The Reforming Centre of Australian Politics

Author: Kevin Rudd is theĀ Prime Minister of Australia. He delivered the 2008 Gough Whitlam Lecture at the University of Sydney

I acknowledge the First Australians on whose land we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We gather to pay tribute to Edward Gough Whitlam.

12th Leader of the Australian Labor Party.

21st Prime Minister of this Australian Commonwealth.

Great reformer of this great Australian nation.

To pay tribute in simple terms is to say thank you.

And there are many who would say thank you.

Those young Australians, often the first in their families, given their first opportunity to go to university.

Those Aboriginal Australians whose land rights were finally and formally recognised under the laws of the Commonwealth.

Those migrant families who joined a warm, welcoming and genuinely multicultural Australia which for the first time celebrated diversity rather than demanding uniformity.

The women of Australia who were guaranteed, for the first time under law, genuine equality in the workplace.

The workers in industries who rose to the challenge of a world where tariff protection had become unsustainable and where the Whitlam Government had the courage to recognise that to survive we had to compete in the world, rather than protect ourselves from it.

The sick and the infirm who, for the first time, were afforded universal health insurance where treatment was prioritised according to physical need rather than the ability to pay.

The authors, the artists and the filmmakers who gained their start on a Whitlam fellowship and who gave expression to a new independent, and creative Australian identity.

This is an extraordinary legacy of an extraordinary man.

It is the legacy of a man who realised there was no time to be lost.

A man who realised that opportunities were to be seized - rather than allow opportunities to be squandered.

These qualities go to the temperament of his leadership.

But they also point to the content of his policy.

To the utter dismay of his political opponents, so much of his reform program has survived - despite the succession of conservative administrations that followed him.

Each trying to tear him down.

Each failing miserably in their most miserable of tasks.

The question to be asked is why has so much of the Whitlam legacy endured not just the ravages of time - but also the systematic assault of the conservative political establishment?

The answer, I believe, is that in his mind's eye, Gough Whitlam could see a future for Australia vastly different from so much of its suffocating past.

The answer, I believe, also lies in the fact that in the great tradition of progressive politics, Whitlam sought to shape that future, rather than simply respond to events.

And that in shaping that future, he brought to bear the great, the good, the continuing values of our movement and of our nation - that we could craft an Australia that was strong, secure and competitive while not extinguishing the fires of the Australian soul.

A soul that by instinct, by inclination and hewn by historical experience, was animated by the possibility that this nation should also be a place of cooperation, of compassion, of creativity - and above all, a fair go for all.

Labor's mission has been to embrace both these traditions - what others have called a nation of ‘hard heads and soft hearts'.

The conservatives' mission has been to deny that any such reconciliation is possible.

We have the audacity to believe that it is.

Politically theirs has always been the easier task - to argue that, in the end, the only practical proposition is economic self interest.

Ours has been a more complex task - as we argue that self interest, in the absence of a parallel concern for the interests of others, is incomplete.

That the interest of the individual and of the commons are inseparable.

That rather than contradicting each other, in fact they temper each other and reinforce each other.

Furthermore, we are so bold as to hold this truth to be self-evident.

Nowhere is this truth more self-evident today than in the great debate of our age - the short term self-interests of some against the long term sustainabiliy of our planet that ultimately sustains us all.

So whether it is the role of government against the market;

The role of the economy against the needs of the physical environment that sustains the economy;

Or the role of national self-interest against the need for international cooperation to deal with the common challenges of humanity;

The principle is a continuing principle - and constitutes the core dividing line between progressive politics and conservative politics; between social democrats and neo-liberals, and, in Australia, between Labor and the Coalition.

That self-interest and the interests of our fellow human beings are inseparable.

Labor therefore sees itself in the tradition of the reforming centre of Australian politics.

Recognising the power of markets and the limitations of markets where markets fail.

Recognising the abiding importance of public goods including education, the environment and security for all.

Recognising the power of targeted government intervention - while also recognising the limitations of government in the form of all-providing state that only serves to suffocate the enterprise of individuals.

We have seen this tradition of the reforming centre alive in Whitlam, alive in Hawke, alive in Keating - and equally alive in the policy direction of this new Australian Labor Government of today.

Gough Whitlam's visionary government was one of those turning points - in contemporary jargon, ‘tipping points' - in our party's and our nation's history.

The Australian Labor Party was founded in 1891.

Gough Whitlam was born only a quarter of a century later in 1916 -and therefore has lived a life that has spanned most of the history of our party, itself one of the oldest continuing political parties in the world.

1916 was the year that Andrew Fisher resigned as Prime Minister after leading the world's first majority Labor Government - Fisher's government having helped deliver great reforms including the arbitration system, the aged pension and the Commonwealth Bank together with great national institutions such as the Royal Australian Navy.

A quarter of a century later, when John Curtin was Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam served his nation in uniform.

When Curtin died, in 1945, Whitlam joined the Australian Labor Party.

When Chifley died in 1951, Whitlam put himself forward for preselection for Werriwa which he won and held for the following quarter of a century.

He spent 20 years in Parliament before he came to government.

They were 20 years of deep disappointment.

Disappointment but never despair.

He did not buckle.

He did not waver.

He did not just keep the faith.

He fought the fight.

Beginning with the fight to reform what had become a moribund party - the first of three great Whitlam reforms which I believe symbolizes so much of his leadership.

When Gough became leader, the party had been out of office for nearly 20 years.

The parliamentary party had balkanised.

The party organisation had atrophied.

The party policy platform had ossified.

Gough Whitlam turned all that on its head.

Against the faceless men, it was crash through or crash.

And Whitlam crashed through.

His core message was that the Labor Party was open to all people of good will who supported the progressive political project - not just a narrow protected industrial group.

Whitlam's tradition of party reform continues to speak to us today.

The windows of the party must continue to be held wide open to all comers: from business, from the unions, from the professions, from the trades, from rural Australia, from immigrant Australia, from all corners of Australian life.

Ours must be a genuinely broad church, representing the face of contemporary Australia, united by Labor's continuing values and the urgent demand of translating these values to the challenges of the future - without being hide-bound by archaic formulas from the past.

One of those challenges of the future is our engagement with our neighbours in Asia - and here, once again, Whitlam was a reformer ahead of his time.

Once again, he could see in his mind's eye a different future for Australia.

While the conservatives remained blinded by the Cold War, Whitlam saw the beginning of a new strategic and economic relationship between China and the West arising from the Sino-Soviet split.

The conservatives railed against him for embracing China.

The very same conservatives were rendered mute when Kissinger and Nixon did the same.

Whitlam looking to the future.

The conservatives, once again, lost in the past.

Whitlam looked to the future on how to engage China 35 years before it rose to become the world's second largest economy and prospectively the largest. (Remember in Gough's day, China's economy was smaller than that of Australia).

On China and the wider region, Whitlam began the work which his sucessors have continued.

How to engage China on the economy.

How to engage China on climate change.

And how to engage China, Japan, and the United States in a manner which preserves the peace of the Pacific Century - rather than allowing the century to drift in the direction of conflict.

These are the challenges of which the new Australian Government is deeply seized - driven also by our vision to make Australia the most China-literate and Asia-literate country in the collective West.

But in this setting at Sydney University, we should pay particular tribute to the Whitlam Government for a third great reform which has given so many women and men the opportunity to go to university.

Previously, the cloisters of great universities like this had been reserved as finishing schools for the privileged.

But Gough Whitlam, himself a graduate of our oldest university, flung open its gates to all. Because he believed that access to an education of the highest quality should be determined on one factor alone: merit.

Whitlam recognised that restricting education to the wealthy only entrenches existing privilege, and prevents our finest minds from reaching their fullest potential.

Whitlam recognised that our nation's economic prosperity is directly linked to the prosperity of our minds.

But the revolution achieved by the Whitlam Government was not limited to the university sector.

It also extended to our schools. For decades, Labor had refused, for ideological reasons, to fund Catholic and independent schools.

But Whitlam changed all that.

Instead he treated government and non-government schools alike and allocated funding according to one simple principle: need.

‘Merit' and ‘need'. Put those propositions together and you begin to build a reform agenda for the future.

But there's one particular Australian who owes a debt of gratitude to Gough Whitlam for the way he transformed Australia.

A high school kid from the Queensland country.

A kid inspired by Gough and Margaret's audacious and historic journeys to China.

A kid for whom that visit sparked a lifelong interest in Australia's national destiny with its neighbours and with the world.

A kid who lived Gough Whitlam's dream that every child should have a desk with a lamp on it where he or she could study.

A kid whose mum told him after the '72 election that it might just now be possible for the likes of him to go to university.

A kid from the country of no particular means and of no political pedigree who could therefore dream that one day he could make a contribution to our national political life.

That kid was me.

And more than 30 years after the Whitlam revolution, I am proud to stand before you as Prime Minister.

And I owe it to the fact that I am the beneficiary of a Whitlam education.

Some ask why I believe in an education revolution.

The answer is simple: I and many others are the beneficiaries of one.

Education is the engine room of equity.

Education is the engine room of the economy.

Therefore to invest in education is to invest in our future - as individuals and as a nation.

The galvanising vision of the government is to become the best educated, best trained, best skilled workforce in the world.

This must be our ambition for the nation.

It must be our ambition for ourselves.

There is no alternative for the 21st Century when knowledge-intensive industries will determine the wealth of nations.

It is not in my view a coincidence that, two centuries ago the author of the original “Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith, deemed education should always be a public good.

To achieve an education revolution requires a revolution in how much we invest as well as how we invest it.

It requires a revolution in our quantitative investments.

And in our qualitative investment.

An emphasis on the resources we put in to education as well as an emphasis on what comes out in the form of educational outcomes for our young people.

From early childhood education.

Through schools.

Through vocational education and training.

Through universities.

Through research.

Through innovation.

Through investing in the knowledge-based industries of the future.

As a government of the reforming centre, Labor's reform agenda is a broad one.

To build a more secure Australia by widening the compass of our national security engagement, by enhancing our national defence, and by expanding our diplomacy abroad in the great Labor tradition of creative middle-power diplomacy.

To build a stronger Australia through a policy of responsible economic management, a long term program of economic reform to lift our productivity growth, and an ambitious plan of 21st Century nation-building.

To build a fairer Australia through a fair and flexible industrial relations system; tax reform for low and middle income Australians; the reform of income support payments; tackling housing affordability and homelessness and acting on closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

To build an Australia capable of responding to the challenges of the future including climate change, the Murray-Darling, the ageing of the population, the challenges facing our health and hospital system and the reform of the federation.

And through all of this, to explore a new way of governing so that government continues to engage the Australian community on local community needs between elections - and not just at election time.

The reform agenda is as wide as it is deep - as it is urgent.

A reform agenda that is now doubly necessary given the squandered opportunities of the decade past.

Reviews of the Whitlam legacy have tended to be of two types: hagiography or demonization.

Gough, like the rest of us, is mortal.

And all mortals are capable of human failure.

And the Whitlam Government had its failures.

But the successes obtained in three short years of the Whitlam government have endured now for a generation and more.

And that is because as a movement we have sought to write the nation's history - while our opponents have sought to re-write it rather than write their own.

As a movement we have sought to use our political incumbency to plan for the nation's future - rather than use incumbency (as our opponents have) for the sake of incumbency itself.

As a movement we have sought to be nation builders - rather than our opponents who have never believed in nation building.

But beyond all these things, we as a movement have always sought to build up the nation's hopes rather than play to the nation's fears - as our opponent routinely have done.

As others have said, to play to the good angels in our human nature, rather than the bad.

To build up rather than to tear down.

To Include rather than exclude.

To unite rather than divide.

This has been the mission of Labor.

To craft a secure Australia, a strong Australia, a competitive Australia - but also an Australia where the fair go is not just an idle sentiment from the ballads and Paterson and Lawson in our past, but an enlivening and integral part of our future as well.

It is to this great cause that this remarkable Australian has dedicated his life.

And it is for this that a grateful party and a grateful the nation pays tribute to him.

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