Speech to the Inaugural Whitlam Institute Gough Whitlam Oration, Sydney
THU 31 MARCH 2011
Men and women of Australia.
Words, adopted from John Curtin, but ever identified with Gough Whitlam.
They say so much, to so many.
In a simple phrase which still captures some of the most attractive features of the Whitlam generation:
A life of reason, addressing our people as adults;
A love of country, expressing a progressive patriotism;
A politics of inclusion, that matter of fact assumption that women and their interests matter in our country’s politics.
And behind all that, a modernising temper.
Men and women of Australia; 40 years on there is still something sharply contemporary about that phrase.
Gough Whitlam remains one of the most paradoxical and enigmatic living Australians.
I sometimes feel that every Australian’s idea of Gough contradicts some other Australian’s image of the man.
And we can well imagine Gough, like his near-name sake, crying:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Like Walt Whitman, Gough Whitlam will never be contained “between his hat and boots”.
The brawler who threw a glass of water in Hasluck’s face.
The sophisticate who delighted a visiting Italian President by quoting Dante.
The wit who told Francis James “you may call me bourgeois, but not decadent”.
The moderate who moved beyond the old state aid debate.
The statesman who turned our face north toward China.
The moderniser who changed Labor’s organisation and ideas.
The pragmatist who swore that only the impotent are pure.
A sophisticated and funny man, a fighting Labor leader and Prime Minister, who modernised and moderated and reformed
We know Gough in multitudes, and yet we know only one Gough - above all, a restless reformer.
In honouring that spirit of reform, in honouring the multitudes of Gough, tonight I could have chosen dozen of topics as my theme.
I could have spoken to you about the way Gough forever changed the way Australia provides health care with Medibank.
Or the way he helped create modern Australia by ensuring higher education was for the deserving many not the privileged few – an achievement this University embodies.
Or of his deep understanding of the aspirations and needs of Australians in our growing suburbs – Gough was a Prime Minister who made sewerage a national cause as part of putting the quality of suburban life on the national government’s agenda.
I could have spoken about these things and so many more lessons we learned from Gough Whitlam.
But tonight, standing here in Sydney’s West, I want to reflect on what Gough taught us about our political party, our Labor Party.
Because in his famous phrase “the Party, the platform, the people” I believe the restless Whitlam of reform speaks to us still.
Between 1966 and 1972, Whitlam did not simply reform the Labor Party’s structures, update the Labor Party’s platform and gain support in the country at large.
Whitlam achieved a vital integration of these elements of reform and in doing so, he did more than make Labor fit to govern again.
He fashioned our understanding of ourselves as a party of government.
On the one hand he saw that the affairs of the Labor Party could never be an end in themselves.
On the other, he knew that the Labor Party can never be merely a means to parliamentary power.
I see the Whitlam period of leadership as one which regenerated the idea of the Labor Party as a vital institution in Australian society.
A great force for fairness in our country which must in a very profound and serious way be true to itself, to its best self.
Friends, as Gough Whitlam found, reforming our Party, ensuring it could be a party of government and a party of ideas, isn’t easy.
Whitlam faced scorn and had to fight;
to endure the taunts of my own Branch of the Labor Party the newspaper of which carried a banner headline, WHITLAM, with the W and M crossed out so it spelt HITLA;
To ensure the parliamentary party played its true role of leadership and reform, rather than being dictated to by the faceless men;
To reach out to new constituencies and embrace them in Labor membership and Labor activism.
Here in this great State, following Saturday’s election, those who believe in the enduring values of Labor, now face the same challenge that Whitlam faced:
to rebuild the Party;
to renew the policy
to regain the trust of the people of NSW.
Friends, if Australian politics has a grand old party, it is ours.
Before there was a Parliament of Australia our Party had known great victories and great defeats.
We have done great things.
We created the aged pension, brought the Sixth and Seventh Divisions home from the Middle East, dammed the Snowy, modernised the economy, said sorry to our Indigenous peoples.
Yet ours is also the Party of 1916 and 1932 and 1955, of 1975 and 1996, and 2011 in New South Wales now joins the roll.
Our Party in this State has suffered a shattering, but expected, defeat which must never be forgotten.
For Labor in this State, the test is what we do next.
Our party has come back from punishing defeats before and it can be done again.
Remember how hard it was for those like Gough Whitlam who lived the defeat of 1975 to imagine the victory of 1983.
But for NSW Labor coming back from this defeat will require a hard and honest look at some painful and difficult questions.
NSW Labor must now confront questions of character and culture as it seeks to rebuild, renew and regain.
This means that NSW Labor must recognise there is no productive purpose in blame shifting and settling scores.
Everyone has a theory for what went wrong, and given Labor barely got one in four votes, they might ALL be right.
The truth is, when you do as badly as State Labor did last Saturday, there is plenty of blame to share around and plenty of things that went wrong, but the starting point for the analysis of this defeat must be Kristina Kenneally’s evocative words in her concession speech when she said of the people of New South Wales:
They did not leave us, we left them.
Kristina fought a campaign of extraordinary courage and showed remarkable fortitude, and on Saturday night she was right.
I congratulate John Robertson on his election as NSW Labor Leader.
I would say to him that as he leads the task of rebuilding Labor his most trusted advisers must be the people of NSW themselves. It is with the decent, hard-working people of this State that he must consult. It is their voice he must listen to.
And I believe we can hear their voice loud and clear saying they are sick of the scandals, intolerant of the factionalism, disheartened by the failures to perform.
The direct work of rebuilding in this State will necessarily fall on the shoulders of John and his team.
But as Prime Minister and Federal Labor Leader, it is my role to define what it means for Labor to be its best self. To raise my voice and explain the vision of Labor that should govern the Party’s response here to this defeat and the Party’s response around the nation as we strive to strengthen the Labor Party on following the National Review Report .
And I intend to do so tonight.
Strengthening Labor requires us to be crystal clear about our sense of purpose.
It is periodically fashionable for there to be outbreaks of existential angst in the Labor Party where the cry goes up ‘we don’t know what we stand for’. Even if Labor isn’t raising the cry, media commentators raise it for us with never ending predictions of our imminent demise.
Let me say to you tonight, I am deeply intolerant of this bunkum.
I am absolutely clear what Labor stands for, what we aspire to achieve, what our culture is and our role as a party of government.
The historic mission of our political party is to ensure the fair distribution of opportunity. From the moment of our inception our mission has been to enable the son of the labourer, the daughter of the cleaner, to have access to same the opportunities in life as the son of the millionaire, the daughter of the lawyer.
Creating opportunity and enabling social mobility has required different policies in every age. We have moved beyond the days of big government and big welfare, to opportunity through education and inclusion through participation.
But at every stage in our history fair access to opportunity has been our historic mission.
And we have always acknowledged that access to opportunity comes with obligations to seize that opportunity. To work hard, to set your alarm clocks early, to ensure your children are in school. We are the party of work not welfare, that’s why we respect the efforts of the brickie and look with a jaundiced eye at the lifestyle of the socialite.
The Labor culture values effort more than status.
It prizes the great Australian tradition of informality and rejects the sort of snobbishness and obsequiousness that infect other societies.
Labor culture values the strength that comes from working as a team and supports the role of unions in ensuring working people succeed together and that their work is recognised, rewarded and appreciated.
This is the best self to which Labor must always be true.
This is our continuing culture, born in Barcaldine and Balmain, the culture of mateship and the fair go, hard work and respect, that we have shared from our first days.
And we are the party of the future. From our earliest days we have always known that you don’t turn back; you can’t turn back.
There will always be those who say the way ahead for Labor is to go back.
They said it to Keating and to Hawke, they said it Whitlam and Chifley and Curtin ... they probably said it to Watson too.
We never can.
We have always understood that we must be the interpreters of the future to the present and must shape the future so it is one of fairness. That’s why both tackling climate change and rolling out the National Broadband Network, both very modern challenges, are being approached by us in a very Labor way.
Take climate change, if we drifted to a future of environmental degradation, it would be those with the least means who suffered the worse consequences. That’s why making polluters pay and generously assisting those who need help to adjust is the Labor way.
Take the NBN. If we allowed drift, if we didn’t seize and shape the future, then the digital divide would exacerbate unfairness as today’s poor would become tomorrow’s excluded. That’s why making sure everyone has access to this new technology is the Labor way.
We are a party of opportunity and a party that strives to shape the future.
And we are party of ideas and a party of government.
To provide quality leadership to our community we have to be in touch with it and understand it. That requires continued outreach and never ending respect. We always, always, always have something to learn from our fellow Australians.
And to requires us to reach out and grow our membership. Our members are the future of our Party. We are strengthened by tapping into the boundless idealism and energy of our members and supporters. Our Party must never view itself as some sort of exclusive club. The best people want to be surrounded with the best people.
Labor Party members should always be able to challenge us. Being a party of robust debates is a sign of strength, not weakness.
There must be a genuine contest of ideas and arguments within the Party.
But we must never lose sight of the fact that the only way to turn the ideas that mean so much to us into a reality is to win government.
We are a party of government with all the attachment to the political centre and to pragmatic decision making that comes with being a party of government.
A party of government and proud of it.
We happily leave to the Greens being a party of protest with no tradition of striking the balance required to deliver major reform.
Like the economic transformation of the 1980s, these new reforms can only be delivered in the progressive Labor tradition.
The differences between Labor and the Greens take many forms but at the bottom of it are two vital ones.
The Greens wrongly reject the moral imperative to a strong economy.
The Greens have some worthy ideas and many of their supporters sincerely want a better politics in our country. They have good intentions but fail to understand the centrepiece of our big picture - the people Labor strives to represent need work.
And the Greens will never embrace Labor’s delight at sharing the values of every day Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation.
Meanwhile, the federal conservatives have surrendered themselves to fear mongering and in the carbon debate even deny the power of markets.
They have abandoned a 25 year consensus for reform in Australian politics and embraced a populist substance and style quite alien to our political traditions.
An extreme leadership powered by an out of touch backbench is now determined on a strategy of opposition for opposition’s sake.
It is a commonplace to say that that the party of Fraser is unrecognisable today, but in truth, the growing extremism of the Abbott Liberals is such, the party of Howard is disappearing from view.
The government I lead will always be driven by my vision of Labor as our best self.
A government for opportunity, for shaping the future, for the many.
A government getting on with governing.
There are many important recommendations in the National Review Report and we have rightly been called upon to strengthen our party around the nation.
At the same time, restoring the true Labor culture to the Branch in New South Wales is vital.
Our Party’s officials and members have much work to do.
But as Prime Minister my higher obligation is to govern well.
To rebuild disaster-stricken communities; to share opportunity through the Government’s education and participation reforms.
To shape the future by pricing carbon, rolling out the NBN, and delivering a better health care system and to see our mission through in Afghanistan.
That is what I was elected for and that is what I will do.
I’ve congratulated Barry O’Farrell and the Coalition on their New South Wales election result.
We’re committed to working cooperatively with the incoming O’Farrell Government to achieve the best results for the people of New South Wales.
People rightly expect governments of all persuasions to work together in vital areas such as health, education and infrastructure, to deliver better services and build stronger communities.
The people of NSW are demanding progress, not politics.
In the same way, if there is one lesson of the Whitlam Government it is this.
You can’t govern without a strong economy.
So having talked about the party and politics, let me talk about jobs and opportunity about the coming Budget.
In truth, for many Australians, the election six days ago will matter less than the Budget in six weeks’ time.
After difficult years for the economy, we are facing a huge boom – the biggest mining boom in 150 years.
Since 2004, mining investment has increased five fold.
This year, Australian industry will invest more money into mining than the whole country invests in building new houses – something that has never happened before.
One single project – the $43 billion Gorgon gas project – is worth about the same as two years of output in agriculture.
Or to take a more domestic analogy, five years ago the money earned from exporting 10,000 tonnes of iron ore would buy about 280 dishwashers.
Today it would buy you around 1400 dishwashers.
On any measure, we are living through a boom and that boom is a good thing.
Mine workers earn higher wages, suppliers benefit, superannuation funds earn more and the higher dollar is cutting prices for household goods like clothes, appliances, televisions and computers.
The boom is good news for Australia and we should celebrate it.
The challenge for the country and for the economy is to manage that boom well – to nurture it so that it lasts – by investing in productivity while preventing inflationary pressures from running out of control.
As we saw in the last years of the Liberal Government, without strict management of the Budget, the economic boom will cause prices and interest rates to spiral out of control.
That’s because the private sector will employ more people, spend more money, and build more projects – and that means unless the government pulls back on spending, we will be chasing the same scarce resources.
We all know that strong economies risk inflationary pressures and that’s why we have to make the right decisions and not take risks with people’s cost of living.
In other words, good economic management isn’t just good for the economy – it’s good for the family budget as well.
We will keep a tight rein on spending to return the Budget to surplus and keep our economy strong.
That’s responsible economic management.
This budget will be about making the right decisions for the country; the right decisions for families and the right decisions for jobs.
I will never risk the economy and people’s jobs for the soft political option of putting off hard decisions to next time.
We know this because we saw the opposite happen under the Liberal Government.
John Howard’s Cabinet spent billions of dollars buying votes instead of investing in a more productive economy through things like broadband, health and education.
And because the government was spending so much money, without investing in a more productive economy, we saw inflationary pressures spiral out of control.
The Liberals ignored 20 warnings from the Reserve Bank about inflation – they did nothing and interest rates continued to rise and rise and rise after they had promised they would stay at record lows.
I believe a Budget surplus is a key sign of a strong economy.
It means we are prepared when the country’s luck turns, and we are hit with a crisis like the GFC.
And it means we are prepared when individuals’ luck turns as well – because we have a strong social safety net.
So we face a choice.
We can take these tough decisions now to bring the budget back to surplus – or we can put them off to the nevernever, which will just make these decisions harder and these cuts more severe when the time comes.
It’s like looking after your health – you can see a GP today – or you can put it off, and be forced into emergency surgery down the track.
A fiscal blowout 10 years down the track would mean radical cuts to key social services – like public education, universal health care, and pensions.
Around the world, we see Governments facing huge structural deficits which are forced to slash education funding, public services and entitlements.
Together, we can take the tough decisions to deliver a Budget surplus in 2012-13 and keep the economy strong.
That’s what we said we will do and we will do it.
Even given the budget pressures which do result from natural disasters at home and overseas.
Taking some pain now will ensure that households avoid a lot more pain in the future.
There is a strong progressive logic to this approach.
When the private sector was in retreat, the government stepped forward to fill the gap – it was controversial but it was right.
Now that the private sector is charging forward, it’s time for the government to pull back on spending.
This budget will be about making the right decisions for the country, the right decisions for families and the right decisions for jobs:
A Budget to nurture the boom so that it lasts;
A Budget to respond to “patchwork pressures” in the economy;
A Budget to make hard decisions now to prevent long-term pain;
A Budget to grow jobs and share opportunity a Labor Budget;
Friends, we meet tonight not to honour our past but to address our future, just as Whitlam’s Labor was always about the future, not the past.
And friends, in New South Wales, our eyes must be on the future.
A future in touch with the community.
A future of increase party membership and new policy ideas.
A future in which I trust John Robertson’s team will strive to be known by what it proposes not what it opposes.
I am a realist and I know that for NSW Labor the journey of reform ahead will be long and at times painful.
But I’m also an optimist: optimistic as I articulate the Labor vision; optimistic as I urge NSW Labor to renew, rebuild and regain.
And above all else, like Gough, I am a complete optimist about the future of our country.
I firmly believe that the best days of our nation are in front of it, not behind it.
I understand that the challenges of today and tomorrow can easily leave us yearning for what we remember as a kinder and simpler past age.
But I do not believe in romanticising the past. I do not believe in being afraid of the future.
We best combat fear by taking deliberate steps to shape the future together, a future of opportunity for all.
This the Labor way.
This is the Australian way.