Speech - John Curtin Research Centre Gala Dinner









[Acknowledgements omitted]


My theme for this evening is the most important one we face: the need to stand for something.


That’s what think tanks are for.


And what political parties are for.


We’re judged on our ability to win elections and gain power.


And generally speaking, the Australian Labor Party and the union movement are pretty good at winning and governing.


But for what end?


That’s our question tonight.


Looking around at the world today we know what the end must be.


Nothing less than keeping our democracy strong.


Not long ago that would have been a rather pretentious-sounding claim.


But I doubt anyone following world events today would think so.

Western democracies are becoming less equal and less stable.


Accelerated by the Global Financial Crisis, the inequalities that have been building up in western democracies like ours since the end of the post-war Keynesian consensus during the 1970s have been fuelling unhealthy political divisions.


The parallels with the 1930s are obvious.



The search for scapegoats among refugees and migrants.

The return of the hard right.

And the transformation of our familiar conservative-liberal opponents into something nastier and darker – a transformation that has occurred among some with such practiced speed as to make one suspicious.




The world is waking up. Since being Treasurer I have been working internationally on global social-democratic bodies alongside people like Joseph Stiglitz, Neera Tanden and Bernie Sanders to fight against widening economic inequality. This is becoming a worldwide movement.


Because inequality is our enemy.

I believe the vast majority of the depressing and sometimes frightening developments I just listed to you can be traced back to inequality. Racial prejudice is an undeniable part of it, but inequality is the factor that is changing most rapidly in our economies and societies and is the driving variable in these changes.


Inequality has always been there, but its acceleration since the 70s and 80s is undeniable. The GFC 10 years ago triggered mass outrage at wealth and income disparities, while the bitter politics of austerity accelerated those disparities further.


Put simply, after the great recession in our economies, we are suffering a great regression in our politics.


Recently the Productivity Commission handed down a new report into inequality in Australia.


The usual suspects – the editorial writers at The Australian and the Australian Financial Review – claimed the report said inequality was falling. Economic growth, they said, was making us all richer and more equal. Government, people, don’t have to do anything. Trust the market.


Well, inequality isn’t falling.


Wage disparities between the unskilled and the highly educated have widened.


The share of income captured by the top 10 per cent of earners is at a 70-year high and the wage share of the economy is at a record low.


Workers who have moved from unionized manufacturing jobs to less unionised service sector jobs have seen their incomes fall.


More than 1.8 million Australians are looking for work or for more hours.

The irony of the line pushed by the conservatives and the press is that the only thing moderating the obvious trend towards higher inequality is some of Labor’s policy reforms – most notably the one-off increase to the age pension the Labor Government granted in 2009.


Our opponents can try to hide the reality for ordinary people however they like, but the fact is our economy is being reshaped into one in which working people have less power and a smaller share of the pie.


I believe that if we’re not careful, we’re in danger of waking up to find ourselves living a country that is a stranger to us – and we to it. A dog-eat-dog society. A country whose leaders divide them into lifters and leaners. Where the rich get richer and the rest can go and get lost.


Is that what we want?


It’s our responsibility to stop all this.


Nobody else’s – ours!


Increasing inequality is not inevitable. And it’s democracy’s job to prevent it.




Overseas many of our fraternal parties have failed to tackle rising inequality – even when it has resulted in the destruction of their own political base and political power.


Recently the Chifley Research Centre and I hosted the Guardian and New York Times commentator Thomas Frank to Australia.


I wish more of you could have heard him.


His message about what’s happened in America was simple and highly relevant to us: the Democrats failed to listen to the pain coming from blue collar and middle class America for too long. It destroyed their base and led to Trump.


I think Thomas Frank is right.

The American working class hasn’t had a real pay rise in forty years.

Their lives have gotten harsher and less predictable.

Their life expectancy has even started to fall, despite all the advances in medical science and health policy in the last four decades.

They’re at the mercy of companies like Amazon, with their fulfilment centres that use digital surveillance devices to drive casual, minimum wage employees into the ground – something our friend Tim Kennedy at the NUW will tell you is coming to Amazon fulfilment centres 30 minutes down the freeway from here in Dandenong.


And yet, despite all this, Americans voted for a right-wing Republican who, to put it bluntly, is their true class enemy.


The Democrats have not been the only ones to get a glimpse of their political mortality.


As you know, across the world in recent years mainstream social-democratic parties, just like the ALP, have been disappearing at a rapid rate, sometimes overnight.


The once mighty French Socialist Party. PASOK in Greece. The Socialists in Italy. All have been swept away because they had no answer to the economic disruption of our times. UK Labour is also in some turmoil.


If the polls are correct the ALP and the New Zealand Labor Party seem to be alone in bucking the trend.


But we would be foolish to believe that we are immune to similar decline in the longer term.


That’s why I believe we are in a battle of political wills and ideas that will determine the future of our party.


Our task is to tear down neoliberalism and its trickle-down economics, to argue that inequality is not inevitable, and to prove that our social-democratic alternative will create a richer and better society.


The basic proposition of my recent campaign for the party presidency was that when centre-left parties fail to offer a clear alternative, they are easy meat for right-wing populists who use race and gender politics to camouflage their regressive economic policies.


At this moment in history, we can’t afford to be insipid or tame.


Let me tell you what we can’t afford to do.


We can’t afford to use language like “the radical centre” –  the doublethink dreamt up by the billionaires at Davos, who want both major parties to look and sound like Coke and Pepsi while we leave their billions untaxed.

We have to stop listening to the Davos crowd and keep listening to unions, their members and their friends in our community.


As I said in my campaign for the Labor Party presidency: I’m firmly in the labour wing of the Labor Party.


I believe that when left wing parties stop listening to organised labour, they start to lose their way.




Here’s Labor’s best message:

That inequality is getting out of hand.

That the Labor Party is going to fight hard to reverse it.

And that it’s time for all of us on the Left – the party, its factions, its unions, its friendly progressive organisations – to pull together and win.


Our party and our movement is making good headway.


I believe Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen have put together one of the most comprehensive and redistributive Labor economic platforms for a long time.


It’s a great policy platform and one of the most progressive Labor has had in generations.


It’s part of the reason why voters are coming back to us in large numbers.


To implement it, we of course have to get back into government.


But we also have to do something else. We have to win the battle of ideas.




For decades we’ve been a superior election campaigning machine to the Coalition. We’re better at online campaigning. Better at on-the-ground campaigning. More united in selling our message.


And we need to continue that.


But there’s something else we have to get better at. That’s setting the wider agenda of the political debate.


Selling a platform for a better society involves more than winning elections, it involves winning arguments. Over many years.


Despite the best efforts of many, we’ve been out-gunned in that area for far too long.


Organisations like the IPA, backed up by their friends in the right-wing press have pushed ideas that generations ago few people would accept:

that widening inequality is acceptable

that unions are inherently corrupt

that it’s somehow OK for companies facing competition to underpay and rip-off their workers

that it’s OK to neglect our elderly in the name of deregulation

that a casualised dog-eat-dog workforce is somehow natural

that miners shouldn’t pay tax and banks shouldn’t be subject to strong public oversight through Royal Commissions and the ACCC.


It’s no coincidence that one of the IPA’s chief targets has been the ABC.

The ghost of its co-founder Sir Keith Murdoch expects no less, but we’ve seen just last week where these juvenile attacks on the ABC lead – to real consequences for the independence of our most beloved national institution, and a genuine management and public confidence crisis.


There’s no clearer case of sectional interest at war with the national interest, and personally we need to hang this crisis at the ABC around the neck of this rotten government and their rotten mates in the think tanks and the conservative media. The Australian people are not going to forgive this lightly.


People may not necessarily agree with the IPA’s propositions and those of their fellow travellers. In fact, I’ll wager the vast majority usually don’t. But over time, their mental ability to resist such arguments gets broken down by forceful advocacy and repetition.


When it all boils down to it, the underlying, almost subliminal message that emerges is this: Government itself is the problem. And collective action by people to improve their lives is somehow immoral and illegitimate.


This madness is making it impossible for our country to have an intelligent debate about the role of government in increasing growth, achieving greater social equality and even tackling climate change.


To win that debate, the Right has invested huge sums of money.


In 2016-17, the revenue of the Institute of Public Affairs was $6.1 million. Since 2009 it has raised $29.9 million.


In 2016-17 the revenue of the Centre for Independent Studies was $3.9 million. And since 2009 it has raised $25.9 million.


Which means that since the Global Financial Crisis, those two organisations alone have raised over $55 million to argue for less government, less financial regulation, less power for working people, less equality and less action to combat climate change.


Australia is now reaping the whirlwind that organisations like the IPA and the CIS have sown.


And this is happening on a global scale.


Just last week, the Guardian UK published research revealing how U.S.-funded think tanks have channelled millions of dollars into Britain to influence the Brexit campaign.


Their aim is their usual aim: to reduce financial regulations, reduce taxes for business, reduce government revenues and reduce health and social welfare spending.


Ladies and gentlemen, the world is now reaping this whirlwind.


We need to hit back and win that wider debate.


But for too long our efforts have been piecemeal. Disconnected. Small scale.


I want us to fight harder and smarter to set the big picture about what sort of country we want Australia to be.


So we need to come together and scale up.


So one of the things I want to achieve as president of the ALP is to turn us into a machine for changing hearts and minds as well as a machine for winning elections.


I want us to make our movement capable of winning the battle of ideas and reshaping the idea of what is possible.


Ultimately, I want Australia to be a place where people understand that by using the power of collective action through their communities, their workplaces, their unions and governments, they can improve their standard of living and build a better society.


Doing that won’t be easy.


What we need, in essence, is a Manhattan Project for social democracy.


One that brings together our think tanks, our best thinkers, our best writers to tilt the centre of our political debate back to a sensible place where the problems facing our nation can be addressed and solved.


Getting better at winning these sorts of arguments requires a conversation between us.


And I want tonight to start that conversation.


But I don’t want it to end up just more talk. It’s going to take agreement, action and the serious commitment of resources and intellectual effort.


Believe me, you’re going to be hearing more from me about this.




I believe we’ve made a good start.


Public opinion is turning around.


People are rejecting the unfair deal they’re getting from the changing economy.


They want something better.


And because I know so many of you so well, I know you’ll play your part in throwing out the Coalition and beginning to change Australia for the better.


Thank you.