JOHN COHEN ORATION

July 17, 2015


John Cohen Oration, St Margaret's Anglican Church, Eltham

Good evening everyone.

Thank you for inviting me to deliver the second John Cohen Oration.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are meeting tonight, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I want to acknowledge Shirley Cohen and daughter Roslyn who are both here with us tonight.

I acknowledge the other members of John’s family who send their apologies.

I want to thank you all for coming along to pay tribute to John.

As you all know, John spent his whole life working for a more just Australia. 

And he had a fundamental belief in the role of the Australian Labor Party in that mission.

Of course, that is also a view I share. 

Indeed many Australians look to Labor to make sure that we live in a fair, equitable and inclusive society.

They do not want to see vast inequalities in wealth or income, as is the case in many other countries.

They do not want to live in a country with high levels of poverty, unemployment or social isolation. 

They want to live in a country where they know that hard work is rewarded.

Where everyone can build a better life, for themselves and for their children.

I was reminded of this just last week, when I was traveling through central Queensland, and I visited Barcaldine, in many ways the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party.

It was there that nearly 125 years ago, a group of shearers went on strike for better pay and conditions.

For the right to have a decent life.

It was a privilege to sit with today’s members of the Barcaldine Branch, at the local pub, the Shakespeare, commonly known as the Shakie, to watch Queensland win the State of Origin and to talk about the critical role Labor plays in ensuring every Australian has a decent life.

Although I’m a Melbournian now, I began my life in Queensland. My grandmother was born not far from the site of the 1891 strikes.

John Cohen too started a long way from Melbourne. After being thrown out of school at 14 by the Nazis, John came to Australia as a refugee in 1938 joining the Labor Party in Perth in 1940.

They were uncertain times. And so it is again.

The world has just experienced one of the greatest economic crises of our time.

As the global economy adjusts to a new post-Global Financial Crisis reality and economic power shifts to Asia, so too is our domestic economy transforming.

The mining boom is winding down and long-established manufacturing industries are closing their doors.

People’s jobs are changing – and some are disappearing - as new technologies drive the establishment of new industries and the creation of jobs that have never existed before.

And our society is changing at the same time.

We are getting older.

Women are in the workforce more than they have ever been before, fundamentally changing the nature not just of our workplaces, but also our families.

The rise of casualisation and insecure work has left many fearing that their jobs no longer provide the security they need, for themselves and for their families.

Our economy, our jobs, our families are all radically different today from even ten years ago.

And they will be radically different again in another ten years.

And people are asking – rightly – what is Labor’s plan as we navigate these uncertain times?

Of course, it is fashionable in some circles to criticise the modern Labor Party as standing for nothing.

Of having no real purpose.  

Well I want to assure you that could not be more wrong.

I believe we have a critical role to play as our nation undertakes this transition.

And arguably Labor’s role is more important precisely because we are in a period of such dramatic change.

Labor has navigated Australian society through every significant economic transformation for a hundred years.

And we have done so by holding true to one fundamental belief: a decent job is the best way to a decent life.

That is why we are the Labor Party.

It's in our name, and it's in our DNA.

And that belief has helped us navigate many social and economic transformations.

In 1891, in Barcaldine, the biggest issue was wages and conditions for shearers.

When John Cohen came to Australia, another big transformation was taking place, as the established social and economic order lay in disarray after the Great Depression.

Not long after John came to Australia, a British economist William Beveridge published Full Employment in a Free Society.

Along with his earlier Social Insurance and Allied Services, this would become the blueprint for the post-war society in the UK.

At the heart of these seminal texts was the fundamental belief that employment is the key to prosperity, for individuals, and for society.

Beveridge believed that the measure of society was employment.

He also believed that individual employers are not capable of creating full employment.

Full employment is the responsibility of government.

In Australia at this time, Chifley’s radical post-war agenda was directed towards better conditions in the workplace, full employment, and an improvement in the “equalisation of wealth, income and opportunity”.

Throughout the period from 1945 to 1975, GDP per capita rose steadily in Australia.

Increases in income occurred relatively uniformly across society.

And unemployment was almost non-existent.

This was a time of inclusive growth.

1975-2008

Beginning in the 1970s however, the global economic and political dominance of the post-war consensus gave way to new economic principles.

Internationally, organisations like the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation implemented reform agendas based around free trade, small government and economic deregulation.

During this transformation, the primary objective of full employment was replaced with a policy focus on balanced budgets, low inflation, stable currency, central bank independence, privatisation and a drive towards labour market deregulation and tackling welfare dependence.

Employment was no longer the focus of social and economic policy.

In Australia, the removal of tariffs, the floating of the dollar, market deregulation, were integral to this change in economic policy.

This economic transformation was implemented by the steady hand of the Australian Labor Party, led by Hawke and Keating.

The reforms that took place in Australia during these years recognised the importance of markets.

But unlike in some other countries, they did not see markets as the source of all wellbeing.

Indeed, whilst the Hawke and Keating Governments are perhaps best remembered for their transformational economic policies, both of these governments recognised the importance of social policies designed to help people get into work. 

And to support them if they fell out.   

Working Nation had, at its core, getting people into work.

The Social Wage made social investment a key component of our growth strategy, and protected workers when they fell on hard times.

This included the introduction of Medicare.

And massive increases in secondary school completion and participation in higher education to ensure people had the capabilities they needed to succeed.

THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS

The Global Financial Crisis has recently shown us that many of the foundations of our economic system are no longer fit for purpose.

And another transformation is underway.

I was very proud to have been a part of the Labor Government that navigated our nation through the crisis, relatively unscathed.

We did so because of a stimulus package designed to keep people in work.

And of course, we largely succeeded.

Unemployment in Australia following the GFC peaked at around 5.8%.

By contrast unemployment peaked at 9.6% in the United States.

Spain's unemployment followed a dramatic path, going from 8.3% in 2007 to an estimated 24.9% in 2012.

Labor’s stimulus package during the GFC actually increased the income of the poorest 10 per cent of households by 2 percent.

We shouldn’t for a second underestimate the significance of this achievement.

But whilst the worst of the crisis was not felt here, we are not immune from the need to reform.

We cannot escape the fact that the global model for growth that has dominated for thirty years is not fit for thirty more.

If we skirt this responsibility we will find ourselves in the circumstances of many countries around the world.

Lower wages.

Reduced living standards.

Slower growth.

The market economy that resulted in this crisis cannot continue as it was.

We need a new agenda to drive our future prosperity. 

And once again, I believe jobs should be our focus.

There is an emerging global consensus around a new agenda for inclusive growth which provides the beginnings of a new framework for achieving this. 

For the development of an integrated set of economic and social policies to drive our shared prosperity.

If I can summarize some of the key points:

  • Growth needs to be broad based and employment focused. Our focus should always be on jobs.

  • Jobs need to pay a decent wage and have proper conditions so that people can have a decent life – austerity and free-market industrial relations policies are a direct threat to this link.

  • Human capital should be understood as an investment, not a burden. 

  • Excess inequality harms social cohesion and economic growth.

  • Benefits do not trickle down. We must have policies to ensure everyone can share in our country’s prosperity.

  • So here we have the makings of an economic and social policy paradigm with employment at its core.

 

A potential new framework for Labor to adopt to guide our country through another transformation.

One which I believe is true to our history, our belief in the importance of work, our commitment to growth and also to fairness.

As many of you would know, I am leading a review into Labor’s social policies.

I want to have this finalised by the end of the year.

And at its core will be the social policies we need to drive an inclusive growth agenda.

This begins by ensuring a strong safety net as protection against the risks of modern life.

This means ensuring that no matter what challenges we face, whether it be sickness, disability, unemployment or divorce, Australians are not pushed into poverty.

That means a strong minimum wage.

A decent health system.

Disability Insurance. 

A fair pension system.

Social investment in human capital to prepare Australians for the jobs of the future.

Starting with early childhood development. A world class school system. Quality, affordable higher education and lifelong learning.

I want to build on these with a suite of social policies fit for modern, inclusive Australia.

Of course, that is not all we need. We also need economic policies to complement social policies.

Some of you may know that the Chifley Research Centre has launched a new Inclusive Prosperity Commission, to examine the economic policies we need to achieve Inclusive Growth.

Together, these processes will help ensure that Labor can once again steer our country through a transformation, and ensure we continue to live in a just society.

It is clear that this Government does not have the capacity to achieve these aims.

At the same time as Labor is thinking through these complex issues, those on the Right continue to argue in favour of “small government”, labour market deregulation and cuts to social policy.

They are stuck in a pre-GFC model of neo-liberal austerity.

They cling to a discredited idea that concentrated wealth will somehow trickle down.

They still do not understand the link between a decent job and a decent life.

That is why they cling to their failed Workchoices policies and their labour market deregulation agenda. 

That is what lay at the core of last year’s budget.

And just as they did with Howard following the introduction of WorkChoices, the Australian people reacted angrily to what they knew was a fundamental breach of the social contract that we have built in Australia over generations.

The current Government political ideology is still rooted in the failed cruelty of austerity economics.

We already know this approach will only widen the inequality gap and create exactly the kind of society we want to avoid.

We need a better way.

LOOKING FORWARD

In every generation, Labor is called on to steer this country through periods of social and economic change.

Whether it is shearers pay and conditions in Barcaldine in 1891.

Or the global restructure following World War II.

Or protecting the jobs of millions of Australians during the global financial crisis. 

Labor has always made sure that we manage these changes in a way that ensures our prosperity is shared.

That everyone can have a decent life.

Today, as we look to another transformation, that goal has not changed.

The solutions to the challenges that lie ahead will not be the same as they were in the past.

That’s why the policy work that we are undertaking is so important.

But if we approach this transformation as we have every one for generations.

With a clear aim and a set of policies to get us there.

We will succeed.

And we will contnue to ensure a fair, just and inclusive Australia for generations to come.

FRIDAY, 17 JULY 2015

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