Speech: Light on the Hill







I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Wiradjuri people, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

100 years ago, Ben Chifley got the sack.

He – and tens of thousands of his union comrades – stood up to protect the pay and conditions of working people.

And they were attacked for it – their actions and even their characters impugned.

Young unionist Ben Chifley lost his job but was eventually rehired with less pay and lost seniority.

His family say he was even briefly gaoled for his role in organising the Great Strike.

100 years after their predecessors took that historic action - I am delighted to see the RTBU are here in force tonight.

How proud Ben Chifley would be to see you here – a century on – still union strong.

I see good people from many unions, brothers and sisters, in every corner of this room.

Every day – you stand up for working people:

-       for their safety at work,

-       for their job security,

-       for the right to earn a decent living,

-       for the chance to get ahead.

And every day you come up against the same entrenched defence of the status quo.

The people who don’t think inequality is a problem – because they’ve never been on the wrong side of it.

The people who don’t see the point of the safety net – because they’ll never need it.

And a century of economic and social change hasn’t moved their mindset.

A century of change hasn’t altered the truth Ben Chifley knew.

When you stand up to vested interests – vested interests fight back hard.

And when they cannot win on the issue – they attack the individual.

We see it every day in Question Time.

Peter Dutton and Christopher Pyne practically foam at the mouth talking about the union movement.

They think it’s some explosive revelation that Labor and the unions share a bond.

They think they’ve unearthed a political secret – hidden for 126 years.

Let me tell you, in the Labor Party, we wear the word union as a badge of honour.

Bill Shorten is proud of the lifetime he has spent in the service of working people.

And I am proud that the next Labor Prime Minister of Australia will be someone who has dedicated his life to standing up for ordinary Australians: their pay, their conditions, their security and their safety.

Someone who has actually visited a workplace without a TV camera in tow.

Someone who doesn’t just ride the train for an excursion – but supports the Australians who drive the trains, and build them, and the people who catch the train to jobs that start early and finish late.

Ben Chifley was a plain-speaker – so let me put it bluntly: give me a union leader over an investment banker any day.

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War, and of the Great Strike.

And it marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle for Australia.

Seventy-five years since war came to our region and our shores:

-       the bombing of Darwin and the north-west coast,

-       the Japanese occupation of Papua New Guinea, and

-       the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Twenty-five years after his employers questioned his character, Ben Chifley stood side-by-side with John Curtin in Australia’s darkest hour.

Helping share the heaviest burden any Australian Prime Minister has ever carried.

Those two Labor giants knew – all along - that winning the war also meant winning the peace.

Victory meant more than defeating the Nazis in Europe and Japan in the Pacific.

Because the Second World War wasn’t just a fight against the threat of domination or occupation – real as that threat was.

It was a Battle for Australia.

For the nation we had built, for the towns and suburbs we called home, for the ideas around which we forged an identity: fairness, opportunity, solidarity.

And victory meant holding true to those ideas.

It meant building a society worthy of the courage and sacrifice of the Australians who fought to keep their country free.

It meant an economy serving working people – not the other way around.

And it meant full employment - finding jobs for half-a-million men coming home from the war.

Although of course in those days full employment didn’t include the women who had been working in the factories and on the farms, who were sent back to the kitchen when the men returned home.

For Ben Chifley, winning the peace meant making government work for working Australians. 

He decided to build on earlier reforms like a living wage and industrial arbitration - our “social laboratory”.

He took on the biggest and most ambitious referendum question in Australian history.

Asking the Australian people to endorse a whole new set of Commonwealth constitutional powers:

-       maternity allowances,

-       pensions for widows,

-       family payments,

-       support for the unemployed,

-       affordable medicine, health care and dental services.

Prime Minister Chifley asked the Australian people to vote for the single greatest expansion of the social safety net.

And – because it was his government, the Labor Government which had won the war and built the peace – Australians voted yes.

Ben Chifley didn’t hold an unnecessary postal survey on a question of basic equality.

He held a national referendum because that was needed for him to take responsibility, so he could deliver unprecedented national progress.

Chifley’s referendum wasn’t an act of cowardice, forced on him by his back bench.

It was a deed of courage, driven by a vision for the future.

And when those building blocks were in place:

-       the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme

-       work underway on Snowy-Mountains hydro

-       a thriving national manufacturing base; and

-       the beginning of multicultural Australia – as millions like my parents, displaced by war, came to make their new home;

Bob Menzies came to power and claimed the credit.

Menzies and the Liberals – who, while Australians were fighting in defence of the nation, spent their time fighting about the best name for their new party.

Who, in the middle of an actual war, spent their time complaining about a phony ‘class war’.

Pretenders who tried to say the generation of prosperity that flowed was all their doing.

They’ve been doing it ever since.

It’s the story of politics and progress in this nation.

Labor builds the big things, we draw the plans, we lay the foundations, we drive the work, skyward, stone by stone – and the Conservatives turn-up to cut the ribbon.

Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating opened Australia to the world, they built a modern, competitive, co-operative economy.

And John Howard and Peter Costello splurged the proceeds.

Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan led the world in their response to the Global Financial Crisis.

The Labor stimulus kept businesses open and Australians in work.

Our economy didn’t just weather the storm – it actually grew.

And the Liberals voted against it - apart from Tony Abbott who slept through the whole thing.

At least Tony has admitted he was drunk.

Malcolm Turnbull was stone-cold sober and still voted against Australian jobs.

Julia Gillard and Jenny Macklin and Bill Shorten worked with tens of thousands of Australians with disability and their carers to deliver the world’s best National Disability Insurance Scheme.

And now the Liberals are trying to use it as an excuse to raise taxes on working people.

Giving a tax-cut to millionaires – a $16,400 refund for someone on a million dollars.

Giving away $65 billion in big business tax cuts.

But telling a nurse on $65,000 she needs to pay an extra $350 in tax because times are tight.

That’s the Liberals for you, tax cuts for multinationals and millionaires and pay cuts and tax hikes for working people.

Make no mistake, Australia faces profound challenges.

Decent, secure, well paid jobs

Predictions are that around 40 per cent of Australian jobs will be replaced by new technology over the next ten to 15 years.

Yet we’ve seen the Liberals goad Australian car manufacturers into leaving Australia.

We will lose more than 90,000 jobs by 2020 as a result of their reckless actions.

We’re not training young Australians for many of the jobs that do exist – there are 148,000 fewer apprentices and trainees today than when Labor left office.

It’s not just manual labour that will be replaced by machines.

Professional jobs will also be swept away by technology.

Ailira is an Adelaide designed artificial intelligence unit that can give complicated answers on tax questions – it’s like Siri for lawyers and accountants - and can do the work that used to be done by junior lawyers or paralegals.

Of course, at the same time as we’re losing some types of work, others are emerging.

The biggest growth in new jobs in coming years will be in health and caring roles, but as traditionally female work, the danger is that these jobs will be low paid and insecure.

Energy and climate change

We have skyrocketing energy prices and a looming crisis in baseload energy generation which threatens business closures and summer blackouts.

And the existential threat of climate change.

Yet we have an investment strike in new energy generation because Malcolm Turnbull can’t stand up to Tony Abbott.

Under Labor, carbon pollution fell by 10 per cent, under the Liberals it has gone up again; including 1.4 per cent in the last quarter alone.

Under Labor, jobs in renewables tripled.

Under the Coalition, almost 6,000 have been lost.

It’s looking increasingly likely we won’t meet the bi-partisan pollution reduction target we’ve signed up to under the Paris Climate Accord.

As one of my favourite political staffers, Malcolm Tucker, from the BBC comedy “The Thick of It”, would say it’s an omnishambles: higher energy prices, more pollution, fewer jobs and more blackouts.

International uncertainty

The security map of our region, and beyond, is being redrawn by North Korean nuclear aggression, tensions in the South China sea, continuing conflict in the Middle East, weakening bonds in Europe and the growing influence of non-state actors in conflicts around the world.

Some are predicting the decline of the US and the rise of political “outsiders”.

There are more refugees and displaced persons than ever before in human history.

Countries are turning inwards, and democratic ideals are under pressure.


And as we face these challenges, in Australia our traditional egalitarianism is at risk.

After 25 years of continuous growth, our society is less equal than it’s been in 75 years.

We have 2.9 million people living below the poverty line.

We have 1.8 million people either unemployed or underemployed.

We have the lowest wages growth on record.

Australians are working harder than ever, but they are not getting ahead.

This week it was reported that household income has grown by about $3 per year over the last decade.

Yet corporate profits continue to soar and executive salaries have ballooned.

The link between increased productivity and improved standards of living for workers has been severed.

This low wage growth is not just bad for the people struggling to make ends meet; it’s bad for all of us.

Low wages and insecure work mean decreased aggregate demand which leads to weaker overall economic growth.

People who are worried about paying the electricity bill, or whether they will have a job next week, don’t buy that coffee on the way to work.

They don’t take the kids to the movies on Friday night.

They keep their money in their pockets; they don’t create work for others.

It is truly shameful that our annual growth performance is now lower than countries that went into recession during the GFC.

We need to face these uncertainties:

-        job destruction caused by digital disruption, where the new jobs will come from and what type of work they will be,

-       the energy omnishambles,

-       global insecurity, and

-       increasing insecurity and inequality driven by stagnant wages growth.

But – whatever questions we face in securing a better future – a tax cut for millionaires and a pay cut for workers isn’t the answer.

Whatever the problem, the failed doctrine of trickle-down economics is not the solution.

Any more than renationalisation, or command-and-control.

As Ben Chifley told the NSW Conference 70 years ago:

The methods of twenty years ago are no good today.

We can’t go backwards: we can only find a new way forward.

A new growth story

We need a new growth story, a new plan for inclusive prosperity, a new way to deliver an economy that works for everyone.

We need to face the new challenges thrown at us and be brave and innovative in tackling them.

Why wouldn’t we set ourselves the challenge of being the first nation on earth to get inclusive prosperity right?

We have an open and market orientated economy which is the 13th largest in the world.

We are a multicultural nation, home to the oldest continuous cultures on earth, proud of our ethnic and racial diversity and part of the world’s fastest growing region.

We have strong democratic institutions, good governance structures with a Western, liberal “live and let live” culture.

We have a long life expectancy and high levels of education.

We have so much going for us.

And we have a history of brave, innovative reforms driven by Labor governments.

Getting inclusive prosperity right means making decisions today that will benefit generations to come.

It means strong economic growth that benefits us all.

For Labor – tackling inequality will always begin with education.


I have spoken to parents all over the country and all over the world who want the same thing for their children as I want for mine: a decent education which gives them the best chance of making the most of their gifts and leading a happy and successful life.

In my family it is education that has propelled us in three generations from dirt-poor subsistence farming to comfort; and allowed us the privilege of repaying some of the debt we owe Australia.

But it’s not just an investment we make in ourselves, it’s the investment we make in our nation.

It also how we make and remake ourselves as a new economy and a better society.

It is the fuel for inclusive prosperity and the fruit of it.

It matters from the very beginning - Labor believes childcare is more than a workforce enabler for parents, and recognises it for the early learning opportunity that it is.

Labor has had great success in establishing universal access to pre-school for four year olds.

Our next challenge is extending universal pre-school access to three year olds.

And when children start school, parents should have the confidence that their local school can offer their child a world class education, because every single Australian school should be great.

Our children should be learning more Asian languages and coding, the language of the 21st century.

We should return teaching to a high status profession which attracts and retains genius teachers.

I wanted to throw something at the television when I saw Malcolm Turnbull claiming “Gonski” as his greatest achievement when we all know his deal cuts $17 billion from our schools and hits public schools the hardest.

And now the government wants to test children in year one at the same time as cutting the extra resources that would help those kids catch up if they are found to be struggling.

Only under Labor will our schools be properly funded, with the biggest funding increases in the fastest time to the neediest schools.

And as we transition from the resources boom to a more diverse, knowledge based economy, we must ensure that young Australians have the skills they need to compete in the global race for jobs.

Knowing that by 2020 two out of every three new jobs will require a diploma or higher qualification, we must ensure young Australians have the opportunity for an affordable and high quality TAFE education, and good quality apprenticeships that lead to decent jobs with nationally recognised qualifications.

And universities too - every single one of our competitors is investing in universities – yet the Liberals are cutting billions of dollars and driving up student fees.

Our universities should be world class, and open to any Australian who is prepared to study hard and learn.

Our unis also need to drive innovation, do basic and applied research and partner with business and government to ensure their discoveries make us a better, wealthier country.

It is people like Chifley, who attended classes run by the Workers' Educational Association and the Bathurst branch technical school – and people like my own mother and father - intelligent people denied an education - who know best who know best its value.

Chifley once said he would have given 1000 pounds for Bob Menzies’ education.

Chifley wanted that education for himself – but he didn’t want to hoard such privilege.

He wanted to ensure, as Labor still does that every child, in every school, has the opportunity of a great education; that every Australian can have the lifelong learning that will become increasingly necessary.

It’s always the people who attended the most expensive schools, who send their children to those schools, who tell the poorest kids in the poorest schools that money doesn’t matter when it comes to education spending.

Full employment

A great education is a good start, but for our country to be prosperous and fair, our aim must be full employment.

When Chifley modernised the Reserve Bank in 1945, he also gave it the task of the “maintenance of full employment in Australia”.

That legislated objective remains today.

For Labor, full employment in secure and rewarding jobs must be a guiding light in every decision we make.

Strong Economy and a Fair Society

That’s why we aim to increase trade – especially with the world’s fastest growing markets created by the new middle classes of Asia.

That’s why we invest in research and development - to provide an environment in which innovation and entrepreneurship thrive; to create new goods and services we can sell to the world.

That’s why we value good governance, low corruption, less red tape, more harmonisation and less duplication in laws.

It’s why we pursue investment in productivity enhancing infrastructure – creating good jobs building it and less time sitting in traffic because of it.

But we don’t just want more jobs; we want better jobs.

A Labor government will support increases in the minimum wage.

Alongside our union brothers and sisters we will campaign against the Liberals’ penalty rate cuts every day, from now until the election.

And if we win the next election, in our first 100 days we will restore penalty rates to the 700,000 workers who had them ripped out of their pay packets, while this Government stood by and applauded.

Labor will restore the link between increased productivity and wage increases.

That means redressing imbalance in the industrial relations system to improve the bargaining power of workers, especially in the face of the growth of the gig economy which promises innovation and convenience for consumers, but risks undermining pay and conditions for an insecure workforce.

It means encouraging union membership, which is more important than ever as fewer workers have the protections of full time permanent work.

Full employment also means men and women participating in equal proportion in the workforce and in caring roles.

A fair and inclusive society is only possible if we are determined to eliminate gender segregation in the workplace, and with it the gender pay gap and retirement income gap.

We support a fair tax system that rewards hard work as well as a safety net that supports people with dignity when they can’t work.

And of course, because we are Labor, we will protect Medicare and our world class health system, and recommit to prevention and primary health – keeping people well and out of hospital.

We will continue to fight for the principle that every person has dignity and worth, because we can’t be strong if we are not just.

That means closing the gap with Indigenous Australians; it means marriage equality; in the immediate future it means a proper response to the child abuse royal commission including a national redress scheme; and in the longer term it means eliminating sexual and family violence; racism and other forms of discrimination and violence.

We know that each decision we make in government matters, because just as a one or two degree error in the auto-pilot settings doesn’t make much difference to a journey in the first few kilometres, by the time you’ve flown a thousand or ten thousand kilometres, those small mistakes early on will have sent you way off course.

We need to set a fair course for the long term.

And we need to do it now.

Our ambition must be to be the first country in the world to really get inclusive prosperity right.

To make sure that no one is left behind.

Friends, it's been 66 years since our nation woke to the news of Ben Chifley's death.

The Bathurst he grew up in, the Labor Party he led, the Australia he loved – that we all love - have all changed beyond the reach of his imagination.

And yet when we gather tonight it is not just Ben Chifley's memory we celebrate.

It is not just his legacy we honour.

We meet tonight to remember but also to renew.

To give the old words, new meaning.

To pursue "the great objective" with new passion.

To bring the “light on the hill” within reach of a new generation.

Ben Chifley's life and death remind us that achieving progress takes a human toll, that delivering a better deal is a struggle, fought inch-by-inch.

But we are prepared for the toll, we are committed to the struggle.

What he did, the country he left behind, the Australia that Labor built; they remind us - as he said, 66 years ago – that some things are worth fighting for.

And they always will be.