WAGGA WAGGA, NSW
FRIDAY, 29 NOVEMBER 2019
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I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today – the Wiradjuri people, paying respects to elders past, present and emerging.
Let me open with a straight-forward question – why’s a Sydney-sider visiting you all in Wagga Wagga
To talk about the challenges facing regional Australia?
I’ll start answering that in part by paying respect to the person who has inspired this night: Eddie Graham.
This night has brought many people together to remember Eddie’s contribution: notably, Anthony Albanese, Chris Bowen, Kristina Keneally and Tony Burke to name a few.
Tonight we have present many other Labor representatives and I’d specifically like to acknowledge NSW Shadow Minister for Mental Health Tara Moriarty, NSW Labor’s Country Organiser Jay Suvaal.
I’m conscious I haven’t yet answered my earlier question – but let me pose one more before I do:
Why honour someone like Eddie Graham – an individual many of us would not have personally known or dealt with?
To be honest, many of us join our movement knowing of – but not having much to do with – the people that are its leading voices.
But as is often the case their struggle is our struggle. We identify. Especially in a party where the notion of collective effort is so highly valued.
While we may not know them personally, we respect what mattered to those figures and what they fought for.
Eddie Graham is a person deserving of such respect.
Son of the land, Eddie attended a one teacher school at Lake Albert and then the old public school on Gurwood Street right here in Wagga.
He went from working as a butcher to keeping a close eye on the product itself as a stock agent.
Community mattered. He served as President of the Wagga Wagga Club of the Junior Farmers’ movement from 1925 to 1941,
a time that would have seen some of our nation’s toughest years traversing depression to war.
Eddie’s efforts and stature caught the eye of Labor lion William McKell, who hand picked him to run against the Country Party’s Matthew Kilpatrick.
That was some fight – Kilpatrick was a seasoned parliamentary veteran of more than 20 years standing.
Yet Eddie snared the seat on preferences in 1941 – and he never needed them again to hold Wagga Wagga.
His win totemic in many ways, an achievement that should inspire whenever our competitors sneer that Labor can’t prevail in contests outside major cities. Look to Eddie, I’d say.
And his political journey should remind us that our democracy has given people from varied backgrounds the chance to have a say on how to build better neighbourhoods or states and territories or nations.
Eddie went from wielding a meat cleaver in a Wagga butchery to the Macquarie Street bear pit. What was more brutal? You decide.
His efforts earned him the achievement of longest serving Minister for Agriculture in NSW, in the job nearly 13 years until his sudden death in 1957 at just 60 years of age.
A legacy that saw:
• the introduction of regional agricultural offices throughout rural NSW;
• the expansion of experimental farms and research institutes; and,
• the investment in the future viability of agriculture.
Affectionately known as the “Minister for Wagga Wagga” he made sure his hometown secured:
• What’s become the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Institute;
• abattoirs providing a huge number of jobs for the region;
• the Agricultural and Teacher’s college; and,
• improved school and health facilities.
A minds and muscle agenda – creating white and blue collar jobs.
Not easy to rack these achievements up, mind you – grasped from the gritted teeth of opposition from city MPs.
While Eddie was an MP over 60 years ago, his actions bear resonance today. He was a good man. A good MP. A great Labor champion.
He made sure people who felt they weren’t being heard got heard.
In this observation, lies the answer to the question: “why’s this Sydneysider here tonight?”.
It’s not only to honour Eddie but to firmly associate myself with that ambition: make sure people who feel they’re not getting heard are heard.
You see, I come from a city of two halves: Sydney.
Growing up in Western Sydney – and now representing suburbs around Mount Druitt – I learned early to have “the elbows up and out”.
To make sure that we get what’s needed, instead of having choices imposed on us or being ignored.
At times I’ve had to do so in ways that rankle and irritate.
There are those who will murmur and moan about the way my region speaks up – but as Eddie’s legacy shows it’s the way you get things done.
Regional Australia has a lot to be restless about.
Because the party that claims to best represent it is letting it down badly.
The record of the Nationals – who think their rural cred and connections are best reflected in the vibrancy of their khakis or the shine of their RM Williams – is all feather, no meat. Look at the record:
• The worst unemployment hotspots in the country are in Nationals seats.
• The worst health records or life expectancy in the country – in National seats. 19 of the 20 electorates in the country with the highest life expectancy are Liberal. However, every single Nationals seat in Australia has a life expectancy in the bottom third of all electorates.
• Promised for ages they’d build dams – and after six years haven’t built a damned one;
• The Inland Rail seems to have more “empathy experts” than engineers working on it;
• A Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility that in five years had, in the words of Anthony Albanese, became a “No Actual Infrastructure Fund”;
• Talked a big game about bringing more government jobs to regional Australia – and all they did was botch the relocation of the APVMA;
• National MPs who spend more time outside of the country than being country reps;
• Local government in regional areas that need strong Federal Government support, squeezed by funding cuts;
• The success of mobile black spot funding is as spotty as the mobile coverage it’s supposed to fix – with stats that nearly half of all farms have ‘poor to no coverage’. Given what we know of the tech sector that can help farm productivity this is a huge missed opportunity; and,
• Should I mention the NBN – or will that irretrievably dampen tonight’s mood?
So why are the Nationals so bad and do I have enough time to answer that?
Is it that their party room is filled to the brim with the parliamentary equivalents of Foghorn Leghorn, all bluster, little punch?
Is it because – even so soon after the election – they:
• already circle each other, a divided bunch;
• intolerant of those with their own thoughts or some stitch of talent;
• ready to cut down their own Ministers; and,
• sizing up the chance to depose their Deputy Prime Minister, who himself is but one moment away from another political faceplant courtesy of his own tongue.
But friends I imagine we all know the real reason for the Nationals impotence:
their supposed Coalition partners, the Liberals don’t respect them. And they never will.
Black Jack McEwen would recoil from today’s pruned and meagre husk of the Country Party tradition.
He would never in his wildest, most frightful dreams imagine a situation where a Liberal PM could go on to a Sydney radio station to announce a drought package that didn’t involve the Nationals.
This – twinned with Black Jack’s electrifying scream across history – speaks volumes.
Regional Australia needs better than the representatives they have in the Nationals.
But Labor also needs to take a fresh look at the attention and effort we pay to regional Australia.
I occasionally joke that my friend and colleague Joel Fitzgibbon is guaranteed to say three things to you when you talk with him about politics – g’day, goodbye, and Labor never wins government without the regions.
He’s spot on. And I referred to McKell earlier: a figure who built an iron-clad political reputation by embracing that philosophy.
The sharp end of this discussion is the vehicle for campaigning in the regions: Country Labor.
Members value that Country Labor provides them with a strong political identity and brand.
But many would agree it needs a serious shakeup.
Country Labor has mobilising force, capacity to energise members in our regions. It must revive this and slough off its shape, something acquired over the course of many, many years.
With a new General Secretary comes an opportunity for new directions.
Regional members should be involved in recasting Country Labor’s direction and operations.
And we should also revive not only the way we select candidates – but how we develop community campaigners that champion change locally.
These people may become candidates or become part of a force that creates a climate for change.
I’d certainly urge that review to occur and I might be so bold to think there are those in this room that might agree.
Because there is a big agenda to be wrought for our regions.
One that envisions growing communities that can welcome those fleeing congested cities.
Strengthened economies that have been broadened out or sharpened up with the use of technology, improving the quality of life.
New jobs created that help hold on to the generational lifeblood of the regions – its young – instead of waving them off as they trek to cities for opportunity.
It’s not just campaigning that Country Labor has a part to play in – but drafting up an alternative set of ideas and policies to challenge the Nationals, who have taken their communities for granted.
Because there’s a lot of expectation being placed on the shoulders of regional Australia – to accept more people but seemingly without the matching dollars for infrastructure or economic investment.
We cannot have a “fits and starts” version of effort without serious government backing for the creation of livable, connected regions, as opposed to the scenarios raised with me by my colleagues the Members for Dobell and Paterson Emma McBride and Meryl Swanson: of either disconnected, dormitory suburbs or regions without an economic and jobs blueprint for sustainable growth.
Enough has been said about our federal election performance, however in my mind its hard to ignore the salt in the wound:
This election really saw us “kick the can down the road”, big issues avoided, action deferred.
The re-election of a do-nothing Coalition postponed the chance to tackle the most serious problems standing before us.
From climate change to reforming the budget to make it fairer and work better for average Ausralians.
It seems the only thing that gets the conservatives animated is the tantalising prospect of a gleeful media headline heralding a surplus.
• No need to find a way to kick wages out of the rut they’ve been in;
• Or bring forward tax cuts to help average Australians, maybe revive shrivelled consumer confidence and strengthen the economy;
• Or work out how to help those impoverished on Newstart rates that haven’t really budged much for years;
• No acknowledgement by them of the obscenity of building a surplus by underspending on the NDIS – or failing to cut the waiting lists for those wanting quality aged care;
• Or providing genuine aid to those battling one of our worst droughts;
• Nothing to pluck business investment out of its quagmire.
No investment of effort in tackling serious, lingering problems – just a slavish pursuit of the surplus as if this of itself will save the nation.
What is the point of framing newspaper clippings heralding a surplus if the economy withers underfoot, demanding greater financial outlay to address issues that should have been dealt with the first time?
This tells you everything you need to know about the Coalition – it’s not about you or average Australians.
It’s all about them, the plaudits, the Angus Taylor level self congratulation.
There will be those who think there’s some sort of political opportunity for us coming from the Coalition avoiding these issues, as problems build and dissatisfaction rises. Perhaps.
I wouldn’t be so cocky.
A problem ignored, is a problem magnified – and for Labor we may inherit the job of attending to it.
So we need to shape up for the responsibility that will probably head our way, whether we like it or not.
Some will tell you that the biggest lesson for Labor out of the election is to trim our ambition.
To that I defiantly say: rubbish.
Our rivals never give up on their ideas – they work to find new ways to bring them to life.
And they certainly never resile from opposing us.
I don’t think we should cast ourselves in the role of opposition for opposition’s sake.
And I am not arguing that a replica of the 2019 policies should be lifted and carried with us to an election in three years’ time, with possibly different circumstances. That’s simply impractical.
But I do think we have our work cut out for us conceiving accepted alternatives to the threadbare agenda of the conservatives.
I’d urge caution too: we tried small target strategies in the past.
Remember how that worked out for us?
In my mind the path to success rests with a strong leader working with a strong team to build powerful community support for strong ideas to improve the lives of ordinary Australians.
I personally welcome how Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has injected new energy, dynamism and a fresh approach to the way we do things as an Opposition.
Even he would admit it’s been a challenge in the aftermath of this year’s events but I respect what he has done to be open to new ideas and thank him for that.
I acknowledge there was some argument about the breadth of our agenda.
And there is certainly wisdom in creating enough space to prosecute your ideas over a period of time and then make sure you reinforce, remind, reiterate what you’re doing.
The lesson for us is not to “think small and do even less”.
Reforming the structure of our budget – and smoothing out the distortions created by the way concessions are financed within it – these things won’t disappear.
For instance, many would be unaware that superannuation tax concessions provide higher income earners with greater taxpayer assistance than those on low incomes who rely on the age pension.
Put bluntly: retirees that aren’t on the aged pension obtain greater government support than aged pensioners themselves. Sustainable?
The top 1% of the retired population receive twice as much in concessions than the bottom 10% get in total from the government.
If the cost of concessions to people already on high incomes and on a good wicket outpaces what we provide pensioners – something has to give.
Or if the housing market rebounds, with investors again squeezing out first home buyers or renters finding it hard to pay the rents expected of them – is that something we as a Labor party turn our backs on?
I mention these issues even before I get to talking about climate change.
As I get to that, I make this point: the biggest challenge facing politics in this day and age is building trust in change.
Building confidence within average Australians that through change people will be properly looked after.
When you look at what needs to be done, across issues, the thread that loops them together is trust – or more specifically, a lack of trust in the claims about how the cost of change will be borne.
Let’s start with this example:
we’ve had a lot of people tell us that Labor has to rethink its relationship with coal.
That in some way we have to stop talking about what might happen to the use of coal in the future.
But it’s not like we can ignore the impact of climate change on our lives?
And we can’t ignore that other major economies are either winding down coal mining.
or international investors – who partly finance the debt we rack up as a nation – are judging countries heavily reliant on the export of coal or with lame climate change response like ours.
And it’s not like Labor MPs are going to parade into parliament brandishing chunks of coal at the dispatch box to demonstrate our connection to it.
We need to deal with this. It’s not that this change is upon us now, but are we ready for change that we can reasonably expect will emerge in the decade ahead?
Having said that let me ask though: if you’re a coal miner hearing the talk about winding back coal production – or you’re a regional business whose trade is tied to the economic activity generated by mining – why would you trust that change won’t be disproportionately shouldered by you.
That when the applause and pats on the back for championing this policy subside, you’re the one wondering how you’ll pay the mortgage or keep the doors of your business open?
What does a coal miner, sprouting a few more gray hairs, do for a living if you tell him or her that they can’t do what they do for a job?
The regular refrain is either retrain or “jobs in the services sector are booming everywhere”.
I haven’t looked recently at the stats detailing the path from coal miner to yoga instructor. I’m going to guess it’s not that great.
Do they have faith in government job programs getting them into work?
Stuck in a routine of regularly attending the premises of jobactive providers.
Pressing send on another email flogging a resume that will be ignored.
While fighting off a government who wants to issue you with demerit points that might cut off your Newstart payment because it thinks you’re not looking hard enough for work – for jobs that don’t exist in equal number.
We need to face up to the frustrations and concerns felt by our supporters, or those who left us.
People affected by change don’t trust they will be looked after by those championing change.
Until we deal with this, we’ll be stuck in the same track we’ve been stuck in for a while.
Take a moment to think about how we got here.
While we rightly laud the changes ushered in by Hawke/Keating governments, opening up and reinvigorating our economy, we must also acknowledge the impact of these changes on our blue collar base.
Sure, we tried steel plans and structural adjustment programs.
But there were a lot of 45yr old working class men who – when the redundancy money dried up – never saw their way back into the job market.
Those reforms carried when trust in government was way higher.
We’re acutely aware that levels of trust in our institutions have only slid further since then.
And now we’re trying to convince the children of those blue collar workers – who lived through that and are grownups in a modern labour market – that we have another series of reforms to undertake, from tackling climate change through to innovation and tech change.
If we think we have to undertake this change for the good of the country, then we’re all going to need to work for it.
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has made employment and jobs a priority, that’s crucial.
He announced that he would frame up architecture – like the creation of Jobs and Skills Australia – to help focus on this. Good.
Building a plan to build our workforces and get them ready for change is important.
But it can’t cling on retraining alone, as some silver bullet.
We can’t have people stuck on retraining roundabouts as an excuse to being unable to get people into jobs.
We will need a strong working relationship with business to help here. Government can’t do this on its own.
But we also need to urge businesses to think ahead.
At the moment we are outpaced by overseas rivals who are prepared to invest in technology to strengthen the way their firms work.
And do we do enough to make sure the skills of employees in those businesses are kept current or ready to adapt for change? I’d argue not.
When the realisation dawns in the minds of corporate Australia they need to catch up, will this result in a seismic employment shift? What’s the political consequence of that?
Remember within the ranks of major businesses in this country are swathes of those who – after 29 years of constant growth – have never faced economic adversity.
As much as we are witnessing the relentless march of technology, its the investment in human capital – people and their skills – that will give us the edge.
That’s why reforming budgets to invest in our people will build stronger firms, better jobs, solid economic growth.
In this uncertainty it is important that we come together as a nation and as a party.
We need to fight for:
• The workers expecting better wages and better job security;
• Those who want to join the ranks of the labour force;
• The pensioner living from week to week;
• Country communities facing adversity in one of our worst ever droughts;
• and the next generation who wonder if they will ever own a home remotely near where they were raised.
I appreciate other reasons, various motivations may have drawn us to the point we held our first ever membership card.
But we do realise the power within the collective. And we joined because of our belief in better.
And while we’re happy to live better lives ourselves, we’re happier to see those around us also living better quality lives.
That journey may look different to each and every one of us – but the destination is the same.
We didn’t join the party to cower or doubt but because we realised the power of bolder vision for a better country that lifted up the many.
It is time for us as a party, strengthened by our faith, to stand and believe in better together.