Address to ACTU Congress Dinner
Transcript of speech by Bill Kelty
Wednesday, 16 May 2012
Sydney Convention Centre

Special night for me, thank you. But in some sense it is more than that. It’s a special time, I think for the labour movement. It’s a very testing time.

There comes a point in history where unions and Labor parties have got to make decisions for the future, and I appreciate it very much.

I’ll say some things personal, but I think it is important to always understand that nobody’s more important, no individual is more important than what you stand for. And what you stand for is a betterment of working people’s lives, and what you stand for is a betterment of this nation. That is always the most important.

You know, Paul and I, we talk a lot, as most people know. We’ve been talking together for as long as I can remember over the last 20 or 30 years, every week, and we discussed this, obviously, as we discuss most things.

And in a sense there is a sense that we are yesterday’s people with yesterday’s dreams. We’ve run a position in life, we’ve had a wonderful opportunity to make some contribution. But if the labour movement had dreams, they had dreams of the past, they were for now. They were for now. And they were for future generations.

Paul Keating is a wonderful dreamer. And so is Bob. So is Simon. And two of the most wonderful dreamers I’ve ever met in my life: Laurie Carmichael and Tom McDonald.

The one thing about them all in terms of that song, words not wasted, words not weak. We were plunged into debate about the future of this country in the 1980s, as to what life should be, what this country should be. We were plunged into the debate by the necessity of trying to do something different and better.

I loved the opportunity, I’ve got to tell you. I thought every day I went to work, for every day I worked for unions, I loved it.

And I loved it most because I believe it gave an opportunity.

It is true that my childhood was a bit unusual, politically speaking. A left-leaning mother, single, poor, living in Brunswick, who loved poetry and loved politics. And our heroes were Henry Lawson and Mary Gilmore and Burns.

For my 14th birthday, I got three volumes of Das Kapital. I would love to be able to tell you that I read them. And if I did read them, I would love to be able to say that I really understood them. But I didn’t.

But we also had those great American independents, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would preach the rights of people. Respect for people, respect for the environment. Our postperson, postman as they used to call them, would deliver us the Soviet Woman, the Guardian, The Weekly Times, and a myriad of other newspapers of dubious political colour of the period.

And our family when we were talking about politics, we were Labor people. We were Labor people and we were Labor people.

We talked about Evatt, and we talked about Eddie Ward. But when anybody mentioned John Curtin or Chifley, there was an evangelical hush. And Menzies for us was a person, always about the Brisbane line, always about Pig Iron Bob, and always opposed to unions.

We were Labor people.

Setting aside the Essendon Football Club, there are two great institutions to which I’ve been bonded: the Australian Labor Party and the unions.

Taken together, ‘cause they must be taken together, they are organisations that believed in things and would fight for them. A sense of romantic warriors combining politically and industrially to enhance the national good. But it was a national good of those who depended upon governments to intervene.

It was the underdog you always sided with in our family. The Aboriginal on death row, the Gurindji people, women not getting equal pay. It was Australia of whom you were proud, but not the Australia who sang God Save the Queen. But a nation of workers, a nation of workers described by Paterson and Lawson and painted by Roberts, the farmers struggling on their settlement blocks. It was a nation where support for one another was called unions.

This was a nation that welcomed migrants as neighbours and tenants in their home. A nation writ large, a nation writ so large about the future, never small. A nation in search of peace, not war. This was the sense of Australia that you longed for, this was the sense of Australia that you believed in.

So is it any wonder? Is it any wonder if you ever got the opportunity for just one day to work for unions, you would be proud? It took me one day after I was the age of 16 to join the Labor Party. See Bob Hawke in the Commission, cajoling and arguing for the minimum wages in the 60s, and if I aspired to anything, I aspired to one day, even if it meant only for one day, to work for unions.

Congresses are great things really. I liked ACTU Congresses,  I’ve got to tell you. They give opportunity for debate, reflection and election.

But I must also say, it gave an opportunity for debate within the forum. I don’t think in my entire life I ever said one bad thing publicly about a union official stating a point of view outside the forum of the union movement. But I always thought it was fair game, I always thought this was the place you have the debate, this is the place you have your argument, this is the place you have your fight. And I don’t think it’s true that I didn’t say many unkind words to people. I did, on many an occasion. But it was in the family and it was within the debate.

This Congress has been a place where great decisions are made. The decisions about superannuation, healthcare and others. But it’s also been the place where the union movement stood up for Indigenous people. Where the union movement opposed the war in Vietnam.

Where the union movement said that Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela was not a terrorist, but a hero.

This is the place that defined the Australian spirit.

And this is the place where you saw some of the greatest speeches, and some of the greatest participants in the history of this country.

Nobody has ever heard a speech about the right to strike, and nobody will ever give a better one, than Laurie Carmichael’s speech.

Nobody will ever give a better speech and make a better contribution to why unions should be reformed and restructured than the speech of Tom McDonald. Fitzgibbon on hours, Maynes a little long at times on technological change, Paul on super, and anybody who was ever here to hear Lowitja O’Donoghue talk about Indigenous people and their rights, they will walk away from these forums with a sense of excitement and commitment, understanding that they have seen some of the best people, the best speeches that have made this country. Made here in this forum.

The last ACTU Congress for me when I spoke was not an easy one, it was not an easy one. We were trying desperately to prepare ourself, prepare ourself for what we saw and what we wanted, frankly, was a dispute with the MUA.

But we were distracted by other things. That Congress was about one thing in particular. Some people saw it as an opportunity to destroy a union. Some people saw it as an opportunity to cripple a union at a point of weakness. But we didn’t. We supported the AWU and we saw it re-emerge strengthened.

We were prepared to take on the fight on unionism. We prepared and understood it.

We almost taunted the government to have a fight with us on our strongest possible ground, the MUA, and we told them if they have a fight with us about the MUA then we were prepared for that fight and we understood how hard it would be, and difficult.

But if you wanted a fight, please have a fight with us. But let it be the MUA. And they did. And they did.

That Congress, like all Congresses are no different from any other. They have to deal with the essential issues confronting labour organisations.

For me, labour organisation is not a loose word that some people can throw away. It’s not called union. It is not just a word. It is not separable, not separate from the spirit of this country. For Australian unions have been part of it, and the country was made by unionism. The very spirit of the place, what you feel about it, has unionism as part of it.

See Lenin was right. Lenin was right when people said to him that the Australian union movement and the Australian political system, they incorporate it in the system and they make it work better. What he was wrong to think that it wouldn’t last.

Kim Beazley, Tony Blair and I had a meal not far from here. And Tony Blair told us of his great vision of heading the third way. His great view of the third way. I said to him, “But Tony, Australia had that debate, we had the debate in the 1890s and we decided then to go the third way”.

We are in the third way. It is part of Australia to be in the third way. And what we did in the 1980s was to renew it, revisit it, modernise it, to make sure that that was the defining basis.

That is where we went. That is Labor. That is Labor then. That is Labor now.

We did have to make some hard calls. The very first conversation I had with Bob Hawke as prime minister, he said clearly, he said, “Bill, I’ve got a few hard issues for you to sort out. Wage rates are too high. We have to make all these changes to get employment up. And by the way we’ll have the Medicare but you have to pay for it”.

I said no problems.

Working people had two major national campaigns in this country. To establish national health care, they fought for it and they believed in it. Every worker on two days for the history of this country, were affected by it and they wanted it. They knew that it didn’t come from nothing and they knew you had to pay for it. And they did. We had the levy and we had the 2.3% wage increase. Paul Keating told us frankly that this country had a choice. They could be a Banana Republic, or they could be a productive adaptive nation.

But we had to make some hard changes. And we did.

But we did it in our way. We did it in a Labor Party way. That is, we were competitive and we were productive and we did open this nation up to the rest of the world, but we did it with national healthcare, with national superannuation, the most effective minimum wage system in the world.

And you know who else we did it with? We did it with unions. That is, we did it with unions and through unions and believing unions were an important factor in making this country better. Not outside of it, but with it.

And we did it in the 1980s, and we did it in the 1980s when no other nation on earth was doing it. Hawke and Keating and the union movement did something different. We modernised the economy but we did it in a Labor way, a union way.

Of course we made mistakes. Of course we did things wrong on occasions, but that is what we sought to achieve. And we did it in a hope that the nation would be better.

We did it in a hope that this country would be better. So we took the cuts and we took the pain and we argued that this country would be better off into the future. We would do it.

The great advantage of having the opportunity to speak a lot, lot longer when retired is at least you have the opportunity to test whether your rhetoric matches performance. Because that’s what we believed. That’s what we hoped.

And when we told workers that’s what we wanted to achieve, they listened to us and they believed us. We hardly lost a meeting in all of those years, hardly lost a meeting. So we now have a measuring stick to see whether that rhetorical  position of a Labor social democratic process of change actually works.

Real wages improved 25-30%. National superannuation was introduced. National healthcare was introduced. But we grew the economy faster than most. Unemployment fell faster than most. Inflation fell faster than most. Productivity increased and growth increased. It worked. The Labor model worked.

Two of the people responsible for making this country better, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, are here.

America went the other way. A healthcare system of 18% of the GDP, now second rate, still a second rate system. Superannuation was less than 70% of their GDP, well we have more than 100%. Real wages not rising in the United States for more than half the workforce. Productivity lower. Growth rates lower.

It worked. It worked. Labor, unions, working people should be very proud.

So as I sit here today and sit here tonight, I ask myself this question. I ask myself this question. Why is it that wherever you go in the world, people say of you and to you, what makes Australia so special? What makes Australia so special?

You say what makes Australia so special is that we introduced into this country a social democrat model, a productivity and a concern for people. That’s what makes Australia special.

You look at Australia now, and the second question they ask you is why is the Australian Labor Party so unpopular?

Well, in some sense it’s got me beat. In some sense it’s got me beat.

The polls are devastating. The election results in New South Wales and Queensland in some sense even more devastating.

It beggars belief, really, in the political maxim that it’s the economy, it’s the economy, it’s the economy. Or it’s jobs, it’s jobs, it’s jobs.

A Labor Government, 4.9%, 4.9% unemployment, growth of employment of 800,000. An economy that has worked better, more effectively, is in its current position in the polls.

So you ask yourself, what is wrong with this government? What is wrong with it?

The mining tax is right. The international pricing of carbon is the right policy. It is sad that it is muddied and a bit confused with the response to restructuring the taxation commitments. The movement from 9% superannuation to 12 is progressive and it’s right. It’s a bit sad that some of those people who manage it, manage it as if the world has not changed.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme will be seen as a policy Labor will be proud of. And you will be proud to be a member of the Labor Party when you see those most in need,  most in need of support of society, recognised.

If some of those companies were doing the same thing they were doing for the first nine years of this century, they would no longer exist. That is, this is a country that is changing dramatically, restructuring dramatically, as dramatically as the 1980s. Now that restructuring process is already starting to see wedges in the Australian economy.

Simon and I spend as much time as we can together going around this country and we can see that wedge between the national unemployment and regional unemployment. We can see it.

In some areas, there are 10 applicants for 400 jobs. In others, there’s 400 applications for four jobs. Young people are leaving school, part-time, casual work is a dominant option. For many now there is twin dependency, looking after your children, looking after the aged.

Seems to me we have a mirror image of the 1980s. Hard decisions were made in the ’80s. Real pressures on living standards, high unemployment, but we never, ever lost a sense of hope and trust that government and unions would see it out and there would be a better future. Today we have better economic conditions but that hope and that trust has retreated.

I’ve got be frank. It’s too easy to blame the media, too easier to blame the playthings of politics. And there’s no purpose blaming the opposition for doing, what after all, you’d expect them to do and that’s to beat you.

In a sense I think we make politics just simply too hard.

The truth will normally do.

This is a transition in the Australian economy that for many people will be very hard.

But the truth is also this. That the very best people, the very best people to manage that transition is a Labor Party, it is unions, it is managing in a Labor way.

It is, I think, an important time for us. An important time for us to regroup and take collective responsibility. It is too easy to blame the leaders and it is too easy to concentrate on the minutiae. Too easy. It is the collective responsibility where the party, where unions, stand up and say again what sort of country they want. That is where we have to be.

And it is also too easy to accept defeat. Too easy to say the Labor Party will not win.

I remember Bob Hawke coming back from a Labor Party conference in which the headlines of the Sun was “Hawke finished. Never again will his name be mentioned as a future Prime Minister”. And I talked to Bob, I said how did you go? He said “shithouse”. I said what are you going to do? He said, “I’m gonna regroup, I’m gonna rebuild, learn from what mistakes I made, but Bill I will be the Prime Minister”.

And he was.

I sat with Paul Keating one day, when he wasn’t feeling particularly well that day. And he said, “It might be too hard Bill. I’ve got the wrong end of the political cycle”.

I won’t tell you all he said. And I won’t tell you all I said. But I said, “There’s never been an economist elected as Prime Minister yet, mate, and there won’t be. You can beat him, just stand in, you can beat him”.

And he did.

And I remember the phone call, I remember the phone call as if it was yesterday, at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night, for some reason I was awake.

Paul rang up. He said, “I’m gonna win, mate”. I said, “what?”. He said, “I’m gonna win, I’m going to expletive deleted, a few more expletive deleted.”

I said, “that’s good, now why are you gonna win.”

And he said, “Hewson made this speech. And the speech he made, he said, ‘this country, for too long, has stopped to pick up the people. Stopped to care too much for people’.”

He said, “By the time I’m finished with him, mate, he’ll be picking up himself.”

And he won, he won when nobody said he would win. When nobody said he would win. So whenever people say you’re put down, you’re going to get beaten, you’re going to get destroyed, the one thing you always should say is not without a fight. Never without a fight.

We’re in the union game. And I am primarily a unionist. I always believed in the union first. Actually believed in the union more than I believed in the Labor Party.

But the one thing I did understand was this. That a Labor government, a Labor government, can deliver national superannuation, and only they can. They can deliver national healthcare and only they can. And if you want family leave, only they can. If you want the wages system reformed and legislated for, only they can. And if you wanted the rights to bargain, you had to get a Labor government to change.

The one thing I always sought was a bargaining process ultimately in the workplace. And no matter how important, no matter how important Labor governments were, in a sense for the greater good of this country, for the greater good of the labour movement the thing that was most important was the union movement.

And the union movement had to find its place. Had to find its place where you would expect it to be, where it only could be, and that was in the workplace, representing workers, arguing for them, getting gains for them. That is the heart, the heart, of the labour movement.

Laurie Carmichael and Tom McDonald were heroes of mine from a very early age, notwithstanding the fact that they were in a different political party. Jim Maher was one of the people I most admire in life, for the sincerity and the commitment, and they came in some sense from opposite ends of the political scale, but when you talked to them, they believed in one thing, and that is working people.

Working people.

They believed in it, worked for it, every day of their life.

We can talk about unions and their future. In conclusion, I want to say a few things about the future.

I don’t think it would be appropriate to get up and talk about the role of unions without recognising that there has been a decline. It would be a silly thing for me to do, to ignore the decline in unionism in relative terms. I must say the test is a tough one, relativity in the labour market. But we sat there in 1986 and we said unless you can change and get into growth areas, then we are going to decline. And we got it more or less right, more or less right. And we were criticised for saying it.

Our essential failure was to have the economy work. Our essential failure was for employment to grow so rapidly, transform so dramatically, into so many areas where we weren’t. Where we weren’t. and where we had to be. Where we had to be.

The rate of unionism is lower but the activism is in some sense greater.

The one thing I never did like about the argument about the decline in unionism was an argument about the unions themselves. ‘Cause I sat there and I saw some of the best unions, some of the best people in the whole of the world. I saw the teachers’ union being one of the best unions, the nurses’ union being one of the best unions, I saw the engineers being the best unions, I saw the National Union of Workers get out there in a short period of time, get hundreds of enterprise agreements.

I saw unions change this country dramatically. I saw wonderful people fighting. I saw people standing up to conservative governments, and I saw us collectively fighting together at the MUA.

And that sense of what made this country didn’t evaporate and it didn’t disappear and the heart of it wasn’t measured by the decline. But it’s not good enough to accommodate decline and defeat. It wasn’t then good enough and it’s never good enough.

This is a different union movement and a different economy. But it is still in some sense the same union movement that you care about.

Let me finally talk about the future. Because it is no good residing in the past. It is not the reminiscences that count. The only thing that counts when you walk out here, is not that you heard a speech from an old union official, and you heard a speech from the Prime minister of the past.

What is most important is you walk out with a sense of energy, commitment, and belief that you will make this country a better country for the 2020s, you will make it a better country for your children.

That is the test. And see, I look round and say if the Labor Party is defeated and the unions are weakened, I doubt that we’ll easily get to 15% superannuation. I don’t think the education system will be as good as it would otherwise be. I think it is hard to sustain real wage rates for many people, the minimum wage rate.

I see the country writ down, made smaller, less concerned, that’s the test. That’s the test for unionism, vibrancy, commitment, making the nation better.

I had a sense of this country, indoctrinated, told to me every day by my mum.

Every day, she would tell me that this country is a wonderful country and is made better by unions and made better by the Labor Party. And is made better not just in terms of wage rates, is made better in a sense of what makes this nation.

Don’t think for one instance that the greatest loss we had was not securing 15% superannuation. That was a loss, I think, a loss that will be made up. But the greatest loss is that we lost a sense of pride in the nation, a sense of the nation as we like to see it. We lost a sense of progressing the republic, standing up for indigenous people, standing up for the poor, standing up for a Labor view. That is the loss, and that is the loss that this nation will pay for.

I can only give this advice about preparing for defeat as well. Every election, every program of election, we had two plans.

We had plan A for a Labor win, and we had plan B if the other side won. And plan B, which became plan A after ’96 said that we would legislate the gains in advance to make it harder to take it off us. That the Greens and the Democrats would be our allies and we would work hard.

No person did more than Jennie George in protecting us and advancing us. We extended our wage agreements, extended them beyond the political cycle, we knew that minimum wage rates had to be tested, maintained, we started a process of family payments.

That is we integrated into the future a set of commitments that would be very hard to wind back. And we did prepare for our defences.

We sat there day after day, working out what we would do if they did certain things. We could’ve done more, we could’ve done certain things better, but that’s what we did.

In the end, unions are about negotiating, bargaining, representing and caring. Now some nice things have been said about me, but I’ve always been honest about myself. I’ve always been honest about myself. I’ve always tried not to personalise my involvement. Not out of some self-effacing humility but because I simply thought it was not true.

Whatever we achieved, we achieved together. The ACTU had some of the smartest and most committed people in the country as presidents, industrial officers, advocates and support staff. These were extraordinary people. Tom McDonald, Laurie Carmichael, Jim Maher and a range of others.

These are people that can turn the world and turn this country. What we achieved, we built upon the achievement of others. I didn’t start superannuation. I wasn’t responsible for it. It started when Charlie Fitzgibbon negotiated the first real agreements in the maritime industry. You ask where the river started on superannuation. It started with Charlie Fitzgibbon. As did the hours campaign and a number of others.

We were negotiators and negotiators’ success always depends on the other side. And governments with whom you negotiate and employers with whom you negotiate. We had the most remarkable of political leaders. The most remarkable of political leaders.

I always had this view however, a hard view and a tough view, that the real gains you make out of society come from the productive capacity of the nation. They can’t be secured from inflation, they can’t be secured by words.

They come from the real growth, the real goods and services, the real business of a nation. And you might try hard to get more than you can get, but it never works. If you end up with high inflation, if you end up with inflationary gains, you can be militant, as we were.

Simon and I worked together year after year, more disputes, National Union of Workers, Storemen and Packers in the history of this country in the 1970s, and when we toted up what we got at the end of a decade of fighting, we’d made but marginal gain. But marginal gain.

So it has to come from real things. It has to come from the productive capacity of the nation, and when you get it and you share it, you make sure that productive capacity of the nation is distributed for everybody and for healthcare and for education and for savings into the future. That’s what you do.

It is not an easy lesson, and people would prefer it was other, but that is what we have to achieve.

Let me say, in conclusion, I never had a complaint. I loved every day I worked for unions. I loved unions, I still love unions. I had more fights with some unions than other people. But I never once ever lost that sense of love for them.

But it’s not a night for glorification, but hopefully for explanation and exposition.

I only have one point of political clarification. Perhaps two.

There are those of you who watched the Bastard Boys and those of youse who watched Hawke.

I would never, ever diminish the wonderful work of Greg Combet, never diminish the leadership of John Coombs. But I do ask you to accept honestly when I tell you that not one thing that features me in the Bastard Boys was true.

You know I have many weaknesses but being weak was not one of them.

And as for the Hawke series, I never saw Bob Hawke shout the bar and I’ve gotta tell you, nor did I.

There is time to end any speech and I think there are hundreds of inspiring stories I can tell, but before I do let me make two points.

I’d like to thank the ACTU, Jeff all the offices, for this. I didn’t want it, I don’t really need it but thank you nevertheless.

I’d like to thank Paul Keating for his contribution tonight. I’ve got to tell you I never did beat David Morgan for the medal, I never competed against him. He will get most upset.

For all my friends here, for Susan, my children, for Jack Petrie who gave me the chance at the Storemen and Packers and Harold Souter who I truly loved at the ACTU, to Simon Crean who’s been a mate of mine since we first started with the Storemen and Packers Union, been a mate for more than 40 years. For Simon, all I can say is I think we’re greater mates now than we ever were.

And to a special person here, and that’s Lorraine who has worked with me for almost 40 years. I rescued her from I think quite a mad person really, who didn’t treat her kindly, and in return I didn’t treat him very kindly, but she’s rescued me ever since, and I love her very dearly.

You know, there’s a lot of stories that you could tell and I could even sing badly Joe Hill and the Internationale. But there’s one song that’s always inspired me, really. And that’s not a song from Australia, it’s actually a song from the United States and it’s called This Land is Your Land. Woody Guthrie wrote this song and it became a great national song of the United States.

Pete Seeger, a good friend of Woody Guthrie, asked, “How do you like, Woody, being associated with a great nationalism song?”

He said, “Pete, this is not a great song for nationalism. This is a song of patriotism, and they’re different things. But I wrote it for the spirit of America. I wrote it because I was sick of hearing songs that put people down. I was sick of society where if you were too fat, or you were a woman, or you were too old, or you’d been through been times of hard travellin’, they put you down.

“I wrote a song for this nation that was about the spirit of the working people. I wrote a song to say, never be put down and never give up, and fight for what you believe. And the signs may say on one side, No Trespassin’, but on the other side it says nothing. That land was made for you and me.”

That land. That’s what unions are about. That’s what unions are about.

They’re about the creation in this country of a better nation, where you see a sign that says No Trespassin’, turn it round.

Because what is most important, what is most important for this country is that in 2020, 2030 we have unions which are active, and fighting for causes and believing in things and arguing, cajoling, that is the land, that is the unions, and this country will not be as good if we don’t have it.

Thank you very much.