Opening the ACTU Congress 2018

17 July 2018

Firstly, let me begin by making the most important acknowledgement of all - and that’s today I speak to you on Aboriginal land. Let me pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging, and acknowledge with the greatest humility that we meet today on the beautiful lands of the Turrbal and Yuggara people - lands that were stolen, never ceded. And, if you will, I’d like to take a couple of seconds to appreciate just what that means.

Thank you. And hello - good comrades, and beloved friends. I’m Ged Kearney. And it’s an emotional day for me today because I speak to you at this Congress not as the President of the ACTU - as I did at union meetings large and small across this country for seven incredible years.

I am now the ACTU’s most recent past-President. In March - and through the generosity and good faith of the voters of a Melbourne seat once known as “Batman” - I was elected to Australian federal parliament. And they wouldn’t let me do both!

But as a parliamentary member of the Australian Labor Party, the party of Australia’s trade union movement - my new role is an extension the work done day to day by every single one of you here with me now.

Ours is the ongoing mission to serve the values of organised working people, to relentlessly fight the fight for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, and to build a society of shared prosperity, equality and justice for us all.

It augurs well, I think, that the name of my seat has recently been changed - by community campaign - from that of colonial marauder John Batman to honour the Indigenous activist and leader, William Cooper, instead.

My election would not have been possible without the encouragement, activism and support of so many of you in this room.

And that’s as true for me as it is for every other Labor parliamentarian in this country.

Thank you, all of you.

What honour I feel - what pride I take - in the responsibility obliged of me as the MP for Cooper to now carry the values of Australia’s mighty union movement into the halls where our laws are made and our nation is governed.

Gathering as unionists here in Queensland offers us an opportunity to reconnect with our movement’s powerful and world-changing history.

We all know the legend of striking pastoral workers meeting under the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine, Queensland, in 1891, forming the Australian Labor Party.

But we should remember it was also here - in the Queensland state parliament, eight years later - that organised trade unionists formed the first Labour government anywhere in the world.

And in 1904, Australian trade unionists formed the first national Labour government anywhere in the world.

It wasn’t Britain. It wasn’t Germany. It was here. It was us.

Our activism matters. Our commitment matters. Our leadership matters.

Just as the Australian movement was the first to win the eight-hour day, just as we were the first to win a living wage, as Australian trade unionists, we were the first to show the working people of the world that we can and will be the makers of the fairer society we that wish to live in.

It’s a mission as important today as it ever was.

I spent seven years as President of the ACTU with five of them under a Liberal-National federal government. In that half-decade we’ve all seen the traditional antipathy of the conservatives towards our movement morph into something not only aggressive, but also... kinda desperate.

  • How extraordinary now to remember being subjected to the two, dreary years of Tony Abbott’s expensive, uneventful witch-hunt at the TURC... Especially because it only took a few days of an overdue Banking Royal Commission to show all Australians where the real institutional crookedness had been hiding, all this time.
  • How extraordinary, too, that we still haven’t quite been told just what Michaelia Cash did know about those infamous raids on the AWU.
  • We’ve been deluged by the Liberals and Nationals with anti-union, anti-worker legislation from the rotten ABCC to the abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Registered Orgs... Ensuring Integrity...
  • ... and I don’t need to tell anyone in this room that industrial conditions in this country are so restrictive that our laws have been condemned by the International Labour Organisation... But I certainly hope our media colleagues present today do make sure they write that down.

These are the active attacks on our movement.

But their attacks on Australian working lives are their even more poisonous legacy.

I will never forget Joe Hockey walking away from the Australian car industry. 

I will never forget the Liberals and Nationals starving early-childhood education, healthcare, universities, schools, public services, public infrastructure, the ABC and aged care of proper funding - just to indulge the richest in corporate Australia with Trump-style tax cuts.

...And I will never forgive the Liberals and Nationals for allowing the cut to penalty rates. Neither should anyone else.

But amidst all of their ferocity, my conviction remains - both as ACTU President and as now as a parliamentarian - that theirs is the desperate fight of cornered rats.

Because despite everything they have thrown at our movement and our people, the Australian trade union movement has survived.

We have survived, we have fought back and we - are - growing.

We’re growing because distractions, lies and propaganda can no longer hide the material truth about the economy the Liberals and Nationals have created.

Inequality is at a seventy-year high.

Insecure work is at record levels.

There is an underemployment epidemic.

Apprenticeships are disappearing.

Privatisation has not delivered more jobs but it has made services more expensive.

Corporate profits are going up - and going offshore - but local wages are not increasing.

Australia needs a pay rise.

And what’s been obvious to Australians... from the Esso Longford lockout... to early childhood workers walking out of centres... to the CUB boycott... to journalists risking fines in their tens of thousands to fight for their jobs... to the hundreds and hundreds of actions I had the honour to support as ACTU President...

Australians have seen: it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, the union movement is always - always - prepared to fight for you.

Solidarity isn’t just a word to a trade unionist. It’s a mission, a mindset, values that live and breathe amongst us. And looking around this room at the faces of colleagues and comrades who have been my world for the past seven years, I’m in awe of the solidarity of purpose that unites us, the commitment of the many to the many, and the true belief in the empowerment and enfranchisement of all.

On a personal level, I cherish my time as President for serving a movement:

  • That backed in a First Nations Workers Alliance.
  • That fought the battle for paid domestic violence leave, and kept up the fight for equal pay.
  • That took a stand for foreign aid, and for the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
  • I’m proud that we’ve acknowledged the reality of climate change, and have demanded a just transition for working people.
  • And as “equality (certainly is) union business” - as our slogan went - what a day of pure joy and celebration it was when LGBTQIA+ Australians won equal marriage rights.
  • In Melbourne, revellers danced in the street outside Trades Hall... and it meant everything.

The movement’s belief in fairness is constant - but our understanding of it, like that of ourselves, is always expanding.

I was proud to join the ACTU office-bearers as the third woman to hold the position of President.

I was even prouder to find myself last year in an executive team that reached gender parity when our beloved, brilliant Sally McManus became the first woman elected to the position of Secretary.

These transitions are only made possible by a cultural willingness for change, and I want to acknowledge the leadership of our affiliates as well as the generosity of Sally’s predecessor, Dave Oliver, for his own solidarity - both for creating seats at the table for so many, and for the opportunities that he shared.

My own successor as ACTU President - whomever that will be - joins an organisation made all the more stronger for this legacy Dave left, not for glory, but out of a love for the movement, and his belief in its future.

And now, in this last minute before I leave the stage, I want to acknowledge all of you.

I am grateful for the solidarity and the spirit of every single person in this room.

Those whom I have known so long and worked so closely beside, and those of you I am yet to meet - attending their first Congress, perhaps, and at the very start of their own trade union journey.

I want to thank you for fighting to change the rules...

... for demanding better living standards,

... for the workplace negotiations,

... the legal battles,

... the marches,

... community protests,

... branch meetings,

... board meetings,

... phone banks,

... media calls,

... outrageous publicity stunts

... and the sit-ins, lockouts and pickets you attend.

I want to thank you for standing up for working people, and workplace conditions.

Thank you for fighting for what is fair, for what is right, and for representing the values of equality.

You are - as trade unionists have ever been - truly the builders of a better society.

It has been an honour to have served as your president.