Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Address to Alpine Labor branch

October 13, 2018


May I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we are gathered, and paying my respects to elders, past and present?

I'm so excited to have the opportunity to share this evening with you, and to be able to share some of my thoughts with you. Thanks  so much for the invitation, thanks for coming and - most importantly - thank you all for flying the flag for Labor in North-East Victoria. This really matters.

Whilst we are surrounded by Libs and Nats here, there's a strong Labor culture too. Building on earlier anti-authoritarian stirrings in the region! The area has nurtured some of our finest - our Premier, of course, and Jenny Macklin, are both from just down the road in Wangaratta.

And of course we are in a community that had the wisdom to reject Sophie Mirabella!

This evening I'm going to speak about Federal Labor's approach to education. I want to touch on key elements of our policy approach, and place these in context.

Our Challenge

Our goal isn't just to change the government, it's to change the country. And - I'll return to this - to instil a sense of hope that politics can make change.

So we need to be much more than a party of critique.

Right about now, this is hard. There is so much to critique!

The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has been a shambles, including on its own terms. They've doubled the deficit while imposing austerity. They've spent more time arguing amongst themselves than seeking to engage Australians with their plans.

But they are not the point. This has to be us, and our agenda for change.

I'm so proud that the team Bill Shorten leads has been bold when it comes to  policy.

We have set out a framework which we can build on to present a new social contract - the basis of a vision of what a good society might look like.

Of course, there's more to be done in this regard - and more to come in terms of policy announcements. You will have noted in this weekend's press Bill's emphasis on policy boldness - this has to be the case, if we are to make the changes Australia so desperately needs, to end the slide towards deeper inequality and to imagine a better and fairer future.

Where Education Fits In

The contrast between Labor and the Coalition at the moment I think is demonstrated most clearly when it comes to our respective approaches to education.

For our opponents, education policies are problems to be solved. Issues to be avoided. Remember the-Education Minister Christopher Pyne boastfully describing himself as the fixer? Not the enabler, nor the reformer. The fixer.

But for Labor, education is almost everything when it comes to our confident vision for Australia's future. Simply put, we believe in Australians.

That's why I was so excited at having been given the great opportunity to work in Tanya Plibersek's education team. To have the chance to play a role in building a bold agenda, through which we ensure that everyone's talents are realised, and every Australian gets the benefit of a world-class education.

This is both a moral imperative, when it comes to our responsibility to even out the lottery of life, and the core of economic policies to secure growth that is inclusive.

Two things of little concern to our opponents.

The Tory approach in schools speaks to this. So they presented as part of a unity ticket on needs-based schools funding before the 2013 election, before presiding over swingeing cuts to schools afterwards.

Then, with great fanfare, Minister Birmingham announced that he has ended the decades-long school funding conflict. By ramming through in the dead of night legislation to bake in deep cuts, overwhelming impacting unlucky schools such that many state schools would never get to the fair funding standard the Gonski panel recommended. All this, while also offending Catholics schools.

Of course, this didn't end the conflict. Hence the desperation the Liberals have shown this year in seeking to fix the political problem of their own making with respect to the Catholic school community. And they've done so by, it seems, abandoning any sense of policy rigour in search of a not-so-cheap fix.

On the other hand, I want to briefly touch on two recent Labor announcements.

A couple of weeks ago Amanda Rishworth massively expanded early learning in Australia, with a Shorten Labor government not only securing funding for 4 year old preschool, but opening this up for all our 3 year olds too.

This is a genuine transformative proposal. In social policy terms, it's up there with Medicare and the NDIS. This will change thousands of lives, for the better.

I don't generally like speaking about my family, as a politician or in relation to my responsibilities in the schools portfolio.

But I've seen first-hand the benefits of three year old as well as four year old kindergarten for both of my kids. They are extraordinary. A head-start in school, and in life, that should be for the many, not the few - for all of our kids.

And this week I was so proud to join Bill and Tanya in announcing a $15 billion investment in our public schools. We'd welcoming the government's belated recognition it had cut funds from non-government schools but remained confused, and aghast at to the Conservatives' steadfast refusal to support the sector in which 2.5 million kids are educated. What a contrast to their $1.2 million so-called 'choice and accountability' fund.

So again Labor has led from opposition.

Reversing damaging cuts, 85% of which impacted public schools.

Securing a pathway to the fair funding standard the original Gonski panel recommended for all our kids, in all states and territories, in all schooling sectors.

Giving every Australian child every chance of fulfilling their potential in school.

This is the path to resolving conflict over schools funding, this is the choice - anchored in hard  decisions over revenue - we make for a fairer future.

I want to go on to briefly mention two aspects of the schools challenge that are of particular concern to me.

Firstly, over the past two years, I've had the privilege to work on Labor's response to students with disability. Getting national government support right for students with disability was a task left unfinished when Labor left office in 2013, and which hasn't been resolved since.

I've been to every state and territory, developing an understanding of the approaches that work and, all too often, those that haven't been working. I've been listening to academics, advocates, teachers, parents and students and trying to do justice to their ideas and experiences.

This is a huge challenge, but one we are up for.

We are determined to put in place all the measures, including funding, to deliver more inclusive education and to enable students with disability to get the individual and appropriate support they are entitled to. Part of this is recognising that there is work to be done to develop the skills and understanding of principals, teachers and teacher aides. A bigger part is making sure that the voices of students are heard!

I hope that you'll soon be hearing more about Labor's plans.

Secondly, sitting as I am in Myrtleford, some three and a half hours drive from Melbourne's CBD, it would be remiss of me not to mention the question of regional schools' performance. Whilst there has been plenty of attention to Australia's relative positioning in international rankings such as PISA, I'm equally concerned by the large and increasing gaps within Australia - including between city and country.

The sum total of the government's response has been to commission a review, undertaken by Professor Halsey of Flinders University. And then to agree to its recommendations. But very little action has followed.

This just isn't good enough.

This is a special indictment on the National Party. The Nats are oblivious to the educational needs of country kids, and seem content to let outcomes slide - with this, opportunities too. Really, what's the point of them?

Of course our vision for reform and building for the future doesn't end with schools. Doug Cameron has led the way, making the case for rebuilding TAFE and putting in place a skills system that's fit for purpose - this is particularly important in regional communities. And Tanya actually understands our universities, and believes that we must open up the prospect of tertiary education to more students, especially first in family, rather than the present approach of ignoring this vital area of our society and economy.

To Get The Policies Right, We Must Also Change Our Politics

I think, under Bill's leadership, that we are winning the battle of ideas in Australia. I know that Wayne Swan, our national president-elect, set out a slightly different view in a speech the other day.

These seemingly contradictory positions can be reconciled, however.

Whilst we have persuaded Australians that our present drift to inequality is not only had in itself, it's hurting our wider economic prospects, there's more to be done.

The forces of reaction, as Wayne has warned, are strong and well-resourced. To turn this social democratic moment we have been presented with into a social democratic future we need to get better at explaining our policies and, fundamentally, our project.

We need to spend time not just on developing good policies but lifting our gaze to the high ground - to the world we'd like to live in. And on encouraging more Australians, from all the corners of our country, to join with us in fighting for this vision.

The Labor Party Matters

Often it's been said that we can't afford the luxury of talking about ourselves. I disagree.

How our Party works matters.

I'm very conscious, here, far from Labor's electoral heartland,  we need to do more to value you. To work harder to keep you connected, and to benefit from your connection to community.

A lot has been written and said lately about the fracturing of our politics. I share the view that a major factor in this for the centre-left, in Australia as well as elsewhere in the developed world, has been the decline of parties as movements of people. Movements which unite people of different backgrounds, occupations and perspectives but who share values and goals.

As inequality accelerates, our society fragments. People's experiences of lives lived differently from their own become more remote.

It's for this reason that I've been interested in and excited by what's been happening in UK Labour. Reaching a million members is a pretty extraordinary achievement. It warrants close consideration.

This is not to say we adopt their approach as a template - but we should look at how they have growth, and what this growth means. Are they today more deeply connected to community, does the larger membership represent a counterweight to the otherwise prevailing cynicism about politics and its possibilities?

As we ponder these questions, there are some things which we should simply get on with doing. Like better supporting those members we have. Providing them, wherever they live, with more information and more support. Enabling a more effective sharing of ideas - just like we've been doing today.

I've learnt so much in Myrtleford, from you.

I'll try to do justice to it - and to see justice done so that your contribution to our cause is better recognised and more effectively utilised.

Thank you so much for having me - I hope you'll have me back.