The Enduring Importance of the Labor Movement

Below is an edited extract of the speech given on 19 February 2013 by Bill Shorten MP, Member for Maribyrnong, Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to the 2013 Australian Workers’ Union National Conference on the Gold Coast, Queensland.

- By Bill Shorten, MP for Maribyrnong

What I know is a story which never gets written. But it deserves to be. And that is the quiet, noble, story about how every day and every night all of you in the union do the work that some Victorian branch organisers had to do recently in the hours and days after the tragic loss of two fire-fighters. It’s about visiting the families, trying to help fill a hole which can never be filled. Making sure that the workmates are supported. Helping investigate how such things can be avoided in the future. Every day you do this difficult, this stressful, this emotional task of standing up for other people.

It isn’t work that sells the newspapers, but I tell you what, it’s the work which makes me proud to be an AWU member. That’s what you do every day; that’s why I’m here to pay you respect, because you stand up for people. I am very proud to carry each day in the Parliament of Australia my union membership card. You give me immense pride. I am what I am because of you. There would not be a day goes by where I don’t apply my union organising experiences. Be it issues to do with people disability, be it superannuation, be it employment or work safety.

I am, and indeed the Labor Party is, what it is when we are at our best. When we remember where we come from and remember what get us up in the morning and drives us each day until we finish work every evening. It’s the labour movement’s values which make the Labor Party the pre-eminent political force in Australia. I know and believe that what union delegates, members and officials do every day is seek cooperation in the workplace. They seek to dismiss, eschew and reject disharmony and conflict. All our members want is to be paid fairly, to be paid reasonably so they can get ahead. So they can pay their housing mortgages, so they can educate their kids, so they can have a holiday, so they can retire on something approaching a reasonable form of dignity.

think it is logical, reasonable and sensible that Australian workers in combination with Australian employers create the national wealth of this country. And it is entirely appropriate that unions would seek the fair distribution of national income, being the fruits of the work of Australian workers. Let me report to you about who else is standing up for working people.

Friends, the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan. They are standing up in tough times. You know, there have now been something like 470 pieces of legislation passed in this Parliament since September 2010. And we’ve passed this legislation – when it’s a vote – by one or two votes. Now, if your favourite football team was winning every game by one goal or two goals, that would inject of level of stress into the supporters. But when it’s 470-nil, the scoreboard’s on our side. And whilst we shall never own the forms of communication in this country, no one can take away from us our ability to tell the stories and tell the facts. In no particular order of priority, this is what we have been doing: better road safety for the long distance truck drivers, outworkers getting treated properly, lifting superannuation from 9 to 12 per cent – what a shame that Robert Menzies never did it.

The national disability insurance scheme, a steel plan, an aluminium plan, stronger anti-dumping laws. Equal pay for women working in the community services sector, a plan to remove asbestos in buildings in the next 20 years. And oh yes, there are the tax cuts. If you earn $50,000 a year, you’re paying $1500 dollars less. You’re paying thousands of dollars less in tax because of a Labor Government. What about paid parental leave? Or how the Fair Entitlements Guarantee cannot be just taken away by a Coalition Government if they got elected because it’s enshrined in law now? These changes are not too shabby. If, at Easter, you’re catching up with the in-laws, one of whom may be a rogue and scallywag and perhaps voting Liberal – well given them that list.

Do you know when Labor came into power we were the 17th largest economy in the world? We’re now the 12th. Unemployment at 5.4 per cent is difficult for those without a job, but it compares very well to most of the industrialised world. Interest rates: as they say at Coles – down, down, down. And if you take the size of our economy based on our population, we’re fifth in the world. When people say that Australia’s not going so well, why is it that the rest of the world wants to come and live here? Our population’s growing faster than the average of the world, because the secret is out friends: this is a great country and people want to be part of it. You look at our superannuation savings, larger than our economy. That was something which the Liberals opposed whenever they could get a chance to get out from under the policy doona. Look at things since the global financial crisis, our economy’s grown 13 per cent since then. Most of the rest of the industrialised world would just love that set of numbers.

And perhaps most importantly – while we have been in charge there have been an extra 850,000 jobs created. That is the real test of a Labor Government. So both on the industrial front and on the economic front, there is ample reason for us to hold our head up. And if that isn’t sufficient reason, let me remind you of what the alternative is. We need to make it clear for the Australian people – and to the media – that politics should never be a game where the Liberals hide their policies and we seek them. Hide and seek is not acceptable. It is not good enough that the only things they have announced in workplace relations is union baiting and union bigotry. It is not enough for them to smear everyone in the union movement with the actions of a few and say, therefore, all unions are the same. Did you know that since 2003, there have been thousands of prosecutions of companies under the Corporations Act? Did you know that hundreds of directors and senior managers have been jailed? I never see a speech in Parliament from the Coalition about the evils of business. But dare I ever say that I’m pro-union, they all come out from under their rocks and blame the union movement for everything.

We need to fight back. We need to make it clear, as only unions and Labor can, that we stand not on the side of the top 1 per cent of Australian society, but the rest. And it is not good enough for the opposition to think that they can get into power by hiding their policies. That is an insult to Australian people. This is why I have boundless confidence in Labor. Because I believe, like you believe, that standing up for working people is an action which never goes out of fashion.