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Lionel Bowen was, above all else, a man of the people. He was inspired by the lives and successes, the hardship and suffering, the needs and aspirations of the people he represented. Lionel Bowen was less given to philosophical pronouncements than he was to the practical reality of the everyday lives of his constituents, both in the NSW Parliament and in the Federal Parliament. He was interested in bringing quality to the lives of everyday Australians – whether it was improved education funding, reducing the health system’s reliance on poker machine tax, noise abatement at Mascot or an improved sewage treatment facility at Malabar. (That, by the way, remains a work in progress almost half a century later.)
Not for him the high sounding phrases of a Whitlam or the mercurial wit of a Keating. He was the ideal deputy leader – solid, grounded, phlegmatic, pragmatic.
On 16 April 1970, in his maiden speech to the Federal Parliament, Lionel Bowen had this to say.
[This parliament] is far too remote from the details and problems of the people. Its elected representatives . . . have little opportunity to put forward cases that people want them to raise. The real issues could readily be solved if more emphasis were given to the needs of people, particularly if they were investigated by committees or otherwise, and if we determined whether money was well spent.
Forever down to earth and practical, Lionel Bowen never forgot the battler. He knew what battlers had to endure, and he spent his entire parliamentary career working to deliver that fundamental thing that all Australians seek – fairness.
Lionel Bowen’s life as a child had been hard. His father was an alcoholic who deserted the family. His mother was a cleaner who single-handedly brought up her son, as well as supporting her invalid brother and her ageing mother – all without the social security systems that Labor subsequently put in place. He left school at fourteen to work as a messenger, then as a legal clerk, all the while studying at night school. He knew what hard work looked like. He knew what unfairness looked like. He was deeply focused on ameliorating the lives of his constituents here in Kingsford-Smith and of all the working class citizens of NSW.
He shared this passion with his Cabinet colleagues in the first three Hawke governments, one of whom, the Hon. Susan Ryan, is here with us tonight.
I think that Susan probably agrees with me in saying that it is not possible to survive a life in politics without a healthy sense of irony.
Although there is little that amazes me these days, even I am sometimes astounded by the sheer brazenness of some of Malcolm Turnbull’s pronouncements.
We know that the man has no shame. To have morphed from being the self-appointed ‘conscience’ of the Liberal Party (an oxymoron if ever there was one), to being the monkey dancing to the doleful tunes played by Abbott the organ-grinder, to being a total chameleon must have taken some effort. This Prime Minister is a drip looking for a tap to call home, or as PJK put it with much more elegance when talking about John Hewson, a shiver in search of a spine to run up.
So when, just before the Budget last week, Malcolm Turnbull began to talk about ‘fairness’, and about how it is in the Tory DNA, the response across the country ranged from disbelief to dismissal.
Australians understand fairness, and they can pick authenticity. And they know Malcolm’s not the real deal.
As Bill Shorten pointed out last Thursday night, the Turnbull-ScoMo 2017 Budget is anything but fair – it’s not fair to school children; it’s not fair to university students; it’s not fair to people who are on social security benefits; it’s not fair to young people who want to buy a home; it’s not fair to working people who are asked to pay more while top dollar earners and big business get a tax cut.
As many of you would recall, Malcolm Turnbull is a recidivist when it comes to vacuous language and words he does not actually understand. Just over a year ago, he breathlessly told the Economic and Social Outlook Conference in Melbourne that “fairness is absolutely critical’. This nonsense stimulated Chris Bowen to dismiss his posturing as ‘platitudes’ and ‘soothing words’. Why have attitude when you can hide behind a platitude?
But this year’s Budget does more than confirm the flexible nature of Malcolm Turnbull’s views. It confirms that Labor is gradually winning the values debate and the contest of ideas. It underscores the hollowness of the man who occupies the Lodge.
But perhaps most importantly this Budget demonstrates that belief matters. Values matter. Consistency matters.
You can’t do fair – if you don’t believe it.
You can’t do fair if you’ve spent years dismissing unfairness, telling parents that when it comes to schools the money doesn’t matter and limiting access to Medicare without regard to how that hits those who can least afford it.
You can’t do fair once you and the party you lead signed up to the “age of entitlement” template, casting Australians as either “lifters” or “leaners”.
You can’t do fair if your advice to young Australians struggling to buy their first house is get rich parents.
Mr Turnbull is desperate to escape the shadow of the 2014 Budget. But that Budget remains with us. Not only because it sought to recast Australia as a less egalitarian, less caring and more divided society. Not only because he himself backed it in, and continues to do so.
You will all recall Malcolm Turnbull’s full-throated support for the 2014 Budget when interviewed by Alan Jones. Having stood up on his hind legs and told Jones that he wasn’t going to take dictation from him, what did he do? He rolled over onto his back and said this. “I support unreservedly and wholeheartedly every element in the Budget. Every single one.”
And last week, the Prime Minister admitted to Fran Kelly that he thought the worst of those cuts “had merit”.
That Budget remains with us because it tells us what the Coalition really thinks. The 2014 Budget is a window into the heart and soul of the Liberal Party. And we won’t forget it.
Now Malcolm Turnbull wants us to move on. He wants us to forget it in the hope that the 24 hours news cycle and his own charm will erase what we know – that he has only recently discovered that Australians value fairness. And that he’s only done so because he thinks it will save his job.
The central basis of his argument appears to be that he is not as bad as Tony Abbott. It’s like returning from a cruise and claiming that it went better than the Titanic.
He’s cutting funding to Australia’s schools – but not by as much as Tony Abbott.
He’s making university more expensive – but not quite as much as Tony Abbott.
Medicare is still being eroded – just not quite as badly.
Families are will still have payments reduced – but by a bit less than under Tony Abbott.
Malcolm is still cutting support to pensioners – just a little less. And he’s continued to cut to assistance to the world’s poorest, with a further reduction in our aid funding. Not content with the lowest proportion of our national income on record going to international development, this Budget cuts it by a further $300 million.
Even when the Liberals claim to do fairness they deliver the exact opposite.
And just last month, we again saw Malcolm Turnbull’s vacuity on display. This time, rather than channelling Tony Abbott, he decided to channel that other Liberal luminary, Peter Dutton, trumpeting Dutton’s changes to our citizenship test as a necessary reinforcement of ‘Australian values’. Yet when it came to explaining what he thought “Australian values” were, he ducked and weaved because he was unable to put together a coherent answer. I guess that if you don’t know what is fair, it is pretty hard to say what values might be.
But values are at the centre of what Labor stands for, which brings me back to fairness.
Fairness is what our party is all about. Fairness is what inspired the early founders of the Australian Labor Party – people who had emerged from the union movement to give fairness in working conditions a political expression. It was what drove people like Dawson in Queensland, Holman in NSW, and Watson and Fisher at the federal level. For them, conciliation and arbitration, wage justice and fair working conditions were major social issues, vehemently opposed by the conservatives as they pursued wealth and profit at any cost, especially if the downtrodden were labourers and manual workers.
Fairness is what inspired the inter-war leaders, especially Curtin and Chifley. And fairness is what inspired Whitlam to introduce Medibank, as it was the antithesis of fairness that inspired Howard and Fraser to repeal the Medibank legislation. It was fairness that inspired Hawke and Keating to reintroduce Medicare, as it was fairness that inspired Bill Shorten to fight against the Tories’ plans to undermine Medicare in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
Fairness is what our movement is all about – not just wage fairness, but fairness in working conditions, fairness in the provision of sick leave, holiday leave and workers’ compensation, fairness in the provision of superannuation, fairness in retrenchment provisions, fairness in relocation and retraining.
Fairness is a core Labor value and, in my view, a core Australian value. Fairness, along with compassion, care and inclusion, is the glue that holds all of Labor’s policies together, whether in the areas of health, education, social security, child care, paid parental leave, aged care, workplace relations, indigenous policy and, of course, climate policy.
Fairness was a key plank of the climate policy I developed during the Rudd Government, as it was a key plank of the clean energy future package that my friend Greg Combet legislated under the Gillard Government. And intergenerational fairness was a centrepiece of our climate policy – our insistence that our generation did not leave a world in ruins to our children and grandchildren.
Fairness, of course, was what drove me as Finance Minister in Julia Gillard’s Government to work to fund Labor reforms such as the NDIS, needs based funding in our schools and pay equity measures.
And what of the Tory view of fairness when it comes to our great intergenerational challenge? Tony Abbott immediately smashed down the climate change legislation negotiated through a hung parliament, leaving the total mess that now distinguishes Australia’s climate policy. The result is investment uncertainty, rising electricity prices, electricity shortages and blackouts – all to pander to the reactionaries and so-called ‘climate sceptics’ (actually anti-scientific ideologues) who make up so much of the oxymoronic ‘Liberal’ Party.
I have long wondered why the decent and upright people in the Coalition – and there are a few of them – can support a political movement that confers advantage on those who are already privileged and harshness on those who struggle.
The answer, perhaps, lies in the fact that they are a political movement that had its origins in inequality – in the inherent right of the landed and the wealthy to grow their fortunes at the expense of those who were not landed or wealthy. The Liberal Party was never about fairness as its history of attacks on the unions and the rights of workers so amply demonstrates.
As the French economist Thomas Piketty has so clearly demonstrated in his 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, when capital grows at the expense of labour, inequality is the inevitable result.
Whether it is tired old Tories like Eric Abetz and George Brandis, or sad young Tories like James Paterson and Zed Seselja, the Coalition cannot escape the artificial bipolarities that actually generate inequality in our society. This is the inequality that has given birth to the unstable splinter parties like Palmer United and One Nation. The conservatives encourage ticket clipping and profit taking of all kinds while suppressing wages. And the consequences of their flatlining of wages are now coming home to roost for Australians and for the Budget.
Don’t you find it galling that any time the Coalition goes in for union bashing, it is in the name of fairness to developers, construction conglomerates and mining companies? But when Labor suggests that it might be time for the wealthy, and especially the tax avoiders, to pay their fair share of tax, we are accused of class warfare. According to the Tories, it is only fair that they retain wealth and position. And it is only fair that workers stay at the bottom of the pile. That’s the perverted kind of fairness that is in the conservative DNA of which Malcolm Turnbull spoke.
We need to be constantly on our guard against the habit of the Tories to steal our ideas, our policies and our language in order to decorate the poverty of their own offering. Just as they finally saw political advantage in adopting the language of the Gonski reforms and the NDIS, so they have recognised their vulnerability on issues like values and fairness. Their focus-groups would have been telling them that the public does not think that they have any values, or that they are fair.
What better way to address the moral deficit than to dissemble by trumpeting values and fairness, by purloining the language that has been at the heart of Labor’s policy offering for over a century. But, as it so often is with the Coalition, it is a case of the emperor’s clothes. They parade around draped in nothing but their arrogance and pretence. You will all recall how Tony Abbott, a policy and political bankrupt if ever there was one, appropriated Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’. He pilfered that idea because even he could recognise that it had resonance with the Australian community. It was aspirational, as Labor’s ideas are.
Can any of you think of even one idea of Menzies that resonates with contemporary Australia? Of course, Abbott could: the cringe-worthy “I did but see her passing by, and yet I’ll love her ‘til I die”. A knighthood for the Duke of Edinburgh!
Imitation, I suppose, is the sincerest form of flattery – to the extent that sincerity is not another bridge too far for Malcolm Turnbull. But if we need to guard against having our ideas and language ripped off, we must also ensure we continue to own our own narrative. We must know what we stand for, and just as importantly say what we stand for. Just as we must walk the walk on our policy initiatives and policy achievements, we must talk the talk. We must ensure that the language of Labor remains the currency of the progressive side of politics. We must never resile from the fact that we are the party of values, the party of compassion, the party of fairness. We are the party that works to improve the lives of all Australians, especially those who are disadvantaged and doing it hard. We are the party of the ordinary people, bringing, as Chifley said, better conditions to the people. You all know the force of his words.
I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.
That light has guided Labor governments to reshape our nation and make it fairer and more equitable.
That work has been so successful its achievements are now often taken for granted.
But, for a moment, imagine an Australia today without the contribution of Labor governments.
Imagine an Australia without Medicare, an Australia without a fair system of wages and conditions, or an Australia not shaped by the post-war wave of immigration.
Imagine an Australia where tertiary education is closed to those unable to afford it, an Australia without the principle of equality imbued in the Racial Discrimination Act or the Sex Discrimination Act.
Imagine an Australia that had not recognised native title; that had not acknowledged the wrongs inflicted on the Stolen Generation, or an Australia where working people were denied a dignified retirement through superannuation.
We are the party that provides the energy for modernisation and change that is necessary in any open, inclusive and democratic society.
As Deputy Prime Minister and Attorney-General, Lionel Bowen was in the great tradition of constitutional reformers. For Lionel, one of the greatest responsibilities enjoyed by a free and independent people is the task of making and amending their own constitution.
Lionel Bowen, like Lionel Murphy before him and Gareth Evans after him, sought to give constitutional expression to the basic fairness that must underpin our domestic politics if we are to grow as a fair and inclusive society.
As advocates of the values that drive the creation of a fair society, we must remain true to the Labor tradition of which Lionel Bowen was such an exemplar.
Confidence, courage and conviction – these are the qualities that will continue to inspire us, as Lionel Bowen was inspired.
These are the qualities that will allow us to build on the great achievements of the labour movement.
These are the qualities that will ensure we maintain the momentum towards the light on the hill.