HON. WAYNE SWAN MP
FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LILLEY
ADDRESS TO THE ACOSS NATIONAL CONFERENCE
"A Say In Our Debates And A Stake In Our Success"
THURSDAY, 29 MARCH 2012
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Thanks for that warm welcome and for having me here today. And thanks for allowing me to sub in for the Prime Minister who dearly wanted to be here herself.
When Cass asked me if I'd take the PM's place, I was really keen. Not just because I have tremendous respect for what you all do. But to take this chance to say a very, very big thank you for the wonderful services you deliver to Australians every single day, in every corner of our community. And also because I can't think of a better place, or a better group of people, to continue the conversation I started a few weeks ago in The Monthly with an essay I believe some of you may have heard about.
It's a conversation we must have as a nation, and I'm delighted so many people are joining in the debate, whether I agree with them or not. Just as I'm delighted to be here even though, naturally, I wouldn't agree with everything I've heard this morning. I can see from the topic you've chosen for this conference that we all agree our nation's egalitarian social contract is something we should be talking about as a nation.
I've had hundreds - if not thousands - of letters and emails from people in response to my essay. It's obviously touching hearts, minds – and yes, a few nerves too – in the community. The fact that the essay was the number one topic on Twitter after it came out, and smashed the record for traffic on the Monthly's web site, shows it's an issue a vast majority of Australians care very deeply about.
Of course there's been the predictable backlash from the predictable quarters – more than a few editorials frothing with rage. My political opponents didn't waste a moment and leapt to the defence of the vested interests I warned about. They showed a speed and a sense of purpose that's noticeably absent when it comes to debating policies that are in the interests of all Australians.
One of the multi-billionaires I named even took out full page ads in newspapers across the country to make the point he wasn't using his wealth to influence public opinion! Another looks to be trying to buy not just an advertisement, but the whole newspaper, and a third is threatening to do the same. But these reactions really serve to prove my point. And it's a point that seems to be missing in what's been a pretty vigorous debate over the past few weeks.
I find myself reading or listening to commentators that are responding to my essay and thinking – hang on, have you actually read it? One poor bloke from the IPA spent five minutes bagging the essay on radio admitted he hadn't even read it – it was funny, but revealing too.
Some people seem to think the essay was an attack on the rich, or an attack on business, or even an attack on success – firing off terms like 'class warfare.' If they'd read my essay, they'd know that was nonsense. In fact, I was making a couple of pretty simple points: that we want more people to have stake in the debate, and more people to have a stake in our economic success. And those are really the two main points I want to flesh out today.
Let me say up front that I totally reject the label 'politics of envy.' It's not envy to expect to have a stake in the nation's future. It's not envy to expect to be included in the national debate. As you would know, it's not envy to expect to have a decent shot at a decent life in a country like ours.
As I made pretty clear in the essay, it's not about being anti-business or anti-wealth. It's about how we decide what kind of society we want to be, what kind of future we want, and who gets to be part of that process. It's about our democracy itself, and how economic opportunity plays a major part in the way that democracy works.
So my first point today is that we can't allow the national debate to be monopolized by the most privileged 0.01 per cent. Just because they can afford to buy publicity doesn't mean they speak for the majority. They don't. I think the response to my essay shows that more people want a say in the national debate.
As some commentators have noticed, my essay didn't come out of the blue: it came from things I've been on about for years. Anyone who dusts off my maiden speech to Parliament back in 1993 will find the same belief there, nearly twenty years ago, that I put into my essay a month ago. I wrote a book called Postcode about these issues of poverty and inequality in 2005. In fact social justice was the drumbeat that called me into politics in my twenties. And the core of my work as Shadow Minister for Families and Communities, when I worked with many of you here. Holding that portfolio was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I was delighted when my good mate Jenny Macklin took it over.
For any Labor minister in that job, it's an experience with one over-riding aim: to help people lift themselves up, give them the chance to make the most of their talents, and add to the underlying strength of our community. There are few more rewarding things for a politician to do. I don't see the job of Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer as fundamentally different from that work.
In fact for my side of politics, no matter what portfolio you hold, equality is the horizon towards which we always march. We have many companions in this journey. I've had the great fortune to walk alongside some of the most committed and inspiring people in our country – so many of you here in one room. And then there's the people who make it all worthwhile – the Australians who get around and over the obstacles to obtain stability and fulfilment in their lives. ACOSS is the national voice for people affected by poverty and inequality in our community, and you have been for more than fifty years.
I'd like to pay tribute to Cass Goldie at this point. She has been a tireless advocate, in and out of public office, here in Australia and overseas. We need voices like hers – strident, articulate, compassionate voices – to shape our national conversation, to ensure attention is given to our shared humanity.
We need voices like all of yours as we stand ready to grasp the benefits to flow as the epicentre of global growth shifts to our region. With the right policies we can turn the opportunities for our economy into opportunities for more of our people.
This is really the second point I make today. That we want more people to have a stake in our economic success. We have the capacity to shape this century, to decide the way we share its gains. My abiding determination is that more Australians will enjoy the benefits of the Asian Century, not just a fortunate few.
You see for me, this is the biggest question in politics – the question I've tried to answer in three years as Shadow Treasurer, and almost five as Treasurer: what do we use our prosperity for? It should never be an end in itself. A strong economy only matters if we use it to create a strong community.
Three years ago Ken Henry addressed your national conference, as he headed up the tax review we commissioned in our first Budget. He said that "how we distribute prosperity is absolutely inseparable from how we create it." He's now working on the Prime Minister's White Paper on the Asian Century, and I know he'll be thinking as much as I am about how we chart a course through this century that's equitable and just.
The idea that if we don't grow together, we will grow apart has really motivated all of our big calls in Government so far: getting support to households and small businesses when the GFC hit. Making sure low income earners weren't sent to the wall when the going was toughest. Getting stimulus into the economy when it was needed, and rolling out a long-overdue nation-building package.
Amid all the talk about inequality in recent months, I was particularly pleased to see new findings from the Reserve Bank this month that show Australia came out of the GFC more equal than we went in. The RBA looked at the distribution of household wealth and found that in the late 2000s inequality actually fell. The bottom 20 per cent saw their wealth grow at 5 per cent a year, while the wealthy experienced more modest growth.
Where our peers saw drops in wealth right across the spectrum after the GFC, we managed to protect many of the least fortunate, (and avoid the long unemployment queues of the US and Europe) so overall we emerged closer together, not further apart. To me this is the ultimate vindication of our decisions during the darkest days of the GFC.
The determination to grow together not apart has also motivated our historic tax reforms. A mining tax that ensures the massive profits coming from minerals we all own get used to strengthen our whole economy, not just the personal fortunes of the wealthy few. A boost to the superannuation savings of 8.4 million Australians, including 3.6 million low income Australians who are set to benefit from our low income superannuation contribution, funded by the mining tax. A carbon price that applies to our 500 largest polluters, with a household compensation package that triples the tax free threshold, and lifts pensions and allowances, to ensure that low income earners get the help they need to adjust to a clean energy future. A strong economy and a strong community go hand in hand. This is my mantra as I put together my fifth Budget.
Without going into too much detail, you probably know we basically need to make a lot of saves with the global economic turmoil ripping $140 billion from government revenues. Finding savings is always a battle and the task gets tougher with each budget – you may have heard me describe this one as the toughest I've faced. There are plenty of difficult choices, many competing priorities and it's often necessary to say no to colleagues proposing or defending a program under their portfolio.
Certainly there are some moments when I feel like going down the easy road, taking the soft option. But in the end I know I can never put political interests ahead of the long-term national interest. I won't leave the heavy lifting to future generations. We see the consequences today in Europe of what happens when you put off the tough decisions.
I've given a big speech this morning on the technical side of the fiscal settings and the importance of returning to surplus – I won't go over it again. But the specific point I want to make to you is that managing the Budget in a responsible way also allows us to make the necessary room for our Labor priorities – big, visionary, investments in our community.
It is not a choice between surplus or social policy; it is Budget management that makes social improvements possible and sustainable. Let me assure you that we will not lose sight for a single moment of the vision that drives and has always driven Labor governments. In this Budget we will do our absolute best to continue to provide a helping hand to those that need it most, and to make room for our big, forward-looking reforms.
Welfare for people who don't need it is dispensable. Reforming the way we care for the elderly and the disabled, the access kids have to schooling and the opportunities education brings: these are indispensable. Indeed the capacity to look after those most in need is the real dividend of the strong economy we've built together.
Sir William Deane, a wonderful Governor-General and a man who knew deeply the value of growing together, used to say that the ultimate test of a nation's worth is how it treats the most vulnerable. I want Australia to pass that test with flying colours.
And it's only through strong fiscal management that we can make room for big reforms. I'm talking about things like the National Disability Insurance Scheme. This would make an enormous difference to Australians that are born with or acquire a severe or profound disability, their families and their carers. I know the NDIS has a groundswell of support – in this room and beyond these walls. And I know that disability is not an abstract term for members of ACOSS.
It's the reality for people you encounter every day. It's the hard road they travel, and that you travel with them. A society that cares for people with disabilities, that engages their humanity and encourages their participation – this is a society that can rightly claim to be among the most successful in the world. Of course the NDIS will be expensive and difficult, it will take time, but I believe we're up to the challenge. I want that for Australia, and I know you do too. And we're not the only ones.
This morning I had breakfast with the Australian Business Economists, before braving the Sydney traffic to make it here on time. The ABE are a pretty business-minded bunch; coming here from there might seem like a stark contrast. But you'd be surprised how much consensus there is among the economic community, as well as the broader community, on the idea that we need strong public finances in order to strengthen our society.
Business economists, just like the vast majority of the Australian people understand how important it is to use our wealth to create a stronger nation and improve people's lives. And to make sure that everyone has a say in our national debate, and everyone has a stake in our national success.
Unfortunately, this is not something my political opponents with their constituency of vested interests understand – as their response to my essay showed. But the response of the vast majority of people demonstrated something much more important: that if we have the will to work together, we can use our economic strength to keep our community growing together.
We can make sure that in Australia's century in Asia, every Australian has a chance at a better life, not just a privileged few.
Thank you for your efforts to make this a reality, thank you for continuing the debate about equality, and thank you for having me here to proudly declare your conference open.