Valedictory Speech

Valedictory Speech, 19 February 2019

By Wayne Swan – Federal Member for Lilley & President of the Australian Labor Party

Thanks to all the people who have travelled here today and to all of those who are listening and viewing the broadcast.

When I announced my impending retirement some time ago, a ComCar driver, said to me as I was opening the door at the side entrance: “I see you’re getting out while you’re still alive.”

I thought at first he was referring to his driving. But I soon realised he was congratulating me on making a wise life decision.

There was a time, back when Australians didn’t tend to live so long, that the only two ways out of this place were through the ballot box or in a wooden box.

Thankfully I’ve survived long enough to make the decision all on my own.

I’ve been a member of this Parliament almost continually since 1993, with a one-term ‘holiday’ at the suggestion of the voters between 1996 and 1998.

Eight wins, one loss. That loss in 1996 was gut wrenching… with the family anxious about the future, with three young children under ten. As uncomfortable as it was at the time it did make me a much better politician. 

So I was re-elected in 1998 and I’ve now attended 1422 sitting days, just under 4 years of continuous parliamentary sitting

The pace of political life is now brutal particularly when it involves ministerial responsibility and in my case six budgets and three budget replies.

Three years in the House of Representatives in the early 90s would easily squeeze into two years today, a little over a quarter of a century later.

Of course, political life today is so much more demanding because of modern technology and instantaneous communications.

I regret as a member, minister and shadow minister I didn’t take enough time to refresh and re-charge for my family.

On our 30th wedding anniversary, I told my wife Kim, that we’d really only been married for 25 years as at least five have been spent away from her in Canberra or elsewhere. On reflection, that was probably a conservative estimate.

Yesterday was our 35th anniversary and at some stage in the next 24 hours it will be marked by the birth of our second grandchild.  Our three children have all grown up in the glare of political life and I’m so thankful that they have all grown up to be such wonderful adults.

There are a lot of homilies delivered in this place about how family is the most important thing. And of course it is, but this place and the demands of what we all do don’t take a backseat to anyone or anything else. This is always harder on those at home. They’re not here in Canberra, and they only see and feel the hits you take, not the punches you land.

Labor politicians have a  ‘great objective’ …. the light on the hill.  I am both proud and grateful to say that light always shone in my home.   My family have always believed in the very same labour values the light illuminates, and were very much aware of what it takes to pursue it.  My work in this place and in my beloved electorate of Lilley was only ever possible because my family – Kim, Erinn, Libbi and Matt -  believed in it … and they believed in me.  Their love and support knew no bounds, no sacrifice was too much, because the Swans are Labor.

A political career is worthless if it is not grounded in the lives of the people you represent. The people who get up in the morning, go to work, go home, cook the tea, put the kids to bed and get up and do it again the next day and never expect anything other than a fair days pay for a fair days work. People who understand we are all connected to each other and we have to reach out and look after those who are vulnerable and left behind.

I was reminded of this only a couple of weeks ago when I attended a volunteer function for Charlies Angels at the Prince Charles Hospital. There were forty volunteers who had between them hundreds of years of volunteering at the hospital. These are people who ask for no more reward than the joy of helping others. Australians like this inspire, they embody our nation at its compassionate best and inspire me just as much now, as they have at any stage of my time in this place.

I offer deep thanks to the people of Lilley for their support and in that same breath, my dedicated local party members. I never took for granted my responsibility as a local representative so your views were always the first I sought when trying to make difficult judgments about policy directions.

As Kate said yesterday, you cannot be an effective local member without dedicated electorate office staff. A good local member needs to listen, work hard, fight hard and get results.  And for that you need an effective local team.

I’m honoured to have served here with so many great Australians.

Some of them are not household names, though they should be. They’re the public servants and advisers, some in the galleries today who sacrifice so much to serve our democracy. All of us owe them an enormous debt.

After so long here I’ve worked alongside so many people that in attempting to mention some I will inadvertently leave others out, and so to avoid that embarrassment I’ll be thanking them personally.  But there is one I want to mention today, Barb Pini, who has served me and the Labor Party in this house over decades with exceptional dedication.

Others I’ve served alongside are well known.

Like Mick Young and Gough Whitlam – two people who instilled the values that inspire and sustain so many of us to this day.

There is the late, great Wayne Goss. There’s no prouder boast for any Queenslander than to say you worked with Wayne to take our state out of the dark and broken era of Joh Bjelke Petersen.

Another Queenslander, Bill Hayden, a great labour man who never let go of his vision and fight for Medicare.

Which brings me to Kim Beazley, the towering figure in both the Labor Party and Australia’s defence and foreign policy.

Kim’s record of service to this country and this place requires no embellishment from me. He is rightly valued and admired across the chamber, his name a byword for passion and decency in public life…

I’m not the only one to believe that our recent political history would have been immeasurably more stable, successful and dignified had he become Prime Minister a decade ago.

It’s difficult to serve effectively over the years in this house without having support of a few long standing good friends in particular my regular dinner companions Tanya Plibersek, Jenny Macklin but also Stephen Conroy, Stephen Smith, Anthony Albanese and the late Steve Hutchins, Rob Mitchell, Chris Hayes, Tony Bourke, Amanda Rishworth and Kate Ellis.

And of course some recent additions to the parliament Jim Chalmers, Anthony Chisholm, Milton Dick, Joanne Ryan and of course that great representative of the Swan Left, Graham Perrett. Of course I could name others in Swan left but that would be too embarrassing.

As I’ve said, the names I’ve just mentioned show that this place is about service.

And that’s what I’ve striven to give the Australian people for my 24 years as a member – including my nearly six years as Treasurer, which makes me behind only Paul Keating and Ben Chifley as the third longest serving Labor treasurer. It’s a record I’m very proud of and one that will be happy to surrender to Chris Bowen, who has done the hard yards in what is one of the most difficult jobs in both government and opposition.

I’m not the first Swan to serve this country, and I won’t be the last.

My grandfather fought on the Somme during the winters of 1916-17 and 1917-18 and later as part of the 3rd Division under General Monash. He was gassed at Messines, and later at Broodeseinde and was wounded again at the start of the great German Spring Offensive of 1918.

That generation never spoke much about its war service. He died comparatively young, his health having been broken by the physical and psychological effects of his service.

His son, my father, then served in the Second World War across the Pacific, and saw fighting at Balikpapan.

Today Members of Parliament are now more likely to be the children of Vietnam veterans and the veterans of various conflicts and peacekeeping missions since then, and we must always do the right thing by them.

How fortunate our generation and our children’s generation have been by comparison. We largely avoided war – and where we haven’t avoided it, we’ve worked harder than previous generations to look after those we sent away to fight.

We’ve had our lives lengthened by advances in medical science and by our wonderful public institution, Medicare.

My father died in his sixties of the same prostate cancer that I was diagnosed with at age 49. I was treated successfully, he wasn’t. It was so satisfying as Treasurer to have made available Commonwealth funding to keep Australia at the forefront of prostate cancer research –research funding that was suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn by the health minister at the end of last year. 

Fortunately we now recognise and reward the service of women. It was a great honour and pleasure to have served as deputy PM and Treasurer under Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, no tougher warrior for Labor values who possibly alone of recent prime ministers has cracked the secret code about how to carry herself with dignity after losing the job.

Julia was only one of the great Labor women I’ve been blessed to serve alongside - there are simply too many to name. But I wish to particularly highlight the significant contribution of Tanya, Jenny and Penny Wong.

It’s a great source of satisfaction to me that my successor as Labor endorsed candidate for Lilley is a woman. Should Anika Wells, Corinne Mulholland and Ali France – the three women preselected for north Brisbane seats - go on to win, Labor will have more than 50 per cent female representation in this parliament.

Another historic achievement for social equality in our country.

Our far-sighted affirmative action policies were not just the right thing to do in democratic and demographic terms, they are also a vast political advantage for the ALP.

Our generation has been fortunate in another respect too. For the last quarter of a century our country has avoided an economic recession.

When I entered parliament in 1993, unemployment exceeded 10 percent and more than half a million Australians were long-term unemployed. It was the formative context of my early political life, and I arrived in this place to make merry hell – including for my own party – so we would do more to deal with it.

In politics, timing is everything. It’s also out of our control. In 2007 Labor had returned to government just before the end of the long boom that had driven dramatic increases in Australia’s and the world’s wealth.

We all of course hoped the boom would last forever, and that’s why my first budget as treasurer was initially framed to fight inflation.

But as that Budget approached, the investment bank Bear Sterns collapsed. And our policy had to be revised.

The rumbling had begun.

Four to five months later those tremors turned into an earthquake that swallowed up Lehman Brothers and Northern Rock and Wall Street and shattered the world’s economic confidence. Neither the global economy nor global politics have been the same since.

The history books will record it as a moment of profound significance. Second only perhaps to the Great Depression of 1929 onwards.

And yet Australia avoided a recession – almost alone of the world’s major developed economies to do so.

A miracle, some say. But there was no divine providence about it. Australia avoided a recession because of sustained recession-beating policy. As I said dozens of times in this place: we did this by choice, not by chance.

Within two months of the meltdown, thirty major world banks had been bailed out, all G7 economies were recording negative growth and global stock markets were down by 50 per cent.

As students of Labor history, members of the cabinet back then remembered what had befallen the Scullin Government which also had the misfortune of coming to power at the start of a recession.

The Scullin Government lacked the necessary policy tools to deal with the crisis, we did not. While it was bullied into austerity, we would not be.

We knew from the failures of the 1930s and 1990s what recessions do. They destroy lives. They cost people their homes and their savings and turn communities into ghost towns. They lead some into lives of misery and even suicide. It takes a decade or more to fully recover. Some communities and families never recover. Not heeding those lessons would have been ignorant – and irresponsible.

We chose to act.

To inject demand into the economy and to reject the austerity policies that many, including the Murdoch press, were calling for and still call for. That austerity would have made the crisis much, much worse. Had we listened, the results would have been disastrous.

Instead, Australia became the gold standard of recession-busting policy.

Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz described our fiscal response during the crisis as "the best designed stimulus package" and "one of the strongest Keynesian stimulus packages in the world".

In recognition of the success of our policies, Euromoney Magazine named me Finance Minister of the Year, citing ‘careful stewardship of Australia’s finances and economic performance both during and since the global financial crisis.’ It added: ‘Australia has not only avoided falling into recession but has been the best performing of the world’s developed market economies.’

We did all this knowing full well that our opponents would hound us with slogans about ‘debt and deficit’. In departing this place, I have a perspective I didn’t in the heat of battle, and can honestly say I’m happy to wear that criticism as the price of saving Australia from much worse.

There was debt and deficit – by far the majority of it the result of $200 billion of revenues being wiped off the forward estimates in the wake of the crash. But there wasn’t recession and there wasn’t unemployment. And there wasn’t a decade of lost opportunity for our people and our country.

In short you don’t feel the bullets you dodge. And we dodged a huge one.

And it’s worth reflecting, briefly, on what might have been.

Consider how the rest of the world has changed and how Australia compares.

Think about:

The rise of populism and ugly nationalism.

The end of the last remnants of political consensus in the United States.

The sweeping away of mainstream parties of the centre-left and centre-right in Europe and elsewhere and the return of the far right to prominence in Germany and the rest of Europe. 


Rising inequality and poverty.

10 years ago, there was a deeply weird attraction in some quarters to the idea that a “cleansing fire of recession” wouldn’t be such a bad thing for Australia.

I rejected it then and I reject it even more forcefully now, precisely because of the potentially terrible human consequences.

It’s true we’ve seen some of this here in the last decade. But it has been far milder. We should cherish the overall result. We have come through the decade after the Global Financial Crisis stronger, bigger and more united than any comparable nation. As the envy of other nations. An economy now 32% bigger then it was at the end of 2007. 

Mr Speaker, it’s a great Australian achievement. One I’m proud to have helped bring about. One our entire political system and economic policy-making institutions should be proud of.

What lies ahead?

We have the chance to create something truly great in this country on the back of the last quarter century of growth: generalised affluence.

But that aim is threatened by rising inequality. This is something we have to avoid at all costs.

Inequality breeds disdain, resentment, suspicion, arrogance and callousness. I believe that ultimately it lies beneath the election of Donald Trump and the result of the Brexit referendum.

And tackling inequality cannot be dismissed as ‘the politics of envy’. Nothing should spark the imagination more of those on our side of the house more than fighting inequality - the future of economic democracy is on the line.

The problem we face today is too many Australians have no knowledge of how others live. Too many people on generous incomes are tone deaf to the world in which they live. They suffer from a blindness of affluence.

While Australia has done much better than the USA, inequality and deprivation are too high. Tim Winton has written that he became preoccupied with power and class not because he was chippy or resentful nor because he was some kind of Marxist. Rather, he saw it pounding the lives of too many friends and families. Like Winton, I too am dismayed by the self-interest shown by some of Australia’s wealthiest institutions.

There is little wonder that people feel on the wrong side of the economy when they observe the outcome of events like the Banking Royal Commission. They lose further trust that society is treating them fairly. That can’t end well.

Put simply democracy can’t survive in a morass of mutual resentment we are increasingly seeing.. 

That’s why in the latter part of my parliamentary career, I’ve gone back to the policy area where I started: tackling inequality head on.

The rapid changes going on in the global economy come with the potential of undoing the great advances towards social equality of the post-second-world-war era, and with them the political stability that has resulted.

In other nations, like the United States, the benefits of growth are now going almost exclusively to the top 10 percent, more dramatically again in the hands of the 1 percent and 0.1 percent.

This is morally wrong – and we cannot allow it to happen here as well.

So we can’t allow the economic gains from new technology and rising productivity benefit only those at the top.

We are here to serve and defend a community, not a corporation.

To support that principle, we must defend our progressive taxation system.

We must ensure we have a fair industrial relations system, where unions and their members have the ability to bargain for and gain rising wages and better conditions, that we continue to build the NDIS, pursue needs-based school funding, lift the unemployed out of poverty and keep Medicare strong.

We must get away from the idea that collective action by people to pursue their economic interests is somehow illegitimate. Or that attempts by government to create a fairer society by redistributing income and opportunities are wrong.

And we have to get away from the idea that the private and public sectors are somehow mutually antagonistic.

This stupid and destructive idea has come to dominate our political debates, the proposition that taxes and social investment are inherently anti-business. That every dollar that government raises and invests on behalf of the people somehow robs us of our vitality.  That pursuing equality makes us collectively poorer. You’ve heard it all before, no doubt. And it’s rubbish, the lot of it.

Mr Speaker, business thrives best in a decent society. And a decent society can’t be created through trickledown economics alone. Smart businesspeople understand this.

Having been elected National President of the ALP, I’ll be continuing to pursue these issues in the years to come. I don’t want to live in a country captured by the hard right or the extreme left.

And of course the fourth estate has an incredibly important role to play in our national debate. I want to pay tribute to those in the press gallery who have kept true to the best the fourth estate can offer. There is no greater responsibility than holding us all to account … our democracy depends on it.

To my Labor colleagues, I say this.

We must not become over confident, but we could be on the cusp of something quite special and unexpected: returning to government just two terms.

The strength of our current position has been made possible by two things.

The first is that during the Global Financial Crisis we avoided recession and kept our economic credentials intact. It’s a great record we should be proud of.

And the second is that we have found a new lease of political unity.

That unity has come from excellent leadership – and I congratulate Bill and the whole leadership team on its achievement.

But at its heart, it is a unity of political purpose.

Our policies have been able to unify us because they speak to the things our movement and the wider Australian society hold dear: decency, fairness and greater economic and social equality.

It was said of the Whitlam generation that they made Labor electable but they also made it worth electing. That’s the power of our agenda, too.

When I first drafted this speech, I wanted to reach out across the chamber. To ask people, maybe just momentarily, to remove their party blinkers, try to understand each other, and maybe acknowledge the noble intentions behind the policies we’ve pursued, even the policies they most disagreed with.

For me especially, this meant the economic policies I and my party pursued in the wake of the global financial crisis.

I still hope to do that, but the divisive tone that’s pervaded this place in the past week has made me realise that reaching out to some of those opposite is going to be harder than I hoped. Maybe a write off. But all the same, I want to say something about that, because it needs to be said.

You see, I was here during the Tampa episode in 2001, and recall the way it changed us.

The night John Howard sprung his Tampa trap in the parliament, otherwise known as the Border Protection Bill I was on the couch at home recovering from prostate cancer surgery. In the weeks that followed the politics of fear drowned out domestic political issues.

Before then, covert appeals to racism and xenophobia were regarded as unworthy of our country’s elected representatives.

When the ship was turned back, something else floated into our harbours in its wake: American race-based dog-whistle politics. That politics isn’t new. It’s likely as old as politics itself. We all thought it had died before 2001. But we were wrong.

During the 1980s it was infamously brought back to life in America during the 1988 Presidential election, a determined strategy to link the black community with violent crime. It worked. It became the template for what happened in Australia in 2001, a scab that’s remained ever since.

Sure enough, eighteen years later, it is being used again. Read the Hansard and the ministerial transcripts of the past few days. The only thing missing is the subtlety of yesteryear.

Soon after that 1988 campaign, the architect of it, strategist Lee Atwater, contracted fatal brain cancer. Before he died he set out to make peace with the world. He said that his illness had helped him to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in him: “a little heart, a lot of brotherhood”; and that his own actions had contributed to “a spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society”, a “tumor of the soul”.

The man who invented the political strategy now dusted off once again by those opposite, repented of it. It says a lot.

My hope is that this ugly approach is so soundly defeated at the ballot box that it can never arise again.

That’s the good news, Mr Speaker. It won’t work. Not this time.

This is one of the great elements of democracy: it is moral force. Sometimes parties can lose the moral right to govern before they lose their numerical majority in parliament.

For the Coalition, the first is already gone. And the second is about to follow in its wake.

Finally, I want to thank all the workforce in this house; the cleaners, the drivers, the transport office, the attendants, the cooks, the security, the library staff for their courtesy and support over the many years.

I was here for people like you, and we will only prosper as a country, if we realise we are all in this together. It’s the things we do together that make us strong.

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