HON. WAYNE SWAN MP
FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LILLEY
SPEECH TO MARK THE 125TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE AWU
"It's What We Do Together That Makes Us Strong"
TUESDAY, 15 FEBRUARY 2011
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Thank you Paul [Howes] for that introduction and thank you brothers and sisters of the AWU for that really warm welcome.
This union has been such an important part of my political life. What I've learned about fairness from the AWU still guides me today. And I know that without the labour movement I wouldn't have the chance to work every day for Australians as Deputy PM and Treasurer.
I have marched in the rain with the AWU. I have worked alongside you. And I have represented the hopes and aspirations of your thousands of members in the federal Parliament and in the Cabinet.
For decades I have stood with you and I am so proud to say on your 125th anniversary that I stand with you today.
The official records tell me I joined the AWU in January 1982, when the union was only 96 years old. Unfortunately, those records don't capture the tickets I took out in 1974 when I was a sewerage maintenance worker for the Brisbane City Council; or the dues I paid as a casual at the Brisbane Exhibition, shoveling chook manure out of the pens.
Let me assure you, delegates, that when you work in the sewers and in the poultry industry, you-know-what happens. In fact you're frequently up to your knees in you-know-what.
So whether I was shoveling you-know-what in the 1970s or doing what felt like a remarkably similar job during the long wilderness years of federal opposition, the AWU has always been there.
Much more importantly, it has been there for workers across so many industries for a century and a quarter. Looking after decent, hard-working people, defending and advancing their wages and conditions.
Together we have won our share of battles, and lost some too. But we always win more than we lose. Why? Because we know the most important thing about our movement and our nation – that it's what we do together that makes us strong.
There are two Australians who understand this better than most, and they're both here today – Paul Howes and Bill Ludwig.
The more I spend time with Paul, the more I appreciate his advice, and his commitment. Ever since the days of Ted Theodore there's been something about the AWU that churns out big contributors to our national debates, and Paul is certainly part of that tradition.
The union's in good hands – Paul's and Bill's.
Bill, thank you for your years of representing working people, whether through the mighty Queensland branch or right around the nation.
And he's been just as important to the political side of our movement – bringing leadership and pragmatism and unity when the Labor Party here in Queensland needed it most, in the 1980s. It's this sort of organising that helped us over the line in 1989 in Queensland, and which has been making Labor governments and breaking conservative governments for over a century.
Delegates, it's not possible to separate the history of the AWU from the history of our nation, punctuated as it is by defining moments that our union has helped shape and respond to.
The union has survived and prospered because at key times in our history it has helped Australians recognise that we only succeed as a nation when we band together. This was especially true during the global financial crisis, and it's true now as we're rebuilding after the natural disasters.
I want to spend some time talking about those events today and I also want to say something about the other economic challenges we face. My main point is that 'stronger together' can be more than a slogan for our union, it can be something we build our nation on.
Australia has changed so much in 125 years. In the mid-1880s, when the union was formed, Australian working people died young, of avoidable illnesses, owning little, having enjoyed little chance of education and self-improvement. That's why unions were necessary and why they were formed.
The pastoral workers who formed the AWU could hardly have dreamt of the standard of living the vast majority of Australian working people enjoy today – their health care, their life expectancy, their retirement benefits, their holidays and the prospects of their children.
Today unions like the AWU simultaneously represent industries like tourism and manufacturing that are struggling, and industries like the resources sector that are prospering.
It's interesting to note that one of the reasons why unions like the AWU, the miners and maritime workers gained a foothold in Australian society was the creation and expansion in the 19th Century of an export-oriented, resource-based national economy. As the world demand for wool, coal, iron ore and other resources went up, so did the bargaining power of the people who produced them.
They made gains. And when prices later fell, they fought hard to hold onto those gains – which led to the great strikes of the 1890s and the formation of the ALP.
Out of that era came a big idea that has endured. That's the idea that in the good times unions ensure the gains are fairly shared, and in the bad times they ensure the losses are fairly shared as well.
This is a rule that has a deep place in Australian culture – one whose legacy was seen in the way the nation handled the global financial crisis, and the way we'll handle today's patchwork economy where some do much better than others.
I believe that Australian unions can also find a new future in an era of continuing resource-export expansion. And in that regard, I note the strategy outlined at this conference to increase the union's relevance in the resources sector.
Of course, in this boom the jobs will be different from 125 years ago. Some things are the same: fair pay, workplace safety and decent retirement benefits.
But other things have changed. Wherein the 19th Century these improvements came out of conflict, today they will come out of negotiation and cooperation as well. And today unions have a far broader role – to grow the pie as well as help ensure it is divided fairly – that the benefits are broadly shared.
Working with employers, the AWU and other unions can help expand our resource-export capacity by creating jobs, increasing skills, boosting productivity and – something incredibly important in mining communities – giving a future to young Indigenous school leavers.
Delegates, the period that gave birth to the AWU was more than a defining moment for the movement – it was a defining moment for the nation.
Fast forward more than a century and the conservative establishment in Australia was still trying to tear away at your wages and conditions, only a few short years ago with WorkChoices.
When our economy was booming for the five or so years before the GFC – let's call it mining boom mark I – the Liberal Party's first instinct was to try and ensure our economic success was only enjoyed by the few. Their response to a booming economy was to say that most Australians should earn less, while a few Australians should earn much more.
Together we defeated Workchoices. And then together we faced down the global financial crisis.
We saw workers and bosses actively discussing the options they could take to preserve jobs. Things like reduced working hours. Hard to swallow, I know, because wages go down but bills don't. But when the crisis passed, the businesses – and the jobs – were still there.
We made a big difference for working people.
If you want to know just how important that was, think of the US, where the global recession saw huge job losses. In early 2007 the US and Australia had the same unemployment rate. By 2010, the US unemployment rate almost doubled that of Australia's.
To get a sense of what that means for the livelihoods of Australians, consider for a moment that if Australia's unemployment had of reached the same levels it did in the US, we would have had more than one million Australians out of work.
Our actions during the GFC got a lot of families through. And they were the key reason Labor retained government in 2010. Whatever else the Australian people thought of us they knew we had the guts to stare down a global financial crisis – harnessing our values to implement the type of traditional Labor policies that put people first.
Now delegates, I don't need a poll to tell me your members are under pressure. That their electricity bills are rising in the absence of a carbon price, and that many are doing it tough.
But thanks to our collective efforts, that pressure doesn't come from stubbornly high unemployment – our unemployment rate is 5 per cent and we've created over 740,000 jobs since we came to office.
And that pressure doesn't come from stagnant wages growth. Since Labor was elected, wages growth has been around its long-run average – even in the face of the global financial crisis. Average weekly earnings has grown at 4.0 per cent per year, around its 10-year average.
Our economic policies and our success during the GFC reminded Australians that the labour movement is there for working people when they need us most. Unlike the Liberal Party, we don't abandon them when they need us to defend their jobs, or rebuild their roads and bridges after natural disasters.
If ever there was a time for a nation-building Labor Government it is now.
We've got a massive job ahead of us, to rebuild Queensland and other parts of Australia so badly affected by flood, cyclone and fire. And we're responding with the same commitment, passion and unity that we showed when the GFC threatened jobs and livelihoods.
As you all saw, the community response has been overwhelming. In my electorate, I saw hundreds of people turn up to fill sandbags to save the homes of people they had never met, and 300 people in Lilley donated their kitchens to bake for the Baked Relief project. In Goodna, I saw volunteers cook up hundreds of meals – using donated food – for people who had their kitchens washed away, or flooded out.
We saw ordinary Australians getting right behind each other, whether they knew each other or not, donating more than $200 million for emergency assistance. Unions donated well over half a million dollars as well as a lot of labour and expertise – on top of the millions of dollars donated by individual union members.
The challenge now – as the PM indicated last night – is to build on that community spirit so that we can spread the benefits of growth. We need to take the belief that we are stronger together – and use it to build a stronger, more flexible economy, that sees us take advantage of the opportunities the mining boom presents, without leaving people or industries behind.
Unfortunately our political opponents insist on playing politics with people's lives and homes. They put ideology first, and their own necks first.
I think a lot of people would be pretty offended to see Abbott, Bishop, Hockey and Robb more focused on their own positions than on the prospects of people who are trying to rebuild their lives.
Let's just be honest here and say the Liberal Party doesn't support the flood levy because it involves the wealthy paying proportionately more. They don't do fairness. When the nation was looking for the word 'yes', their only answer was 'no'.
No wonder more and more people are seeing Tony Abbott as an Opposition Leader who is all opposition, and no leadership.
Delegates, mining boom mark II will impose on our economy as big a structural shift as that imposed by the floating of the dollar or the tearing down of the tariff walls.
And with these changes being caused by the mining boom, when uneven growth is creating a patchwork economy, Australia needs a positive response. One that invests in productivity and invests in our people so that success is determined by effort and enterprise and not where you were born.
We want to make sure every Australian – all of your members – have the opportunity to make what they want of their life. That's why, as the PM said last night, we have a substantial reform agenda to skill people up, and get them participating in the high-tech, low-pollution economy of the future.
And we need your help again – to help sell the benefits of reform to working people under pressure – just as we relied on you so heavily at other defining moments in the history of Australia and our economy.
Delegates, just as you were there for the birth of our federation, so too can you be there at the birth of a new generation of prosperity for more of your members and more of our people.
Just as you have helped bend history to ensure the Australian story is an egalitarian one, so too can you bend the future towards the working people who make our country strong.
Just as you have preserved the fair go for 125 years, you can preserve it for 125 more.
You can turn 'stronger together' into our national creed and not just the motto of Australia's best and strongest union.
You can play your part in ensuring Australians never forget it is what we do together that makes us strong.
You can help harness and preserve the extraordinary spirit we saw during the GFC, and during the natural disasters, to grasp the amazing opportunities presented to us by the Asian Century. And if you do – if you do – you'll play as big a part in defining our nation in the century to come as you have in more than a century just past.
Delegates thank you. Thank you for honouring me today with the invitation to address you and thanks so much for your ongoing support for your members, your Government, and your Deputy PM.