The Light on the Hill Address: Leave Nobody Behind Hold Nobody Back

28 September 2019

The keynote address to Labor's annual Light on the Hill dinner in Bathurst.

I’m so grateful for this opportunity to give the Light on the Hill speech in Bathurst tonight, to honour Ben Chifley in the local community he loved and served.
I’m conscious you’ve bestowed this honour since the mid-1980s on Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Bill Shorten, Anthony Albanese, and so many more.  And that senior figures in our Party have established a long tradition of applying the lessons from Chifley’s life to our most substantial contemporary challenges as a movement and a nation.
I’ll do my best to hew closely to that tradition tonight.
I want to talk about Labor and the economy, his two abiding and defining interests. I want to talk about how I think Australia can do better, how we can and should be more ambitious in pursuing sustainable economic growth, and how we become a more inclusive society which leaves nobody behind and which holds nobody back.
As part of this I want to spend some time on a neglected but very relevant aspect of Chifley’s legacy – and that’s his role in helping create the institutions which have underpinned the global economic order.
Chifley’s story begins 134 years and six days ago, a kilometre or so from here at that little house on Havannah Street, a similar distance from the marital home on Busby Street that I visited this afternoon.
It was 1885 and just before the Australian colonies tumbled from a hundred years of prosperity based on immigration, pastoral expansion and gold into a slump deeper and longer than the Great Depression four decades later.
He lived through the uncertainty and upheaval of two economic catastrophes and two world wars.
Running through it all was financial recklessness, unrestrained competition between great powers for markets and technological advantage, trade and tariff wars, and ugly right-wing reactions to economic dislocation.
Uncertain times, but familiar now too.
It was those experiences which drove Chifley’s interest in economic reform in Australia, and in creating a new global economic order.
With John Curtin’s strong support, Chifley as Treasurer laid the foundations of Australia’s engagement in the world economy after the war.
It was Chifley who guided cabinet decisions on Australia’s participation in negotiations for what became the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and later the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – the predecessor of the World Trade Organisation.
The outstanding public servants who took part in those negotiations – Leslie Melville, Nugget Coombs, among others – reported to both Curtin and Chifley, but generally received more day-to-day guidance from the Treasurer than the Prime Minister.
When Chifley himself became PM, and kept Treasury, he continued to grasp the reins of our engagement in the establishment of a new world economic order.
He sought a global commitment to full employment, to complement his policy at home. He recognised that Australia was a relatively small economy, one with large rural industries that depended on exports. He knew Australia was part of the global economy and wanted to make the most of it.
Against the suspicious opposition of members of his own cabinet, Chifley eventually won agreement to our membership of the IMF, the World Bank and the GATT.
It was a stunning political achievement at the time.
For the next twenty years the IMF would exert considerable influence over global exchange rates, capital movements, and national fiscal and monetary policy. Australia was represented on its councils, and often prominently so.
And the GATT, more than any other international organisation, was responsible for the emergence of the modern global economy.
We should be proud that Australia made outstanding contributions to this work.
Proud, too, that the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments later led the way in the formation of APEC and the creation of annual leaders’ summits. And that Rudd and Swan were so influential in the G20 group of leading economies, helping to elevate and empower its response to the Global Financial Crisis at the same time as their domestic policies helped save Australia from recession.
There’s a great tradition of Labor’s role in making rules for the global economy, in creating a global consensus favourable to trade, investment and global prosperity, based on widely accepted rules applying to all the participants, great and small.
And Labor in government has been consistent – insisting that the fair go needs fair markets.
Chifley set the mould.
But seventy years since the defeat of his Government we have to acknowledge that what we understand to be the global economic order is under threat.
An order that has been one of the foundations of our prosperity is decaying.
I’m not referring here to the rise of President Trump – or not only to him. I am referring to a global economic order already under considerable stress before he came to office, and under much more stress today.
Bretton Woods was about overturning the isolationism and beggar-thy-neighbour paradigms that underpinned the Great Depression and the ensuing rise of nationalism, fascism and war.
It worked then, but it is breaking down now under similar forces unleashed by another great economic cataclysm – this time the Global Financial Crisis.
Things had already started to be unpicked by neo-liberalism from the 1970s on and then with increasing speed and consequence by Thatcher, Reagan, deregulation, and financialisation.
But the worst excesses of neo-liberalism were not quite as prevalent in Australia, for all sorts of reasons.
Mostly because we were governed by Labor for a large chunk of that period, and Hawke and Keating wanted Australia to get ahead but not leave people behind.  But also partly because John Howard’s obsession was industrial relations not bank deregulation, and because the HIH collapse sent a warning to regulators about stability, if not ethics.
The global recession destroyed neo-liberalism’s claim to providing generalised prosperity and economic stability.
And the acceleration of inequality before, during and since then has steadily shredded its political legitimacy.
But the sobering truth is that the reactionary right has largely prospered around the world since the GFC by attacking globalism with populism, nationalism and isolationism – and the progressive left has struggled.
Perhaps the death of big ideological movements like neo-liberalism is like the death of a star – they swell in size and change colour before they finally disappear – and we are living through that phase.
We find ourselves at inflection points in our politics, our economy and our society.
We in Labor have always taken the big transitions seriously and we find a place for people in the larger story of change and progress.
Just as Whitlam took us from a closed to an open society.
Hawke and Keating from a closed to an open economy.
Rudd and Gillard from global recession to recovery.
In each case it was more than good management. 
These were acts of courage, foresight and vision. They ushered in something new. 
Just as Chifley led a nation from war to peace and reconstruction, from an old economic order to a new one.
One of the most penetrating and longstanding chroniclers of that post-war period was John Kenneth Galbraith.  He wrote that the essence of leadership was a ‘willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time’.
Big transitions are always accompanied by big, defining anxieties.
Today’s anxieties make for a long list, and many things – climate change, terrorism, ageing – must feature on it. But perhaps the overarching anxiety is declining faith that our politics and our economics work for middle Australia.
A real loss, not just of faith, but of hope.
This has been a feature of our politics for a long time, but I think the post-GFC period and the global ructions I’ve spoken about made it much more central and urgent.
This anxiety has many sources but three are key: stagnant wages feeding declining living standards; fears about the future of work; and a sense that our nation is failing to meet its potential.
This is backed up by the numbers. Australia was the second fastest growing economy in the OECD during the financial crisis, but has now dropped to 20th.
Economic growth is now the slowest it has been in ten years.  Almost 2 million Australians are looking for work or more work.  Wages have barely grown.  Household debt is at record highs.  Productivity has gone backwards and living standards have fallen since 2013.
That’s why people feel like no matter how hard they work they just can’t get ahead.  Their incomes aren’t keeping up with energy, health and childcare costs.
This is a legacy of six years of Liberal management of the economy, but beyond that, it is the legacy of a conservative government clinging stubbornly to the wreckage of an economic model that has sustained them for so long.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in their refusal to contemplate a proper fiscal response to any deeper downturn.
We hear little from them about boosting demand or productivity or how we adapt and adopt technology in ways that create, not just sacrifice, jobs.
Unlike Chifley, unlike Hawke and Keating, unlike Rudd, Gillard and Swan, the Government of Morrison and Frydenberg today is disengaged and complacent in the face of growing threats to our prosperity – both domestic and global.
Their failure to plan has three consequences for Australia: it leaves us dangerously exposed; it unnecessarily limits our options if things get worse; and it jeopardises the future of our economy and our country.
It’s a nice harmony that another Chifley creation – the CSIRO – has done the best job quantifying the costs of not having a plan for the economy into the future.
This year the CSIRO warned us that Australia faces a “Slow Decline” if it fails to address the rise of Asia; technological change; climate change and environmental degradation; demographic pressures; and diminished trust and social cohesion.
In that scenario, Australia drifts into the future with weak economic growth, poor educational outcomes and is increasingly vulnerable to external shocks.
It’s a confronting story.
It cautions us against wasting time, neglecting or denying the biggest challenges; lacking ambition; or getting bogged down in old binaries and false choices.
These lessons apply equally to Australia and to Australian Labor. And the old adage that ‘you win or you learn’ is relevant too.
All of us have some thinking and some work to do after our defeat in May. We need to listen to the message we were sent, and learn from the result.
We won’t win in 2022 by recontesting and re-prosecuting the 2019 election.
Clearly we won’t take an identical set of policies to the next election as we took to the last.
We need to look ahead.
By 2022 the search for a new politics and a new economics will be three years further along, and with the pace of political change right now, that is an eternity.
Issues will emerge and rise and fall in prominence, the economic and global conditions will evolve, and our specific policy priorities will be reordered.
In doing so we will work out which policies from last term we update, which we discard, and what replaces them.  We will take our time to do that.
We took an ambitious program to the last election and we fought hard for it.  But we weren’t able to build a big enough constituency behind that agenda to win.
We mostly lost among middle ground voters, not middle-income voters. People in outer suburban communities like mine, around Australia.
To win them back, we need to acknowledge that we won’t beat populism of the right with populism of the left, especially not with warmed-up nostalgia for the 1970s, or even for the 1990s for that matter, but with something new and different.
New and different but consistent with our values. Which recognises our politics and the economy – and at times our Party too – is broken in important ways and we need to address what’s wrong, as well as what went wrong.
So we need to review our policies. We need to reassure anxious Australians we understand the central job-creating role of business and the importance of budget responsibility. We need to remind them of this Liberal Government’s real record on the economy.
But we need to do more than review, reassure and remind. We need to re-establish, reclaim and renew.
To re-establish our credentials as the Party of economic growth. By focusing on growth and redistribution not growth or redistribution. Focusing on the future economy. And adopting a genuine mindset of partnership which recognises today’s political and economic strategies and institutions aren’t working for middle Australia.
Re-establishing our growth credentials is part of reclaiming Labor’s rightful place as the party of aspiration as opportunity.
During the election the idea of aspiration was thrown around by our opponents like confetti from a shredded focus group report. But aspiration in the way Liberals frame it is only ever political cover for trickledown economics.
Understanding aspiration can’t come from a focus group. It can only come from your heart and from your own experiences.
In my case it comes from growing up in Logan City, living there almost all of my life, raising my kids there, and representing the same suburbs south of Brisbane now.
In these neighbourhoods people just want to know that if they study hard, work hard, go to bed later than everyone else, get up earlier than everyone else, then they’ve got a shot.
Every nation talks about this idea but ours is defined by it. And only Labor will nourish and advance it. Under Chifley back then, and under Albanese now.
We all have our Light on the Hill. Ours is mobility in all its forms: social; economic; intergenerational. A forward-looking society, an outward-facing country, powered by an upward-climbing economy.
A nation which leaves nobody behind and holds nobody back. Where we celebrate people doing well and getting ahead. And where we want more people doing well and getting ahead.
That’s the whole point of the Labor Party and it’s the whole reason I’m here.
But to re-establish our growth credentials and to reclaim aspiration we need to renew the way we go about it.
For some decades now our economic policy debates have been dominated by the drive to liberalise the economy.
These reforms did address some of the challenges of the 1970s and 1980s when economic performance was hampered by state domination, over-regulation and rigidity.
Today’s issues are different.
Three decades of liberalisation made our economy more competitive and flexible, but they have brought new challenges including financial instability, job insecurity and income and wealth inequality.
Unchecked liberalisation can’t address this. Fresh thinking is required and it should be natural territory for the centre-left. 
But instead of fresh thinking, many progressive parties around the world have turned to ideas of the past.
There’s no shortage of politicians channelling discontent that liberalisation has failed to address inequality, has promoted financial bubbles over real economic growth, has introduced new volatility into our economy and has reduced the role of the state – and they’re right to point all that out.
But their diagnosis is weakened by proposals which draw from a grab-bag of defunct ideas of decades past.
Promising to tear up neo-liberal economics isn’t hard – coming up with a credible alternative is.
‘Back to the future’ politics is no answer to the challenges of the new economy.
The Light on the Hill doesn’t beckon us further right.   Or further left. It beckons us forward.
The answer is neither a capitulation to the Right on further liberalisation, nor a turn back to old left socialism.
It’s to focus on seizing the opportunities of new technologies and ensuring broad participation in their benefits.
Not as a way to bring about less secure workplaces and harsher industrial relations, or hound social security recipients, or diminish retirement incomes. That’s the Liberals’ path but it will never be ours.
Instead we recognise the possibilities for information technology, big data and the internet of things to lift the quality and efficiency of public services, transform transport, education and public health – and take a new approach to markets.
Rather than debate the merits of regulation and deregulation, we should be putting power back in the hands of citizens by ensuring they have rights over their data, and control over their digital presence.
We should be thinking differently about the role of government.  In education, using technology to identify learning gaps before kids fall behind.  Using new sources of health data to identify warning signs before people get sick.
We should intervene earlier and more effectively to ward off disadvantage, using technology to update the social democratic state’s egalitarian purpose and method.
Putting these pieces together, we have part of a new way of governing: use technology to improve the quality and efficiency of public services; use public services to prevent rather than treat social problems; and apply those preventative resources progressively to achieve equality of opportunity.
Harnessing the digital economy is a challenge big enough to compare with the work of Ben Chifley and others in restructuring the global economy.
To join you here in the year of this election, the year of Hawke’s death, and to reflect on Chifley’s legacy, is to be reminded that Labor has only governed federally for less than a third of our country’s history since Federation yet we have produced what is generally agreed to be four of the best six prime ministers. 
That means Australian history is defined by long periods of conservative torpor punctuated by bold, activist Labor leaders and governments.
But there’s another lesson too, particularly pertinent for all of us at this difficult time for our movement.  It’s something I’ve been drawing on for inspiration as I’ve researched this speech and as I’ve tried to come to terms with our recent defeat.
Chifley’s career reminds us not only of what Labor can accomplish in office, but also of the value of tenacity, patience, fortitude and courage when out of office.
When Chifley died in 1951 he had served as the Member for Macquarie for almost 14 years, as Treasurer for a little over eight years and as Prime Minister for four.
In that time he fundamentally reshaped Australia’s domestic economy, repositioned us in the global economy, and embedded us in its emerging institutions.
He established the Australian National University, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and Trans-Australia Airways.
He opened Australia up to post-war immigration, initiated the Snowy Hydro scheme, locked in the Federal Government’s responsibility to provide social services through the 1946 referendum and reorganised the Commonwealth Bank as Australia’s central bank.
But Chifley learnt as much from failure as from these successes.
After a brief period as Defence Minister in the Scullin Government, Chifley was not only out of office but also out of parliament for the next nine years.
After losing Macquarie in 1931, he couldn’t win it back in 1934. Three years later he was denied the Labor preselection for the seat for the 1937 poll.
He could have given it away, as many do in similar circumstances and as many of us have contemplated at our lowest points, including in the last few months. But instead it was time well spent.
He saw first-hand the devastating effect the Great Depression had on the workers and their families in Bathurst. He watched in hope and frustration as international conference after international conference failed to agree on a coordinated economic response to the downturn.
And he despaired as the world spiralled into devastating currency wars and became seduced by isolationism, populism and fascism before humanity was once again plunged into the darkness of another World War. 
His membership of the banking royal commission from 1935 to 1937 taught him how banking and monetary arrangements worked, and how they didn’t work.
It was Chifley’s time and experiences in his years in the wilderness which instilled in him the belief that enduring peace can only be achieved through economic prosperity and international cooperation.
He showed us that out of office we can use our time well. And he told us that “we must not only desire to win but we must deserve to win.”
Part of that is recognising our obligations to people and communities, understanding how badly they need us to learn and then to win, and that’s why we carry on. 
We do that knowing that after disappointing defeats in 1980 and 2004 we came roaring back in 1983 and 2007 and we’re confident we can do that again in 2022.
We didn’t ask for another three years in opposition but we will use them wisely.
In Canberra we meet in a caucus room where Chifley’s portrait is prominently and proudly displayed, only a couple of metres from where Anthony’s was recently hung.
Two leaders who know that the workers of middle Australia are not like the burden of additional carriages of a train, slowing it down; they are the engine itself, a formidable engine which powers prosperity and progress.
Two leaders both called upon to puncture and punctuate a period of conservative torpor, manage big transitions with courage and foresight, address the defining anxieties which underpin them, and turn aspiration into opportunity for more people.
Renewing, refreshing, and recharging the Light on the Hill for new generations by building an Australia which leaves nobody behind, which holds nobody back, and which is ready for and resilient to the challenges that lie ahead.