SPEECH: Opening of Australian Young Labor Conference, Saturday 4 February 2017






4 FEBRUARY 2017 



I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting and pay respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal Nation both past and present.

I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in attendance today.

It is with great pleasure that I stand before you to open the 2017 Australian Young Labor National Conference.

I congratulate all of you on being elected as delegates from your states or territories to this national conference.

Try and have some fun over the next couple of days.

You should enjoy this chance to test yourself:

- to argue

- to debate 

- and even to socialise.

We in Labor are never afraid of a healthy debate.

If you doubt that for a moment I urge you to come along to Sydney Town Hall and watch the NSW annual conference in full flight.

In Labor, we accept that good people can disagree on matters close to their hearts.

It will be a better conference if you:

- engage genuinely, 

- wrestle intellectually,

- listen closely, 

- encourage the shy ones to speak up, and

- behave with honour and kindness to each other.

Come with open minds.

I know that factions are important to the running of this conference but do not dismiss an idea or thought out of hand because it comes out of the mouth of someone from the other side of the room.

I urge you to take the time now, to look around you at your fellow delegates.

The women and men in this room may go on to great things in our Party.

In this room are future union leaders and Ministers, potential Premiers and even Prime Ministers.

And, of course, the ballast of our party – the true believers, who never hold office, but sustain us in easy times and hard ones.

The fate of our Party and our country will one day lie in your hands.

We need Young Labor to work, now more than ever, as the task before us is a great one.

For we are subject to that ancient - and probably apocryphal - Chinese curse, memorably captured by Robert F. Kennedy in a speech given to the National Union of South African Students in 1966…

…we live in interesting times.

Two fundamental events mean the political certainties that have carried us through recent decades no longer hold.

The first was the invasion of Iraq by a US-led and Australian supported military coalition in 2003…

…a move opposed by Labor at the time.

The fallout from this ill-judged act continues.

The second world-changing event, of course, was the Great Recession of 2008.

This event - and its ongoing repercussions –fundamentally shook the blind belief in unfettered markets which had become orthodoxy for so many.

It is probably too early to say what the events of 2003 and 2008 mean in the long term for our Party, our country and our world.

For example, it would not have been believable had I opened your 2015 conference with a prediction that by the time of your 2017 conference Donald Trump would be in the White House.

While it's becoming harder than ever to predict the future, there are a few trends I wanted to examine with you today:

These are:

- first, the decline in the fortunes of social democratic parties, 

- second, an increase in economic uncertainty and inequality, and 

- third, an increasing changeability in the Australian electorate.

The first trend is particular relevant to our Party. 

It has brought many sister parties of the ALP to their knees.

These parties are our fellow members of the International Progressive Alliance – a global network of labour, social democratic and socialist parties.

Their fate is instructive.

I’ll start in Greece.

The Greek political party PASOK ruled Greece from 1981 through to 2012 interrupted by only two short separate terms in opposition.

As recently as 2009 it won an election with around 44 per cent of the vote.

By 2015 its share of the vote had dropped to five per cent with most of its traditional supporters transferring their allegiance to the left wing Syriza Party.

Spain provides another example.

As does the  decline of the French Socialists and the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

In the UK, the British Labour Party saw a backlash that first benefitted the Liberal Democrats…

…and then saw Labour’s wipe out in Scotland by the anti-austerity SNP…

…followed by a hostile take-over of the Party by Jeremy Corbyn.

In the US, of course, we’ve seen a Democrat administration that rebuilt the US after the GFC, and introduced life changing health reforms, defeated by a candidate who no credible commentator initially thought could even win the Republican primary.

What all these parties have in common is that they are social democratic parties who have faced their own mortality in the face of increasing uncertainty and inequality.

Sometimes the threat has been from the left, sometimes from the right…

….sometimes internal, sometimes external.

But the trend is undeniable and sobering.

And it leads to the second development I wish to explore: increasing economic uncertainty and inequality.

Their impact is different in Australia than in the countries I just mentioned.

We suffered less from the GFC – largely due to the actions of the Labor government – and in particular my good friend Wayne Swan.

And while inequality has grown it has not grown to the extent of some other nations.

But people feel insecure. 

They are worried about their jobs, and what kind of jobs their kids will do. 

The global economy remains in a state of high volatility and technology is disrupting our labour market and the way we work.

Were another economic shock to occur we no longer have the weapons in the arsenal we used in 2008 – either in Australia or abroad - with interest rates in most countries either near zero or negative and public debt significantly higher.

The Turnbull Government has no credible economic plan to deal with any of these issues.

Indeed under their stewardship:

- the economy contracted by half a per cent in the September quarter, 

- there are 35,000 fewer full time jobs, 

- wages growth is at historic lows, 

- underemployment is at historic highs, 

- the deficit has triple, and 

- $100 billion has been added to net debt. 

Inflation is well below a healthy rate and the RBA’s target range.

The AAA rating that Labor won from the three major credit agencies for the first time in history is now at risk….

…threatening to push up borrowing costs, including mortgage repayments.

And inequality is at 75 year highs.

Labor has supported increases to the minimum wage, while the Coalition has argued against those increases and right now many of its members are on record supporting a cut to the penalty rates that low paid workers rely on.

We also delivered the biggest pension increases in Australian history while the Liberals cut income support.

Inequality may not yet be as acute as in the US, for example, but it's growing. 

And that's bad for us all.

The third trend regards the Australian electorate.

We are witnessing a detachment of voters from traditional political allegiances.

Analysis of voting intention and behaviour carried out by the Whitlam Institute in 2013 found that the modern electorate was not so much swinging as fluid. 

By this they meant that Party loyalties have broken down and that votes of large groups may switch rapidly from one party to another based on major incidents or political moments.

This was particularly true of younger voters who form about a third of the electorate and - in the Whitlam Institute’s view – had determined the outcomes of most recent elections.

So what does all this mean for our Party?

I believe a few lessons can be drawn.

First, while we have to be alive to the risk of right wing populism we should not overstate its appeal in this country and we should not for a moment cosy up to this ideology.

We will not win support by going quiet on the things we disagree with.

We must resolutely confront the racism, sexism and religious intolerance of the right.

Pauline Hanson and One Nation do not yet enjoy the same level of support in Australia as say Brexit in the UK or Trump in the US.

We should not conflate her with those phenomena as it affords her a legitimacy that she does not deserve.

Over 95 per cent of Australians did not vote for One Nation at the last election, while about half of all American and British voters selected Donald Trump and Brexit respectively.

Of course, for us to win in the upcoming WA and Queensland state elections, fighting One Nation as well as the Coalition parties will be vital. 

Malcolm Turnbull has gone weak on One Nation preferences. 

We never will.

This leads me to my second point which is that, for the Labor Party, the threat from the extreme left is as real as the threat from the extreme right.

Recent weeks have shown us the Greens political Party are a rabble…

…riven by a factionalism which they refuse to acknowledge and are incapable of resolving.

The threat from the Greens is not that they will form government, but that they fracture the progressive vote and prevent Labor forming government.

Their real threat is to just a few inner city seats and maybe one or two regional seats….

…just enough to keep us out of government in close parliaments like the one we have at the moment.

So my third observation is that we must be prepared to meet the challenge from the left by embracing a sensible progressive agenda.

Again, not by being dragged here or there by others…

… but by defending our progressive record and values.

The fourth lesson is that we have to be up for the tough stuff, but we have to be able to demonstrate the benefits for all.

Labor has always been up for the tough economic reforms. 

We want a strong economy, because a strong economy drives the creation of good jobs. 

And it means we can afford the great social reforms like the NDIS.

But economic reform has to have at its heart the intention to provide a better standard of living for all, not just higher profits for a few.

That means, for example, an approach to privatisation based on merit, efficiency and public benefit - not on ideology.

That means standing up for organised labour.

That means maintaining and enhancing a social safety net and investing in health and education as essentials.

Understanding that these investments are not just for the benefit of individuals, but critical investments in the productivity and future wealth of our nation.

It means taking action on climate change.

These are all steps Labor has taken under the leadership of Bill Shorten.

We took 100 positive policies to the last election, including some that the commentators thought were suicidal:

- a reduction in the capital gains discount on housing and restricting negative gearing to new homes,

- a full commitment to needs based funding in education and implementation of the Gonski model,

- marriage equality for LGBTI Australians, and 

- support for penalty rates.

And we argued – and continued to argue – for a 50 per cent renewable energy target and the introduction of an Emissions Trading Scheme.

We do so because we recognise that action on climate change is urgent and necessary.

In contrast, the Coalition think a $50 billion tax giveaway to multinational companies is reform.

They must be the last adherents of trickle-down economics. 

Like those soldiers lost in the jungle 50 years after the war has ended – no one told them the battle is lost.

So we have already set out a progressive agenda which we took to the last election….

….but we won't rest. 

We will continue to refine our thinking and our arguments over coming years and at our next Party conference.

By 2019 - at the latest - Bill Shorten will be our Prime Minister and Labor will be the Party of government.

We have a Labor platform we can be proud of:

- ambitious and financially sustainable, and

- deliverable through our parliamentary system.

The final thought I want to leave you with today, is that we must examine our structures and processes to ensure that they are truly reflective of the spirt of the times in which we live.

We have to embrace democracy. 

We have to continue to offer a place to people who are frustrated by politics. 

The left wing challengers to social democratic parties I talked about earlier had their genesis in grassroots organising and networked individuals.

We have to reach out to those people and learn from their ability to mobilise - just look at the recent Women’s Marches that shook the globe on Donald Trump’s inauguration.

We must convince the fluid or disaffected voter – the activist angry at the injustice and inequality of their world - that their place is in the Labor Party where they can drive real change, rather than just shout into the void.

This push will need to come from a younger generation of Labor members and supporters - including you in this room.

So – with that – I urge you to embrace the spirit of debate and discussion that is core to our culture.

Be open to new ideas and ways of thinking.

Be prepared to push yourselves and others – to challenge conventions and hierarchies.

In one final plug can I remind you that we’re continuing our campaign to put pressure on the government with our “100% Against $100,000 Degrees” campaign on campus.

As new students arrive on campus it’s a chance to remind them that the Liberals want to saddle students with $100,000 of debt and Labor will fight to stop them. 

It is with great pleasure that I now invite you to commence the 2017 Australian Young Labor national conference.