The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer

3 December 2007 - 27 June 2013

24 November 2010

NO.029

The Purpose Of Our Politics

Book Event "All That's Left: What Labor Should Stand For"

Canberra

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Thanks Nick [Martin] for the introduction, and thanks to the Chifley Research Centre and the editors of this book for bringing together so many friends dedicated to such an important topic – Labor's purpose in politics.

Let's start by admitting here today our Labor Government dodged a bullet on August 21 and the Australian people have put us on notice. Those of us who devote our lives to this cause know how serious this is and how close we came to an historic, humiliating defeat.

We saw big swings against us, not only in the outer suburbs of my own home state but also in the city seats that have voted Labor for generations.

We came within a whisker of losing government despite the best performing advanced economy in the world, despite substantially increasing the pension, despite fairer workplace laws, despite record investments in human capital, and despite cutting income tax three times.

Now we find ourselves in this peculiar position of reviewing and renewing so soon after the euphoria that accompanied that night, exactly three years ago, when we swept Howard from the political stage and brought fairness and decency back to public life.

Yes, mistakes have been made, and we own those mistakes. But we have been given a precious opportunity to repair them, and we will.

Everybody agrees we need to better understand and better communicate what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how it fits within the overall direction of the government.

So let me take some time today to share with you my understanding of some of the principles that guide us, that make us distinctive, and that drew us into politics and public life in the first place.

I joined our Party thirty-six years ago. In all the ups and downs of those 36 years I have never had more cause for reflection than during those 17 sleepless nights we endured before we could form this Gillard Government.

For someone like me, who cares so much for a Labor Party that has sustained me and my country for so long, our near-defeat cut very deep. And I'm here today because I promised myself that win or lose I would contribute what I could to the hard yards of rebuilding our movement.

We have a strong foundation to build on. We are creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, building a National Broadband Network, putting a price on carbon, reforming our tax system, fixing hospitals and schools, and keeping our economy very strong.

I look around the room at G20 meetings and there's only a handful of other countries that still have centre-left governments. It's a tough time for progressive parties.

Here at home, Tony Abbott copies the same opportunistic, populist slogans we hear from the Tea Party in the United States. Parties of the extreme Right all have the same cynical strategy: to seize up the wheels of progressive government then complain it isn't achieving anything.

To counter this, we've got a better story to tell than any of our counterparts – we've got better plans, a better record, and the economy's in better condition. Everyone in our Party, and everyone in our country, can be proud of that.

Now, in this period of reflection as well as action, there are going to be many views about what has happened and what needs to be done. Already there have been fantastic contributions from the Prime Minister, from the National Secretary, from Penny Wong and Greg Combet, and from the thoughtful friends who contributed to the book we gather to promote today.

In my remarks I'll leave the organisational matters to others and concentrate instead on the most important issue for me – our core purpose. For me that core purpose has always started with two words: prosperity and opportunity.

Two simple words that guide the focus on education and employment that lies at the core of this Government's policy agenda.

Two simple words that sum up why I get up early every morning without cursing the alarm clock.

Two simple words that go to the very heart of what I believe membership of our Party, our unions, and our movement is all about.

Two words that encapsulate the modern, competitive, low-pollution economy we need in a country where success can be determined by effort, education and enterprise, and not by birth.

Two words that best encapsulate the Government's single-minded focus on jobs. Not just the jobs we've created, or the jobs we've protected, but the jobs we'll create into the future. And not just any jobs but meaningful jobs, with decent pay and fair conditions.

People often ask me what holds Labor together, especially as our views on particular policies can vary so widely. There is room for difference, sometimes wide difference. But we all believe in a role for government and a role for markets in improving the lives of our people. We have a distinctive approach, a proud record, a consistent philosophy, and a contemporary purpose. But the means of achieving our goals change with every generation.

Today our objective is to grasp the opportunities that flow from mining boom mark two to build a more modern, competitive, high-tech, low-pollution economy which does more to reward honest, hard-working Australians no matter where they live.

Our goal is genuine social mobility – in a society where anyone who works or studies hard enough can succeed, no matter who their parents are, or what postcode they grew up in.

To my grandparents' contemporaries the goal of left politics was to help people fend off starvation.

To my parents' generation the goal was to spread a modest affluence – buying a small home, a basic car, a clothes washer.

Then the goal was to create new opportunities for equality through tertiary education, universal health cover, an end to entrenched discrimination.

That has all changed. And that change is to be celebrated. As Tony Judt wrote not long before his death, the world we inhabit is the creation of social-democratic parties like ours.

Just as in the United States the Democrats have to defend it from the cheap Tea Party populism that has taken over the Republicans, we have to defend it today from the new surge of economic Hansonism that has conquered the Coalition ever since they abandoned their economic credentials under Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey.

Through debate and evolution we have remained the party of hope for each generation – fending off Communists, the DLP, the Democrats and others. This is because even at our lowest points Labor's had more ambition for Australia, more idealism, and more purpose than our opponents. Our policies, our results, our determination – that's what sets us apart.

I don't cast our conservative opponents as ideologues - they're cynics. That's why when they controlled the Senate they didn't slash the size of the state, as their ideology demanded, they attacked unions. They use ideas to further their power; we use power to further our ideas.

And today we face a new challenge, quite unlike our century long struggle with conservatives.

Too many of the new generation of activists, fired up like I was in 1974 by the idea of a fairer society, are joining the Greens. Our base is fracturing. There's a tension between our core constituencies in the inner cities and the outer suburbs and regions. That's the reality. No use pretending otherwise.

So the challenge is not just to hold on to votes but to attract the best of future generations to become the activists and community leaders we need. And in this debate about Labor's purpose, and in this contest for the young, the answer lies not in fringe issues of the far left, but in bread-and-butter idealism that says it all begins with prosperity and opportunity.

You see, our passion is not for dissent, but for action. Not ranting, but reform. We should be frank about the challenges of selling that proposition. Inevitably, in busy lives, people of intelligence, passion and commitment may distil those energies into single causes. I don't belittle that – I understand why it happens.

But I do say this to the politically committed of this generation – it is Labor, for all its imperfections, for all that things may not happen quickly enough, that is the hope of the side for advancing progressive causes across a broad front.

Our political shoulders are broad enough, our history deep enough, our talent strong enough, to make reform happen.

It won't always be the charge of the light brigade – spectacular, history-making, and futile. But we win more battles than we lose, and our achievements – whether beating a recession or introducing Medicare – are enduring monuments to progressive achievement.

Joining Labor doesn't mean signing up to un-worldly idealism leading to inevitable disillusion. Membership of the Labor Party is a summons to public service. It's a cause bigger than ourselves. It's an expression of love for our country and for its people.

It all begins with prosperity and opportunity, and that means education and employment.

Ours is an idealism that says of course we can create and protect opportunities for everyone who wants to work.

Of course we can add another 380,000 jobs over the next 18 months to the 650,000 we created during our first term, despite the sharpest global downturn in living memory. Of course we can face the people in 2013 having created a million new jobs, and saved so many more.

Of course we can make opportunity and social mobility the birthright of every Australian no matter where they're born, who their parents are, or what school they went to.

Our jobs focus may not be the most exciting expression of our mission but it is the most important, and the most enduring – the one idea that unites all of our movement, and all of our country. A focus on jobs has never been more important.

I'm not one for slogans, but I know the purpose of our politics when I see it. I saw it in the eyes of every single one of my colleagues when the financial crisis hit. I saw it in the eyes of people in my community. And I saw it in our policy response – built as it was on the conviction that we needed to protect those who could least protect themselves from the worst the world could throw at us.

When the global recession hit, history called on us to do remarkable things at a remarkable time, against the determined opposition of conservatives who'd rather see the country fail than a Labor government succeed.

At the height of the crisis I drew a parallel between the experience of the Scullin Government in 1929 and the Rudd Government in 2008. Both were elected with high hopes for reform, both with great plans in the policy tank, but both were hit by severe economic turbulence.

History records that through the lack of the necessary financial acumen, experience and policy levers Scullin's government failed. But we learned the lessons from history.

We learned to employ the right policy response and we learned to hold our nerve. And as a result, when the history books are written, our response will be regarded as one of the more successful moments in Labor's history.

Thankfully for Australia, 2008-09 lacks the tragedy of 1929-32 because it protected the jobs, homes and prosperity of the great mass of Labor's supporters, and kick-started crucial nation-building infrastructure. These are among our party's proudest and finest achievements.

To those who callously argue the GFC was an illusion and that mass prosperity was not threatened, I say look to the United States, mired in a deep recession and deepening social inequality, and where the answers are being sought in cheap populism not deep public policy. Look to Europe.

By contrast, we beat the recession in a way that helped battlers first, protected their jobs, kept their savings intact, raised their pensions and take home pay, and rebuilt their schools and social infrastructure. It shows what a progressive party with the right values can achieve despite immense challenges.

Labor's history is too often written as a series of glorious defeats. In fact, we're probably the only country where history is written by the losers. This time we can write this chapter as winners.

More importantly, we can write the next chapter with confidence. We can propel this country into the future unshackled by the mass unemployment and business failures that ruin other nations.

With a bit of commitment and foresight we can harness the investment that comes with mining boom mark two and really set this place up for the next 10 or 20 years, or more. It's exciting to think we can be the Party that builds an NBN, that puts a price on carbon, that boosts superannuation, and all the rest.

As our response to the Global Financial Crisis demonstrated, Labor isn't about gesture politics or political theory. We're about reform in action - the collision of ideas with the realities of Australian life.

That's where books like the one we're talking about today come in. They feed our hunger for reform and they keep us up to the mark. They nourish our philosophy. They inspire us and spur us on. You can't survive 120 years as a political party without books like these.

And because we are a party of reform in action our debate about renewal should be focused on what we can achieve. Not looking in the rear view mirror, not debating abstractions without practical application, but using honest and robust exchange to enrich and strengthen the practical possibilities of the future.

That's the approach I took with my own book Postcodes, which focused on pockets of disadvantage in our community, and an essay in 2002 called Westfield Mallers, which tried to dissect the problem we had at the time with aspirational voters. And I helped Mick Young write I Want to Work, about the employment challenges of the early 1980s.

Today of course a new generation like the editors and authors in this volume, including my good friends Dennis Glover and Paul Howes, keep the thinking and the publishing and the debating going. They know, like I do, that Paul Keating was spot-on when he said politics is an ideas market, and when you run the ideas you run the market.

The wealth of ideas in a book like this is one of the reasons why I'm such an optimist about Labor's future. After 36 years of activism I'm more fired up about the cause of Labor than I have ever been, and I know from your attendance today that you are too.

Thank you.