Maxine McKew’s speech at More Than Luck launch

Maxine McKew joined John Hewson, CPD founder John Menadue and CPD’s Director Miriam Lyons on 26November to help launch our first book, More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now. Here are Maxine’s reflections on the night and how she sees More Than Luck can point the way out of the current political quagmire:

Good evening everyone. As you can see I’ve been let out of rehab tonight – but my counsellors were encouraging. Go off to Newtown they said.  After all, how much worse can you it make you feel to help launch a book whose opening line is “What use is Politics?”

Why not spend an hour or so in a room where people are dripping with disappointment at the end of what has been a dog of a year for Labor? And of all places in a bookshop where I have to confront John Howard. Three years after I beat him in Bennelong – he’s back.

His entire thirty four years in politics is now recorded in a book as heavy as the Macquarie Dictionary.  My only consolation is to see that “Lazarus Rising” is nearly always placed well behind the memoirs of Ron Barassi.

A wiser, more elegant writer than either of the above, George Meredith said – we are betrayed by what is false within.

Right now the Labor movement is witnessing a familiar ritual. We are cannibalising our own. Too much talking – too much tweeting. Not enough thinking.

On the other side, the man who would be king is already telling his court to cancel Christmas and to continue the miserable fear mongering right through the summer. One of Mr Abbott’s minions was quoted this week as saying – “we’re putting together a media strategy and want to ensure coverage across all portfolios. We are working on sending them some special presents.” Oh goodie!

It can be different, and of course, back in 2007, so many of us thought it would be. I said in my first speech in the Parliament that what we needed was a new imagining, a revived sense of what’s possible. The possibilities still exist.

In essay after essay in CPD’s latest publication ‘More Than Luck’ there are good ideas and policy positions that point the way out of the present quagmire. It’s hardly a revolutionary document. In fact many contributors point to the solid work that is already underway by the Labor government in many important areas.

Peter Newman’s chapter on Sustainable Cities acknowledges that the changed structures needed to transform our cities are coming into place and urges a continuing role for the federal government.

One of the most important chapters covers education and is titled –   ‘How to end social apartheid in our schools.’ Chris Bonner is entirely correct to characterize our education system this way. I’ve had teachers in public schools in Bennelong say to me (and these are competitive schools) that they now feel they are presiding over a residual system.

Chris Bonner points to the high calibre of those now charged with an examination of the review of funding for schooling – individuals such as David Gonski, Katherine Greiner, Carmen Lawrence and Ken Boston.

I agree with Chris when he says that public funding should favour those schools that remain open to all comers. To that I would add that the revolution in education we need is in how we provide for children with special needs, particularly those with severe disabilities.

There are also the chapters that will lead many of us to say why not?

Among them, Larissa Behrendt’s contribution on indigenous policy and Kate Gauthier’s on asylum seekers.

With regard to the latter, I think there is merit in what Kate suggests – to take pressure off the asylum bottleneck in South East Asia, we could, with little disruption to the system, allocate extra places over and above the annual 13,000 intake in the offshore refugee and humanitarian programme.

Of course to achieve this, we have to decide, once and for all, what we really think about “those who come across the seas.”

Do we think the Afghani teenager who gets himself onto a boat is a security threat or a future Frank Lowy?

Of course if a good many of us are already paranoid about ‘where we will all fit” then the question is likely to go unanswered.

To my mind the “let’s shrink Australia’ crowd is suffering from an imagination deficit. They cannot or will not see that adding to the gene pool in well-designed cities can be our salvation. If we get over our hang up about density, and start thinking and investing in innovative sustainable urban design, and in integrated public transport solutions, then the future starts to take on a whole different aspect. It’s all there in Peter Newman’s chapter, and while you’re reading it, keep in mind that it was Anthony Albanese who appointed him to the board of Infrastructure Australia, the first national body to take integrated evidence based approach to our planning. It’s one of many achievements of the past three years.

Amid all the post election soul-searching about what Labor stands for consider this: in the past three years, the Labor government raised pension rates, introduced the country’s first universal paid parental leave scheme, and revived investment in social housing all across the country.

We put a premium on employment and training and have come through the GFC with a 5% unemployment rate. We transformed the industrial relations laws.

We did more on health and education reform in two years than the previous government achieved in four terms. We re-engineered the childcare market and introduced the first national quality framework with an agreed priority on adequate ratios and trained professionals.

And importantly, we looked into our souls and offered a historic apology to indigenous Australians.

That is a solid Labor list. And look at what’s ahead.

Here we are, ten years into a new century, and we’ve come through the GFC better than anyone else. We have strong institutions. Employment and participation are rising. We have, we’re told, another ten-year resource boom in front of us. We are in the right part of the world given the rise of India and China. We’re also a member of the G20.

This is a good Australian story.

So what explains how sullen we seem to be? Why did we show such ambivalence at the ballot box only three months ago?

Sydney was particularly toxic for Labor. I lost with a four and half per cent swing against me in Bennelong, but the swings were double that and more in many other safer labor seats.

I’ll give you a Bennelong perspective.

In 2007 voters in suburbs like Denistone and Epping and Eastwood were entirely unsentimental about getting rid of a sitting Prime Minister. They voted for change, because we asked them to focus on the future, principally on how we invested the bounty. Bennelong voters believed in 2007 that we had the wit and the collective wisdom to do this.

Three years later many of those same voters abandoned Labor because they could see we lacked two things – courage and creativity. Voters actually reward gutsy behaviour. Our credibility crashed when we walked away from the CPRS. Not because everyone was wedded to it. They weren’t. The Green vote in Bennelong is not what it is in the inner city.

But the immediate feed-back I got from mainstream voters was along these lines  – if you’re prepared to be so cavalier about something that you said was so important to the survival of the planet, and the future sustainability of Australia, then what else are you prepared to ditch?

Labor lost because there was too great a gap between promise and delivery. We also lost because we were control freaks – and ironically, in the end we lost control of almost everything. Had we had a bit more faith in our individual and collective capacity to transform the debate, we might not have been left clinging to office.

We were a government obsessed with messages, with talking points and power points. It’s unsurprising then that what we served up was the political equivalent of doggerel, when what might have worked was a bit of poetry. Not a perfectly composed 14 line sonnet, but a thoughtful stanza or two that encapsulated what we were about was certainly worth a try.

To get that right you have to have clarity about who you are, what you believe in, what you’ll fight for. It doesn’t require a major re-invention – but it does require an updated version of what Whitlam and Hawke and Keating did – to give modern purpose and relevance to the Labor tradition of fairness and opportunity for all.

The way to get votes back in Bennelong and Macquarie – and in Lindsay and Banks and elsewhere – is to get back to the main story. The main story is about managing the prosperity for everyone. For that to happen, Labor needs to prosecute the case around the fundamentals:

  • The need to facilitate a modern Australian economy, the seamless national economy that was the primary goal of the 2020 summit.
  • The need to further internationalise our economy
  • The need to remain open to migration
  • The need to price water and carbon and promote innovation and sustainability in our major cities and regions.

That’s a dry list of dot points, but this is the way to think about it.

That Afghani teenager I mentioned is real. I met him at Marsden High School in Ermington about ten days before the last election. He’s seen more death and destruction than we’ll ever know. But there was a fire in this young man. He knows that the biggest break in his young life was the day he secured his visa after four months on Christmas Island. He’s got the most important ingredient for success – hunger.

He’s got years ahead of him – but if over this next period in Australia’s history – we have the kind of leadership and policy direction that can harness the tools of capitalism to ensure a more sustainable growth pattern, then my young Afghani friend will be able to secure his place in a prosperous 21st century Australia.

He’ll help shape it – he may be our next Glen Murcutt, or Burley Griffin or Gus Nossal and help transform our cities or our science.

I believe it’s the Labor party that should be nurturing these kinds of ambitions. Labor  – the party of reform and progress – needs to hold its nerve and get on with the hard work of shaping the future.

Thank you.