Speech to Queensland Fabian Society

Author: Senator the Hon Penny Wong is Minister for Finance and Deregualtion

Thank you, Joff, for that introduction, and thank you for the invitation to speak here this evening.

It’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to step beyond day-to-day politics and to look at some of the bigger questions facing the progressive movement in Australia today.

It’s also good to be here in Brisbane, even though politically, things may seem bleak in Queensland right now.

Perhaps more than ever before, it’s important that we have groups like the Queensland Fabians to contest ideas, to initiate important debates, and to advocate for the values, policies and programs that underpin Labor.

Because as a group focused on advancing social democracy, it’s important that you challenge the Labor Party and the progressive movement.

It’s important that you determine what it is we want to see for this state, and for the country, and that you push for that vision to become a reality.

Labor has always faced the challenge of being both a progressive party and a party of Government.

A task made even harder by the times we confront today.

Because these are challenging times for the Labor movement.

And in these times it is important to recall why we do what we do and why we hold the beliefs that we do.

It is important to remember why we are Labor.

I know not all of you here tonight are members of the Labor Party, but we share values which underpin a party of reform.

At the core of Labor is a belief in fairness, in a ‘fair go’ and in opportunity, not just for the privileged few, but for all.

Consider what Labor has achieved over the years.

Medicare – access to quality health care for all Australians.

A fair system of wages and conditions.

The abolition of the White Australia Policy and recognition of rights through the Racial Discrimination Act or the Sex Discrimination Act.

The recognition of native title and the apology for the wrongs inflicted on the stolen generation.

Access to university, not just for those who could pay for it, but for everyone.

Labor welcomed immigration and we introduced compulsory superannuation to ensure all Australians could enjoy a better retirement.

And, more recently under this government, Labor has delivered increases in pensions, continued support for jobs, an economy growing at trend, low unemployment, a National Broadband Network being rolled out, disability reform, an overhaul of the aged care system and a price on carbon.

This is who we are.

These are our values in action.

This is what we stand for.

And, as the Prime Minister said in a speech last week, “great reform endures”.

As a progressive party, we will always look to new opportunities and new challenges.

We know that a fair go today differs from that which would have been described by my parent’s generation, just as my daughter’s generation will probably have a different view.

It doesn’t mean our values change, but the contemporary meaning of our principles change as society changes and as new challenges present themselves.

That is why the job is never done.

That is why the progressive movement is always needed.

Being a party of government means we have the opportunity to pursue the reforms that make Australia a fairer society, that make a difference to people’s lives every day.

This brings with it responsibilities which are not shared by a protest movement or a minor party.

And it often means making difficult decisions and persisting with reform, even when it is not popular.

Being a party of government means we cannot simply speak to those who agree with us or shout at those who don’t.

We also have to persuade those who disagree.

All of us in this room cannot play only to a narrow audience.

We have to build agreement, we have to advocate, we have to convince.

There are also hard policy questions that come with being in government; questions that rise above the repetition of slogans.

Choices have to be made in light of the evidence, alongside competing priorities and with finite resources.

Policy solutions are generally not as simple as they might sound.

And they have to be funded.

Ultimately talking about change is one thing.

Delivering it is another.

And we can’t choose to only care about certain issues or to focus on pet topics.

We have to be nimble, but considered, able to respond to the unexpected as well as the predictable.

We have to be brave, willing to confront situations where reality conflicts with philosophy.

And we have to be humble.

We have to able to reassess plans in light of experience and evidence, and change course to see the best outcome achieved.

Much has been made about the start of a carbon price on 1 July.

Despite scientific evidence that action is needed to address climate change, and despite industry needing certainty above all else, we are faced with an Opposition hell-bent on creating uncertainty.

We have heard about towns being wiped off the map, whole industries collapsing, the cost of a Sunday Roast increasing to $100.

We have seen gleeful misuse of job losses for political ends, even to the extent of blaming the loss of jobs in the media on the carbon price.

And then we have their ‘Direct Action’ plan – their supposed answer to addressing climate change.

Actually, I could spend quite some time talking about the Coalition’s position.

I could highlight the hypocrisy of their supposed commitment to the same emissions reduction target as the Government – 5 per cent by 2020 – but with a policy that even their former leader admits won’t work.

That, to reach the target under their policy, trees would have to be planted over an area equivalent to the land mass of Tasmania and Victoria combined.

That the OECD, Grattan Institute and Treasury have each found that a subsidies-based approach such as what the Opposition proposes would cost more than double the carbon price and cost the budget $50 billion.

I could remind you that the Opposition’s plan is to allow polluters to conduct ‘business as usual’ and make Australians pay $1300 a year in new taxes.

And I could discuss what it means for our polity to have an Opposition Leader who undermines both science and economics for political gain.

There is no doubt that this has been a difficult reform to introduce – many of the biggest, most important reforms are.

This is a reform for the future, from a party which looks to the future.

And it is a reform grounded both in science and economics.

A reform which recognises and responds to the advice of the worlds’ scientists.

A reform which gives effect to the changes that are important for our future prosperity.

Because we should not forget the unequivocal scientific evidence that the global climate is changing.

In Australia and across the globe, 2001 to 2010 was the warmest on record.

In fact, each decade in Australia since the 1940s has been warmer than the last.

In 2010 the atmospheric concentration of CO2 reached almost 390 parts per million in comparison to 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times.

And we need to anticipate future markets as the world increasingly places a premium on low carbon goods and services.

As one of the most highly carbon-intensive advanced economies, we need to build better capacity to compete, and we need to do it at the lowest possible cost.

Pricing carbon is a signal to investors.

It’s the way we can use the market to drive the innovations that will underpin the future of Australian industry and the Australian economy.

It will spur progress in production techniques, capital investment, research and development.

I’ve always believed that the merits of a price on carbon become very clear if you think forward to the costs that will be imposed on our children and grandchildren by inaction.

Almost four and half years ago today, in a speech to the Australian Industry Group in my then role as Minister for Climate Change, I set out the case for a market-based solution to tackling carbon pollution.

Subsequently, a great deal of work was done on developing the details of this whole of economy reform.

But as we all know, the Parliament did not pass the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

This is often explained entirely in terms of the replacement of Malcolm Turnbull by Tony Abbott.

And, with Mr Abbott at the helm, we saw the consequent abandonment by the Liberal Party of both John Howard’s 2007 election position as well as their traditional views about market-based solutions versus direct action by government.

But, what is often forgotten is that the legislation did not need the Opposition’s support in the Senate.

That the numbers would have been there to pass the legislation had the Australian Greens had been prepared to make a different decision.

Had the Australian Greens supported the Government in the Senate, Australia would have been on the path to reduce emissions by 5 per cent on 2000 levels.

And, if the Greens had supported the carbon pricing legislation rather than voting with climate sceptics including Senator Fielding, Senator Bernardi and others in 2009, we would be a year ahead of where we are now.

And Tony Abbott’s talk of repeal would be inconceivable.

We would be debating new progressive challenges and causes, rather than continuing to fight on this one.

But in 2009, the Australian Greens voted down the CPRS leaving Australia without a comprehensive plan to reduce carbon pollution.

And yet, today, we see a scheme remarkably similar in place. Our target remains a 5 percent reduction on 2000 emission levels. Levels of assistance to industry are broadly comparable and some cases more generous.

But arguing over the specifics misses the key point. What is important is the outcome. The consequences.

The real question is whether blocking that scheme has better positioned Australia to reduce emissions or commence the transformation of the economy.

Was the goal we all share, putting a price on carbon to respond to climate change and transform our economy brought closer by this decision?

It is a matter of fact that the transformation driven by a price on carbon was delayed.

It is a matter of fact that the emissions reductions trajectory is steeper today because of that delay.

And for what?

For a policy debate now so toxic and partisan that the science of climate change itself is under constant attack.

Some criticise the Greens for having values and goals that are outside the political mainstream.

In some areas this may be true.

But my concern is different. Where the Greens claim to share our values, their inability to compromise, their unwillingness to take on board evidence and their refusal to accept that politics inevitably involves tradeoffs, means they cannot deliver policy outcomes to reflect these values.

The experience with the CPRS is an example, but it is only one.

Much is said, often in disparaging terms, of what it means to compromise.

Compromise that involves the abrogation of values can be destructive of purpose.

But a refusal to compromise can also destroy purpose.

There are times when refusal to change position is the principled call.

But there are moments when compromise is needed to put the national interest above the purity of the few.

Where actual delivery of policy can be achieved rather than a face-off where nothing is achieved.

As I said in a speech the other day on a different issue, ‘when you have a debate that is dominated by too many extreme views, where you have people unwilling to compromise, answers fall through the cracks’.

Being a party of compassion means little if compassion can’t be translated in compassionate outcomes.

Being a party of values is most valuable when those values can be translated into policy solutions.

This is the fundamental difference between being a party of the cross-bench and a party of government.

For Labor it is not enough to simply proclaim our values.

We govern for our values.

We work to translate values into action.

To deliver a better Australia.

Being a party of government also means being trusted to deliver and manage a strong and growing economy.

For Labor, economic reform and strong economic management are core to our project.

Because, without these, we cannot govern.

Without these, we cannot deliver equity.

Without these, we cannot pursue progressive outcomes.

Without these, we cannot realise our goals of delivering a fair go to all Australians.

Taking responsibility for building economic prosperity is not only consistent with the pursuit of social justice, it demands it.

Those to our left often refuse to see the economy as their responsibility, and those to our right do not see the economy as an enabler of opportunity. This is a reminder of the uniqueness of both Labor’s position on the political field, and of our platform.

The economic experience of the last few years provides a stark reminder of these matters.

Having just come through the Global Financial Crisis, Australians might be forgiven for believing that the trouble has passed.

Indeed, it was the robust and timely Government intervention that has seen working Australians avoid the destructive impacts that are still being felt elsewhere in advanced economies.

Our economy has grown 9 per cent since the GFC.

In contrast, the US and Germany have grown a bit less than 2 per cent and the UK has shrunk by 3 per cent.

We have created over 800,000 jobs since coming to Government.

Unemployment is at 5.1 per cent.

The official cash rate is at 3.5 per cent.

Inflation is contained and we have a record $500 billion pipeline of investment.

This year, yes, we had to make hard decisions to prioritise spending.

We’re returning the budget to surplus in 2012-13 because it is the right thing to do when the economy is growing at around trend.

Returning to surplus also puts us in the strongest position to respond to future challenges.

Governing for the expected and the unexpected.

With a strong budget, the Government will be able to best provide the services and support that Australians expect and deserve.

A dignified safety net that supports those most in need.

The best start for all children through education.

A National Disability Insurance Scheme, high quality aged care facilities and a sustainable health care system.

Yet, despite this, our focus on economic responsibility is also being contested by those on our left and right.

From the far left, the Budget is seen as bottomless, ignoring the macro-economic implications of unrestrained Government spending.

And, from our right, there is a consistent attempt to undermine and challenge our credentials.

I accept that we should always receive considerable scrutiny for our economic management.

That is as it should be.

But it is important that the same standards apply to all parties who seek to govern.

Because it is not good enough that Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb all admit that the Coalition has a $70 billion black hole in their budget, but to refuse to detail what services they intend to cut to fill it.

It isn’t honest or accountable to hide these cuts.

It isn’t honest or accountable to continue to make promises you can’t fund.

It isn’t honest or accountable to use a catering company to do your costings.

And it isn’t honest or accountable to keep ducking the Charter of Budget Honesty.

The Opposition sing the praises of Peter Costello when it suits them, but refuse to comply with the Charter of Budget Honesty he introduced because it doesn’t suit them.

Costings are how you explain to Australians how you’ll deliver what you say you will.

Without these – policy promises have little meaning.

Similarly, it is not good enough for those to the left of Labor to make promises to spend more without explaining what trade-offs this will involve.

What they’ll spend less on and who will pay more.

This is not only irresponsible in the short term, but it hurts the progressive movement in the long term.

I reject the notion that progressive reform is in opposition to responsible economic management.

It is because we are a progressive movement that we want to ensure a strong economy so we can deliver the important reforms that will make Australia fairer and create more opportunity for all.

It is this purpose that we must never forget.

Since coming to office, this Government has invested strongly in skills and training.

Because we know that they help drive productivity and change people’s lives.

Since coming to Government, we have doubled spending in education to over $65 billion.

Because we know that higher skills and are better education are the passport to a better job, a higher pay packet and a more rewarding working life.

Since coming to Government, we have delivered the nation’s first Paid Parental Leave scheme that’s already helping 160,000 families across Australia.

We’ve tripled the investment in childcare – to more than $22 billion – and have increased the child care tax rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent.

Because we know it is imperative to improve the opportunities for participation in the workforce.

Since coming to Government, we have spread the benefits of the boom, introducing a Minerals Resource Rent Tax, tripling the tax-free threshold and giving working families a tax cut.

Sometimes it might be tempting to feel like the progressive movement has lost its spark – particularly after the brief period of wall-to-wall ALP governments in 2007-08.

But let us never forget that as a party, we have been here before and we have fought back before.

In 1927 our primary vote was only 27 per cent.

But we fought back and the fight back led to the defining governments of Curtin and Chifley.

The long periods of conservative government through the late forties to the mid seventies were ended by election of Whitlam.

The 1975 landslide loss was followed by the 1983 victory.

Our party has strong values.

It is resilient because our values are resilient and our purpose is too important to let slide.

The Queensland Labor Party knows this all too well.

Despite governing for much of the first half of the 20th Century, from 1957 to 1989, there was not much to celebrate.

But Queensland Labor fought back. This fight back saw the elections of the Goss, Beattie and Bligh Governments.

And it will fight back again.

The new LNP Government is not one that governs for the fair go or one which values social justice.

Since it was elected in March we have already seen a Government that is happy to exclude and marginalise.

But governing for values of the past is not a recipe for the future.

That’s why I’m proud to be of a party that marries a mandate to govern with progressive values and economic responsibility.

A party that governs for long term.

That brings together strong values and an ability to translate those values into action.

This task is shared by no other movement and no other political party in this country.

And it is people like you in this room tonight that are critical to the progressive project.

Thank you.

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