Sharan Burrow Farewell Dinner
Melbourne Museum

•   Sharan Burrow
•   Ged Kearney
•   Jeff Lawrence
•   Members of the ACTU Executive
•   Members of Fair Work Australia
•   Former Premier Joan Kirner
•   Bill Kelty, a great labour movement hero
•   Ministerial and parliamentary colleagues (Greg Combet, Simon Crean, Craig Emerson, Nick Sherry, Doug Cameron)
•   Cath Bowtell, our candidate for Melbourne
•   Men and women of the Australian labour movement

Friends, it’s a great honour to join you tonight to pay tribute to a great leader of the Australian labour movement, Sharan Burrow.

And of course we are joined again at a time when the Liberal Party exhibits its obsession with going backwards to WorkChoices.

And what an exhibition we’ve seen…

…ducking and weaving…

…to-ing and fro-ing…

…dodging and diving…

All the while trying, and failing, to hide their true plans to take Australia back to WorkChoices…

Ultimately, all because even the best attempts at camouflage can’t hide the truth…

Tony Abbott believes in WorkChoices and he will expose Australia to its worst elements.

So in this election campaign we recommit to the fight against Work Choices.   We can learn a lot about how to win this fight from the great Australian we pay tribute to this evening… Sharan Burrow.

Sharan has made an outstanding contribution, advancing the cause of working people in Australia for over 25 years.

She was of course one of the architects of the Your Rights At Work campaign – along with Greg Combet and Jeff Lawrence.

She has fought for working families with tenacity, grit and passion.

And now she’s taking those same qualities to the leadership of the international trade union movement.

An achievement of which we’re very proud.

Sharan’s journey is an inspirational Australian story.

She grew up in Warren, a small country town on the Macquarie River in the centre of NSW.

She worked hard and was the first member of her family to attain a higher education.

That was the beginning of her lifelong belief in the transformational power of a great education.

She became a school teacher and an active union member – and in time, a great trade union leader.

At a time when conservative forces were marshalling against the labour movement in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Sharan asserted the enduring value of a modern union movement….just like her great, great grandfather did in the epic shearers’ strike of the 1890s.

Sharan came to the ACTU presidency when strong leadership was needed the most – in the Howard era with its unrelenting assault on the conditions and achievements of working Australians.

As President of the ACTU, Sharan led the union movement through one of its darkest hours, when the Liberal Party launched an all-out attack on the rights of working people through WorkChoices.

Sharan travelled the length and breadth of Australia, marshalling the fight to protect Australia’s working families with the Your Rights at Work campaign.

Along the way, Sharan heroically attended more fundraising sausage sizzles than probably any other official in Australia’s history……and I’ve heard she’s still staying away from the sausages.

Those efforts paid off.

WorkChoices was stopped in its tracks, and the Howard Government was administered a crushing and deserved defeat.

Yet remarkably, only three years later we have the Liberal Party led by WorkChoices’ most fervent supporter.

The evidence just piles up:

In his book Battlelines last year Tony Abbott said that “WorkChoices wasn’t all bad”.

He added last year that, “workplace reform was one of the greatest achievements of the Howard Government” (Hansard, 13 August 2009).

Indeed he has said the “Howard Government’s industrial legislation, it was good for wages, it was good for jobs, and it was good for workers. And let’s never forget that.” (13 March 2008)

And on the day he became the leader of the Liberal Party he said,

“Well, the phrase WorkChoices is dead. No-one will ever mention it again, but look, we have to have a free and flexible economy.”

Friends, we know what that’s code for.

It’s code for taking Australia back to WorkChoices – back to the days of AWAs, tearing up the award safety net and allowing a free-for-all for employers to sack workers with no rights or protections.

On the weekend, Mr Abbott said if elected he wouldn’t be changing the Fair Work Act.

Then his spokesman, Senator Abetz, contradicted him – saying they would still tweak the law.

And then we saw yesterday’s farcical scenes.

Friends, Tony Abbott’s promises not to bring back WorkChoices are worth nothing more than the scrap of paper they were written on.

Tony Abbott needs to explain to the Australian people without resorting to legal niceties and weasel words what his real plans are.

Mr Abbott needs to spell out how he plans to honour his promises to business groups to bring back individual contracts and strip away protection from unfair dismissals……while also honouring the promises he’s now making in the midst of an election campaign.

He needs to explain if he plans to strip down modern awards, and strip away weekend penalty rates, public holiday pay and overtime.

He needs to explain what he plans to do with unfair dismissal regulations – and whether he plans to take away those protections for the 4.3 million employees of small businesses.

He needs to explain whether he will push for a freeze on the minimum wage.

Friends, these questions must be answered because we know the Liberal Party has form.

They covered up their plans to introduce WorkChoices before their last term in government.

And they’re covering up their plans to take us back to the worst aspects of WorkChoices now.

Friends, there’s many great privileges I’ve had in public life, and I’ve had the opportunity to be associated with many significant pieces of legislation in parliament.

But none has given me more satisfaction than guiding through the legislation to abolish the Liberal Party’s WorkChoices laws…

…and build a decent, fair and modern workplace relations system.

Friends, if the great Australian ‘fair go’ is to go forward, then Tony Abbott must be turned back.

We cannot go back to WorkChoices and its ruthless undercutting of working conditions that left Australian families with less money, less opportunity and less security.

We must move forward with an Australia where harsh and regressive policies like WorkChoices have no place.

A nation where working people have rights.

Rights to fair pay, good conditions, and representation by their union.

A nation where the union movement is respected as an important partner for consultation on the big challenges of the future.
And a nation where people also have opportunities – to get a decent education, to acquire more skills and to move forward in life.

Friends, under Sharan Burrow’s leadership the union movement has moved forward into a modern era, contributing deeply to community debates on issues like paid parental leave, the rights of working women and on climate change.
That isn’t just words – Sharan has spent years fighting for the practical things that give women and men real opportunity and real choice, like equal pay, decent childcare and paid parental leave.

The first of January, 2011 will not only mark the start of a new year.

It will mark the start of a new era for Australian families with Paid Parental leave… and no Australian will be able to claim greater credit for that achievement than Sharan Burrow.

Sharan will be away from our shores by then, but I know her heart will be here with us when that landmark law comes into effect and begins changing the lives of thousands of Australian mothers and fathers.

Sharan has also brought a lifelong passion for education to national skills policy debates, and she has made a significant contribution on the board of Skills Australia.

Sharan, well done – the nation owes you a huge debt of gratitude.

Sharan leaves a great legacy from a decade of leadership at the ACTU and her earlier years of service to the education sector.

Ged has big shoes to fill but she also has many great role models for inspiration – not only Sharan but also Jennie George, Bob Hawke and Simon Crean, to name but a few of her distinguished predecessors in the ACTU Presidency.

Sharan – all the very best for the next stage of your career, leading the International Trade Union Confederation.

We’re proud you’ve been given the honour of a leadership position on the world stage, as you continue to fight for social justice and the rights of working people.

On behalf of the ALP and working people across Australia, I thank you for your dedication and commitment to the great Labor cause.

I also pay a warm tribute to your husband Peter and your two children, who have given you the support and encouragement you needed in order to serve our nation over so many years.

So today we mark the end of a remarkable decade of leadership here in Australia, and celebrate the beginning of a new chapter of leadership for the worldwide union movement.

Sharan, as you move to the next stage of your remarkable career, I want to say in a heartfelt way:

You are a great friend of the Australian people.

You have written a proud chapter in the labour movement’s story.

And you leave with our gratitude, our admiration and our respect.

Photo by Rochelle Wong