John Curtin Research Centre Gala Dinner, Melbourne

John Curtin Research Centre Gala Dinner, Melbourne Main Image

03 April 2023

Thank you so much, Henry. That was quite a detailed introduction, as it turns out. And it's wonderful to be with you all tonight. I want to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people, the custodians of the land on the - and waterways around Melbourne. And can I say to Shireen Morris, who's here, that was a beautiful statement about the Voice to Parliament and I certainly dedicate myself tonight to standing with you and with Aboriginal leaders around our country.

Can I say to Nick Dyrenfurth, to Henry and to the team at John Curtin Research Centre how genuinely important your work is to the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. The John Curtin Research Centre is a highly respected, powerful driver of thinking in our caucus. We have a room tonight full of partners and friends of John Curtin Research Institute, I hope you know how much your support for this organisation is valued by us in the Labor caucus. Now, we have a few current and former Labor caucus MPs in this room and I do want to acknowledge them by name. We've got Cassandra Fernando over here. Give us a wave, Cass. My dear friend. Cass is the new member for Holt, she is one of the most multi-talented people I've ever met in my life. She is a pastry chef, a powerful union organiser, and also has a beautiful singing voice. And she's absolutely killing it at the moment.

We've got some former caucus colleagues here. I think the Honourable Stephen Conroy is with us. And we have over here and my friend Dr. Mike Kelly, both who are great friends of mine and still advisors in the work that I do. And Senator Sam Dastyari also, who is here with us tonight, so welcome to you.

We've got lots of amazing people from the state parliament here and I want to acknowledge three ministers who are with us. The Honourable Ben Carroll, the Honourable Natalie Hutchins and the Honourable Colin Brooks. Daniel Andrews is looking good for a fourth term, guys. So strap in, we can keep this one up. And that is in no small way due to ALP State Secretary Chris Ford, who's also here. He can't lose an election this guy. Where are you, Chris? We have with us tonight former New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma, and former ACTU Secretary and living Labor legend Bill Kelty. Bill, you're one of my heroes and it's great to be with you here tonight. Thanks for coming. And to you, my comrades, one and all.

The last time I addressed the John Curtin Research Centre was in October 2019. And if you can cast your mind back, it was somewhat more of a difficult time to be a Labor Party member. We had just suffered a very difficult federal election loss and the pathway back to government was foggy and it was difficult. I've been a Labor Party member now for 26 years, since the lowest I felt, and that was just three years ago. Today, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese leads a Federal Labor government which has every hallmark of a long term, visionary, reformist government that will change the course of our country's history.

And I look across the country - I look across the country, I see Labor governments east to west, north to south, wall to wall, across the mainland, and now a Labor Member for Aston after more than 30 years. This is an amazing moment for our party and for our movement. So what is going on here? Why this sudden change of electoral fortunes for Labor? There are some simple explanations here in the day to day of politics and personalities, but I think there are some deeper things going on, too. One is that Australians clearly want sensible people running their governments, people with the ability to deliver prosperity and quality education and health care for Australian families, while also tackling the climate crisis and walking forward with Indigenous Australians. But there is another current, too, running underneath all of this. Think about what our country has experienced in the last three years. We've been through a one in 100 year pandemic that has forced billions of people around the world into lockdown. 7 million people have died. We've faced the biggest economic shock that we've experienced since the Great Depression. We've had one of the worst bushfires in our country's history. We have a war in Europe. Russia has illegally, immorally and brutally invaded democratic Ukraine, exacerbating global problems from cybersecurity to energy security. Major power competition is in full swing. And the transformation that is occurring in our neighbourhood in the Indo-Pacific is so profound that historians will be writing about this moment in a century to come.

We are living through a time of extraordinary challenge and tension for Australians and for the world. And what the last 122 years of Australian history shows is that in times of difficulty, Australians turn to Labor. Australians have turned to Labor during depression, recession and war. And at no time in our history have Australians needed strong leadership like we did in 1941. And in that moment, the nation turned to John Curtin and to the great Australian Labor Party. So tonight I want to reflect on what we can learn from Curtin's history-defining period in government and how we too can be a Labor government in that tradition.

So let me start with the political environment that confronted Curtin when he came to office. Robert Menzies may have ended his political career as Australia's longest-serving Prime Minister. But his first Prime Ministership from April 1939 to August 1941 ended in what his biographer Allan Martin called "the most humiliating personal collapse in the history of federal politics." Menzies had spent the first five crucial months of 1941, when Australia was already at war absent from his own country. He was in London, where his defining achievement was to be repeatedly snubbed by Winston Churchill. Menzies had gone to London on a mission to place Australia's defence needs higher up in the minds of the British government and public. But instead, he spent most of the time that he was there complaining about Churchill and his war cabinet before returning home, having failed on this critical mission. And by the end of 1941, Menzies had the galling experience of losing first the confidence of his cabinet and then the confidence of his own party. Menzies' complacency to the threat posed by Nazi Germany was catastrophic. His support for the policies of appeasement of Japanese military aggression earned him the name Pig Iron Bob. Menzies did not just leave his party and his government in a fractious mess. He left our country manifestly unprepared for war.

So, in 1941, October, Australian politics was in an absolute mess. Australia was in the guts of the war, but fundamentally unprepared for what it knew it had to confront. And in that moment, Australians turned to John Curtin. Now, John Curtin was a very unlikely war hero. He was a man of peace, a committed democratic socialist since his youth, and a First World War anti-conscriptionist. But Curtin had the conviction and the qualities and the skills that suited the time and shone through in this moment that his country needed him. He was a brilliant leader. His love and care for Australians permeates almost all the stories that we have about him during this period. His government will always be known first for securing peace and security for Australians. But he saw, too, that the war could be fought in a way that set the country up for what lay beyond.

Winning the war was always the primary goal, but Curtin never lost sight of the ideals and values that had driven his long-term commitment to public service and to improving the lives of Australians. So, for Curtin, national security and social security went hand in hand. Long before the war ended, Curtin secured the most important change that we had had to our welfare state in decades, the introduction of new pensions and benefits, as well as the most important commitment to full employment after the war. He told the federal parliament in March 1943, to wage war effectually, there has to be a determination on the part of the people to pledge themselves to the cause, because the cause, when won, will have been worth the winning. The war and Curtin's leadership reshaped Australia's place in the world in the dark and frightening days for our country following Pearl Harbour, Curtin built a partnership with the United States, with General Douglas MacArthur, that would see both nations through to victory. That relationship did not make Curtin any less of a proud Australian. In fact, it showed how much he valued his nation's confidence and sense of self-reliance. What Curtin wanted was for his country to have choices.

Our allies had a lot to offer Australia, that was for sure. But to Curtin, Australia would not be anybody's servant. We were a sovereign, strong country that has much to give our allies in return. And Curtin understood too, that that sovereignty was not just about our defence industry, but about the whole of Australia's economy, its education system and its people. So while we were at war, Curtin remade the Australian economy. Australia, for the first time, became a manufacturing superpower. We became the food bowl of the Indo-Pacific. And we did that because John Curtin and his government used political and legislative powers that they gained during the war to make it happen. And when peace came, the changes that John Curtin led served as a foundation for a new Australia, one that could and would eventually throw off all lock tugging, culturally cringing Australia that Menzies so represented. Thanks to John Curtin, Australia would never again be mistaken for a British colony. We would stand on our own, tall, proud and strong.

In those darkest days of the war, Curtin's government secured greater control over the financial system and income tax as a necessary means of fighting the war. Curtin and his great friend and successor as Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, understood that the capabilities that they used to fight the war could and would be used to secure the peace. For what good is political power if you don't know what to do with it? Curtin and Chifley understood that the war was about transformation, not restoration. There would be no going back to the old Australia and they were not interested in chasing a snapback. And nor did they waste the opportunities that the hand of history had dealt with. The story of John Curtin and Ben Chifley during the 1940s is the story of how we built a stronger economy by building a broader foundation. They had a vision for Australia's prosperity that went well beyond the woolshed and the sheep's back. The story of Curtin and Chifley is the story of ordinary Australians. My grandparents and your grandparents, they had lived through the Depression, they had lived through war, and they had never even bothered to dream of being able to own their own home, buy a car and educate their children beyond primary school.

But these things were soon within reach of the ordinary Australian family because John Curtin and Ben Chifley put them within reach. And there is nothing, nothing more braver than that. They used levers like the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement, which was signed in 1945 and massively increased the supply of new homes for Australians. They used policies such as the development of new industrial capabilities which supported good, solid Australian jobs. The factories and the workers that were churning out armaments and weapons during the war were soon manufacturing building supplies and white goods and Holden cars. Curtin committed Australia to full employment and that was the goal more than anything else the government did that drove their vision of what Australia would be beyond the war. They delivered a ground breaking 1945 white paper that became the blueprint for what lay beyond the war.

And Curtin and Chifley's vision, too, extended to working women who entered our factories and armed forces in vast numbers. These women were told before that the jobs that they were doing could only be done by men. Yet all that was changed by war. And Curtin understood, of course, too, that his big vision for Australia could not rest on the shoulders of 7.5 million people. So, for the first time, Australia looked to Europe and then to all corners of the globe to help us populate or perish. Curtin was, without doubt, a proud nationalist, but he also understood that Australia would be safest in a world of internationalism. And so Australia becomes a leader in global affairs, helping to establish the United Nations, and doing so from a position of independence and strength and self-reliance. All this, this radical transformation of Australian government, of our country and what it means to be Australian, happened within the space of four or five years, because Curtin used his time as Prime Minister to reshape our country. And that brings me to today. And how can this vision teach and inspire us as Labor people?

Before I draw parallels to the 1940s, let me be absolutely clear, Australia is not at war and we are not about to be at war. But our Prime Minister has said that Australia faces the most challenging geo-strategic circumstances that we have confronted since John Curtin's time. And so, while we are focused on ensuring peace and stability, working to shape those strategic circumstances in our nation's best interest is, and must be, one of our government's defining endeavours. John Curtin was denied the benefit of preparedness for the challenges his government faced in 1941. Joe Lyons and Robert Menzies, they failed to see the storm clouds gathering over Australia in the 1930s. And instead of preparing their country for what was to come, suppose it was back from inviting complacency and governments for government's sake. It was a wasted decade - does that sound a little bit familiar? Because we've just lived through one. We have just lived through a decade of conservative rule, years which could have been sensibly responding to climate change, lifting living standards for Australians and preparing our country for the difficulties that lie ahead. But they were not.

When we arrived in government, the Prime Minister asked me to serve in the Home Affairs portfolio. So my portfolio has this key responsibility of securing the domestic security of our nation. And what I found in this portfolio is that the most essential national security tasks that we confront, the security impacts of climate change, the profoundly important problems of foreign interference, the pervasive threats of cybersecurity, they were not being given any focus by the department. If there was any focus, it was a slideshow to those issues that we know Peter Dutton is so concerned about. So I'm really angry about this wasted decade and you should be too. I'm angry to come to government and to have to begin work fresh on these areas where we should be so progressed in our thinking. This work should already have been years in development.

One of those pieces of work is an important project that has commenced this year in my department, and that is about building and protecting national resilience. One of the really serious threats that we face as a country is the potential for cascading disasters. Think about a Black Saturday bushfire, a major flood and a cyberattack on a state hospital system, all occurring simultaneously with the security issue in our region. A new group within my department, the National Resilience Task Force, will be working to identify what our country needs to do to prepare for a future of rolling challenges, both natural and human induced. My colleague, one of the Ministers I work with, Murray Watt, is already moving out to identify what climate will necessitate in terms of national resilience. We'll do work to scope in detail the domestic risk assessment from an ultra security environment. So whether that's thinking about cyber threats to supply chain disruptions and other contingencies, including in a classified national security context.

Why are we doing this work? Because we already know a lot about what our future security environment could look like. We know a lot about it. Yet the previous government did not do any strategic thinking I can see about what the implications of that environment will be for the domestic security of Australians. Our work will be defining the critical risks facing Australia, then identifying and prioritising the national capabilities and investments we will need, which will be common to all and vital to many of these risks. Think about things like bolstering planning arrangements to deal with widespread natural disasters. Those same elements and capabilities within government will be critical to help us deal with shocks in the economy from a coordinated cyberattack, for example. So the output of this project will be a clear cross-government picture on the home front, implications of the climate and security environment, and clarity on the steps that government will need to take to ensure that Australians continue to live this beautiful life of security and prosperity that we so enjoy while some of the global issues that we all know are underway play out around us.

It's the kind of work that I think John Curtin would have wished Joseph Lyons and Bob Menzies had undertaken in the 30s. If they'd spent more time soberly assessing the environment that they faced and considering how Australia could be made less vulnerable, Curtin would have arrived in government in a position of greater strength, with more choices about how to proceed. One of the really big lessons from the Curtin and Chifley years is how important times of crisis are to shaping Australia's future. And I want to talk about some of the decisions that our government is making, which I think have the same resonance. During the war, Curtin and Chifley drew up plans for a 20th century Australia. A big migration program, full employment, a welfare state and a strong industrial base. And they used the challenge that they faced to create it. Now, as I said, we're not at war, nor is the prospect imminent, but our security situation is changing.

We in this room have lived through an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. That's for the world, but particularly so here in Australia. And every indication we have tells us that the decades ahead will not be as benign. A world of precarious global dynamics, of unknowable technological risks and unstoppable climate impacts which will reshape life in our regions. We know this. It will. And that is the world that my children are going to have to navigate. So our job is to govern in a way that will give the next generation the best chance of a secure and prosperous Australia. And that's why one of the most substantial decisions that our government has made and will make is the decision to build nuclear powered submarines through the AUKUS partnership.

The first Australian built AUKUS submarine will be completed when my son, who is now nine years old, will be about 30. The decision made by our government will help his generation ensure the security and defence of Australia. It's that simple. AUKUS is not just a defence technology sharing partnership. It is a decision with the capacity to profoundly reshape Australia's economy. Think about the industrial transformation that occurred when Curtin and Chifley were in power. When the war started, Australia could not build a car. And when the war finished, we were building some of the most advanced industrial aircraft in the entire world. That transformation took guts and confidence and Curtin had that for his country in spades. So when people question Australia's ability to deliver on this AUKUS agreement, this is what I think about. I would back Australians every day of the week over any other country in the world to adapt and grow to meet this challenge.

And that will be helped by the National Reconstruction Fund that has just passed through the Senate and into law, which will help rebuild manufacturing in our country. This is a $15 billion fund that will restore Australia as a country that makes things and, by the way, creating thousands of secure, well-paid jobs. The money will be spent across seven priority areas, including targeting a billion dollars for critical technologies such as quantum computing. So why is this so important? We have just lived through a pandemic that has showed us beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are too dependent on the rest of the world for our livelihood. We can change it, we can reshape it. And that is what the Labor government is doing.

Housing is anot​her area where there is a huge amount of work underway. Labor has proposed a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund that will build 30,000 social and affordable homes in five years. It will include a further 200 million to repair, maintain and improve housing in remote indigenous communities, $100 billion for crisis accommodation for women and children escaping domestic violence and older women who are at risk of homelessness, and $30 million for housing and services for veterans. It is such a good deal for our country. Not according to the Greens. Not yet, at least. We're trying to get to help us clear it through the Senate, but it's a really important piece of our policy framework and just like Curtin and Chifley back in 1945 helping deliver fair housing for Australians is a promise that our government is very determined to fulfil.

So there are lots of parallels with the way that the challenges faced by Curtin and Chifley were being dealt with by their government and into how our government is tackling them. We too have come to government after a period of waste where the country wasn't being well served by its leaders and those leaders were demonstrably not able to move our country forward. The pressure is there for radical social transformation, the ability that we hold dear for our country to make sovereign choices that are not constrained by our past, that can see Australia make moves truly in our own national interest, and the vital importance of building strong alliances with our friends and partners abroad.

When I read about the history of the Curtin government, there are two things that really strike me the most. The first is the unbelievable love that John Curtin had for the Australian people. As you know, Curtin died in office. He gave everything he had, every scrap of energy and intellect went to Australians and to the war effort. The second is the huge optimism and confidence that Curtin had in Australia's future. Curtin knew that Australia could emerge from the war a better and stronger country. The planning and discussion that went into what Australia would look like after 1945 clearly demonstrate that to us. Times of crisis are times of transformation. We can transform in good ways and in bad, but in moments like the ones faced by Curtin, there is no going back. And Australians have shown again and again throughout our history that when the chips are down, we are able, in a way that is very unusual around the world, to throw off old ideas about our country and make big gutsy choices about our future. What our government is trying to do, and what I am trying to do in Home Affairs, is give Australians choice and agency and control over what that future looks like. Mark Twain said, "while history does not repeat, it does rhyme." The path ahead for us is rocky. We can't hide from that and we shouldn't try to. But we have faced bigger challenges before. With good leadership we've emerged from them a stronger, better, older Australia. And I firmly believe that we're about to do it again. Thanks, everyone.