoided war and, where we haven't avoided it, we've worked harder than previous generations to look after those who were sent away to fight. We've had our lives lengthened by advances in medical science and by our wonderful public institution Medicare, which is why we fight so hard to keep it. My father died in his 60s of the same prostate cancer that I was diagnosed with at the age of 49. I was treated successfully. He was not. So it was very satisfying as Treasurer to have made available Commonwealth funding to keep Australia at the forefront of prostate cancer research—sadly, research that was suddenly and without reason withdrawn by the health minister at the end of last year, and there is still not an explanation for it.
Fortunately, we now recognise and, of course, reward the service of women. It was a great honour and pleasure to have served as deputy PM and Treasurer under Australia's first female Prime Minister—an honour I think many of us valued—Julia Gillard, no tougher warrior for Labor values, who, possibly alone among recent Prime Ministers, has cracked that secret code about how to carry herself with dignity after losing the job.
Now, Julia was only one of the great Labor women that I've been blessed to have served alongside. There are too many to name, but I particularly want to highlight the contribution of Tanya, Jenny and, of course, Penny Wong.
It's a great source of satisfaction to me that my successor as the Labor endorsed candidate for Lilley is a woman. If Anika Wells, Corinne Mulholland and Ali France, the three women selected for north Brisbane seats, go on to win, Labor will have more than 50 per cent female representation in this parliament. I went back and had a look at the figures. When I arrived, our representation in 1993 was 12 per cent. So that's another historic achievement for social equality in our country. It is our far-sighted affirmative action policies. They were not just right in demographic and democratic terms; they have been and are and will continue to be an enormous political advantage for the ALP.
And, of course, our generation has been fortunate in another respect too. For the last quarter of a century, our country has avoided an economic recession. It's incredible to think, but, when I entered parliament in 1993, unemployment exceeded 10 per cent and more than half a million Australians at that stage were long-term unemployed. It was the formative context of my political life, and I arrived in this place to make merry hell about it. And I did, including for my own party, that we should be doing more about it.
Of course, in politics timing is everything. That's also out of our control. In 2007 Labor had returned to government just before the end of a long boom that had driven dramatic increases in Australia's and the world's wealth. We all, of course, hoped the boom would last forever, and that's why my first budget as treasurer was initially framed to fight inflation. But, as that budget approached, the investment bank Bear Stearns collapsed, our policy had to be revised and the rumbling began.
Four to five months later, those tremors turned into an earthquake—an earthquake that swallowed up Lehman Brothers, Northern Rock and Wall Street and shattered global economic confidence. Neither the global economy nor global politics has been the same since then. The history books will record it as a moment of profound significance, second only perhaps to the Great Depression of 1929 and onwards.
And yet Australia did avoid recession, alone of the world's major developed economies to do so—a miracle, some say, but there was no divine providence about it. Australia avoided a recession because of sustained recession-beating policy. As I said a dozen times in this place: we did this by choice, not by chance.
Within two months of the meltdown, 30 major world banks had been bailed out, all G7 economies were recording negative growth and global stock markets were down 50 per cent. As students of Labor history, members of the cabinet back then remembered and knew what had happened to the Scullin Government, which also had the misfortune of coming to power at the start of a recession. But the Scullin government lacked the necessary policy tools to deal with the crisis. We did not. While the Scullin government was bullied into austerity, we would not be.
We knew from the failures of the 1930s and 1990s what recessions do. They destroy lives. They cost people their homes and their savings. Communities turn into ghost towns. They lead some to lives of misery—even suicide.
We also know it takes a decade or more to fully recover. And, of course, some communities and some families never recover. Not heeding those lessons would have been ignorant and irresponsible, so we did choose to act—to inject demand in the economy, to reject austerity policies that many, including the Murdoch press, were calling for and, in fact, still call for today. That austerity would have made the crisis much worse. Had we listened, the results would have been disastrous.
Instead, Australia became the gold standard of recession busting. That's what we became. And, of course, Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz described our fiscal response to the crisis as the best designed stimulus package and one of the strongest Keynesian stimulus packages in the world. In recognition of our policies, Euro Magazine named me finance minister of the year, citing careful stewardship of Australia's finances and economic performance during and after the global crisis. It added:
… Australia has not only avoided falling into recession but has been the best performing of the world's developed market economies.
And we did all this knowing full well—we did it with our eyes wide open; when we sat around the cabinet table we knew this precisely—what our opponents would be saying. They would hound us with slogans about deficit and debt.
In departing this place, I have a perspective that perhaps I didn't have in the heat of that battle. I can honestly say that I'm happy to wear that criticism—absolutely happy to wear it as the price of saving Australia from something that was far worse. Yes, there was deficit and debt. But, by far, the majority of it was the result of $200 billion of revenues being wiped from the forward estimates in the wake of the crash. But there wasn't a recession. There wasn't higher unemployment. There wasn't a decade of lost opportunity for our people and for our country. In short, you don't feel the bullets you dodge and, of course, we dodged a huge bullet.
It's worth reflecting briefly on what might have been. Let's say we went down the road that many were urging us to. Let's say we went down the road of austerity and let's just consider how the rest of the world has changed and how Australia compares to the rest of the world. Think about where the rest of the world is now: we have the rise of populism and ugly nationalism, particularly across Europe. We have the end of the last remnants of political consensus in the United States. We have the sweeping away of mainstream parties of the Centre Left and the Centre Right across Europe, and the prominence in Germany and the rest of Europe of the Far Right. We've got Brexit and we've got profound rising inequality in wealth and income across both the developed and the developing worlds.
Weirdly, 10 years ago there was an attraction in some corners—and you'd see it reported often in The Australian Financial Reviewto the idea that the cleansing fire of recession wouldn't be such a bad thing for Australia. I rejected it then and Labor rejects it now, even more forcefully, precisely because of the potentially terrible human consequences that have flowed from the imposition of austerity around the developed world.
Of course, we have seen some polarisation in our country over the last decade, but it has been far milder and we should cherish the overall result. We have come through the decade after the global financial crisis stronger, bigger and more united than any comparable nation. We are the envy of other nations; that is true. We have an economy now that is 32 per cent bigger than it was at the end of 2007. The rest of the world is still catching up to that, so that's a fantastic Australian achievement and one that Australian Labor can be particularly proud of. I think that our entire political system, sadly, should be proud of that achievement.
In any case, what lies ahead? We do have the chance to create something extremely and truly great in this country on the back of that decade and the last quarter-century of growth. We have generalised affluence, but that is now threatened here by rising inequality. That is something that we have to avoid at all costs. Inequality breeds disdain, resentment, suspicion, arrogance and callousness, and I believe it is ultimately what lies beneath the election of Donald Trump and the result we saw in Britain with Brexit.
Of course, tackling inequality cannot just be dismissed as the politics of envy, as we read all the time in the papers. I say to our side of the House that nothing should spark the imagination of us on this side of the House more than fighting inequality. Nothing should spark our imagination and our policy push more than fighting inequality, because the future of economic democracy is actually on the line. The problem we face in this fight is that too many Australians have no knowledge of how others live. Too many people on generous incomes are simply tone deaf to the world in which they live. I call this the blindness of affluence.
It is true that Australia has done much better than the USA, but in this country inequality and deprivation are still far too high. Tim Winton has written that he became preoccupied with the topics of power and class not because he was chippy or resentful or because he was some sort of latter day of Marxist; rather he got involved writing about this because he saw it pounding the lives of too many of his friends and associates in his local community. Not enough Australians see that. Not enough Australians experience how other Australians live. So, like Winton, I am dismayed by the self-interest shown by some of Australia's wealthiest institutions, and, of course, it's little wonder as a consequence of all of this that people do feel on the wrong side of the economy, particularly when they see the outcomes from the banking royal commission.
We all know what follows: a loss of trust in institutions and government, people not being treated fairly while other people walk away with everything. If that continues, it cannot end well here, as it hasn't ended well in many other counties in the world. I'll put it this simply: democracy cannot survive in a morass of mutual resentment that we are increasingly seeing.
That's why, after coming to this conclusion, I have spent the latter part of my political career and policy interests looking at tackling inequality head on, because there are rapid changes going on in the global economy and they come with the potential of undoing the great advances towards social equality of the post-Second World War era. If that is undone, so will be the political stability of the post-World War II era as well. Just consider this: in other nations—but the United States stands out more than many—the benefits of growth are now going exclusively to the top 10 per cent, more dramatically again in the hands of the top one percent and more dramatically again in the hands of the 0.1 percent. This is just morally wrong and economically stupid, and we cannot allow it to happen here. We can't allow the gains from new technology and all of the prospects it brings for the future—we can't allow the gains from that new technology and rising productivity just to go to a narrow group of people in our economy and in our society. We're here to serve and defend a community, not a corporation.
Of course, to do that, we have to support progressive taxation. We have to ensure we have a fair industrial relations system where the unions and their members have the ability to bargain for and gain rising wages and better conditions. We've got to continue to build that great Labor initiative, the NDIS. We've got to pursue needs based funding. We've got to lift the unemployed out of poverty. We've got to keep Medicare strong. There are so many things we need to do. But, beneath those particular policy responses, we've got to get away from the idea that collective action by people to pursue their economic interests is somehow illegitimate or that attempts by governments to create a fairer society by redistributing income and opportunities are wrong. We've got to get away from the idea that private and public sectors are somehow mutually antagonistic. They are not.
There is a stupid and destructive idea that has come to dominate our political debates: the proposition that taxes and social investment are inherently antibusiness, that every dollar that government raises and invests on behalf of people somehow robs us of vitality and that pursuing equality somehow makes us all collectively poorer. You've heard it all before, but it's rubbish. The lot of it is simply rubbish. The truth is that business thrives best in a decent society. A decent society can't be created through trickle-down economics alone, and smart businesspeople understand this. Having been elected National President of the ALP, I will be continuing to pursue these issues in the years to come. I don't want to live in a country which is captured by either the extreme Right or the hard Left.
And, of course, the fourth estate—up there— play a very important role in our national debate. I do want to pay tribute to those in the press gallery who've kept true to the best the fourth estate can offer. There is no greater responsibility than holding all of us to account. Why? Because democracy depends on it.
To my Labor colleagues, I want to say a couple of things. First of all, we must not be overconfident. It's true that we could be on the cusp of something quite special and unexpected and return to government in just two terms. I believe the strength of our current position has been made possible by two things. The first is that during the global crisis we avoided recession and kept our real economic credentials intact. It's a great record and we should be proud of it. The second is that we've found a new lease of political unity. That unity has come from the excellent leadership of Bill Shorten and the senior frontbenchers he works with. We cannot underestimate how important that unity is to not only electoral politics but also the faith that people have in our political institutions and wider institutions across the board.
At the heart of this unity is what I would call a unity of political purpose. Our policies have been able to unify us because they speak to the things our movement and the wider Australian society hold dear: decency, fairness and greater economic and social equality. It was said of the Whitlam generation that they made Labor electable, but they also made it worth electing. That's the power of the agenda, I think, which has been outlined by Bill and the team.
Mr Speaker, when I first started drafting this speech, and when I first spoke today, I said I thought you were one of the best Speakers we've had, and we've had a lot. I don't want to test you, but I do want to—
I was fishing for that! When I first drafted the speech, I did want to reach out across the chamber. I actually thought I would be able to ask people, perhaps, to remove their party blinkers and at least try to understand a bit more about why people take the policy stances they do, even if they're disagreed with.
From my point of view, that's particularly the case in what I had to say about the global financial crisis and so on. It's not just a question of Labor good, Liberal bad or anything like that. It's just that if we do have another crisis we are going to need a response like that, and the current demonization of that response is not going to be consistent with our national interest at any time in the future.
But I'm even more pessimistic about other things, because, unfortunately, there's been a divisive tone that's pervaded this place in the past week. It has made me realise that reaching out to the other side is perhaps impossible. I say this because I was here during the Tampa episode in 2001, and I do recall the way it changed us. The night John Howard sprung his Tampa trap in the parliament, otherwise known as the Border Protection Bill, I actually wasn't here. I was on the couch at home recovering from prostate cancer surgery, and I watched the events unfold with growing trepidation. In the weeks that followed, the politics of fear drowned out domestic political issues.
And, of course, before that event covert appeals to racism and xenophobia were regarded as unworthy of our country's elected representatives. When the ship was turned back, something else floated into our harbours in its wake: American race based dog-whistle politics. That politics is not new; it's as old as politics itself. We all thought it had died some time well before 2001. But we were wrong. During the eighties, it was brought back to life in America during the 1988 presidential election. There was a determined strategy to link the black community with violent crime. It worked. It became the template for what happened in Australia in 2001—a scab that's remained there ever since. Sure enough, 18 years later, it is being used again. Read the Hansard, listen to the debate, read ministerial transcripts; the only thing missing is the subtlety of yesteryear.
Soon after that 1988 campaign—this is the one in America—the architect of that strategy, strategist Lee Atwater, contracted fatal brain cancer. Before he died he set out to make his peace with the world. He said that his illness had helped him to see that what was missing in society was what was missing in him: 'a little heart, a lot of brotherhood' and that his own actions had contributed to 'a spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society' and a 'tumour of the soul'—that is, the man who invented the political strategy now being dusted off once again had repented. It says a lot. My hope is that this ugly approach is so soundly defeated at the ballot box that it can never arise again. And that's the good news; it won't work, not this time. One of the greatest things about democracy is its moral force. Sometimes parties can lose a moral right to govern before they lose their numerical majority in parliament. For the coalition, the first is already gone and the second is about to follow in its wake.
Finally, I want to thank the workforce in the parliament and, more generally, the support and backup that we all get as MPs. I want to thank the cleaners, the drivers, the transport office, the attendants—I just talked to Luch before; he has been here 30-odd years—the cooks, the security, the library staff for all of their help over the years. And I want to say to them that I was here for people like you. We will not prosper as a country unless we value the contributions of everyone in our community and in our workforce—the cleaners, the office workers—just as we value the work of the policy strategists, the entrepreneurs. We can only prosper as a country if we are all in this together and we don't think that wealth is created just by a brilliant few. We are in this together and we will succeed if we recognise that. I have some friends from Brisbane up there from Logan City and they presented me with a plaque the other day that was very touching. It said: 'It's the things that we do together that make us strong.' Nothing will stop this country if we always keep that in mind. Thank you for all of your support.