From Gough to Gillard

Good evening everyone.

Thank you, Anne for that introduction and for your invitation to reflect tonight on Gough – the man, the government, and the legacy that resounds today.

Just last week I was in Melbourne, only a couple of KIL-o-ME-tres – or ki-LOM-e-tres, as the great man would have it – from Gough’s birthplace, to celebrate another Labor anniversary.

Last Friday marked ten years since the election of the 2007 Labor Government, which ended more than a decade of conservative rule.

I reflected then on the popular groundswell that accompanied the 2007 campaign. From the suburbs to the cities, the atmosphere in Australia in November 2007 was thick with a hunger for change.

Only once in my lifetime could I recall a similar mood – it was 35 years earlier, or 45 years ago today, with the election of the Whitlam Labor Government.

The Whitlam ascendancy followed nearly a quarter century of conservative Government in Australia.

The ‘It’s Time’ campaign of 1972 encapsulated the mood of the nation and immortalised the Government that was to come.

As Paul Keating has remarked, ‘Whitlam snapped Australia out of the Menzian torpor … there was an Australia pre-1972 and an Australia post-1972, and that exclamation mark in our national history is Gough’s mark.’

Gough united and modernised the Australian Labor Party – and the nation – like no other leader before him.

Although in power for a little more than a thousand days, the Whitlam Government’s feats are the stuff of Labor legend.

Recognising China, abolishing conscription, completing Australia’s withdrawal from Vietnam, lowering the voting age to 18, establishing legal aid, removing the death penalty, legislating the Racial Discrimination Act, establishing a Department of Aboriginal Affairs and paving the way for Indigenous land rights, instituting no-fault divorce, introducing Medibank, and granting all Australians a free tertiary education are but a highlights reel of Gough’s ambitious Program.

I don’t intend to catalogue all 505 pieces of legislation that the Whitlam Government passed, but I do want to focus tonight on a couple of its central themes.

The motivating force of the Program of 1972 was deeply engrained in Labor tradition, and it has propelled the Labor ethos – what I would call ‘Australian Laborism’ – to the present day.

I also want to touch on Gough’s economic legacy and its ties with Labor’s contemporary focus on inclusive prosperity.

Finally, I’d like to consider the path ahead for the modern Left in Australia and how it is still inspired by Gough’s vision.

There is a theory in Australian politics called ‘initiative and resistance’.

It is a simple theory, but a powerful one. While we in the Labor Party have always defined ourselves by what we stand for, those in the Liberal Party have only ever defined themselves by what they oppose.

It always falls to Labor to champion the big building blocks of economic and social reform that have driven our country forward – and for the Liberal Party to be the representatives of the vested interests trying to hold reform back.

The strength of the contest between initiative and resistance has waxed and waned over the years since Federation, but it surely reached a peak in the years between 1972 and 1975 and returned with a vengeance in the period of the Gillard Government.

Federally, Labor has governed for almost half of the 45 years since Gough’s election, and the narrative of initiative and resistance has played out with every subsequent change of Government.

Although of course all of us here would like to see Labor Governments come around more often, they always seem to arrive in the nick of time, just as the electorate needs them – and their initiative – most urgently.

In 1972, the electorate emphatically called time on conservative rule, ushering in Whitlam and the revolutionary Program.

In 1983, even the proverbial drover’s dog had had his day with the Fraser Government, and Bob Hawke was sent to the Lodge.

With Keating, he transformed Australia into a forward-looking, upward-climbing and outward-facing nation.

Like Whitlam, Hawke and Keating ensured prosperity and social equality went hand in hand, by reinstating Medicare, taxing capital gains, and delivering the social wage of the Accord, which included greater funding for health, education, childcare and welfare for those who the market might otherwise have left behind.

And in 2007, the Menzian protégé John Howard was voted out by an electorate that yearned for a party of initiative to take it into the 21st century – or at least, acknowledge that the 21st century had arrived!

From Gough to Gillard, Labor has been the party of initiative, whether in fashioning new institutions for Australia, driving equality and social mobility for working people, or facing external challenges by using the tools of Government rather than baring ourselves to the whims of the market.

Such is the pub test for Australian Labor. It is what the Australian people expect of us, and what we should expect of ourselves.

For my family, the election of 1972 was decisive.

I was the fourth of four boys in a family. Three of those boys, my older brothers, were not drafted and I was coming up in 1972.

In our household, there was a breath of relief when the government changed. Australia’s involvement in Vietnam remains a dramatic event and debate and has reverberated through this country for years.

Gough’s election inspired a great many people to join the Labor Party. I joined in May 1974, because of the forthcoming double dissolution over Medicare, over our education proposals and other social security matters.

My wife still has at home the “It’s Time” T-shirt that she and all of my children have proudly worn in election campaigns right through good seasons and bad seasons, once again an example of the dividing line pre- and post-Gough – a dividing line that still exists today.

Many discussions of Gough’s time in office are overshadowed by the Dismissal.

Labor lost power in 1975 for a variety of complex reasons. The Governments were not perfect, and neither was Gough, but the ideas were right.

The ideas were timeless because they are based on that fundamental principle of equality of opportunity and of people having the capacity to get ahead, irrespective of their race or gender or postcode.

It would be remiss of me as a former Treasurer not to remark on Gough’s economic legacy.

Gough’s aversion to economics was well documented.

But in his defence, within a year of being elected, crises would erupt in the world economy and in economic thinking that would have challenged even most assured economic managers.

A mere ten months into Gough’s Prime Ministership, the OPEC cartel colluded to quadruple the price of oil on international markets. Double-digit inflation broke out and unemployment shot up across developed nations.

We entered the era of stagflation.

Policymakers in the 1970s scrambled to find a solution for stagflation – and the economics to back it up. As the Keynesian consensus collapsed, it was replaced by monetarism.

The unprecedented coexistence of high inflation and high unemployment struck all developed nations, regardless of their government’s political leanings.

It’s doubtful that a conservative Government in Australia would have responded any more ably to the stagflation than did the Labor Government of the time.

Far more important when appraising Gough’s economic legacy are the lessons that subsequent Labor Governments have drawn from his overarching vision.

The Hawke and Keating Accords, which might have mitigated a stagflation, are just one example.

If we set aside the technocratic detail – as Gough was fond of doing in economic matters – the policies that he instituted amidst extraordinary global turmoil were staggering.

Gough could see clearly 45 years ago what many economists now are only now understanding – the importance of inclusive prosperity. Economies cannot grow sustainably unless they grow together.

For today’s economists, this is a revelation; for Gough, it was simple intuition. 

In transforming this intuition into action, Gough took leaps and bounds where more cautious technocrats might have feared to tread.

Where economists today wax lyrical about the importance of developing human capital, Gough simply granted Australians a free tertiary education.

Where economists today take great pains to estimate the returns on investment in universal public health insurance, Gough simply instituted Medibank, which later became Medicare.

And where economists today lament the governmental neglect that has seen once functional infrastructure turn to crap, Gough kicked off the National Sewerage Program, delivering indoor plumbing to Western Sydney, for which tonight all of us here can be grateful!

Any Labor Government, immaterial of its aspirations to technocratic prowess, would readily admit these institutions in education, health and public infrastructure to its legacy.

Indeed, Gough’s revolutionary reforms have become the yardsticks by which Labor Governments measure themselves.

It is no flight of fancy to imagine that, across the minds of Labor policymakers who contemplate sweeping change, the question must occasionally flash: ‘what would Gough do?’

This is certainly true of my own experience in Government.

The Labor Government of which I was Treasurer came to power in November 2007. By September 2008, the US investment bank Lehman Brothers had collapsed, triggering the Global Financial Crisis.

History was once again with Labor, and if it wasn’t repeating, we were certainly hearing very familiar rhythms.

Our Government swept to power with an enthusiasm I’d not seen since Gough’s election. And once again – not that anyone was drawing parallels at the time – exactly ten months into our term, we too were facing down an economic calamity beyond our shores.

We were determined that it would not be beyond our control to fight.

The first tremors of global financial turmoil became apparent early in our term. In March 2008, Wall Street’s fifth-largest investment bank Bear Stearns had collapsed, concerning commentators and regulators alike.

The following month, I flew to Washington for the spring meetings of the IMF and the World Bank.

The IMF had lowered its world growth forecasts a notch, acknowledging financial ‘turbulence’, but not foreseeing the full-blown crisis that was to come.

While in Washington, during this eerie holding pattern for the world economy, I took the opportunity to meet with investors.

At one of these meetings, a leading investment banker talked about the collapse of Bear Stearns, saying something I’ll never forget:

‘It’s not the end, it’s not the beginning of the end, it’s the end of the beginning’.

I was shocked and surprised; the consensus at the time was that the worst of the crisis was behind us.

Official forecasts of Australia’s economy still had it growing above trend for the next two years.

With renewed caution, I returned from Washington and we recalibrated our May Budget.

We took the tough decision not to proceed with certain spending cuts which we had previously deemed necessary to tackle rising inflation.

Through late June and July, we were hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, bearing the brunt of the inevitable commentary that argued we should have prepared a more contractionary Budget.

When Lehman Brothers imploded in September, our stance was vindicated. From that point on things moved so fast that it was difficult to keep up.

We confidentially started preparing a fiscal stimulus package, as the RBA cut interest rates by 100 basis points on 7 October – an unprecedented decision.

On the following Friday, there was a beginning of a run on banks and Armaguard ran out of money.

In the middle of this, I left for the United States and some of the most important meetings I’d ever attend in my life.

One meeting stands out above the others.

It was an ‘emergency meeting’ of G20 Finance Ministers in Washington on the evening of October 11, 2008.

It was a Saturday night, Washington time.

It followed an all-day meeting of the IMF. It was an unscheduled meeting. And it will forever be etched in my memory.

Such was the fear about global events, the United States President, George W. Bush, decided to attend.

President Bush opened by apologising to everyone present for the consequences of the US sub-prime mortgage crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

He assured us that the United States stood ready to work with both the developed and developing world and to do whatever it would take to meet the challenge head on.

But just before President Bush was due to speak, the Brazilian Finance Minister, who was chairing the meeting, apologised for his poor English.

President Bush leaned over and whispered in his ear ‘that’s okay; my English is not very good either’.

Unfortunately for President Bush, he didn’t realise that his microphone was live and his statement was broadcast to the world’s top 20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors.

Not the best way to instil confidence at the height of the Global Financial Crisis!

There was more work to be done the night following the meeting with President Bush.

That night, I returned to the embassy residence to participate – via secure phone – in a special cabinet meeting taking place in Canberra on the morning of Sunday, 12 October, Australian time.

As is often the case, the most serious of decisions can sometimes be taken in the strangest of circumstances.

It was 10pm Saturday night, Washington time.

The embassy was only able to set up a secure phone-line in the basement bedroom of a teenage child of a senior embassy official. I kid you not.

Sitting there on the bed – briefing the Cabinet on the international outlook and my meetings in Washington, and talking them through our yet to be announced stimulus package, and our bank guarantee due to be announced later that day – I looked up at the wall and thought ‘it can’t get any more bizarre than this.’

There I was staring at this Jimi Hendrix poster, and being the mad rock and roll fan I am, I couldn’t get out of my head his version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower:

There must be some way out of here.

Said the Joker to the thief

There’s too much confusion

I can’t get no relief.

These were the thoughts running through the minds of many policy makers over the course of these traumatic days.

On the other end of the phone in the Cabinet Room in Canberra, we were taking some of the most important decisions of the post-war era – the bank guarantee and the first stimulus package which along with the second stimulus package saved Australia from recession and the associated skills and capital destruction that dragged down most other developed economies.

Throughout this saga, the inspiration for our response was steeped deep in Australian Laborism and in the scars inflicted on our movement by the Great Depression.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Labor story if it didn’t involve a party of resistance.

In then-Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, we had a captive of big business, who opposed stimulus and argued for meagre tax cuts, rather than our targeted payments to families and pensioners.

In Tony Abbott, we had the consummate court jester – who would be pitiful if he weren’t so poisonous – passed out drunk in his office while the votes on the second February 2009 stimulus package were proceeding in the House of Representatives below.

Addressing the Parliament in 2013, I drew attention to Abbott’s contemptuous gesture, which was one of the Parliament’s worst-kept secrets.

Abbott would not own up to his self-indulgent behaviour for another four years, and I was forced to withdraw my remarks.

Not long after drawing attention to it, I received a card from a party member in New South Wales, which read:

‘Dear Young Wayne, I just read that you were forced to withdraw an allegation that Tony Abbott slept through a vote because he was drunk.

Wayne, Wayne, Wayne. Tony slept through a vote because he’s an asshole!

Keep up the good work.


Christine Wright

P.S. He’s still an asshole!’

While this story again exposes the disregard that the Liberal Party has for the people of Australia by not showing up for some of the most important votes in the Parliament’s history, few of us in this room need reminding of the damage inflicted by conservatives when they DO show up for such votes.

I dread to think what might have happened if we had adopted a laissez faire response to the Global Financial Crisis, leaving our fate to the market.

Sadly, this is the preferred response of conservatives in such situations – to take both hands off the wheel and await the ‘cleansing power’ of a recession.

What set Australian Labor apart then – and what continues to set us apart – is not simply the rejection of this destructive agenda, but the initiative to seek something more – to build something lasting for the people of Australia.

In this mission, and in charting the course for the future of the Left in Australia, we can have no higher example than that set by Gough and his successors, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard.

The last Labor Government left office in 2013.

Like Gough’s Government, we suffered our share of internal strife, but we also had to contend with a highly radicalised, rabid Right wing, backed by powerful vested interests.

As I’ve detailed in my book The Good Fight, the Coalition and its supporters in private industry and the media demonised our response to the financial crisis, conspired to sink our mining tax and carbon price, and filibustered against our reforms to telecommunications, disability services, discrimination and workplace relations, among countless others.

The struggle between initiative and resistance has become a struggle between initiative and reaction – sometimes ultra-reaction.

Our country has returned to the same fractures as in 1975, with one vast difference: the vested interests in our society are richer, more politically active and are more willing to align themselves with one side of politics than at any time post war.

Well may we say, ‘Advance Australia Fair’, because these vested interests will stop at nothing to entrench unfairness at every level: income and wealth inequality, social immobility, and a political process entirely captive to the top end of town.

The radicalisation of the Right and the polarisation of politics demands that centre-left parties articulate an economic framework which delivers rising living standards for workers. If we fail, then neoliberal ideologues – cloaked in Trumpian populism – may lead us down the road to ruin once more.

If we are to renew Gough’s vision and overcome the challenge of right-wing populism, we must build our policy around four key progressive pillars:

First, sustained full employment, defined as a level of unemployment of 3% or less.

Australia should embrace fiscal policy – that is, demand management – as a means of eliminating spare capacity and achieving full employment. Australian Labor cannot call itself a party of initiative unless it commits unequivocally, to functional fiscal policy that could deliver gainful employment to at least half of Australia’s 1.8 million unemployed and underemployed workers, without threatening inflation.

This is not a recipe simply to expand the expenditure side of the budget. It is entirely consistent with budget repair, especially if it focuses on restoring fairness and efficiency to the tax and expenditure systems.

The second pillar is a stronger voice for workers, codified in new rules and institutions.

With wages stagnating and labour’s share of income at its lowest level in 60 years, we have never been further from the Whitlam era.

When everyone from the Reserve Bank Governor to Scott Morrison are campaigning for a wage rise, we know that the deck is stacked against workers.

It’s crucial that workers’ voices are heard in key public institutions, such as the Reserve Bank, and the ABC, as well as on the boards of private companies.

Given the prominence and dominance on company boards of corporate and financial elites, we should have an active debate about a broader representation of workers and shareholders on these boards.

Third, we must tame corporate excess, from oligopoly power to executive pay.

Last year the head of the Commonwealth Bank received $12.3 million, or the combined salary of 250 Commonwealth Bank tellers.

One way for Governments to combat this is by enforcing higher company tax rates the higher that this pay ratio goes. If executives can seize the rewards of a higher share price, why shouldn’t workers benefit too?

To combat market concentration, we can start by beefing up the penalties for anti-competitive conduct, and boosting the budget and the investigative power of the ACCC, as my colleague Andrew Leigh has suggested.

Fourthly, we must defend and advance our world-leading progressive tax system.

The highest income earners have access to concessions that reduce their effective rates of tax to below those of the lowest earners, who do not receive such concessions.

Removing the lurks and perks in the personal income tax system is a necessary first step in preserving progressive tax policy.

We must not take a backward step in holding corporations to their tax responsibilities.

Every time we hear the argument that Australian companies pay too much tax, we should take a moment to remind ourselves that in recent years, one third of our largest corporations paid no tax at all.

If the RBA Governor considers it reasonable for workers to simply ‘demand higher pay’, it should also be fair game for governments to demand that corporations pay their fair share of tax.

We can do no greater justice to Gough’s legacy than by reaffirming boldly our commitment to being the party of initiative, the party of inclusive prosperity, and the party of not just the ‘men and women of Australia’, but of their children and their grandchildren, too.

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