2023 Gough Whitlam Oration: The command to perform

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
Parliamentary colleagues, distinguished guests.
Catherine Dovey, Nick and Tony Whitlam.
Men and women of the Whitlam Institute and Western Sydney University.  
It’s a great honour to follow the many distinguished Australians who have delivered this Oration, beginning with Prime Minister Gillard in 2011.  
Gough famously warned us against assuming he was immortal.
But this event is just one of many ways in which he remains eternal.
Tonight I want to hold true to the overarching principle and unifying theme of Gough Whitlam’s public life, his great watchwords:
“contemporary relevance”.
Because while Labor has always been a party enriched by our history and inspired by our legends, our mission is the future.
We measure ourselves in Government by the difference we make, to the country and the people we serve.
That’s why, fifty years ago this week, when reflecting on his first year in office, Gough spoke of:
“promises fulfilled and reforms begun”.
A typically elegant formulation - and also a useful way of thinking about how every Labor Government sets about building a better Australia.
The delivery of our commitments, here and now.
Reinforced by the pursuit of long-term reform, for lasting change.
The continual and evolving challenge for us is to bind them and balance them.
To deal with the pressures in front of us, in a way that builds for the opportunities ahead of us.
To engage with the urgent responsibilities of getting costs down for families, getting wages up for workers and getting the budget onto a stronger foundation while planning and building for an economy, an energy grid, a workforce, a health system and a region that will look fundamentally different in the decades ahead.
A responsible and reforming Government can’t treat these as alternating tasks – or sequential ones.
You have to embrace both and manage both.
You can’t say: Oh, we’ll get around to the future when we’ve dealt with the present.
Because the way we deal with present challenges must anticipate – and create – the future.
That’s the purpose and urgency that drives me and my colleagues, across our four key priorities. 
One, relieving the pressure on families.
Two, strengthening Medicare.
Three, a future made in Australia.
And four, securing our home – and our place in the world.
In all this, to draw upon a favourite Whitlam theme, we do not view our democratic mandate as ‘permission to preside’ we see it as a ‘command to perform’.
As I told our Caucus on our first day in the Government Party Room after nine long years at the other end of the hallway we’re not here to occupy the space, we are here to change the country.
Of course, that task is rarely easy, swift or uncontested.
“The way of the reformer is hard in Australia”.  
But that’s also how you know it’s a job worth doing.
Because hard work is what endures. Substance is what lasts.
The patient, sometimes painstaking, challenge of making meaningful change.
Change that empowers people, lifts their living standards and nourishes their aspirations.
Change that brings people together, through shared opportunity and shared reward.
Change that prepares our nation to compete and win in the world - as a resilient, skilled, productive, renewable energy superpower. 
Change where our prosperity and security is built by Australians shaping the future, not waiting for the future to shape us.
This means clearing away a legacy of waste and neglect.
It means moving away from thinking only about what can be avoided by isolation, defeated by division or delayed by inaction and embracing a bigger view of what can be achieved through co-operation, purpose and resolve.
This begins with our number one priority - helping Australians with the cost of living.
Our Government will continue to do everything we responsibly can to support people who are under pressure.
Through 2023 we have delivered:
Cheaper medicines. 

Cheaper child care.
Over 214,000 fee-free TAFE places.
Energy bill relief for millions of households and small businesses.
And new investments in the social safety net, with more direct support for the most vulnerable Australians, including single mothers.
We are going to keep working to bring costs down for families – and also to get wages up for workers.
After a decade of economic architecture where low wages were celebrated as a deliberate design feature I’m proud to say that last quarter produced the highest quarterly wages growth on record.
It also marked two consecutive quarters of real wages growth.
And at this event in honour of the Prime Minister who re-opened the Equal Pay case I’m proud to say the number of Australian women participating in full-time work is at a record high – and the gender pay gap is at a record low.
Proof that our support for a strong minimum wage, our actions to promote secure work and gender pay equity and an historic pay rise for aged care workers is making a difference to wages and lives.
Just as importantly, far from wages growth acting as a handbrake on job creation, we’ve demonstrated the two can go together.
Over 620,000 new jobs have been created in 18 months.
The most by any first-term government in Australian history – and we’re only halfway through.
The balance we are striking in all this is important.
Our efforts to take pressure off people have been carefully designed to not to put pressure on inflation.
Cheaper child care is a good example.
It’s valuable help with the family budget.
It’s also an economic reform that will boost productivity and participation and give working parents more choice and flexibility – women in particular.
And it is education reform.
To quote from Australia’s most famous policy speech.
Early education is a means of “equalising and enriching every child’s life”.
That’s why our long term goal is making early education and care universal and affordable for every Australian family.
Taking pressure off inflation also depends on putting the Budget on a stronger foundation, building a buffer against current and future uncertainty.
The responsible approach that Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher have led, has enabled us to turn a $78 billion deficit into a $22 billion surplus - the first in 15 years.
Our second central priority is Strengthening Medicare.
Of course, this helps with the cost of living – but for a Labor Government Medicare will always stand as a pillar of its own.
Through 2023, we have been opening our 58 Medicare Urgent Care Clinics, in growing suburbs and regional communities around Australia.
New facilities, providing peace of mind to families by improving access to medical services outside of ordinary work hours, free of charge so you don’t have to go to an emergency department, to get treatment you need.
The clinics we have already opened have seen 75,000 presentations.
Nearly 1 in 3 patients have been under 15.
Nearly 1 in 3 visits have been on weekends.
On weekdays, more than 1 in 5 visits have been after 6pm. 
This is a practical service that recognises the time and cost pressures on modern families.
And it’s always important to make the point that diverting these cases is better for hospitals and better for health care workers too.
At the beginning of this month, we delivered the biggest investment in Medicare since it was created.
A tripling of the bulk-billing incentive that will make it easier for 11.6 million people to see a GP.
Promises fulfilled, reforms begun. But more to do.
A key priority for 2024 and beyond will be recruiting and retaining more GPs, nurses and health care workers across Australia.
As well as working with National Cabinet to take pressure off public hospitals and secure the future of the National Disability Insurance Scheme so that it can continue to deliver life-changing outcomes for future generations.
The third key theme that defines our Government’s approach is a future made in Australia.
I mentioned before that the Budget surplus acts as a safeguard against international instability.
It’s one vital element.
But an inescapable lesson of the supply shock driven by the pandemic, reinforced by the global energy market consequences of Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine is that Australia’s long-term economic security depends on much more than budget responsibility.
It means strengthening our position in global supply chains.
Revitalising our local manufacturing capacity and the skills of our workforce, so we can move up the international value chain.
The National Reconstruction Fund we took to last year’s election – and legislated this year – is central to this.
And tonight, I am pleased to announce that the Minister for Industry, Ed Husic and the Minister for Finance, Katy Gallagher, have officially signed-off on the fund’s Investment Mandate.
This means – from tomorrow – the National Reconstruction Fund is open for business.
Money in the bank, ready to invest in new jobs, new skills, new technologies and new industries.
Ready for us to make our future here.
And so many of these new opportunities will be powered by renewable energy.
The first time the Parliament sat, we wrote our new 43% emissions reduction target into law.
The entry ticket to meaningful engagement with other nations - in our region in particular.
And a signal to the world that Australia is the right destination for clean energy investment, committed to cutting emissions and creating jobs.
Achieving this goal depends on a whole host of interconnected initiatives, across the economy.
Our Safeguard Mechanism, supporting industry to adopt new technology is part of it.  
And so is Rewiring the Nation, upgrading and modernising the national energy grid, so clean power can get from new projects to Australian homes and businesses.
For a decade, whether it was rooftop solar or large-scale projects, Australia’s move to renewables was happening in spite of the Commonwealth Government.
At every turn, technology was being held back by ideology.
Economic opportunities were being undermined by political opportunism.
We are turning that around.
Last week, we announced that our Government is prepared to underwrite 32 gigawatts of new electricity – 9 gigawatts of storage and 23 gigawatts of generation.
That’s the equivalent of half the entire east coast’s electricity use.
We are working with investors to reduce the risk, because we want more Australians to share in the rewards.
Above all, we understand that this moment of environmental necessity presents us with an unprecedented economic opportunity.
The chance for our critical minerals and clean energy to take us to net zero – and to power a new generation of local manufacturing.

Not just exporting the raw materials for things like batteries and solar technology – but making that technology here, ourselves.
Unlocking the export opportunities of green hydrogen, to help economies in our region industrialise and decarbonise, at the same time.
And using green hydrogen to make green metals and green fertilisers.
The biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution is underway.
The global race for new jobs and opportunities and prosperity has already begun.
This contest will not be defined and decided purely by the size of a nation’s economy, or the scale of its investment.
We must play to Australia’s strengths and build on our comparative advantages – from resources to research.
That means making sure that Australians have the skills and knowledge they need to seize the new opportunities on offer.
That’s why we’re rolling-out 300,000 more fee-free TAFE places from next year.
And an additional 20,000 University places.
As well as opening new Regional Study Hubs and TAFE centres of excellence bringing the opportunity of education to Australians in regional communities and growing suburbs.
Breaking down the barriers of disadvantage and distance.
Preparing more Australians for opportunities in clean energy, digital skills and the care economy.
Making our future here at home also depends on ensuring more Australians have a secure home.
Gough Whitlam’s great passion for urban renewal was driven by his resonant belief that every Australian had the right to a roof over their head – in a community served by decent infrastructure.
It recognised individual aspiration – but it also identified government’s responsibility.
It’s in that spirit that we brought together National Cabinet in August, to agree on the most comprehensive set of housing reforms in a generation.
A new national focus on a better deal for renters.
Agreement on our Help-to-Buy Scheme, which we will introduce into the Parliament tomorrow.
Lifting the ambition of our National Housing Accord to 1.2 million new, well-located homes before the end of the decade.
And securing a national consensus on new initiatives that will help us meet that goal.
Speeding-up approvals and unlocking more land for construction near public transport and good services.
Because essential workers shouldn’t have to commute an hour both ways to provide essential services.
And as we grow our national housing supply, we are making long overdue investments in renovating and building public and social housing around Australia.
All this is driven by an enduring Labor understanding of the security and dignity and opportunity that a home provides.
It’s more than just a place to live – it’s a sense of stability, connection to community and a base from which you can aspire to a better life.
Because if you want that famous definition of equality, where every child has a quiet room to study in and a ‘desk with a lamp to read by’ – that starts with a roof over your head.
And in 2023, the child sitting at that desk needs the NBN.
Which is why we’ve created a program to provide free broadband to up to 30,000 families with school-age children, who can’t afford an internet connection.
Now, Rome didn’t go from brick to marble in a day – and it took time for Gough to see the suburbs fully flushed.
But we are acting with purpose – because the need is urgent.
And through next year, you will see a power of work underway on more homes for Australians, in the cities, suburbs and regions alike.
The fourth fundamental priority for our government is securing Australia’s place in the world. 
We do this by investing in our capabilities and investing in our relationships.
Thanks to the outstanding work of Penny Wong and Richard Marles in particular, Australia is back at the table, as a constructive middle power.  
We have turned our alliance with the United States to face the future.
Deepening our co-operation through AUKUS but also on critical minerals, cyber, science and innovation.
We have launched a comprehensive set of initiatives to invest in and engage with the rapidly-growing economies of ASEAN.
We are re-engaged in the Pacific, as a partner, an equal, a neighbour and a leader.
Including, I am proud to say the ground-breaking climate and security agreement we have struck with Tuvalu.
The most significant act of Australian diplomacy since our support for the independence of Papua New Guinea.
And – earlier this month – I travelled to Beijing and Shanghai to mark the 50th anniversary of Gough becoming the first Australian Prime Minister to visit the nation whose economic rise he foresaw.
The latest step in the patient, calibrated and deliberate way we are working to stabilise our relationship with China.  
An approach that has helped secure the release of Cheng Lei.
And removed trade impediments for our farmers, producers and exporters – already in barley, hay, coal and with wine back on track.
Between January and August last year, Australia exported $85 million worth of those products to China.

In the same period this year, it was $6 billion.
By the end of this year, estimates are it will exceed $10 billion.
Our approach to China is to co-operate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest.
It’s true that what happens on the world stage matters to Australia.
But our region is no mere theatre and we are not spectators.
What Australia says and does on the world stage matters too.  
It matters for our neighbours, for our region, for our security and for our prosperity.
It matters that Australia is there: engaged, represented and invested.
Gough Whitlam understood that – and so do we.          
I conclude tonight by saying that if I was not born an optimist – I was certainly raised as one.
I was brought up to believe that in Australia, you could aspire to anything.
I don’t think my Mum would necessarily have taken her instruction on that from the John Curtin Memorial Lecture that Gough delivered in 1975.
But he made a version of the same point.
He said the essential choice in politics, going all the way back to the revolutionaries in America and France was a choice between basic optimism - or basic pessimism.
The conservative worldview, the pessimistic mindset, treats change as a force to be feared.
We see that very much with the current Opposition.
An Opposition that have learned nothing from the past and offer nothing for the future.
An Opposition determined to define themselves only by what they are against.
The fundamental flaw in such an approach is that, in the end, it is always self-defeating.
Because it offers no path forward.
It presents no ideas for the future and it places no hope in the people who will shape it.
It promises only a desperate last attempt to cling on to the habits and fears of the past.
For the optimists, for the reforming side of politics, for a government committed to economic and social progress, change is always an opportunity to be seized.
Our optimism isn’t naivety.
We don’t underestimate the challenges confronting our economy or our environment.
We don’t downplay the complexity of the global strategic environment.
We don’t doubt the significance or the stakes of the transformation underway in clean energy and technology.
But we believe – absolutely – in the ability of Australians to meet the demands of the future.
That’s what has driven us in 2023 – it’s what will guide us in 2024. 
Relieving the pressure on families.
Strengthening Medicare.
A future made in Australia.
Securing our place in the world.
These are our priorities, they are our command to perform.
So we look forward to 2024 with a sense of determination and optimism.
Promises fulfilled, reforms begun.
With more to do - and ready to do more.