SPEECH: The McKell Institute, The Progressive's Case For Labor, Wednesday 15 June








It’s pretty clear in this election what the choices are between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. We’ve actually spent the length of a usual election campaign talking about those differences. Today I want to talk about something else: the progressive case for Labor.

The Australian Labor Party has a great and enduring objective – which Ben Chifley described as ‘the light on the hill’ - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind, not only here, but anywhere where we may give a helping hand.

The reason the light on the hill is an image we return to so often, is that it reflects the two essential elements of our party.  We are idealists, with a vision for:

  • A strong economy generating decent well-paid jobs that give every Australian the chance to lead a good life; and
  • A fair society, where the benefits of our strong economy are shared and no one is left behind.

But we are also realists – we know that our ambitions for our nation are not easily achieved.

The road of the real reformer often takes the steeper face, the harder climb and the more unforgiving ground.

Idealistic and pragmatic – we can be both. 

The great party I am proud to belong to is proof that we don’t have to reject the real, to serve the ideal.

We accept that incremental progress is part of our great journey.

Labor’s true believers are not wishful thinkers. We are part of a great movement, now generations-old, which sustains us when the path is long, when there are setbacks, or false starts, or impediments.

We also know we may have the noblest objective, the determination and the best plans for reform, but unless we are in Government it’s very difficult to achieve anything at all.

That means convincing more than half of Australians that we represent their values and that we are competent to lead the nation on the right path.

Real political achievement

The big and difficult reforms, the ones that can change people’s lives, are very hard fought.

And they can take generations - that's why we're so proud of the next generation of young activists who combine idealism with grit.

It's so much easier today to be a cynical poseur than a committed democrat; it’s easier to retreat to observer status than convince your friends of the merits of incremental change.

The greatest example of hard fought reform is also one of the most important – and that’s Medicare.

In many ways Medicare began with something we don’t have to think much about anymore in Australia: tuberculosis.

To anyone alive before the 1950s, TB was a major threat. It ruined lives, instilled fear, separated parents from children and killed thousands. When new and better treatments emerged the Curtin and then the Chifley Governments responded with the Tuberculosis Acts of 1945, 1946 and 1948 to fund the states to screen, diagnose, treat and research the epidemic. Through the application of progressive governmental power, TB was beaten.

But it proved to be just the start of a long and great battle between the reformist objectives of Australian Labor and powerful conservative forces.

The quest for a public health system became part of the Chifley Government’s great vision of a better post-war world. At that time, the Labor Party had been around for half a century but had not yet had a chance to govern for an extended period in times of peace and growth. This was its moment.

After it fought and won a referendum to broaden the Commonwealth’s powers for social policy setting, Labor passed legislation to create a national pharmaceutical benefits scheme – we still have it.

But the scheme was sabotaged by the forerunner of the AMA, whose members refused to prescribe subsidised drugs to their patients. Then it was torpedoed by the High Court, in a case sponsored by the Coalition government of Victoria.

Undaunted, the Chifley Government established a National Health Service, modelled on the British NHS, then being created in Britain, which was to have state-owned public hospitals and salaried doctors and be free to all patients. Searching for yet another way forward, Chifley’s cabinet then introduced grants to the states in return for the free treatment of patients in state hospitals.

This too was unwound by the incoming Menzies Government, and by 1953 Australia effectively had no public health system at all, just a collection of highly inequitable and inefficient private health funds.

There things might have stayed but for a young Labor frontbencher named Gough Whitlam.

In 1967 he got together with a group of visionary health policy experts to devise a solution immune to conservative judges and constitutional roadblocks: a compulsory national health insurance scheme that provided free treatment in public hospitals and other benefits. He named it, of course, Medibank.  It was at the very heart of ‘The Program’ that Gough won the 1972 election on.

In 1973 Medibank was blocked by the Senate. It was reintroduced and blocked again. If ever there was a genuine reason for a double dissolution election, this was it.

After Labor won the 1974 election, the legislation was, unbelievably, blocked again. It was finally passed by the historic joint sitting of parliament, and introduced only in the nick of time – 1 October 1975 – less than six weeks before the Whitlam Government was dismissed.

Malcolm Fraser killed it off, and by 1983 we were left once again with an incomplete, inefficient and unfair heath mess.

Our national health system was restored when Bob Hawke went to the 1983 election with the simple pledge to restore Medibank, and he won in a landslide.

Ever since, we have been vigilant in defence of Medicare against conservatives – preventing the unravelling of the scheme. It is no surprise that, yet again, this Federal election is a referendum on Medicare and its protection by Labor or its underhand dismantling by the conservatives.

That’s the long version of the story of Medicare – and that’s the point.

From its starting point to its conclusion, from tackling TB to the entrenching of the principle of free and equal medical treatment in our nation’s social constitution, this took forty years of struggle.

It started with an intense political commitment from reformers who had seen people die young because they didn’t have access to medical treatment, or seen families bankrupted because of medical bills. 

It needed people of imagination and skill to envisage great national institutions capable of doing the job. It required hard slog to ensure those institutions could survive the heat of adversarial politics. Then it took election campaign after election campaign, tough political negotiation, administrative effort, and the making and breaking of careers and governments to finally make Medicare stick.

The creation of Medicare took more than a hollow principled stand, it took more than just wishful thinking, it took more than slogans, it took more than protests. It took real, tough politics. It took idealists who were prepared to fight to win government.

When in 1972 Gough Whitlam said ‘It’s time’, he wasn’t just referring to the final moment of victory; he was talking about the thirty years of struggle that came before it. It was time, finally. You don’t reach the Promised Land with that final step, but through a long journey. And, of course, that struggle isn’t over yet.

Medicare is a great Labor story and sums up for me something else that is important to understand: my party, the Australian Labor Party, is part of the Australian story itself.

We have roots that are deep in Australian society because we have helped shape Australian society. We are part of the great current of our nation, like no other party is. And of course we want to shape our future – and do it from Government.

The creation of Medicare reminds me why participation in mainstream politics is so important and why, to borrow from Teddy Roosevelt, I’d rather be in the arena, “face marred by dust and sweat and blood”, on that rough path, than retreat to the comfortable distance of commentator or critic. I’d rather spend myself in a worthy cause.

Nothing is more rewarding than seeing the real change in people's lives that good government policy can deliver.

After years of work, getting the legislation through the parliament to establish the National Disability Insurance Scheme; the establishment of a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; the National Apology to the Stolen Generations – beginning a genuine journey of healing.

And when Labor was last in Government we faced and met the challenge of the Global Financial Crisis. Australia was one of the only developed countries in the world not to go into recession during the GFC. A recession would have thrown hundreds of thousands of people – a generation – into unemployment and we were determined not to let that happen.

Labor’s stimulus package saved Australian jobs in the most difficult global circumstances since the Great Depression of the 1930s – up to 200,000 jobs.  Labor was up to one of the challenges that defines us as a party of working people above all else: protecting hundreds of thousands of Australians from unemployment and the misery it brings.

Despite the GFC, Australia received a Triple-A credit rating from the three major ratings agencies for the first time in Australia’s history. Our Gross Domestic Product (the total value of goods and services produced by a country in a year) per capita rose from a ranking of 17th in the world to eighth in the world. And we went from being the 15th biggest economy in the world to being the 12th largest.

That wasn’t good luck, it was good management by a party of government, in Government.

Labor’s needs-based Gonski school funding reforms laid the foundations for every young Australian to reach their full potential, while also laying the foundation for Australia's economic competitiveness and growth.

We increased the number of young Australians going to university by 190,000 and many of them were the first generation in their families to do so.

These are genuine, sustainable progressive reforms - that would not have happened under a party other than Labor – and would not have happened if Labor was not in Government.

As Housing Minister, I visited the first home built under the national stimulus public housing construction program. The family moving in, here in NSW, had a profoundly disabled son. Until then, they had had to carry their boy up and down the stairs of their apartment block every time they left home, lift him in and out of the bath, and so on, wondering how long they could manage as their 14-year-old grew into a man. Their new house was one level, with smooth tiled floors for his wheelchair, reinforced walls to take the weight of his lifting equipment and a special shower that he could just be wheeled into.

Knowing that 21,000 other families and individuals were being similarly helped was an incomparable feeling.

Meeting a man in Adelaide’s Common Ground who had been homeless for ten years. In fact, we were in his apartment and he took me on to the balcony to show me the abandoned service station where he used to sleep under the portico of the service station - before was able to move into a newly built apartment supported by the work we did on the Homelessness White Paper and the extra funding we put into homelessness. Meeting families whose kids’ teeth were being looked after for the first time because of our kids’ dental program for three million school children; hearing about families where parents were getting jobs – sometimes for the first time – because of our place-based Better Futures Local Solutions program. I actually can’t imagine anything more rewarding professionally.

It was only possible for me to be part of that because I was part of a reforming Labor government. None of my achievements as a Minister were mine alone. I was able to lead because I was a part of a government that prioritised a strong economy and a fair society.

What we need to do better as a party is to convey, especially to young people, the superiority of real achievement in politics over simply shouting from the sidelines. When Gough Whitlam said that he “did not seek and did not want the leadership of Australia’s largest pressure group” he was defending parliamentary democracy as a place for ideals, as well as the practical measures that take us closer to achieving those ideals.

Now that I’ve spent 18 years in parliament, including nearly six as a minister, I agree that even the smallest day of achievement in government is more satisfying than the best day of being an angry onlooker, a commentator or a gadfly. 

Being in a political party that doesn’t seek to govern can relieve you of the sense that you’re forever making compromises. But ragtag groups that aim for a handful of members so they can make some noise, protest strongly and stay 100 per cent pure, have never achieved anything.

As Gough Whitlam said, “only the impotent are pure.”

But today we have a problem that is worse than the wasted opportunities of electing bystanders to our parliament.

The risk as the influence of minor parties’ increases is that they may prevent the election of a reforming government. The fracturing of the progressive vote has consequences.

Up until 1972 the Democratic Labor Party wielded sufficient power, not to win government, but to keep Labor from governing.

While the DLP’s policies on health, education and pensions were very traditional Labor policies, DLP leader Bob Santamaria had a strategy to keep the ALP from winning government until his terms for re-unification of Labor and the DLP were agreed.

The DLP direction to its supporters to preference Liberal candidates kept Labor in opposition for a generation. In 1969, DLP preferences prevented Gough Whitlam from defeating the Coalition, despite an 18-seat swing and a majority of the two-party vote. Had just four seats in Victoria gone the other way, Gough Whitlam would have taken government.

And we risk a similar story in contemporary politics, between Labor and the Greens political party. 

This is because the Greens see Labor, not the Coalition, as their true competitor and enemy. Most simply put: to grow their party they are targeting Labor, not the conservative parties.

The Greens political strategy risks entrenching conservative governments.

And it is a cynical strategy. Green party leader Richard di Natale has characterised his party as the “natural home of progressive mainstream Australian voters”. But he has also said he would "never say never" about forming a coalition government with the Liberal Party.

Jim Casey, the Green party candidate in Grayndler has said he would rather see the re-election of Tony Abbott because it would drive stronger protest movements.

Indeed, the Senate voting reforms that the Greens supported increase the likelihood of a Liberal dominated Senate and prevent the rise of smaller parties like the Greens once were.

The Green Party has an electoral strategy that runs the risk of making it easier for the Liberals to return to government. They pursue a policy agenda which is confusing at best.

What progressives should seek are achievements that stand the test of time, and these take time.

Voters should rightly ask where are the actions, and the sustained effort, the achievements by which Greens have delivered real progressive change?

I saw a tweet on the 9th of June from a Victorian State Green Party member saying the Greens had a “huge week in parliament”. They “led calls for… condemned… pushed for… and questioned something else”.

That’s the problem.

Because that’s all they can do.

But in a way, that’s fortunate, because if they really had any power, what would they do. We actually don’t know.

Inner-city Greens’ candidates are opposed to higher density, and regional Greens are opposed to urban sprawl. Some New South Wales north coast Greens are opposed to fluoridation of drinking water, but their leaders are in favour of it, at least when the north-coasters aren’t listening. Some are for compulsory vaccinations, others are against. Some want a population halt; others want much higher levels of immigration.

And at the centre of their policies lies a disregard for the jobs and futures of people not fortunate enough to be their target voters.

Their muddle-headedness is not harmless idealism.

Recall that’s when the Greens had the opportunity to put a price on carbon pollution, they fell at the first attempt, voting down a scheme that would most likely still be law today.

By making the perfect the enemy of the good, the Greens ensured nothing would be achieved and that almost a decade after Labor first sought to legislate the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, Australia still has no price on carbon pollution.

If Curtin and Chifley and Whitlam and Hawke had behaved with such policy rigidity, intellectual shallowness and political naivety, our health system would still most likely today resemble the US system.

In our own city the Green’s policy for Sydney airport would stop the construction of Badgerys Creek, close Kingsford Smith Airport, and build a new airport somewhere outside the Sydney Basin.

That would make Sydney the only major city in the world without its own airport. It would cut off Australia’s largest city from the global and national economy, and throw countless people out of work. Airplanes, tourists, the economy: who needs them?

When we raised this with a local shop keeper who was thinking of voting Green during the state election his response was, “It doesn’t matter what they say, they’ll never be able to deliver it anyway.”

The Greens party actually relies on this electoral maths to save it from ever having to implement any of its really destructive policies.

And it this lack of real achievement, perhaps, that drives the party to claim Labor successes as their own.

The reason the parody website Greens taking credit was so funny is because it is actually so close to their actual political strategy: like the poster put up by Adam Bandt put up, that says ‘Denticare – brought to you by the Greens.’

We made a heap of reforms to dental care when we were in government, most specifically the children’s dental scheme which provided services to 3 million kids, giving them access to $1,000 every two years to have their teeth looked after. Kids’ dental care as part of Medicare wasn’t brought to you by the Greens, it was brought to you by a Labor government when I was health minister, building on the health policy gains made by previous Labor governments, hard won through negotiation with the cross bench in a minority Government. And I had to work out how to structure the system responsibly and how pay for it too. And the Liberals have now killed it off. And that’s what it takes to actually deliver dental care – it’s more than a poster.

Perhaps the most emotionally jarring illustration of this pattern of appropriating Labor’s achievements was the Facebook post on a Green Party website on the day of Gough Whitlam’s death with an image of Gough featuring a Greens’ logo.

The insensitivity and poor taste of appropriating our hero’s legacy on the day of his death was not enough: a Green Party supporter was claiming that if Gough Whitlam were alive today he’d be a member of the Greens.

Gough was a proud member of the ALP until the day he died at age of 98. And in many ways that symbolises the vast gulf that stands between our two parties: posters and slogans versus a life of solid achievements. Commentating versus participation. A fight for imperfect and frustrating progress ahead of the bloodless role of self-righteous critic.

This hasn't really mattered while the Greens were little more than a protest group. The bar has been set low because people never thought they would be in position to implement their policies - their electoral strategy of pursuing a niche vote meant their voters could safely vote for them without worrying that their policies would be implemented.

Progressive voters could vote Green but know they would be saved from the nutty inconsistencies – or worse – by a Labor government.

But the Greens now represent a positive danger to the progressive political cause. The political reality is that, far from making more progressive change possible, the Greens are more likely to prevent real change from happening – because their electoral strategy now relies on preventing the election of a Labor government.

Losing a few seats to the Greens could be the difference between Labor or the Coalition forming government, and while Green Party leaders might like a Liberal government because it drives protest movements, real progressives should care more about the genuine economic and social reforms that make the lives of ordinary Australians better.

We know that the path to the light on the hill can be slow and rocky because we have been walking it for more than a century. That whole time we have had to take a majority of Australians with us but that’s our strength and our success too. And that’s why progressives should vote Labor.