As we move into the 21st Century, Australia faces a clear choice – an increasingly divided nation with more of the same or a chance to restore the balance and construct a fairer Australia says ACTU President Sharan Burrow.

Let me begin by acknowledging the Mouhe-neene people on whose land we stand today, and recognise the living culture of Tasmanian indigenous peoples.


As we move into the 21st Century Australia faces a clear choice – an increasingly divided nation with more of the same or a chance to restore the balance and construct a fairer Australia.


This choice makes this ALP Conference one of the most important in our history. The policies that emerge from this conference will guide voters all around Australia when they make their choice for the future at the next federal election.


I believe the job of re-building Australia will fall to Labor under the stewardship of Kim Beazley. John Howard and his followers will be tossed out because they have doggedly continued to show disdain for the plight of the majority of Australians.


If the views of unions have added to the intensity of the spotlight in which this conference is being held it is because we know that only Labor will put people back into public policy and ensure that economic planning is focussed on the task of building and sustaining viable communities.

Increasing Poverty & Inequity

Fair-minded Australia cannot continue to accept the growth of poverty and inequity:



  • The wealthiest 20% of Australians take home 48% of the gross weekly income while the poorest 20% take home 3.8%




  • There are 100,000 more children living in poverty now in Australia than there were five years ago. In a recent study Ann Harding and Aggie Szukalska found that one in four children of low-paid families now live in poverty, taking to 700,000 the number of children living below the breadline in 1998.



SEVEN HUNDRED THOUSAND CHILDREN – that’s about three times that great mass of people who marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of reconciliation.



  • ‘Social Trends Data’ released by the ABS last week confirmed what we already know – that job security is diminishing, casualisation is rising, and women increasing fill the ranks of the low paid.




  • Women in the services sectors earn an average of $504 per week, or a mere half of that from all other industries combined. This means many women doing vital community work in child care or aged care are barely being paid minimum rates. They and their families are struggling.




  • Balancing work and family life is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more people work increased hours. Working men and women feel they must bow to pressure from their employers to work unpaid overtime.




  • Women in the finance industry tell stories of being too afraid to leave at 5pm because there is still work to complete. All too frequently they miss cooking for their children or seeing them before they are in bed.




  • 23,000 more teachers and 26,000 finance sector workers would be required to plug the unpaid overtime gap.




  • Nursing is a health risk in itself given the crisis in staffing levels and the demands being placed on already stressful working weeks.




  • Pregnant women continue to be discriminated against, often losing rostered hours, their jobs, their right to return to work or career opportunities.



Pick an industry and we can tell you the stories that demonstrate that working men and women are not being treated with respect and are not getting a fair share.





  • Teller $30,000 per year
  • CEO: $30,000 per week
  • Bank: In the same week more than $30 million in profit
  • (NAB is en route to a $3 billion profit this year)






  • Starwood Group – $300US profit in the December quarter 1999
  • CEO – $ 7 million in bonus’ over the past 3 years – 1300% increase
  • Australian workers employed at average of $11.64 per hour



I could elaborate on other industries but the fact is that Australia has had nine years of unparalleled growth. And now we hear a call from Peter Costello for wage restraint! The GST is an unfair tax that we didn’t want and if it is driving inflation then it’s the Government’s responsibility.


Peter Costello recently took both a massive pay rise and significant tax cuts but has the audacity to call for working Australians to show restraint. The ACTU is committed to the maintenance of real wages and to bargain increasingly for a fairer share of the nation’s wealth for working families.


On the GST our position is clear. Kim Beazley’s position is a principled one. We all know that significant groups will be disadvantaged and we will not let John Howard render those people invisible. We may be stuck with a regressive taxation system but when the evidence is clear, and that will take 6-12 months, then the only decent thing to do is to make the tax fairer by lifting the burden on those who have suffered the most.

Damaged Social Fabric

When you add to this picture the destruction wrought to our social fabric since 1996 – health, education, child care, aged care, transport and housing – there is little wonder that more and more Australians are seeing that they cannot trust the Howard Government with their future. The stress felt by working families as they struggle to balance competing demands is amplified by the increasing cost of services that were once guaranteed.

Industrial Relations

Many of you will know that the ACTU held its three-yearly Congress recently. The strongest theme to come from Congress was the need to restore the balance so all Australians get a fair share.


Minimum rates of pay are lagging well behind the market and families are struggling to make ends meet. Casual employees now make up 27 percent of the workforce – but they do the work of permanent employees, mostly without holidays, sick leave and maternity leave. What these figures mean is that more than a quarter of all employees now work under arrangements that were deisgned to allow employers to cover the Christmas rush.


Polling shows that the majority of Australians believe that the balance of power has shifted too far. Restoration of the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission and the relevance of awards, the elimination of secretive Australian workplace agreements, and a focus on collective bargaining where parties are required to bargain in good faith should form the heart of new legislation.


Right now, under this Government’s legislation, even if an entire workforce wants to bargain collectively through their union, the employer does not have to meet with them, let alone negotiate. Australia stands out as one of the few nations where working people are denied the fundamental right to bargain collectively.


Unions will campaign with conviction to rid ourselves of a Minister whose mission is to de-unionise Australia. While we met at ACTU Congress in Wollongong, Mr Reith was busy introducing a Bill a day in an attempt to further erode the rights of working people and any day now he plans to release a third wave of legislation, this time based on the corporations power.


The level of working people’s concern for job security, reasonable hours and the capacity to balance work and family will enable Labor to respond with policies that restore the balance. Australia’s working families will respond.


The bail-out of private health funds makes no economic or social policy sense unless public policy is now to be driven by the minority of Australians who have the capacity to pay. That is not the way forward for this country.


To attract an additional 7-10% of people to private health insurance this Government has committed up to $3 billion that otherwise could been used to expand public health provision.


Unions recognise the historic role of Labor in establishing and defending our universal health care system. Our public hospitals must be an election priority if Australia is to retain any dignity as a compassionate country.


Unions will oppose funding cuts to public hospitals, and we will lobby for the expansion of Medicare via the taxation system. Bulk billing must be available to all. Private health insurance should always be an optional add-on, and it must provide value for money within a stronger universal public system.


Union will continue to speak out for equitable wages and working conditions for health care employees. We will oppose further privatisation and contracting out, and we will campaign for adequate staffing levels in the interests of patient care and respect for health workers.


Aged care has become a scandal in this country. We are all sick to the stomach from hearing horrific stories of neglect on the evening news bulletins. This is an Australia that we do not want. This may be Howard’s way but it is not our way. Our aged citizens must be given the greatest of respect – nothing else is good enough.


The ACTU and health unions will work to enshrine the highest standards of care for the elderly in our communities by:



  • promoting a proper complaints mechanism




  • lobbying for increased government funding, and increased transparency and accountability for the use of public funds




  • pressing for higher occupational health and safety standards




  • and fighting for parity between aged care and general health workers.



Public education is in a precarious state. Pre-schools, schools, TAFE and universities are struggling. More than $5 billion was stripped from education and training in 1996. Public institutions have been undermined through de-regulation, privatisation and user pays policies, resulting in an alarming fall in participation rates that sees life opportunities go sliding by.


The chance for all Australians to achieve their potential through education is being destroyed daily. Nursing, teaching and the traditional trades are suffering from severe skills shortages – but there was no extra money in this year’s Federal Budget. Australia faces a knowledge deficit of $130 billion within a decade, brought on by the lowest investment levels per GDP in almost 20 years.


Knowledge must be recognised as paramount and be funded accordingly and returned to at least the OECD average. In a global economy Australia cannot afford to fall behind comparable nations. Unions applaud the priority being given by Kim Beazley and the Labor Party to education as a foundation for Australia’s growth.


There has been much debate recently about the declining birth rate in Australia and what this means for our future. Many women want to work in paid jobs and have a family. The squeezing of the childcare sector means they cannot do both, so many women are leaving the workforce or are reluctantly saying no to having further children.


Reduced funding for childcare assistance together with the removal of the operational subsidy to community based centres have pushed the price of childcare too high. Childcare is not a right in the Coalition’s Australia.


Unions will fight to elect a government that supports parents, values our children and allows people to balance work and family. Australia can have both, and Labor knows it.


There have been no increases in real terms in the Commonwealth/State Housing Agreement since the early years of the Hawke Government, and in the first two years of this Government massive cuts were made.


Affordable housing is not a concern of this Government despite increasing poverty levels. A Labor Government must make housing a significant issue. This is about community planning at its most fundamental.


We really see this Government’s paucity of wisdom when we examine the transport sector. Our colonial ancestors constructed a great rail network across this nation; as well as urban tram and train systems. Contrast that with the sale by this Government of the former Australian national railways and the scrapping of half the jobs in that sector.


Now we have the anomaly of working people paying GST on public transport while private cars for the executive class are subsidised through salary packaging. What a strange view of fairness this mob in Canberra has.

Employment And Community Services

One of the great losses under this Government is an effective employment service. During this great upheaval, thousands of people have been cut off from benefit support by policies designed to artificially reduce unemployment numbers.


Australia needs far-sighted policies that allow those marginalised people who are able to work to be armed with skills that match our evolving industries. On top of this more than 70,000 jobs have been cut from the public service at a cost of some $700 million in redundancies, only to be replaced by consultants at a cost of more than $600 million. Do the sums, and it leaves you scratching your head over why we simply don’t employ people with the expertise as we used to – it would certainly be cheaper!

Priorities For Action

This is the context that must drive the priorities determined this week. Labor must win the next election and that is why policies that deal with industrial relations, health, education, jobs, industry policy, infrastructure and regional development are critical.


Having touched on most of these priorities already, let me focus on regional development. Regional unemployment is still above 10% on average and more than 20% in some areas.


Labor must be committed to targeted programs that



  • are based on low SES regional areas
  • involve strong community ownership
  • are supported by government funding
  • combine industry policy, infrastructure development, job creation, job placement and skills training
  • integrate community welfare and services
  • target at-risk groups
  • and are underpinned by a long-term educational equity program involving Full Service Educational Institutions



Regional Australia matters. These communities are strong but only Labor will care enough to ensure they remain viable for future generations.

A Global Future

I guess no-one here would be surprised to know there is some small debate about trade! This is an important debate but one which is just beginning.


Global futures that incorporate human rights and labour rights have become core business for unions. As unions increasingly bargain and campaign across national borders, there is growing concern by churches, unions and community groups about the prevalence of child labour, forced labour, discrimination and gross exploitation at the workplace.


Trade and investment contribute to growth, employment and the fight against poverty. The ACTU does not support a return to protectionism, but we do want a set of fair global rules that establish benchmarks by which to audit commercial endeavour.


The ACTU defines a fair trading environment as one that does not involve protectionism but ensures that trade delivers progress for all countries in the areas of:



  • Employment growth
  • Social protections
  • The delivery of core labour standards
  • Sustainable environmental standards
  • The eradication of forced labour and child labour
  • Adherence to human rights and democratic values



Increasingly European governments and the US are leading the call for values like core labor standards to be internationally recognized. The ALP platform incorporates a commitment to advocate for the recognition of core labor standards. We welcome that and hope to achieve even greater consensus over time.


Unions understand the social impact on our members and their families of what seem like almost daily factory closures and redundancies. This despair highlights the increasing fear of deregulation, privatisation and contracting out. It is therefore little wonder that people want transparent global rules such that they understand the decisions affecting their lives.


This debate goes beyond the trade in goods. We also need to keep essential public services such as education and health in government hands, and away from international profit takers.


And unions want international investment to be governed by transparent regulations that incorporate the interests of people and governments.


Above all, Australia needs balance and substance in a debate that covers trade, industry policy and labour rights. This debate will gather momentum as communities escalate their calls for reforms that generate open and transparent global bodies, including the World Trade Organisation.


Locally, the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for zero tariffs are not the solution to Australia’s structural balance of payments problem. The ACTU supports Australian Industry and has called for a freeze on tariff reductions until 2003, with a subsequent call for significant manufacturing industry plan.


Industry policy, structural adjustment, planning, education and training are vital for a high-skill, high-wage nation. Global futures must be just and economies must serve communities. This debate is healthy if it has the concerns of people and economic democracy at its heart.

Unions Are @ Work

We have never been more united on our focus on the needs of working people – and it pays to belong to a unions. On average, union members in full-time work earn 17% more than non-union members and casual and part-time workers earn 20%-40% more depending on their classification.


We have set ourselves some serious tasks but two of them put ‘dignity’ up in lights. No union members should earn less than $500 per week. $25,000 a year is a minimum income not a greedy ask. Over time we will also move to secure 15% superannuation as a dignified minimum income for those workers who have invested their lives in work that has made Australia strong.


There are many challenges facing unions. W are targeting growth industries, training young organisers and prioritising our support for delegates; the union representatives who ensure our workplaces are fair. I am confident unions will remain a vital part of the industrial, political and social fabric of Australia.

Labor Partnership

The history of the labour movement in Australia is a proud one. It has driven a commitment to fairness and embraced social change and fronted issues of social justice which conservative governments would prefer to render invisible.


I am asked frequently about the unions’ relationship with the Labor Party. The answer is simple – unions have a responsibility to articulate the needs of working families and their communities and we are confident that Labor will listen.


Our relationship will be independent, at times, feisty, as we struggle to find just solutions, but at all times constructive and committed to the joint endeavour of building a decent society.


I want to conclude with a few comments about nation building. Now that the Coalition has done its damage to the tax system, it has shifted its gaze to what John Howard defines as nation building. For him this is building railways and roads.


Roads and railways are important but I have always associated nation building with great leadership. Nation builders are people who understand the soul, the psyche of a nation.


Nation builders are those rare people who inspire with their vision for a collective future. Nation builders understand the lessons laid down by the leaders of past generations. They overlay that with a real understanding of their nation’s place in the world today.


Real nation builders have a gut feel for the future of the nation they lead. Real nation builders are guided by decency and fairness that raise their vision above and beyond the mechanics of building roads and train tracks.


Consider the choice – John Howard or Kim Beazley. You all know who the real nation builder for 21st Century Australia is!


Kim Beazley will lead the Labor Party to victory in the next election because he does see a brighter future for Australia. He does understand the need for policies and investment that educate our young people, that create jobs, that give working people a dignified wage, that respect indigenous peoples, and that build a sustainable economy that is structured to engage with a rapidly changing world.


But much more than that, Kim Beazley has a big heart. He has a heart that knows instinctively that the needs of this nation go way beyond the mechanics of good government. I have no doubt that Kim Beazley and the Labor Party will give us good government. But Australia will also gain from a generosity of spirit that has been so lacking in this country for the last four years.


I want to live in a country that is again applauded for its concern for its people and consequent social policies, not condemned by United Nations committees of inquiry. I want to live in a country that balances the needs of working people and the business community so that each gets a fair share.


This is what Kim Beazley and the Labor Party will give us. Roll on the election. Australia’s union members, working Australians, and their families will be with you every step of the way, Kim.


Speech by ACTU President Sharan Burrow to the ALP National Conference in Hobart on August 1, 2000