04 October 2023

Brighter Future For All Oration, Griffith University, Brisbane City Hall

Brighter Future For All Oration, Griffith University, Brisbane City Hall

The perfectibility of opportunity

Thanks Caitlin Byrne for the generous introduction.

To my friend Cindy Shannon, thanks for the opportunity to work so closely with you on behalf of the students of the Logan campus we both represent – and for sharing culture with us on the lands of the Jagera and Turrbal people tonight.

We acknowledge elders, customs and traditions and we acknowledge, too, the generational opportunity we have in ten days’ time to recognise First Nations people in our constitution.

Not just for its own sake but to establish a Voice, which will empower and enable better listening and better outcomes for the first of us in a way that could lift all of us up, together.

That’s what a Yes vote represents – doing things differently and doing things better and starting with listening, so that we make policy with people, and not just for people.

No would keep us spinning our wheels in a cul‑de‑sac of division and disappointment.

Yes can be a highway to the highlands of a better future.

Yes can help us meet our immediate responsibilities to each other, and serve our generational imperatives too.

That’s why we are here – and I don’t just mean here at Brisbane City Hall tonight – but here at all.

And not to just build a brighter future for some, but to work together in the service of a brighter future for all.

That’s what our Government’s Employment White Paper was all about, and I want to talk about that in a moment.

First, I want to acknowledge and thank all of you for the work you do, and the contributions you make, in communities of learning and communities of people.

And I pay tribute to the best Chancellor‑Vice Chancellor combo in Australia – Andrew Fraser and Carolyn Evans.

Both terrific leaders, honourable people, friends.

We are very lucky to have them.

Carolyn, thank you for your words a moment ago and Andrew, looking forward to hearing from you shortly.

The perfectibility of opportunity

One of Carolyn’s predecessors was Glyn Davis, among our university’s most accomplished figures, my boss once at Premier’s, and now a valued colleague heading up the Prime Minister’s Department.

In his Boyer lectures, he spoke of how universities became places “where students and scholars explored new learning, operating through formal rules that encouraged debate and argument and evidence” and where we seek the “perfectibility of our intellect”.

I can’t hope to be as erudite as Glyn!

But I do want to pick up on what he said, and build on it, and talk tonight about a university which separates itself in the way it also seeks the perfectibility of opportunity.

This is how we see Griffith.

As such a powerful force for opportunity, and inclusion, and aspiration, and wellbeing, and social mobility.

A place where the underrepresented, perhaps also the unheralded, find their path and find their purpose and where for so many of us, our pilot light of purpose is lit.

Most of you here would have your own version of this story, and I’m no different.

I want to talk a bit about that tonight –

From my perspective as Treasurer, as one of your local members –

But also, as a graduate.

Being an alumnus is the main reason I’m so honoured to be asked to give the first Better Future for All Oration, here at City Hall and surrounded by so many wonderful people.

So many of us here have had their lives changed by Griffith.

When I arrived here, I didn’t know where I was headed; when I left here, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I offer this perspective here, not because it’s unique or rare, but because at our university it is common.

And because what Griffith has done for so many of us, we need to do for Australia – I’ll come back to that.

Consider that here, with us tonight, are the joint winners of Griffith’s alumnus of the year –

Professor Bronwyn Harch and Jasmina Joldic.

Bronwyn and Jasmina have different stories, of course –

But they both contain one core element – the possibilities opened up to them by Griffith.

Bronwyn’s path to interim Queensland Chief Scientist began from the moment a cohort of visiting Griffith Uni lecturers came to talk to her school about STEM.

While Jasmina, now Acting Director‑General of the Department of Justice here in Queensland –

Found her way to Griffith after fleeing war‑torn Bosnia, as a teenager with not much English.

That she now sits before us with a Public Service Medal is just outstanding.

I know this university changed Andrew Fraser’s life too.

It turned a country kid from Proserpine, curious about the world, into a lawyer, then Treasurer and Deputy Premier –

Now a distinguished company director and our Chancellor.

We studied together, and with Anthony Chisholm – now an assistant federal minister for education and for the regions.

I met Anthony at Griffith on our very first day here, in the last weeks of summer in early 1996.

He was the first person I ever met in the Labor Party –

He’d just turned 18, and I did too a week later, my birthday was actually the day Paul Keating lost the 96 election.

Like me, like Fraser, he wouldn’t be a frontbencher in our Labor government without Griffith either.

He can’t make it tonight, he’s got portfolio responsibilities in Darwin, but I’ve sent him my notes.

Which really takes me back to swat‑vac in the late 1990s!

He knows better than anyone that I turned up at Griffith with a lot of ambition, but not much of an idea about how to shape that ambition into something meaningful and worthy.

When we came here, we felt so supported and so encouraged.

We were taught by some of the greats of Australian public policy.

People like Pat Weller, John Wanna, Patrick Bishop, Liz van Acker, Robyn Hollander, John Kane, Haig Patapan and a whole bunch of other outstanding people.

I had no idea lecturers would show such an interest, be so accessible.

So much so, that Pat actually had us all over to his house for a barbie when we graduated.

I pay tribute to all the teaching staff here tonight –

And I’m really pleased to see Pat’s been commissioned to write the history of our university in advance of the 50th anniversary.

Capabilities and change

It’s fitting that here at Griffith, a place dedicated to helping others make the most of their opportunities –

That I discovered the Indian economist Amartya Sen in the upstairs part of the old library at the Nathan Campus.

I spent a lot of time in there, just reading, I loved it there.

I remember picking up Inequality Reexamined –

Something Sen had published a few years before.

What struck me most about his writing, about his ideas –

Was this argument, later called the capabilities approach –

Which suggests that if we care about human progress –

Then we should ultimately care about whether people have access to the materials and the resources, and the institutions they need, to build lives of meaning and purpose.

Once I learnt more about Sen – his exposure to the devastating impacts of famine, poverty and exclusion in India –

His pragmatism and practicality –

His determination to pursue knowledge not as an end in itself, but to make things better, it made a big impression on me –

Because it merged the collective and the individual.

It was all about our collective responsibility to give people the opportunities, the choices –

The capability –

To take individual responsibility for their own lives –

So, we can create a society full of people who can flourish.

This is probably the nearest and the neatest summary of how I think about my job and the responsibilities of government.

But these responsibilities aren’t static –

They change and evolve as our economy and our society changes and evolves.

Consider the five biggest shifts underway:

From hydrocarbons to renewables;

From information technology to artificial intelligence;

From younger to older populations;

Changing the composition of our industrial base and placing a greater emphasis on care and support;

And from globalisation to fragmentation.

Our goal is to ensure people can thrive through the energy transformation, the increasing use of digital and advanced technologies, a growing care economy, and geopolitical change and conflict.

That’s how we’re going to make sure that more Australians have the freedom and the resources to pursue lives that they value in the 2020s and beyond –

Making more things possible, for as many people as possible.

Taking collective responsibility for providing the individual capabilities which will make our people and communities beneficiaries of change and build lives of meaning and value.

This is the perfectibility of opportunity.

And it’s a handy summary of our governing philosophy.

The Employment White Paper

So you barely have to scratch the surface of the Albanese Government’s agenda, or my work as Treasurer, to find Sen’s influence or indeed Griffith’s influence.

A very good example of this, perhaps the best example, is the Employment White Paper that we’ve just released.

It’s the culmination of a year of work since the Jobs and Skills Summit.

There’s a heap of analysis in there but the emphasis is on action.

It details around 70 work‑related policies we have already implemented; another 80 that are now underway; and 31 future reform directions.

It draws on the Universities Accord and the good work of a number of my colleagues.

Nine new specific policies were released on the day, and I’m pleased to say they’ve been pretty well‑received.

Pulling our whole vision together in this way isn’t the norm.

Only three national governments have gone about it the way we just have, with detailed policy papers on work:

Chifley’s in the 1940s, Keating’s in the 1990s, now Albanese’s in the 2020s.

Finding work for thousands of returned servicemen and building a peace worth the winning in the 1940s –

Lifting the modern, reformed economy after recession and laying the foundations for 30 years of growth in the 90s.

And now, making sure our people benefit from the big shifts that will define this decade and those which follow.

Paul’s was called Working Nation; ours is called Working Future – a little nod to the past but with a focus on the future.

It works and winds its way through five core objectives:

First, delivering sustained and inclusive full employment, where everyone who wants a job can get one without searching for too long –

Second, promoting job security and strong, sustainable wage growth –

Third, reigniting productivity growth –

Fourth, filling skills needs and building our future labour force –

And fifth, overcoming barriers to employment and broadening opportunity.

The policies we’re pursuing hang off each of these objectives.

They’re about embedding full employment, boosting job security and wages, and making our economy more dynamic and productive.

Modernising, broadening and deepening our industrial base and our approach to the regions.

Planning for the workforce we need and will need.

Broadening access to foundation skills.

Instilling a culture of lifelong learning, retraining and reskilling.

Reforming the migration system in our interests.

Building capabilities through employment services that support people into meaningful work.

Reducing barriers.

Partnering with communities.

And promoting more inclusive workplaces.

New approaches

In all these areas we are putting capabilities and change at the core of our approach –

Taking the evolving nature of work as our starting point –

We are making it easier for workers to find great opportunities and for employers to find great workers –

So we can prosper together.

But it’s not just our goals or the detailed policies we are changing and updating that are important –

It’s also the thinking that underpins them.

Let me give you three quick examples.

First, we are changing the way we think about full employment.

Consider this remarkable fact:

Of the 18 months that the unemployment rate has had a ‘three’ in front of it since monthly records began in 1978 –

15 of those 18 months have been under our Government.

So, it’s the perfect time to consider how we measure and how we target full employment.

We know the unemployment rate, as important as it will always be, doesn’t always tell the full story of underutilisation and underemployment in our economy, or the distribution of opportunity in our society.

It doesn’t always capture the differences and the complexities of frictional, cyclical and structural factors.

The economists here will know there’s already a necessary and important but narrow and technical concept here called the NAIRU; the non‑accelerating inflation rate of unemployment –

And the Treasury makes an assumption in the budget about what this is, around 4.25 percent.

This concept is about what level of unemployment is currently achievable that is consistent with low and stable inflation.

The NAIRU informs and complements, and is distinct but complementary to, the government’s broader and longer term goal –

To create an economy where everyone who wants a job can find one without having to search for too long.

We don’t see the NAIRU as set in stone, we want to drive it down over time – by reducing the structural barriers to work.

That’s why we’ve adopted twin goals of sustained and inclusive full employment.

Sustained full employment is about minimising volatility in economic cycles and getting employment as close as possible to the current maximum level consistent with low and stable inflation.

Inclusive full employment is about broadening opportunities, lowering barriers, and reducing structural underutilisation over time to increase the level of employment in our economy.

This does not put us at odds with the Reserve Bank, as some commentators have wrongly concluded. 

In fact, I consulted the Governor on this approach and she has publicly and repeatedly backed it in.

We’ve also changed the way we are coming at the productivity challenge.

For too long, productivity growth has been too weak – lower in the ten years to 2020 than in any other decade of the last six –

And for too long the national debate about productivity has been needlessly and mindlessly narrowed to industrial relations.

We’re changing that –

Looking ahead and constructing an agenda that responds to the economic opportunities of today, not the 1980s –

One that’s about investing in people, their capabilities –

And getting capital flowing to where it will turbocharge the necessary economic transformations underway in our economy.

Not seeing productivity in the harsh and punitive ways of our opponents or our critics.

Our emphases here are about looking above and beyond the tired old labour versus capital roundabout that much of the commentary still circles around.

Focusing instead on how we create a more dynamic and competitive economy –

On building a skilled and adaptable workforce –

Harnessing data and digital technologies –

Delivering quality care and support more efficiently –

And investing in cleaner, cheaper energy and the vast industrial opportunities presented on the way to net zero.

So, we’re changing our approach to full employment, and seeing the productivity challenge through a future‑focused lens. 

And we’re also changing our thinking around how best to expand opportunity  –

With a new emphasis on place. 

When we think about the national economy of course we think about national averages and aggregates – and they’re important.

But we need to go beyond this, to understand how outcomes and opportunities vary across the country.

A lot of the inspiration for this, the influence on this, has come from my work with Griffith, with Logan Together, with you.

And from my home, the place that I grew up and am proud to represent, Logan City –

Where it’s so obvious and so unacceptable that in a country like ours, with an economy as strong as it has been –

There are still pockets of disadvantage and long‑term unemployment.

What worries me most about this, is the way this disadvantage and dependence can cascade through generations and concentrate in a handful of communities like ours.

That’s why the White Paper has such an emphasis on place‑specific barriers and place‑based initiatives, and why our Budget funds important new place‑based partnerships.

Better futures for all

As Ross Gittins wrote last week in relation to full employment, these are important shifts in the country’s thinking –

Ross should know – having covered Keating’s Working Nation in 94.

Then, Ross said that it would take time to see the results of the changes in policy and approach outlined in that document –

And the same is true of the Employment White Paper.

But what is clear, is that without bedding down these changes, without committing to them –

We’ll run the risk of wasting another decade with short‑sighted economic policy and the wrong priorities.

This can be a defining decade, but only if we make our people beneficiaries of change, not victims of change –

By investing in them, boosting their capabilities, giving them the tools to succeed and thrive and advance their communities.

That’s what the Voice is about.

It’s what our white paper on jobs and opportunities is about.

It’s what Amartya Sen’s work is all about.

And what this university is all about as well.

It’s why this is all linked up together.

And it’s how we ‘Make it Matter’.

Not just for some of us – but a brighter future for all.

So thank you for the opportunity to give this first Oration –

For the possibilities you open up for people –

And for the belief you’ve showed in so many of us when it mattered most.