Labor and the Suburbs

31 October 2019

An address at the launch of Getting the Blues in Melbourne.






Thanks for the opportunity to be here with you all on the traditional lands of the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) peoples of the Kulin Nation.

I’m grateful to Nick [Dyrenfurth] for his invitation to launch Getting the Blues, to Henry [Pinksier] for the kind introduction just now, and to everyone who has joined us tonight.

This is Nick’s eighth book, a pretty remarkable achievement.

It doesn’t mince words and I won’t either.

It’s a confronting read.  But this is a confronting time for our Party, at the start of a third term in Opposition.

Like all thought-provoking contributions there are parts I agree with and parts I don’t – and I’ll come back to those shortly.


Let me begin with what I like most about this book Getting the Blues – and that’s its focus on the economy.

Nick is right to recognise that the economy is not just some kind of abstract thing we argue about in Parliament House but rather something central to the everyday lives of ordinary people and to the living standards of middle Australia.

What Nick’s written about suburban life is very important.

In many ways I feel it elaborates and expands on what are probably the three main things I’ve learned since I joined the Labor Party in Logan City almost 23 years ago:

One, Labor is our best and truest self when we think, speak and act as the Party of the outer suburbs. 

Two, there’s no path to victory that doesn’t travel through the ring roads and growth corridors of outer metropolitan Australia. 

And three, you can’t have a strong national economy without good jobs and rising living standards in the suburbs.

Put it this way: this country succeeds when economic policy has a suburban sensibility.

This is not to diminish the cities, obviously they’re important.

Or the regions, again absolutely crucial.

But there is an ethical, economic and political imperative for Labor to be strong in the suburbs.

The suburbs are where the political contest between the major parties is most frequently and most prominently joined.


Growth in outer metropolitan Australia has outstripped growth in the inner cities over the past five years and will over the foreseeable future as well.

Already a third of federal electorates are classified ‘outer metropolitan’ by the AEC.

In those seats, Labor won a combined 45.3 percent of the primary vote the last time we were elected from Opposition in 2007 – when we took seats like Lindsay, Bonner, Forde, Petrie, Deakin and Hasluck – but only 38.7 percent in May this year.

The suburbs determine whether Labor prevails or fails.

Of course, Scott Morrison would say the suburbs are where the so-called ‘Quiet Australians’ live.

But like a lot of his slick marketing terms, it’s designed to obscure a deeper truth and distract from a multitude of failures.

And just like the Nixonian term it borrows so freely from, it tries to use unifying language to dress up or disguise a more divisive and extreme agenda.

It’s a rhetorical wolf in sheep’s clothing that demeans and diminishes people.

It doesn’t actually tell you much about Australia but it tells you a lot about the PM.

It points to a big difference between the Liberals under him and Labor under Anthony Albanese:

Morrison celebrates the silence of the Quiet Australians instead of understanding their struggles. 

We want to give them a voice.

If the PM understood anything about life in the suburbs he’d know the Quiet Australians are faring badly under a Liberal Government in its seventh year and third term.

The slowest growth in ten years, stagnant wages, record household debt, declining living standards, weak productivity and business investment – these are all the inevitable consequences of a Government with a political strategy not an economic policy.

When the economy is floundering and middle Australia is struggling, we need a plan not a slogan.

Weakness in the economy is impacting harder and hurting more in outer metropolitan Australia.

Where work is less secure, and jobs and wages growth is slower.

Where the population is more diverse, more impacted by the loss of manufacturing jobs, more likely to travel further for work at some cost to family time, netball coaching time and volunteering at the canteen.

Where people feel with some justification that no matter how hard they work they just can’t keep up with the rising costs of electricity, childcare and health bills.

In recent times most of the new jobs have been created within ten kilometres of city centres.

Median weekly income in the outer suburbs is $100 lower than inner city areas.

The proportion of borrowers behind on mortgage repayments is almost twice as big in outer suburbs as the cities.

Unemployment is over 1 per cent higher in outer urban areas than in inner city areas but in 2006 there was just a 0.1 per cent difference.

On average full time incomes in the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane are almost 20 per cent lower than their inner city counterparts.

Deloitte tells us that here in Melbourne specifically, the average wage in the outer suburbs is 21 per cent less than inner suburbs, and there are only four jobs per ten residents outside the city, where there are 11 jobs per ten residents.

All of this tells us something really important about the economy under Morrison.

Growth has slowed, it isn’t trickling down to the people, and it isn’t trickling out to the suburbs either.

Trickle-down and trickle-out is failing the Quiet Australians Morrison takes for granted.


That’s where Nick’s book is so prescient and why his focus on bread and butter issues is so welcome.

When he messaged me to ask if I’d be prepared to launch the book he said I didn’t have to agree with everything in it.

It would actually be a pretty weird thing if he could write 62,211 words and I didn’t disagree with a single one.  It’d mean one of us isn’t doing our job right.

So let me give three-and-a-half quick examples of where we differ.

First, I don’t agree that action on climate change is an inner-city issue or something that only the ‘luvies’ care about. 

I think it’s a central and defining issue in suburbs like those I represent, which goes to cheaper and cleaner energy, cost of living, investment certainty, and – as Anthony put it really well on Tuesday in Perth – the jobs of the future.

Second, I’m not convinced Labor is over-focused on issues like anti-discrimination. 

Australians care deeply about how we treat each other.

We can be true to that while emphasising economic growth and our traditional role as the Party of aspiration as economic opportunity.

Thirdly, I believe our parliamentary ranks are more diverse –more suburban and more working class – than the caricature allows.

No party led by someone with Albo’s background, or with a Shadow Treasurer with mine, or a Shadow Foreign Minister like Penny’s, and replenished as ours has been by three remarkable intakes of diverse new MPs in three recent elections can fairly be accused of a lack of diversity or grounding.

What matters is where you’re from, and that you never, ever forget it.

Finally I think – and this is the half point – that while Nick’s view about Australians no longer joining traditional organisations is true, and important, it neglects the way people are more and more joining big and growing collectives like online parents’ groups, parkrun and even pub choir.

We need to be better at reaching people through these growing institutions and gatherings as the older ones fade and recede.


But Nick I know you and I are on the same page in this respect: we believe that the value of a gutsy book like Getting the Blues is that disagreement prompts new thoughts and ways forward.

We shouldn’t confuse unity – or amity – with unanimity.

I reckon Nick’s on strongest ground in the book when he talks about not just occupying the centre ground of politics but shaping it.

Clare O’Neil’s speech earlier today nails this too, in lots of ways, and I encourage you all to read it.

Shaping the centre ground isn’t passive, isn’t defensive, isn’t ‘triangulation’, and certainly isn’t small targets or tactical retreat.

Shaping the centre means a primary focus on wages and jobs and the outer suburbs for all the reasons I’ve discussed tonight. 

But I believe that’s possible without ignoring the progressive politics of the environment and social justice.

Shaping the centre demands a foundation of economic credibility, on which we construct together the scaffolding of a more confident and caring country, upward-climbing, forward-looking and outward-facing.


Recapturing lost support also means learning the lessons of the campaign without obsessing over the outcome forever.

On the main I think Nick’s analysis of the election is strong and there are many useful points.

There were a number of reasons for our defeat in May and we shouldn’t over simplify them.

Bill Shorten shouldn’t carry the can on his own for our collective failures at the last election. 

In the Labor Party we take decisions collectively and we take responsibility for them collectively as well.

We couldn’t build a big enough constituency for our agenda.

Our problems in the campaign did go beyond one leader or one election; there is a structural problem with our primary vote.

So our Party does have to change.

We do need to reach out from constituencies who predominantly vote on our traditional strengths and that does mean winning the economic arguments too.

That’s why we are reviewing and refreshing our approach to economic policy and refocusing it on more opportunities for more people in the suburbs.

Because Labor wants more people getting ahead, not just getting by.


This brings me to the campaign review which Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson will hand over next Thursday.

It’s an important exercise that they’ve led and, like Nick’s book, it will really help us learn the lessons from the result on 18 May.

It’s no accident that the day after their report’s presented to the National Executive, Anthony will address the National Press Club.

He, like all of us in his team, wants to absorb its conclusions, draw a line under the May election and then concentrate on the future and on success at the next election, not looking through the rear view mirror.

The overwhelming majority of Australians don’t lie awake at night wondering why Labor lost the election.

They lie awake at night wondering how they’ll make ends meet, whether their job is secure and their wages sufficient to cover the costs of supporting their loved ones.

People cast their vote on Election Day and got on with their lives.

We’ve got a responsibility to learn from what happened and get on with our jobs.

Policy development is key to that and that’s why among the most thought-provoking parts of Getting the Blues are those which sketch out some new policy directions:

Workers on boards;

Devolving and decentralising services;

More active fiscal policy to support jobs;

A new conversation about debt;

And more.


I’m looking forward to hearing from Nick about all this so let me just offer one final set of reflections.

If his book is about the lessons from the election, about a focus on the suburbs, and about new directions in policy – it’s also a pretty raw reminder that politics is personal.

This is where his writing is at its best and most emotive. 

I read it as a near-final manuscript on a return flight to Perth in September, chugging down black coffee and deep in thought.

As I did, my mind cast back to my own circumstances in the election.

I was Labor’s campaign spokesman, in the media most days balancing that role with my responsibilities as Shadow Finance Minister and trying to get re-elected in Rankin.

After four ANZAC Day events, about three weeks out from polling day, we noticed my two year old daughter Annabel’s temperature had spiked and she had a bad limp.

She’d come down with a bone infection that meant she spent all but a couple of nights between then and election day in the Queensland Children’s Hospital hooked up to an IV drip.

With her big brother at home, and her little brother only a few months old, Annabel and I stayed together in the hospital. 

I’d attend to her during the night and Laura and my mum would do the day shift while I campaigned, juggling the needs of the boys as well.

I’d do early morning radio tiptoeing around the wards trying not to wake anybody up while I jousted with Sabra Lane or Fran Kelly and their counterparts.

Annabel’s fine now – she’s amazing actually, and the staff there were too.

I only tell this story to finish up tonight because I learned a lot in that ward.

Lying awake in the wee hours, machines beeping, nurses bustling, other families just a thin white drawn curtain away.

Hearing the rush of kids newly arriving, some with horrible injuries and sickness far worse than what we were dealing with.

Watching Broncos and Lions games with the other tired dads – wins against Cronulla and Manly, Suns and Swans but tough ones against Souths and the Western Bulldogs.

Making tea in the parents’ room, the lowered voices, their tears sometimes just under the surface.

The friend of one family who told me of two kids just hit by a car, and only one surviving.

Horrible things.

And you realise that you can’t do anything right there to make the other kids well, or happy, or bring that little one back.

But it made me appreciate that in public life we are uniquely placed to do actually something about the prospects of those families I spent all that time with, and millions like them.

Families who want and expect a government in touch with their aspirations – for themselves and the people they love, at work, in retirement, and at home.

One which leaves nobody behind and holds nobody back.

Which takes everybody seriously and nobody for granted.

Which understands people’s struggles and doesn’t just celebrate their silence.

An Australia where more can get ahead and not just get by.

The Quiet Australians in the outer suburbs of this country need a voice in the conduct of the nation’s affairs.

And Labor under Anthony Albanese – rejuvenated, refreshed, re-focused – will give them one.

Thanks very much.