Speech - The Heritage and the Heartbeat of the ALP


Remarks on 25th Anniversary of Election to Federal Parliament

The Heritage and the Heartbeat of the ALP:
The Only Vehicle for Economic and Social Progress



First of all I want to thank all of my friends and supporters who are here tonight. And a quick cheerio to those that have come along understanding that they’re finally seeing the back of me.

To my Parliamentary colleagues present – to Tanya, Jenny, Jim, Chiz – our friendship is proof that strong personal relationships can and do survive the rigors of political combat and I know one thing for sure – I certainly wouldn’t have been able to serve as a senior minister if it wasn’t for your friendship.

Nor can you serve without the steadfast love and commitment of your family. And as Kim has frequently reminded me, she’s a far better grassroots politician than I am!

Our three young adults have borne the rigors of the past 25 years of the political life and I thank them for putting up with all of the intrusion of politics ……… and for their frequent advice.

It’s funny when you announce you’re retiring – some people seem to look at you in a different way.

One of my favourite parts of the Parliamentary day is arriving at the Parliament as the sun rises – driving up that Hill, watching that grand building emerge with the flagpole at its centre, the flag blowing in the morning breeze – always to me, a reminder of the awesome responsibilities granted to us as MPs.

The other morning, as I was taking in that view, the Comcar driver turned around and said to me, “I can see you’re getting out while you’re still alive!”

Now I’m still not sure whether he meant I was lucky to be getting out of Parliament alive or simply getting out of his car alive, so I just looked him in the eye and said, “It appears so!” But in a funny sort of way, he summed up why I think it’s time for a fresh face in Lilley.

Marginal seats like Lilley are really hard to hold. I’ve lost it once and won it eight times, making me the longest serving member in its history. Losing it made me a better politician. It reinforced the notion that to be successful in politics, you always need to reach out and understand others.

But time stops for no one, not even former Treasurers. And I want to give our new candidate, Anika, the longest possible time to get established before the next election.

I feel so privileged. The Labor Party has given more to me than I’ve ever given to it. I believe today – more than ever –it is the only vehicle for economic and social progress in this country.

It’s why I want to serve as President.

To be effective as a Labor politician, you need to listen, work hard, fight hard and get results. And above all, stick to your values and ideals.

I feel that I’ve got the same values now as when I was shovelling chook manure in Nambour in the 1970s. The only difference now is that my hair is greyer and shorter.

Maybe the type of manure I shovel has changed a bit over the years too.

But it’s funny how many people who’ve come up to me lately and said “Wayne, you’ve changed.” Or “we’ve seen another side of you that we’ve never seen before.”

And I think there’s probably something to that, but not quite like some imagine. Implicit in the comment is the notion that I’ve become a bleeding heart, or a bit of a leftie. But it is the case over the course of any long career in public life, some ideas press to the fore and others recede, but there’s a golden thread there for most of us.

So I went back and had a look at my maiden speech, where I got stuck into conservatives who think greed is good and taxation is theft and I explained why I oppose the ideologues who believed in trickledown economics and why I argue for government intervention in markets and industry.

I could easily give the same speech today – and some of you in the audience who’ve kept up with me lately might say that I have given the same speech in recent times.

You save some paper that way!

But one thing is different.

My approach to economics has changed.

I’ve said in one of those speeches recently that if you were engaged in the economic policy debate – especially as a practitioner – before the 2008 financial crisis, you had to confront honestly the question what belief of yours about economics changed between 2007 and 2010.

And if the answer is “nothing” then, well, you can take a job as an economic history lecturer, but you certainly shouldn’t be making policy – not today, not ever.

(And I fear the country’s economic history departments simply aren’t large enough to absorb all the excess supply of lecturers.)

Let me give you my answer to that question: whereas previously I regarded tackling inequality primarily as social policy – damn good social policy, but social policy first and foremost – I now regard it as absolutely central to good economic policy.

A decade after the GFC, we can now see clearly that rising inequality isn’t just making our society less fair, it is making our economy less prosperous, less stable, more fragile and more crisis-prone.

And it is having similar effects on our politics.

I don’t intend to run through our handling of the GFC or our economic record tonight, except to say that I was proud of the guts and the courage of our Prime Minister, our Cabinet and our Caucus, who took tough decisions to secure our sacred mission of protecting working people.

I pay tribute to my personal staff during this period, and the incredible support I received from Jenny and Tanya. Mind you, I think the staff occasionally got out of control.

Those 200 T-shirts they printed saying “The Drinking Will Continue Until The Economy Improves” might not have been such a great idea!

I think about it a lot when I go to Caucus meetings, when I look at the portraits of our former leaders looking down on proceedings. It’s when you focus on the faces of Scullin, Curtin and Chifley that you realise that our performance in government and our handling of the financial crisis was in our finest traditions.

There is no achievement I prize more highly than being Labor’s third‑longest‑serving Treasurer, behind Chifley and Keating.

When I came to Brisbane in 1972, I had never met a member of the Labor Party and had no contact with politics – except that my father was a staunch Labor man.

It’s appropriate that we celebrate this silver anniversary at the Breakfast Creek Hotel tonight. When I joined the Labour Party in May 1974, at the height of the double dissolution of that year, this hotel was headquarters for the dominant faction – the Old Guard, who ruled the Party with an iron fist until federal intervention in 1980.

On numerous occasions as a student I joined some of its prominent members in the public bar, before staggering out after a six-hour-or-so session and somehow finding my way back to party central in St Lucia where I was studying.

I became part of a larger group led by Peter Beattie that took over the Party after the intervention. As I got more deeply involved in the Labor Party, I had to win local ballots.

My political career was nearly snuffed out at a Party Conference in 1984, where I beat the Old Guard candidate, 101 votes to 100. It was an uproarious Conference, which made the national news. I remember Fred Daly ringing me up the next day, saying “Wayne, don’t worry. The smaller the margin, the fewer people you’ve got to thank!”

I eventually became Party Secretary and Campaign Director in 1988. There is no prouder boast in the Queensland ALP than to say that you worked on Wayne Goss’s 1989 campaign. He inspired all of us to believe that we could make a difference.

That campaign taught me that the power of your ideas always needed to be backed up by dedicated, organised, grassroots activity if you were going to win internal Party battles, or beat the likes of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard in general elections. But it was the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975 that pushed me into deeper political involvement.

In the late 70s, I had the privilege of working with Mick Young and Bill Hayden, and from them I absorbed the finest traditions of the labour movement. The fundamental importance of social justice. And it was also while working with them that I met their brilliant and beautiful health advisor, Kim Williamson – but enough of that scandal.

Then, as now, the pre-eminent issue of the movement was jobs – not just the number of jobs, but the quality of jobs. Career structures, technological change, levels of pay, training and all of the issues associated with developing new industries.

I was privileged to have Gough Whitlam launch my campaign for the seat of Lilley in 1993. That election was a white‑knuckle ride. We were behind by as much as eight points for the whole of the campaign, but we stormed home victorious in Paul Keating’s great “True Believers” victory.

We suffered a crushing defeat in 1996. But we fought back, in Lilley in 1998 and then into government – sadly, it took us eleven years and three lost elections.

We are now facing a Liberal Party which has been taken over and dominated by extreme trickledowners and plutocrats.

Political earthquakes are rocking global politics, and we can’t be complacent.

Toxic right-wing populism is on the march globally, and in this country too. It’s made a terrible mess of some formerly great centre-left parties around the world. If you look to the Democrats in the US, they’re a hollowed-out empty shell – they stayed in the middle of the road and got run over.

My message to us all is that Australian Labor can and will be different. We’ve always had this particular brilliance to adapt to the times, and find practical ideas to communicate enduring values in new ways. We can and will do it again to tackle inequality and deal with the power of vested interests.

And it’s never been more important. We have a government that has used the power of its office to target its political opponents through Royal Commissions, to bash the ABC into submission, and to attack the rule of law.

And it is backed in by wealthy business interests, notwithstanding its own incompetence and incoherence.

We are in a battle of ideas and political will that will determine the future of our country and our Party.

The attitude of this government and of its allies in the business community towards working people has its origins in the traditions of the brutal authoritarian squattocracy that crushed the workers in 1891 and saw the beginnings of the Australian Labor Party.

In 2016, with Kev O’Leary’s family, I attended the burial of his ashes under the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine. Kev was a mate, and with 86 years of Party Membership, he embodied all that was great in the traditions of our rank and file. Kev had backed in Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard.

Kev’s life, like the lives of those striking workers who are celebrated at the Tree of Knowledge, proves that the political life is an honourable life, and an honourable life can change a country.

What the conservatives really want today is for people to give up on politics, so that the modern equivalent of the squattocracy that crushed the fledgling union movement in 1891 can come back again and do what they like.

What Kev knew intuitively is that when you have obscene distributions of wealth and power and when too few people have too much wealth, you cannot have a sustainable basis on which to develop a modern civilised society.

I know Anika, as our Labor candidate is well-versed in this tradition. What’s more, she’s got the energy, the commitment and the ideas to win the electoral battle and the policy battles that follow.

We face growing inequality and a shrinking working and middle class. Success for us in the forthcoming election – and in the period of government that follows – will depend on us shrinking inequality and enlarging the working and middle class.

This is the heritage and the heartbeat of the Labor Party.

It’s what I’ve spent my political life striving to protect and promote. It’s the only way forward if we’re to ensure the great mass of Australians are winners – not just the fortunate few.

This mission gives purpose to all of us, whether we’re branch members or Members of Parliament. It’s what gives us the fire in the belly to look after those who would otherwise never get a look in.

That’s the tradition we honour tonight.