JIM CHALMERS MP
MEMBER FOR RANKIN
“A CAUSE WORTH THE WINNING”
THURSDAY, 3 MARCH 2022
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I acknowledge the traditional owners of these lands and pay my respects to their elders and customs.
And I’m proud that under Anthony Albanese, Federal Labor goes to this election with a commitment to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.
I want to thank our hosts, Nick Dyrenfurth and the John Curtin Research Centre Management Committee and Advisory Board.
And in particular, can I salute them – and all of you – for your patience and persistence.
I was first scheduled to give this speech in July last year – then November, and then February and – now – well, here we are.
We gather tonight at a time of damaging floods, a war in Europe, and not yet through this pandemic, and as we wish the Prime Minister and hundreds of thousands of other Australians a speedy recovery from COVID.
When the circumstances warrant a serious speech about serious issues like leadership, and about leadership in the economy in particular.
HONOURING JOHN CURTIN
So it’s an honour to address an institution that takes the name of a great Australian and a Labor legend.
Eighty-one years after his elevation to the Prime Ministership, unimaginable change separates the Australia John Curtin led and the world he knew, from ours.
And yet Curtin’s example reaches out across those decades, with a truth and a resonance that speaks to us still.
Perhaps now even more so as we are reminded in Eastern Europe that history is never far from repeating itself.
His death reminds us of the weight of office, his health worn down and his heart worn out by the cares and burdens of seeing a country through its most testing time.
My friend John Edwards begins one of his brilliant books, Curtin’s Gift, with a story from early March 1942.
It was eighty years ago, most likely this week.
A moonlit night, in a Canberra under black-out orders.
And the Clerk of the House of Representatives, Frank Green, came upon John Curtin pacing the grounds of the Lodge.
This was not a chance encounter.
Curtin’s driver, Ray Tracey, had told Green that the Prime Minister had not slept for several nights and thought that his old friend might be able to help.
Green said, gently, perhaps Jack should try and get some sleep.
The two men stood in silence for some time, before Curtin said:
‘How can I sleep?
‘With our men in the Indian Ocean among enemy submarines.’
Three years later, when Frank Forde told the House of Curtin’s death in 1945, he said:
“John Curtin is as one today with those…who have given their lives that we might live.”
That was true that day, it was true throughout his leadership.
Curtin gave his body and soul to the Prime Ministership, to the country, to the betterment of his people.
His was a leadership of sacrifice and selflessness.
No posed shots on the phone to FDR.
No self-promoting leaks from his conversations with Churchill.
No partisan sneering at the states.
No nod and a wink to those seeking to undermine the collective effort in the interests of harvesting their preferences.
No Lodge kitchen tales told to a nation of empty shelves.
No sneaky holiday in Switzerland while bombs rained down on Darwin.
No complaining that ‘I don’t hold a rifle’, mate.
Just the human stress and strain of a leader who knew the lives of his fellow Australians and the future of his country were in the balance.
And if Curtin’s death reminds us of the price of leadership, his life and legacy stands for its value.
Twenty years ago, on the anniversary of Curtin’s death, Paul Keating said of him that ‘history’s prizes go to the leaders who make the turns’.
He meant the leaders who are prepared to do the big things, manage the big changes, drive the progress of the country – with their ideas, their advocacy, their courage and imagination.
By any measure, Curtin was a leader who made the turns.
Yes, a turn away from Britain.
A turn away from the sense that Australia was at war because Britain was at war, an end to the idea that the interests of Empire overruled the defence of country.
And a turn to America.
The foundation of an alliance that remains a pillar of Australian foreign policy and a vital safeguard in our region.
But he stood for more than that, achieved more than that, means more to us than that.
And in foreign policy, in defence policy and in economic policy he ought to be better remembered for what he began, as well as what he ended.
Curtin’s leadership injected Australia with a new sense of independence, assertiveness, self-reliance.
A belief that we belonged in multilateral and regional institutions as ourselves, indeed the confidence that we could shape them, lead them, speak with our own voice in our own interests.
A new understanding of our region, the need to be, in his words: ‘A Pacific power for our own security’.
And – as John Edwards has explored in more depth and detail than anyone, John Curtin also laid the foundations of the economic world in which we live today.
Talking to John, I’m reminded it was Curtin who brought about the priority of the Commonwealth in income tax, a wartime measure that has endured through 77 years of peace.
This was – and remains – central to the Commonwealth’s economic influence.
As Curtin and Chifley foresaw, it has given every Labor Government since theirs the power to manage the economy in the interests of working people and middle Australia.
Not only to fund health, education, infrastructure, social security and defence but also to smooth fluctuations in employment and output by prudently managing the budget.
The Commonwealth’s power to borrow ultimately depends on its power to raise revenue.
These powers were not clear before Curtin was Prime Minister – and they’ve been fundamental to social welfare and economic management ever since.
And this was not the Curtin Government’s only enduring economic achievement.
The other was the creation of a central bank with authority over commercial banks and other credit institutions, over exchange rate policy, and over the crucial lever of monetary policy.
Before the Curtin Government, Australian banks were not licensed, they sometimes controlled the central bank, and they controlled the exchange rate.
The Curtin Government created a central bank capable of controlling interest rates, the exchange rate, and the volume of lending.
It had unquestioned prudential control over commercial lenders.
The modern Reserve Bank traces its authority, its powers, its prestige, its capabilities, to Curtin.
And – it almost goes without saying – Menzies and the conservatives opposed the lot of it.
Of course, as Treasurer, Ben Chifley owns his share of this legacy and as Prime Minister he carried on that work.
Unlike today’s Prime Minister, Curtin had a Treasurer who knew what he was doing, and why.
It’s a pattern of achievement that has endured.
Labor Governments with the competence and calm to manage a crisis – and the vision and ambition to build for the future.
Think of Whitlam after the long Menzian torpor.
Hawke and Keating, reforming the economy and opening Australia to the world after a decade of stagnation under Fraser and Treasurer Howard.
Or Rudd and Gillard, Albanese and Swan steering Australia through the GFC – growing the economy and creating jobs with investments in infrastructure, education and disability care.
That golden thread – across the Labor generations – the belief that it’s not enough to just ‘muddle through’ or hang around in the hope that something will turn up.
In our party – we believe leaders and governments owe the people more than that.
More than living on the country’s luck - and praying it runs out on another generation’s watch.
That’s why the agenda we are taking to the next election under Anthony Albanese amounts to much more than scraping-through and snapping-back to mediocrity.
Our plan is about ensuring every Australian – in every part of Australia – can grasp real opportunities to get an education, gain skills, find a good job, provide for loved ones and enjoy a decent life.
A better future built on stronger, broader, more inclusive, more sustainable economic growth that works in the interests of all.
An economy, a community, an Australia where no-one is held back – and no-one is left behind.
This begins with our Powering Australia plan to drive new investment in cleaner and cheaper energy and create more jobs and opportunities, especially in the regions.
Clean energy isn’t just the most practical solution to the global challenge of climate change – it’s the catalyst for the new jobs and industries of the 2020s and 2030s.
The Labor party can see it, and we will seize it.
We’ll back free TAFE and create more university places to train Australians, address skills shortages, and ensure that more people have the capacity to find secure jobs with good pay.
If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that decent internet is not a luxury.
It’s fundamental to our kids’ learning, to our family’s health care, to our businesses’ trade, to the way we work and the way we live.
And when it’s uneven, unreliable or inaccessible – it’s more than a frustration, it’s a denial of basic service and essential infrastructure.
That’s why Labor will modernise the NBN and invest in the digital economy, creating greater opportunity, boosting productivity and giving Australians greater choice about where they live and how they work.
Years before the world had heard of COVID, Australian families were already battling with an expensive, complicated and counterproductive child care system.
A system that punished women for wanting to work, robbed businesses of talent and experience and devalued educators who we trust with the most precious thing in our lives.
Labor’s plan for cheaper child care will make child care cheaper for millions of families, easing one of the most insidious cost-of-living pressures in modern Australia.
What’s more, it will turbocharge participation and productivity across the economy.
And Labor’s Future Made in Australia plan will co-invest in advanced manufacturing and other crucial sectors through a National Reconstruction Fund to create jobs, diversify our economy and ensure that never again will Australia be left dangling on the end of supply chains, because of a Liberal Government’s prejudice against making things here.
This agenda is comprehensive and ambitious.
It’s not built on a collection of fashionable causes or revolutionary notions – instead it’s about a renewal of Australia’s core values.
Restoring a fair go at work.
Re-investing in human capital.
Relieving cost pressures on families.
Reviving our regions and suburbs.
Re-building the link between hard work and fair reward.
And renewing the social contract between people and government.
Our plan is earthed in the aspirations and values of everyday Australians and charged by the sense of responsibility we feel to repay the Australian people for the sacrifices they have made through this pandemic.
In that, it echoes what Curtin said in 1945, that the “determination on the part of the people to pledge themselves to the cause” relied on the fact that “the cause, when won, will have been worth the winning"
Under Labor’s plan for a better future – the cause will be worth the winning.
And of course, we know what the alternative looks like: another three years like the last nine.
A second decade of economic insecurity, wage suppression and soaring bills – everything from child care costs to petrol prices piling pressure onto families.
A second decade of attacks on Medicare, neglect in aged care, cuts to the NDIS and a crusade against super wholly divorced from reality.
A second decade of rorts, waste, corruption and lies.
A second decade of hollowing-out services and dodging responsibility.
A second decade of Australia’s time and energy wasted on culture wars and climate change denial.
Calamities and cosplay when we need calm and competence.
Australians have already paid a high enough price for all of this.
Our economy has slid down some key international rankings – and the latest Intergenerational Report warns of an economy smaller than expected, growing slower than before, with nowhere near enough to show for generations of debt without a generational dividend.
And these failures don’t just undermine people’s faith in government or parliament or politicians – they put the social contract at risk, they create a corrosive sense that nothing’s really worth the trouble.
This is the long shadow Liberal economic mismanagement risks casting upon our kids.
And this is the thanks this government gives to all the people who worked so hard and sacrificed so much to rescue our economy from the first recession in 30 years.
LEADERSHIP IS ABOUT TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
So, friends –
I want to conclude with some final reflections on what John Curtin can still teach us.
For just as his legacy shows us that leadership of courage and conviction and substance matters in the moment of decision and the sweep of history.
His example also proves that the integrity and humanity, the temperament of the leader matters too.
And never has the contrast been more glaring or more damning.
Curtin was a leader of decency and empathy who unified through the power of his example and was focused on repaying the efforts of his people.
Scott Morrison seems temperamentally incapable of taking responsibility – and therefore temperamentally incapable of leadership.
He looks no further than the next focus group, the next photo-op, the next lie, the next scare campaign.
All designed to divide our people and break our country, so he can scoop up a bare majority of the slivers for himself.
Curtin was a leader of depth and integrity and humility.
He was a man big enough, well-worn and well-read enough, smart enough, for self-doubt and introspection.
He could see the strengths of others – and he nurtured them.
He knew his own frailties – and wrestled with his weaknesses.
The weight of office, the responsibility of leadership sat heavily on Curtin.
Not because he cared a jot about his profile or his polling – but because he knew what the difference between success and failure meant for the people of Australia.
Compare that with Scott Morrison, arguably the most shallow, self-obsessed, self-absorbed, self-serving, self-promoting Prime Minister we’ve had.
For him, the difference between success and failure is whether he takes the credit or blames someone else.
Curtin knew that times of turmoil called for calm heads and considered judgment - not panicked, political desperation.
Morrison snoozes on as an issue becomes an emergency and an emergency becomes a crisis and then – only then, when the media pressure is unavoidable – he serves up a response that would have been inadequate in the first place.
Curtin considered national security his most solemn responsibility.
Morrison treats it as a disposable talking-point.
And – frankly – it’s a game he plays as well as he plays the ukulele.
Two weeks ago, the Australian intelligence and security community publicly warned the Prime Minister that his unhinged attempt to pick a fight with Labor over China was undermining the national interest.
It was an unprecedented intervention.
In contrast, Curtin’s legacy was not just victory in war, it was security in the region, self-reliance in the world, prosperity, and opportunity in peace.
Again, it was a cause worth the winning.
Meanwhile, Scott Morrison says he doesn’t give much thought to his legacy.
Just as well.
Only a man as bereft of ideas and ideals as Scott Morrison could accumulate the biggest debt in Australian history and yet leave no mark upon it.
Only a man utterly devoid of vision and conviction could serve nearly 4 years as Prime Minister without being able to name a single achievement that he hopes will endure.
A BETTER FUTURE
It doesn’t have to be like this.
This is not normal, or inevitable.
Australia has not peaked, far from it.
You understand that.
The John Curtin Research Centre is not a historical society, and neither is the Australian Labor Party.
Yes, together we revere our legends and respect our history but nostalgia for the past has never been our stock-in-trade.
But to walk forward and further, not retrace the steps of our heroes.
As Curtin himself said:
There can be no going back to the good old days. They were not good days and they have truly become old.
We have to point the way to better days.
Our mission is to ensure that there are new Labor Governments to live up to the best of our traditions.
New Labor Governments to manage the economy in the interests of working class and middle-class people.
New Labor Governments to do the big things, to create and seize opportunities, to repay the efforts and realise the aspirations of the people of Australia.
And new Labor Prime Ministers like Anthony Albanese – a leader of ambition and conviction and a man of integrity and humility.
We are not seeking to pile up hundreds of hollow little victories on the six o’clock news.
Nor are we seeking history’s prizes.
We are aiming for something greater still.
The chance to build a better future – and to run our country in the interests of its people.