JOHN CURTIN ORATION
Firstly, let me begin by making the most important acknowledgement of all. And that’s that I speak to you on Aboriginal land. I pay respects to elders past, present and emerging and speak to you with humility on these lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung people – this is a land stolen, never ceded.
On Friday I marched in solidarity with the First Nations community at the Victorian NAIDOC march – it was a joyous celebration which recognised fearless Indigenous leaders. As we marched, we spoke about the advances made towards recognition and equality.
- The Wave Hill workers walk off.
- Whitlam pouring the sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand.
- The Barunga Statement.
- Mabo and Native Title.
- The National Apology.
- The Bringing Them Home project and the compensation scheme for survivors of the Stolen Generation.
- On a much smaller scale, the decision to rename my electorate to Cooper.
William Cooper was a trailblazing activist for Aboriginal rights in the 20th century who spent his lifetime working to advance the rights of our First Nations peoples.
Changing the name brings honour to the community and to our nation.
It is a mark of truth-telling, of respect and recognition and also of a nation maturing.
More importantly, as we marched, we discussed the journey that lies in front of as we push on towards healing and reconciliation.
The overwhelming message from this year’s Closing the Gap report is that, 10 years on, the statistics, the numbers, the human outcomes are getting worse, not better.
Labor knows that Closing the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage depends on all Australians acknowledging the continuing trauma of colonisation and the Stolen Generations.
This is what Prime Minister Keating acknowledged when he spoke at Redfern twenty six years ago and declared;
“The starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.
It begins, I think, with that act of recognition.
Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.”
So we need to commit to no longer making decisions about them and for them.
We need to listen, learn and take direction from our First Nations peoples.
The Uluru statement should not be tossed aside like it has by this government - astoundingly.
We cannot, like this government has also done, simply move targets when the inequality gap widens.
We cannot ignore the lessons, nor ignore the way forward.
We need constitutional recognition, we need to keep the process of reconciliation alive.
We need to work towards a Makarrata Commission, of truth-telling and healing…
And we need First Nations representation in our parliament.
Ultimately - we need Treaty.
Because until our communities can reconcile a joint narrative about the history of this country, we cannot truly be reconciled.
And we also need to make clear that if we can establish a Voice for our First Nations - the decisions made about them are made with them and by them.
Comrades, I am proud to stand before you today as a member of the Labor Party, and as an impassioned and committed campaigner for Labor values.
Ours are the politics of justice, of kindness, of egalitarianism.
Of a willingness to walk the talk, from our homes and streets and workplaces and into the halls of parliament, to fight the fights that need fighting for the people who need us to fight them the most.
Labor is a party committed to forming government, and with that comes a difficult, demanding and sometimes exhausting commitment to be a party for all Australians.
It is an honour to deliver the John Curtin Oration in the town where he was born and whose legacy to the Labor movement is significant.
I now live in Brunswick where he grew up, went to school, played footy on the oval where I walk my dogs today.
Where he began his fraught relationship with alcohol.
He was in fact fined one pound for drinking on a Sunday at the Union hotel in Union St Brunswick, which is still operating today.
A house my partner bought and lived in, 16 Barry St Brunswick was one of the houses the Curtin family rented.
We have a letter that he penned from that address to his fiancé at the time. A young woman who tragically died.
Curtin was a working class man, a union man who led the Timber Workers Union here in Victoria.
He had a dissolute father and so was virtually raised by a single mum in the poverty of Brunswick.
His experiences of hardship and poverty both in his own life and that of the lives of those in regional timber communities no doubt shaped the priorities of the Prime Minister he was to become.
He was an ordinary man, but he was extraordinary.
Because Curtin was a visionary and nothing could stifle that.
A visionary who united his party and led it to power, a visionary who united the nation in war and led it to victory.
As a wartime Prime Minister, Curtin realised that the “British bootstraps” rhetoric conservatives were enamoured by, and still are today would not serve Australia’s long-term prosperity or security.
He pushed Australia to adapt to rapidly changing events and forged a new strategic partnership with the United States. In fact he was an internationalist when that was just a burgeoning concept.
He did of course support the White Australia policy, but along with HV Evatt he started the foundations for the rules based international system by rebuilding the UN and the ILO.
Chifley of course finished this, but the international institutions that they helped pioneer are even more crucial now as we face massive global challenges including a globalised economy and climate change, refugees and mass movements of people and international commercial crime and terrorism.
Curtin began the era of regional cooperation for Australia.
Paul Keating said, “John Curtin began us thinking in our own terms, and this is probably his long term-term legacy.”
This ability to change tack, responding to the new global world order, is exactly what Australians leaders should be doing now. But they are incapable of it.
The clumsy handling of the China-US relations by the Turnbull government highlights a complete lack of sophistication and a default to binary positions when nuance is what is needed.
They are unable to even find consistency in managing the complexities of the US-China relationships - the most important foreign policy challenge Australia faces over the next 50 years.
But let’s not spoil our lunch, let’s get back to Curtin. While his wartime are significant, for me, his most important legacy is the massive expansion of social services.
In 1942, Curtin imposed uniform taxation on the states, enabling the government to set up far-reaching, federally administered social services.
These included a widows' pension, maternity benefits for
Indigenous Australians, additional allowances for the children of pensioners and additional unemployment and sickness benefits.
Like Labor leaders before him, and those who would follow, Curtin’s reform agenda recognised that a safety net is vital for a more equal society. Curtin recognised that we are a stronger nation when we provide a fair go for all Australians.
A great man. And thank you for asking me today. I really am honoured.
I became Labor in the era of Gough Whitlam, and what an incredible period it was to be a young girl growing into political consciousness.
As a teenager in the 1970s, I was one of the first generations of Australian women to enter the workforce with a right to equal pay - thanks to the Whitlam government.
I came of age with the Whitlam era slogan that girls really can do anything. That even as a girl from a working class Richmond I had a right to a decent education, including tertiary education.
I had a right to a career of my own, a right to a workplace free from discrimination, and the right to leave an unhappy marriage through “no fault” divorce.
These were not things that Australian women had access to in the decades before the 70s.
Out of the greyness and low expectations of conservative governments, Labor had its moment and our party pushed through – forever transforming Australian expectations of what Australian fairness could look like.
I don’t have to remind you that the Whitlam government lasted a mere three years.
That its bold policy visions faced fierce conservative pushback.
What our party has learned over its 128 years in existence is that every change provokes a pushback.
Every fight for greater equality in this country is a fight against a vested interest.
The project for social change is long and hard.
So my philosophy is to do as much good as you can, as well as you can, for as many people as you can, in the time that you’ve got.
I came into parliament at the age of 54! So I am definitely going to go for broke!
And if that sounds to Victorians like the Daniel Andrew’s Labor government, and the extraordinary pace of change they’ve pursued in our beloved state, there’s a reason for that.
It’s because it is the Labor way to just keep pressing forward.
Press forward, press forward, and keep pressing forward until you prevail. And look out when we have a Shorten Labor Government!
It’s a mission you can trace from the origins of the Australian Labor Party, when it formed from a meeting of trade unionists under the Tree of Knowledge in Barkauldin (Barcaldine), Queensland.
From its history I’ve come to understand that the greatest strength of our party is its capacity not only to make change, but to constantly change itself.
I am what they call a true believer, and I believe in the mission of social change that we in Labor know as “the light on the hill” from the speech given by the Labor Prime Minister who followed Curtin after his tragic death - Ben Chifley in 1949.
Once a train driver from Bathurst, Chifley was a lifelong unionist and instinctive humanitarian - the leader who committed Australia to the UN Convention against Genocide and facilitated the post-World War 2 mass migrations from Europe that provided the very fabric of our community in Batman.
“We have a great objective,” Chifley told the party, “The light on the hill, which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind, not only here, but anywhere we may give a helping hand.”
I’ve deliberately retained the gendered language of “mankind” to illustrate my point about the Labor Party.
Because when Chifley gave that speech, the idea that Labor women would make up 48% of the Parliamentary Caucus - let alone one of them coming fresh from being the national leader of the trade union movement - was inconceivable.
And, actually, it’s significant, because what generations of campaigning by the Labor Party has taught us is that no sooner do we get closer to that light than we realise its position has shifted.
That true fairness and justice lies further afield - so we must press forward on up that hill again, shifting our own positions and focus, re-evaluating our priorities, and expanding our own understanding.
That’s as much true for our party internally as it is for program we pursue externally.
We are the party of unions who fought for and won the minimum wage, the eight hour day, awards, workplace safety, employment protection, the right to collective bargaining and who fight every day against the corporate forces of exploitation and greed.
And who find themselves fighting again to change the rules!
But over the generations we are also the party of Emily’s List, who have been responsible for pressing forward the agenda of women’s social equality even into what were once some very resistant corners of our own preselection process.
We’re the party of LEAN, the Labor Environment Action Network, whose advocacy for renewable energy, battery-building, just transition, wilderness protection and climate jobs have made Labor the only party to ever legislate and resource meaningful climate action in this country.
We are the party of Rainbow Labor, whose relentless campaigns for the human rights for LGBTQIA+ Australians have shared in the glorious victory of marriage equality.
We are now Labor Enabled, campaigning for the rights and dignity of all Australians living with disability, Labor for Choice advocating women’s reproductive rights, Labor for Aid and Labor for Refugees.
These movements demand our party’s commitment to the betterment of all humankind; they challenge us to extend our helping hand across the borders which can divide the human family so brutally and so cruelly.
We are not the only party in Australia who speaks to some of these ideals, but we are the only one that speaks to all of them.
This is the nature of political difference - and in a democracy, that clear difference is certainly a good and healthy thing.
For some political parties these values are represented by ideas and let’s face it - that is as far as they get.
But I’m a member of the Labor Party because I also believe in outcomes. That is the hard work of taking ideas and turning them into legislation and programs that actually enshrine rights, build infrastructure and deliver services in our workplaces and communities.
You can have ideas you can jump on the coattails of other organisations campaigns but you also have to deliver – and only Labor – only we - can deliver.
We ran on that very premise in Batman – and we won.
We can’t let the other parties claim ground like the environment or the economy just because they have ideas, or because time old myths prevail.
We have good Labor policy and good Labor history and good Labor stories to tell.
We’ve changed the lives of so many people for the better.
Only when you have engaged in a state or national policy process do you realise just how hard the project of change can be.
A real window is opening for Labor right now. I feel a terrific, historic global moment is upon us and Labor parties across the world are leading real change - for fairness, for justice, for climate action, for human rights – after decades of neoliberalism.
I’ve see it in the amazing revival of British Labour under Jeremy Corbyn; everyone see it in NZ Labour’s Jacinda Ardern.
And our own leader Bill Shorten hasn’t shied away from his union roots or from challenging vested interests.
The ALP shift to oppose negative gearing in the interests of access to housing was a fantastic policy initiative which excited us all.
Labor’s refusal to support corporate tax cuts and billions in giveaways to the very rich tearing up our great social compact is something we can be proud of.
Conservatives don’t believe in that compact – they believe that both systematic disadvantage and bad luck is your own fault.
You’re sick? – you better be able to pay for it.
You’re seeking asylum? – you’re a threat and go back to where you came from.
You don’t have a job? – you’re a bludger who should just work harder and not demand decent pay.
You’re an addict? – you’re weak and hopeless and we’ll punish you with the full force of the law.
You’ve only got three shifts this week and you’ve had your penalty rates cut and you can’t pay afford your kids school excursion? – get another job.
You’re an aged care worker – aspire to get a better job.
This - my friends, is the neoliberal world view. It is such a miserable worldview
It is not Labor’s.
Gough Whitlam said, “A conservative government survives essentially by dampening expectations and subduing hopes. Conservatism is basically pessimistic, reformism is basically optimistic.”
The reforms we make are always always to achieve one thing – making people’s lives better.
There is no quick way to summarise the achievements of Labor governments and the effect they had on Australia.
But every time we have governed Australia has become a little bit better, a little bit fairer, a little bit braver...
I would like to acknowledge all the great Labor members and candidates in this room today. You can be very proud.
And I particularly want to pay respects to the wonderful Jenny Macklin who has announced that she will be retiring.
Her legacy is far too long to mention here, but she is a giant of the movement, we will miss everything about her, and I will miss her terribly but I wish her well.
So as we march on we must be persistent and relentless... I thank you all in advance for the doors you’ll knock, the phone calls you’ll make, the corflutes you’ll put up, the chats you will have with friends and workmates, the fundraising you’ll do.
The work you’ll put into helping Labor win the upcoming state and federal elections.
Because we are all part of the march reaching out for that ever elusive Light on the Hill, changing ourselves and changing the course of our society.
Let’s be proud to be Labor. Let’s climb that old hill towards that shifting light together. Let’s fight the fights that need fighting. Above all, keep pressing forward.
John Cummins – a legend of the Victorian union movement - would always finish a speech with:
“Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win”.
Then he’d say “If you don’t fight” and the workers loud response would always be …“You lose”.
So let’s win!