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As we emerge from the pandemic, we have a rare opportunity within our reach. Not to just go back to how things were, but to make things better. Not to rewind, but to recover, reset and renew.
We know we have what it takes. Even as the pandemic pushed us apart physically, our sense of all being in it together only grew stronger.
When we finally come out of this crisis, we must not leave that sense of togetherness at the exit.There are hopeful signs the sentiment is spreading. That unions and business thrive when they work together because, ultimately, their goals are the same.
While some have needed a pandemic to jolt them into pondering the future, Labor was already thinking ahead.
Last year, I began delivering a series of Vision Statements, the first of which was at an event hosted by CEDA. We were all in the room together that time, which seems so foreign now. And corona was just a beer, not a virus. Yet even then, we knew it wasn’t business as usual. Bushfires had been burning since winter.
As the smoke spread across our continent, then across the globe, it was just one more sign that the world was changing, and that the one thing we couldn’t afford to do was to stand still.
Before the importance of flattening the curve took over, we were talking about the need to stay ahead of the curve. Now, just as we have flattened the pandemic curve, we find the other curve is still there. We cannot afford to falter.
One of the central themes of my Vision Statements has been that wherever there are challenges, there are opportunities — as long as we plan for them.
That first Vision Statement was on Jobs and the Future of Work.
In it I outlined a future that builds on our potential as a clean energy superpower, which would deliver the trifecta of more jobs, lower emissions and lower energy prices.
A future that leverages our expertise, quality and skills to provide services in tourism, education, infrastructure, urban management and human care.
But also a future that demands productivity renewal.
Productivity is the key that unlocks to faster economic growth, greater international competitiveness and higher living standards. The productivity debate, however, has to be much more than a one-dimensional focus on industrial relations and work practices.
Instead I want to focus our productivity debate on managing the next wave of challenges.
These challenges confronted us before the coronavirus and will continue to test us long after the pandemic crisis has passed.
Our post coronavirus actions must confront the weaknesses in our pre-coronavirus world. And here, productivity stands out.
Our productivity renewal project will lift business investment, lift investment in people and lift investment in critical infrastructure. Our goal will be to drive growth through productivity and to drive fairness through growth.
We will look to regional communities and jobs, to benefit not only those communities but to take pressure off the capital cities — not so much decentralisation as regionalisation.
I want to see business confidence restored and investment renewed. I want to see clean, cheap energy – and policy confusion replaced with certainty.
I want to see a tax system that gives businesses incentives to invest in themselves — both in their equipment and in their workers.
And I want to see a skills and education system that takes on the skills shortages that are placing a handbrake on productivity growth.
Let there be no dispute. We have a responsibility to repair our ailing vocational education and training system.
Our VET system is being severely run down and mismanaged by the Morrison government – with $3 billion in funding cuts and 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees to show for it. We need a VET system that not only trains people for current needs, but that provides workers with transferable skills, and the capacity to upgrade them.
This is of such importance I announced Labor’s plans for Jobs and Skills Australia, a body that will be a genuine partnership across all sectors. And one that is designed for the times – collaborative, networked and responsive.
Our reform agenda will also be complemented by sound fiscal policy.
This government has thrown out its own rhetoric – the rhetoric it used to attack Labor for our response to the Global Financial Crisis. But two wrongs don’t make a right.
In contrast, from the onset of the current crisis, Labor has acted responsibility.
Yes, we scrutinised the Government’s actions and put forward constructive ideas - but even when those ideas were rejected, we acted in the national interest and voted for all of the Government’s emergency fiscal measures.
But that doesn’t mean the Government should be given a pass for its waste and mismanagement such as Robodebt and some workers getting more money under JobKeeper than they were before the pandemic while other workers are missing out altogether.
Nor does it mean that the Government is not accountable for the huge increase in debt that must be paid back in the future. I have always said that our approach to economic policy will have a soft heart and a hard head. And that is the only way we can go forward.
Social mobility is born of opportunity. Opportunity needs a strong economy. A strong economy needs growth in productivity.
And growth in productivity needs intelligent budgets and a progressive tax system that incentivises investment in capital and people.
The Labor Party was founded at a time when your destiny was anchored to your class. And our historic mission has been to sever that anchor chain.
No one held back and no one left behind.
In that spirit, another of my Vision Statements was about older Australians. If anything, the pandemic has further sharpened our focus on them. Not least when you consider those voices in the media who spoke of older Australians as though they were dispensable. I couldn’t disagree more. After long lives of contribution, older Australians deserve a fulfilling and secure retirement.
That is why we should all be concerned by the Government-facilitated raid on superannuation during the pandemic — a time bomb in the making.
A future Labor government will move quickly to develop and implement a Positive Ageing Strategy.
It will outline a plan to help Australians in their final years of paid work, to build the nest egg that will let them retire when and how they want. A plan that makes sure that when Australians do retire, they have access to quality healthcare.That gives all older Australians a roof over their head. That lets them access quality aged care when the need arises. And that those who want or need to stay in the workforce longer can upgrade their skills — and not just for their own sake.
According to Deloitte Access Economics, a three per cent increase in workforce participation by Australians aged over 55 would generate a $33 billion boost to the economy each year.
I have also spoken about our need to have a grown-up, democratic conversation about the best way forward for the country. To succeed, broad interests, concerns and ideas must be heard. We must examine things as they are, rather than as we want them to be.
Expert knowledge, critical to our ability to get the future right, must be treated with respect.
I want to rebuild our capacity to have constructive national conversations about the big issues. It’s a capacity that has been corroded by culture wars — but it is not beyond repair. The starting point in strengthening the health of our democracy is inclusion.
We must be respectful, open and accountable.
And we must create a First Nations voice to parliament, consistent with the historic Uluru Statement from the Heart. Without that voice, we will never be truly democratic.
Of course, one of the biggest issues we need to be having a grown-up conversation about is climate change.
The long, brutal fire season we endured is something we hope to never go through again—although hope will have little to do with it. Only preparation can help avert further tragedy. Those who most loudly question the cost of action are oddly incurious about the greater cost of inaction.
But last year, the CSIRO found that net zero emissions by 2050 would result in higher wages, higher growth and lower energy costs.
That’s why I announced a Labor government would adopt the carbon neutral target of zero net emissions by the year 2050 – a commitment now made by every Australian State and Territory as well as many of our nation’s largest companies.
This should be as non-controversial in Australia as it is in most nations — and as it is with so much of business.
If there is a good thing that’s come out of the pandemic, it’s the sharp reminder of the value of listening to and respecting experts. I hope it’s a lesson that stays in our collective minds when it comes to climate change.
Dealing with that is just one of our tasks as we look ahead to Australia after the pandemic.
If this terrible episode is to have an upside, it will be us recapturing the qualities that, for so long, made our country the envy of the world. We need to point the country towards growth, because only inclusive economic growth can raise our living standards.
We cannot keep putting the greatest burden on the narrowest shoulders. We owe Australians the vision and courage to imagine and create a better future. A future underpinned by the togetherness that got us through the coronavirus.
So let’s not snap back to where we were before.
We have a chance to chart a way towards a strong economy that works for people. To build a path towards a fair society. Then one day we can look back with pride at how it was together that we saw off this crisis, and emerged from it stronger.
And that when it was all over, we stayed together.