First Speech

13 November 2013

Jim Chalmers' maiden speech to the Australian Parliament

In my 35 years I have experienced three moments of immeasurable pride. The first was my mother's graduation from university in 1991. The second was marrying Laura Anderson in March this year. The third is standing here now on ancient Ngunawal and Ngambri land in the people's house of the Australian parliament.

Members come here with different backgrounds, carrying different values, from different parts of the nation. Many of us share a common bond of not just representing our electorates but being representative of them. It is what Tennyson's Ulysses described as being 'part of all I have met'. Growing up in Logan City and southern Brisbane, the suburbs of my electorate, I know his meaning. I feel part of all I have met there: the local parents and pensioners, cleaners and kitchen hands, businesses and battlers, tradies and truckies—part of their diversity and dedication, pride and perseverance.

My upbringing taught me to judge a society by the opportunities it creates for all its people but especially its most vulnerable, and that the best communities look out for each other, look after each other and empower people to improve their own lives and get ahead. Above all, growing up in Rankin sowed the seed of a powerful belief—that social inclusion and economic growth are complementary and not at odds. It is a belief I share with the party I joined half a lifetime ago and the caucus I join now. This conviction comes from my neighbourhood, from my constituents and from my heart. It comes from the countless conversations of life in a vibrant and diverse place. It is formed and furthered by the loving bonds of friendship and family.

To properly thank my wife, Laura, for her sacrifices and support so that I can stand here, I would need an extension of time. There is so much I cherish in her and value about our relationship, and without her I would not be here. My mother, Carol, is also up there in the public gallery. For most of my childhood, Mum worked night shift as a nurse. For a great portion of that, it was just the two of us. It was not easy for her and at times I made it harder, but what I know of selflessness and service I learnt from her, and I will always be grateful for that gift. Ours is what used to be described as an unconventional family, but I have always felt fortunate to be the son of Carol and Graham and the little brother of Chelley and Jenni. We went to great local schools where I met lifelong friends Gaz and Pickle, Dimi and Spud. There a formative teacher, Norbert Greulich, taught me the history of our nation and introduced the beginnings of an idea—that even people with a background like mine could maybe one day help write it.

I turned 18 the very day that the Keating government lost office. I will not claim to remember much about the late evening of 2 March 1996—

An honourable member: Albo's birthday.

Dr CHALMERS: Albo's birthday—but I do recall that election being a formative experience. It helped me decide I wanted to be part of a vision like Keating's: bold, progressive and exciting. He convinced me of Labor's greatest strength: that we are the only ones capable of combining market economics with an active social contract and global engagement. He championed the economic vision, Asian integration and republicanism that I admired. So that year I applied to join the great Australian Labor Party. Since then a combination of Labor, higher education and generous mentors has given me a purpose for my life and work, a way to represent my community and the opportunity to meet and learn from remarkable people—people like my great mate of almost two decades, Anthony Chisholm; longstanding friends like Geoff Walsh, Linus Power, Paul Howes, Andrew Fraser, Senator Sam Dastyari, who joins us today, and Annie O'Rourke; people like Ben Swan and Scott Connolly, leaders in a Labour movement which does so much to protect and advance working people. At Griffith University and then at the ANU, there were educators like Pat Weller and Glyn Davis, John Warhurst and John Hart. I thank all of them for the example that they set for me.

After 1996, I came to agree with those who argue Labor's great mistake was its failure to defend the towering achievements of the Hawke and Keating governments. For a time this denied us a rich inheritance—the marriage of sweeping economic reform with progressive social policy—leaving us without a solid foundation from which we could rebuild and renew. We will not make the same mistake this time around. The Rudd and Gillard Labor governments have a phenomenal legacy and we are proud of it. I pay tribute to both prime ministers—indeed, all of our former standard-bearers. I particularly thank Julia Gillard and Kim Beazley for their guidance and encouragement over the years.

I am honoured to be joined here by so many colleagues that I admire. I am especially proud to see the member for Lilley here. He has been such a tremendous influence. I pay tribute to his strength, perseverance and vision, particularly through the global financial crisis. Australian history will come to regard him as one of the great warriors for the fair go, just as the global community already recognises him as a highly accomplished Treasurer. He taught me that it is what we do together that makes us strong. Working with him, alongside the amazing people of the Treasurer's office and the Deputy Prime Minister's office, some of whom have joined us today, was a cherished experience. I consider them family and I thank them for the spirit and camaraderie we built together.

Almost a million jobs were created on our watch, despite other nations shedding tens of millions of jobs. Australia did not just avoid recession; we grew solidly. In Rankin, that meant more people got to keep jobs, pay bills and feed the kids. It meant the unemployment queues did not get longer, that life did not get harsher. I am proud that Labor was part of that. In the end, Labor bequeathed this incoming government historically low interest rates and contained inflation and low unemployment relative to the rest of the developed world. We laid foundations for better schools and faster broadband technology, emissions trading and a better life for people with a disability. Yet as we defend this legacy we also accept collective responsibility for our failure to convert an impressive record into a third term in office. None of us should escape our share of the blame for that. But if we look beyond the commentary we see a deeper story of the past six years: policy progress and economic success, poisoned by a form of hyper-partisan politics practised by some in our country and the way we let this feed the deterioration of our party's culture and relationships, where small sections of our society dominated the debate in a way that pushed it to the extremes and away from the sensible centre, magnifying the opposition of a select few at the expense of policies designed to benefit Middle Australia. The 2013 election was more a rejection of this kind of nasty politics than it was a rejection of Labor's core beliefs, but we still have lessons to learn. We need to comb through the trash and trivia of polls and personalities, re-establishing principles and policies and finding a loftier purpose.

Labor begins this task with tremendous advantages: the constructive way the members for Maribyrnong and Grayndler contested our leadership, the tremendous economic and policy foundations we built over the last two terms—indeed, over the last three decades—and a long history of rising to Australia's biggest challenges. For us, the global financial crisis confirmed two things: the interconnectedness of our world, its economy and institutions, and Australia's capacity to meet the tests set for us with courage, imagination and, ultimately, success.

It is a remarkable milestone that this current quarter begins the 23rd year of uninterrupted expansion in the Australian economy—remarkable not only because this long upswing is unique in our own economic history but also because it is unparalleled in the recent history of advanced economies of similar or greater size. The overriding responsibility on this chamber is to do all we can to build on the prosperity we have been blessed with for so long, to make sure all Australians participate in it, and to widen the opportunities for Australians to fulfil their own potential.

I do not pretend that the decisions of governments are all that matters, or even most of what matters. Our prosperity depends on the quality of our workforce and the decisions people make about their careers. It depends on the quality of management decisions, on decisions about innovation and new products, and on what happens in markets like China's. But government can have some influence, and what worries me today about the other side of this House is that there are plenty of things they say they will not do plenty of reforms of the previous government they want to kill off, but I am not aware of a single major proposal or initiative or idea which could be said to sustain our prosperity in any major way.

We will need courage and imagination in the coming decade and beyond, as we deal with the intersection of three closely related phenomena that will spell a new economic reality for all of us. They are: rapid technological advance, the globalisation of the workforce and the rise of intergenerational disadvantage. Each will collide with and cascade into the others, challenging us to find new ways to prosper and grow. At worst, this creates a scenario described by one analyst where populations are 'divided into two groups: those who are good at working with intelligent machines and those who are replaced by them'. Australians must not wake up one day on the wrong side of this gulf. We cannot let the rise of technology benefit only a small part of our society. We must not let others choose our place in the global value chains of the future. We are called to prevent this new divide of technological haves and have-nots, a new frontier in global inequality, and to repair the situation that international research now proves so clearly: that, without dedicated action, inequality in one generation breeds inequality in the next.

Those who dismiss these big global trends or pretend Australia can opt out of them entirely are kidding themselves. Globalisation will speed up, not slow down, despite its critics. We will not choose the global circumstances we face in the coming years, but we can choose how we deal with them. In one sense, Australia has options. But the first is unacceptable: to pretend these pressures do not exist or that they do not matter. Whether in Australia, North America or Europe, this is the approach taken by conservatives. They cling to an idea long disproven: that concentrated wealth and influence will trickle down to the most disadvantaged. The second option is equally poor: to pretend and protect the absurdity that says we can go it alone—that, in a world of multinational companies and global value chains, we can be unaffected by the ebb and flow of the world's tides and trends and that we can have redistribution without growth.

The third path for Australia is the only way: to combine digital inclusion, innovation and human capital into a potent and productive mix; to find a well-paid place for our workers in the links of elaborate global value chains; to provide more people with the tools of success, the capacity to get ahead and improve their own lives, beginning in our schools; most of all, to build the intergenerational mobility necessary to draw more fully on the talents of our entire population in the Asian century. This means carving out a meaningful role for more people in the economy. It means more than fairness and redistribution, but also inclusion, mobility, dynamism and creativity. More than anything else, these are the wellsprings of new growth in Australia. They also mark out the greatest difference between the Labour movement and the conservative side of the House. That side dismisses intergenerational mobility as some sort of class warfare, when it is the antithesis of that. They pay lip-service to opportunity but are content to see Australia's success stories selected from an ever-shrinking pool, a society marked by growing inequality, and a small group rent-seeking from the rest.

I believe in market economics and social justice. I reconcile them in a very simple way, by believing that inclusion and growth are complementary and not at odds. I believe in a decent minimum and fair working conditions and then providing, beyond that foundation, the tools of success so we can empower Australians to be confident and self-sustaining actors in a dynamic and innovative economy. I believe in economic mobility because I believe in the contested political ideas and choices that underlie it: that the circumstances of your birth must not dictate your life chances and that there is a role for the state in helping to create better opportunities for the disadvantaged, both through enhancing their capabilities in a way outlined by the great economist Amartya Sen and through breaking open networks of privilege to admit people on merit. So I believe in reorienting public spending away from a grab-bag of concessions for those who need them least, towards more strategic investment in human capital and digital inclusion for those with the most to gain and the most to contribute.

The right type of economy, fuelled by genuine intergenerational mobility, is the most important thing I want to see while I am here. But it is not the only thing. Our otherwise successful nation has unfinished business. As my friend the member for Kingsford Smith said, we need to agree on an Australian republic, we need to advance the cause of the original Australians, deliver marriage equality, provide security to an ageing population, entrench for all time a market mechanism to combat the dangers of climate change and much more.

I meant what I said to my community in the campaign: that Rankin can set the example for the rest of Australia. We can look out for each other and look after each other. We can be the epicentre of opportunity in a nation which can be the benchmark for economic mobility in the wider world. I will cherish many moments from the election: meeting young Xavier from Mabel Park School and Victor from Woodridge shops; getting to know Peter, who carted my sign around on his mobility scooter up and down Paradise and Wembley roads; seeing people stream through the door to help out and to sign up in big numbers; and witnessing the dedication and commitment of our local branches and supporters. I could not ask for a more devoted campaign team, more eager volunteers, more supportive community leaders or more enthusiastic staff. There are too many to name, so in thanking every one of them, I will single out Teresa and Crystell Lane, Peter Power, Elliot Stein, Aaron Broughton, John Chirgwin, Barry Ramsay, Lisa Banyard, Dolly Chang and Mitchell Watt.

I reject the notion that members of this House must ultimately choose between being a good local representative or making a contribution to national ideas. My two accomplished predecessors, Craig Emerson and David Beddall, have shown me there is a way to do both. The differences between local, national and global issues were once blurred. Now they are almost non-existent. Globalisation is part of life in the suburbs, and life in the suburbs is part of globalisation. The success of my community rests on us getting the big things right, here in this House. That is why I am here and why I also thank the Leader of the Opposition for the additional opportunities he has given me as his parliamentary secretary and for trade and investment.

The task for my generation is not to double back and retrace the steps of our predecessors, even our heroes, but to leave new footprints by walking further and forward in their same direction. Finding Australia's place in the world is key to finding the jobs of the future for the community that I grew up in, live in and love, one which has been burdened for too long with higher unemployment than elsewhere, particularly, but not exclusively, among our young people. Providing them the tools of success, the keys to a new economy, and genuine intergenerational mobility are our most pressing objectives. I am proud to be here making their case, representing them and being representative of them as well. I thank the House.