The Age of Ambition - Speech







Members of the great Thirroul Branch of the Australian Labor Party, it is my honour to be invited to join you here in the evocative ‘Valley of the Cabbage Tree Palms’ on the occasion of your 50th consecutive annual dinner, in the 104th year of your branch’s existence.

For any regional branch of any organisation to remain a going concern for over a century is a tremendous achievement. To have broken bread together for half a century beneath the Thirroul branch banner is equally glorious. Few other Labor branches have published a book on their history. My thanks to Chris Lacey for sending me a copy of his terrific Illawarra Agitators. Naturally, I have read all 376 pages, and stand ready to be quizzed on it later this evening.

On behalf of the federal Labor caucus, I thank the members of the Thirroul Branch for the example that you set for us, and the reminder of how much we have to learn from our shared past.

When I think of Thirroul, I think of DH Lawrence’s paean to Australian egalitarianism, Kangaroo. Lawrence came here with his German wife (a distant relative of the Red Baron). It was here in Thirroul where in 45 days he finished all but the last chapter of his novel Kangaroo.

Set in the early 1920s, about an English writer who travels to Australia with his German wife, Kangaroo has been described as the first modern novel written in Australia. It leaves the reader in no doubt that Australians have always valued democracy and egalitarianism. And the Australian Labor Party has always been the first and strongest defender of those values, in word and deed.

Kangaroo also reminds us of the threats to democracy from the far right. He was writing at the time when the forces of what would become the paramilitary ‘Old Guard’ may have numbered as many as 30,000 – well connected to the elites, and possibly even sanctioned by Stanley Bruce’s Nationalist Government. If you ever hear those on the right allege that Labor seeks to tear up the rulebook, it is worth reminding them that the soft right-wing coups against Jack Lang and Gough Whitlam were met not by calls to riot in the streets, but by leaders who put the national institutions ahead of their personal power. When the establishment removed them, both Lang and Whitlam went quietly, and fought their battles at the ballot box, not on the streets. Sovereign risk, thy name is Tory.

* * *

I want to talk tonight about where Labor has been, and where we go next. Our great political party is now in our 125th year. As I see it, Labor’s story can be divided into seven ages.

The first age, starting from 1891, was a period of rapid electoral success. As the late John Hirst once described it to me, this was when Labor exploded onto the Australian political scene, sweeping everyone before it. Labor refused to do deals with other parties – why would you, when your vote increases every election? As you’d expect of a party formed from the trade unions, the focus of this period was primarily on industrial issues.

The second age was a fallow period. I’d start it from 1916, when Billy Hughes and 24 of his followers left the Caucus. Through much of the next quarter-century, Labor was out of office, looking to define what made it. The Scullin Government, sworn in two days before the 1929 sharemarket crash, struggled to respond to the emerging Depression, and lasted only three years.

The third age, 1941 to 1949, was the era of Curtin and Chifley. This was the period in which Labor stood up to Churchill to bring our troops home. As John Edwards’ biography of John Curtin points out, it was also marked by major economic reforms: a broad-based income tax, child endowment, widows’ pensions. Then under Chifley, citizenship, the pharmaceutical benefits scheme, engagement with the Bretton Woods institutions.

Then more fallow years. The fourth age, 1949 to 1972, not only saw Labor out of power, but again struggling to define itself. The split of the 1950s. Internal conflict over whether we stood for a closed or an open economy. To read Labor’s election manifestos of this period is to be struck by how parochial the party was, and how narrow its agenda.

The fifth age was the age of Whitlam. Now, to document the achievements of the Whitlam Government requires a book (and in case you’re in the market for such a book, I recommend EG Whitlam, The Whitlam Government). But it’s the social reforms that most stick in our minds. Medibank. No-fault divorce. Northern Territory land rights. SBS. The Racial Discrimination Act. This strong focus on the social side continued to characterise much of Labor’s thinking in the late-1970s.

Labor’s sixth age, from 1983, flicked the switch to economic reform. Under Hawke and Keating, we got tariff cuts and global free trade agreements. The float of the dollar. Capital gains taxation. Universal superannuation. The Accord and the social wage.

We’re now getting close to today, which means that the chances of me causing offence in how I choose my eras or pick my favourite achievements is heightened. But we’ve come this far, so let’s plunge in to the present.

The seventh age of Labor starts in 2007. Although the previous period of opposition saw some breaks from the Hawke-Keating era, the echoes of Labor’s time in office strongly affected the policies the party pursued in the Howard era. It wasn’t until Kevin Rudd’s election in 2007 – and the defining event of the global recession – that a new era began.

What’s remarkable about this current Labor age is the challenge of identifying a single set of issues that embodied the Rudd and Gillard Governments. There is no shortage of proud achievements – saving Australia from recession, the apology, the NDIS, the NBN, carbon pricing and Gonski. Likewise, Labor took more than 100 positive policies to this year’s election, addressing issues from school funding to house prices, penalty rates to science research. These policies spanned the gamut, and I’m proud to have played a modest part in their formulation. But when I look at the sweep of issues that we campaigned upon, I struggle to characterise them as neatly as we can with past Labor governments and oppositions.

So what should characterise the seventh age of Labor? What ought to sum up our approach to politics today?

Before answering that question, it’s worth saying a few words about the world of 2016. To look around the world is to see more than a few echoes of the paramilitary forces of the 1920s and 1930s. Angry politics is alive and well in the person of Trump and Le Pen, Farage and Wilders. A politics that emphasises differences within the community, and urges citizens to jump at the shadows of trade, immigration and foreign investment. A nasty tone has entered the political discourse too, which prompted me to give a speech in Melbourne recently advocating ‘the politics of love’.[i] But to look across politics around the world, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a better time to be a hater than a lover.

Globally, these are tough times to be a social democrat. As the Economist has noted, in the early-2000s, you could drive from Scotland to Lithuania without crossing a country governed by the right. Since then, social democratic parties have had their worst-ever results in Finland, Poland and Spain. The cumulative social democratic vote share in Western Europe has fallen by one-third, to its lowest in 70 years.[ii]

Across the Atlantic, social democrats are doing better. Last time I checked the prediction markets, Hillary Clinton was about a 3 in 4 chance to succeed Barack Obama. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remains popular, and recently convened a Global Progress conference, attended by Labor leader Bill Shorten, as well as senior social democrats from Britain, Italy, Germany and South America.

Yet even where the left is winning elections, there is reason for concern. Amidst secular stagnation, fear of terrorism, and a hate-filled politics; a message of inclusion, egalitarianism and multiculturalism doesn’t always resonate. In that environment, what is the best approach for the left? In Australia, what is the correct approach for the left’s party of government, the Australian Labor Party?

Some will argue, reasonably enough, that progressives need to defend the status quo, and aim to make things a little bit better. For example, we need to fight against cuts to penalty rates, against unfair tax changes, and against cuts to renewables funding. Then we need to improve the indexation rates for programs we care about, and commission studies on what to do next.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Indeed, there’s a bit of me that’s temperamentally technocratic – desiring to defend good reforms, and tweak our way to a better world.

But it’s not a whole program. It’s not ambitious enough. And it’s not the Labor way.

Labor’s story has always had a touch of élan, a bit of vision, a sense of excitement. Ours has always been the party of ambition.

To be a party of ambition means not putting a ceiling over the aspirations of any child. It means believing that a girl from Aurukun can become a High Court Justice; that a boy who is born blind can be a CEO; that a smart kid whose parents didn’t attend university has as much of a right to a place as someone whose grandparents were graduates. Sure, you have to work hard to achieve any of these things; but if egalitarianism means anything, it must surely mean that we set the same aspirations for children regardless of their gender, skin colour or postcode. A disadvantaged child doesn’t merely deserve an education that gives them the basics of literacy and numeracy. We should aspire to pique their curiosity, enliven their sense of wonder at the world, encourage them to want to keep learning and learning and learning.[iii] As it happens, that’s not a fresh idea – it’s the way Labor’s old ‘workingmen’s clubs’ operated: institutions where someone too poor to afford a book could nonetheless come in and access the world’s knowledge. Curtin once said he would have given anything in the world to have Menzies’ education. As a society, we should do everything we can to give today’s John Curtins – today’s children of modest means – an education that doesn’t merely fill a pail, but an education that lights a fire.

In world affairs, a party of ambition does not judge trade deals by whether they produce a handshakes and media opportunities; but whether they raise living standards. My Labor predecessor as Member for Fraser, Bob McMullan, signed the last world trade deal in 1994 on Australia’s behalf. Today, an ambitious globalisation agenda asks: ‘how do we get as many nations as possible to cooperate to reduce barriers to goods, services and investment passing across national borders?’. The General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs was designed for a world with 76 countries, most of whom stayed out of trade talks. Its successor, the World Trade Organisation, must strike consensus among nearly 200 engaged nations. How can we reform it to make multilateral trade liberalisation a reality again?

Likewise, an ambitious agenda involves playing a leadership role in climate change - the challenge that Nicholas Stern once called ‘the greatest market failure the world has seen’. Those who used the recent South Australian blackout as an excuse to promote their anti-renewables agenda weren’t just disingenuous; they are distracting us from necessary action. The time has come to set aside childish things. Last year was the hottest year on record. This year will probably be hotter still. As the developed nation with the highest per-capita emissions, we need to set targets that at least match the rest of the world, and we must be in the centre of global conversations about how to reduce world emissions.

On asylum seekers, we don’t just need to organise third-country resettlement for those languishing on Manus and Nauru; we also need to be part of the global conversation about resettling the sixty million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. As with climate change, this is a problem best solved by nations working together. I don’t mean boasting at United Nations conferences, but finding genuinely fresh solutions in the mould of the middle-power diplomacy that saw Australia lead on nuclear weapons, the Cambodian peace talks and the APEC leaders’ meetings.

On schools, we need to improve performance. As I’ve noted, test scores don’t capture everything we care about in education, but they matter nonetheless. Some years ago, Melbourne University’s Chris Ryan and I showed that if you looked at the literacy and numeracy of 14-15 year olds, it had either flatlined or fallen slightly from the 1960s to the early-2000s.  Over the past decade or so, the international PISA exams show Australian 15 year-olds going backwards in maths, reading and science. NAPLAN scores since 2008 show little evidence of improvement. Although there’s disagreement over how to turn this around, many experts point to teacher effectiveness, and the fact that the academic aptitude of new teachers is lower today than in previous decades. In a world where technology matters more than ever before, it isn’t enough to increase the quantity of education Australians receive; we need to raise the quality of education too. The impact of increasing school performance on growth and equity would exceed just about any other economic reform.

In the community sector, the widespread collapse of mass membership organisations can be seen in bodies as diverse as Rotary, Lions, Scouts, Guides and Apex. Compared with a few decades ago, we are less likely to go to church and less likely to join a union. Over recent years, involvement in social groups and political groups has declined, sporting activity has waned, volunteering rates have fallen, and fewer people donate to charity. We are less likely to know our neighbours, and the average Australian has fewer friends. As a nation, we have become more disconnected. For those of us who believe that a life lived together is an inherently better life, this should be deeply worrying. An ambitious Labor agenda is not simply to smooth the pillow as community life slowly dies away, but to think creatively about how we can work together to spark a civic renaissance.

On inequality, the past generation has been good for the billionaires, but not so much for the battlers. Earnings have risen three times as fast for the top tenth as the bottom tenth. The top 1 percent income share has doubled. The wealthiest three Australians now have more wealth than the poorest one million Australians. Measured in terms of top incomes – the longest inequality series we have for Australia – inequality is as high as it has been in three-quarters of a century. Reducing inequality, while still creating the environment for innovation, is harder than Green Left Weekly would have you believe. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the unintended consequences of the 1993 US changes to executive salaries, or the French rules on firms that employ more than 50 people. There’s no-one more passionate about Australian egalitarianism than me, but a bold agenda to narrow the gap requires new approaches – like randomised policy trials – and uncomfortable conversations – such as considering the ways that parenting affects life chances.

And of course, we should become a Republic, recognise Indigenous Australians in our constitution and allow same-sex marriage. These things were ambitious… in the twentieth century. Today, they’re just unfinished business.

I’ve mentioned today just a few of the things that should be a priority in Labor’s seventh age. Every one of you will have their own priorities. Indeed, in the branch that was described in 1967 as being ‘as good as any in NSW in regard to matters discussed at meetings’, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.[iv]

My point today is less about which issues we pick than the breadth of our canvas. We need to think with the boldness of the best Labor governments, not allow the narrowness of our political opponents to define our response. In Manning Clark’s terms, Labor must remain the ‘enlargers’, not the ‘straiteners’, of Australian politics.

* * *

A truism of political life is that nothing is forever. Every political career ends. Every party eventually leaves office. This year marks not only the 50th anniversary of your branch’s annual dinner, but also 50 years since the last Prime Minister voluntarily left the top job. None of them want to leave, but leave they do, rarely to return (Tony, don’t let that stop you trying!).

So it is for each of us who have the honour to serve in parliament. Our careers will all eventually come to an end. As the Jewish saying goes, ‘It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.’

This means that the question every Labor member must ask ourselves is not: how can I make my political career last a little longer? But instead: how can I make an impact? Each of us must act with an eye to the epitaph, not the gold watch.

There’s nothing wrong with personal ambition in politics – the problem arises with those whose ambition for themselves exceeds their ambition for the nation. To be truly ambitious is to want as much for our nation as every parent wants for their beloved children.

Across the seven ages of Labor, some eras had a specific focus on a reform challenge. Industrial reform in the first age. Social reform in the fifth age. Economic reform in the sixth age.

Today, the challenge is different – to avoid timidity and small-target politics; to eschew verb-free speeches and focus groups. To pick the issues that will define our age, articulate the problem, and craft a solution.

Here, in the home of Kangaroo, at the 50th anniversary dinner of a branch whose history is so much a part of the Labor movement, we should dedicate ourselves to an ambitious Labor agenda. Ours is the oldest and greatest political party this nation has ever known, and there should be no limit to Labor’s reform ambition today.

* Thanks to Frank Bongiorno and Macgregor Duncan for valuable suggestions in the process of preparing this speech. All errors are mine.

[i] See Andrew Leigh, ‘The Politics of Love’, Speech delivered at Collins Street Baptist Church, Melbourne, 16 August 2016

[ii] ‘Rose thou art sick’, The Economist, 2 April 2016.

[iii] As Bill Shorten once put it, ‘Education is about discovery, friendship, excitement, fun, a sense of identity and cultural enrichment.’: Bill Shorten, 2016, For the Common Good: Reflections on Australia’s Future, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

[iv] Chris Lacey, 2013, Illawarra Agitators: A Centenary History of Thirroul Labor, Vivid Publishing, Sydney, p.184.



Showing 3 reactions

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  • Aidan M G Moore
    commented 2016-10-13 18:03:40 +1100
    “We need to think with the boldness of the best ^ governments, not allow the narrowness of our political opponents to define our response. In Manning Clark’s terms, Labor must remain the ‘enlargers’, not the ‘straiteners’, of Australian politics.”

  • Simon Leigh
    commented 2016-10-13 07:14:59 +1100
    An important speech, well argued. As always global warming is left out, because of the unspoken fear that any effective action would lower Australians’ standard of living. It would, but not necessarily their quality of life—and it has to be done.
  • Brian Masters
    commented 2016-10-12 18:44:58 +1100
    Good and sensible!

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.