How do we expect our young kids today to get a start in life when they’re being saddled with a financial burden to get a tertiary education and for healthcare asks Labor leader Simon Crean in this speech to ACTU Congress.

Thanks very much, Sharan. Clearly you know we’ve got the agenda, you’ve just about mapped it all out. Can I just say to the Congress, it is a great pleasure to be back. I like the introduction in terms of the song – my opponents keep trying to think that, but I always keep saying to them, “You’re never going to keep me down, I’ll keep coming back, I’ll keep fighting.” It is one of the strengths that a Congress such as this has taught me over a long period of time.

My first Congress was not far from here. It was in 1975. It was at the South Melbourne Town Hall. There are probably many delegates in this room who are attending their Congress for the first time. Make the most of it, these are great opportunities. I look around, the ones that I can remember, and between us – we’ve got a lot of skeletons between us. We’ve had our fights, but most importantly when we’ve fought together we’ve won. That’s the essential ingredient in terms of the Labor movement, its sense of purpose and understanding that through unity it can be delivered.

I always remember, too, one of the great opportunities I had when I first started in the trade union movement way back in the 70s, we won an historic equal pay case for women in the Manufacturing Chemists sector of industry. I still go to my electorate today and women who are still working for those companies remember that campaign and what it did for them. The message, of course, is that here you can make change. You can be part of an advance, part of improving people’s lives and you should never forget it – whatever the differences, the unity, the drive, doing it together will take us forward.

I want to also by way of an introduction acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this conference is being held, the Kulin people. You know, it was interesting the other day, Wilson Tuckey made an outrageous outburst saying that as a culture Aboriginal people couldn’t handle money. I don’t remember the same comments being made about the culture of business executives when Christopher Skase and Alan Bond went through with people’s money – no equal-handedness there. What I say is, that if we’re to get reconciliation in this country there not only needs to be respect for that position, there should never be scape-goating. This government is too fond of scape goating, and that’s just one example.

I noticed also recently that people are trying to make the shift into politics; Arnold Swarzenegger is standing for politics. I don’t know what sort of a politician he’s going to make, but I did hear his first election pledge, and that is that if he won he wouldn’t be making any more movies. I think this was a very smart call, it might just get him over the line. Can I just say, though, I think the switch back from our current Prime Minister into the acting profession won’t quite work, especially in one of those Arnie films – Total Recall does not seem to suit our Prime Minister. You know, this is the guy that in terms of Dick Honan said, “I never had a meeting with that guy.” This is the bloke that in terms of whatever it takes, whatever he does, it’s the combination of deceit and it’s the combination of special deals – whether it’s a special deal for Stan Howard, a special deal for Dick Honan, while the rest in the community are left to sink or swim.

I just want to make the point here today that there is a fundamental difference between ourselves and our opponents. Under the current government, we’re becoming a country that we won’t recognise too far down the track, a country that’s having less opportunity, less fairness and less tolerance. I believe that we have to develop not just for the current generation but for the future generations a society in which there is opportunity for all – the fair go, the Australian way. That’s what we’ve always stood for, but it’s fast disappearing under this government.

I also believe that as a nation we can’t just look out for ourselves. There has to be a sense of society, a sense of looking after others and looking out for them, of compassion, of tolerance, of giving people a helping hand. It means fundamentally the importance of the role of government in providing those services, in providing that care. It’s also becoming a nation intolerant and fearful because it’s the Prime Minister that plays on fear. You know, Franklin Roosevelt once famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” John Howard has adopted this phrase by saying, “I have nothing to offer but fear itself.” When you think of it, that’s the reason why the nation is becoming one we won’t recognise, why the services, the provision, the equity, the fairness, the opportunity is all disappearing but clouded, whether in the fog of war or the fog of terrorism. We’ve got to punch through all that. I’ve understood the importance of it. It’s why I said in terms of the leadership, in terms of the budget reply speech, what the Labor Party had to be, this time, was not a small target, but it had to be bold, it had to be different and it had to be Labor. I’m here today to take you through a number of the initiatives by which we’ve started to spell this out.

Medicare is the first of them. Sharan has touched upon it, and it’s been referred to at your Congress already. Under this government, we are seeing the destruction of Medicare. And of course, affordable health care affects all of us. But the reality is that every year under this government Bulk Billing has been in decline. I’ll just ask you to have a look at the graph that should be coming up that shows this point. What you see in every year since this government has been in, the blue bars, if you like, is a decline in Bulk Billing in every one of those years, with the most dramatic decline being the last two to three years. Contrasted with Labor’s years in government when we saw Bulk Billing rise to over 80%. That, delegates, is the most graphic depiction of the difference between government involvement, government belief and government support for affordable health care in this country.

The current government doesn’t believe in it. Its proposals will mean that there is no incentive for a doctor to Bulk Bill any family that earns more than $32,000 a year. That is not wealthy, delegates. It is not wealthy. But it means that people that are struggling on those incomes will have to pay every time they go and see a doctor. I believe that health care is a right. It is a public good and it is something that the nation must invest heavily in. It is about caring for each other and making sure that that parents in this country whose kids get sick don’t have to make the choice as to whether or not they take them to a doctor, whether they can afford to do it.

I’ve never argued that health care comes for free. It doesn’t. But health care is your right, your entitlement because you’ve earned it – not only through the Medicare levy, but I recall when I was involved in the ACTU and the first Accord where we actually made wage trade-offs to secure the introduction of Medicare. So the working people of this country don’t just pay for it through their taxes, they also were prepared to make salary sacrifice to entrench it. So it’s yours. Don’t let them take it away from you.

The reality is individually all of us are opposed to what John Howard is doing to Medicare, but collectively we can save it. That’s why the priority in terms of my Budget speech in reply was to lay down a means by which we could retain affordable health care in this country – save Bulk Billing, save Medicare.

I proposed by the reordering of the budget – and budgets are about priorities, they are about choices and opportunities. The trouble is, this government is making the wrong choices. It’s exercising the wrong opportunities, and in the process families and working people are going to suffer. I’ve indicated a commitment to lift the patient rebate to 100%. That will mean an increase across the board of $5 for every patient that’s Bulk Billed. But in addition to that, recognising that there are particular pockets in which there have been dramatic declines in Bulk Billing, additional incentives to recognise the costs – the costs associated with delivering in particular areas; additional incentives to bring it back up. This is the plan, delegates, to save Medicare, to restore Bulk Billing, to ensure that your right is protected, that which you’ve contributed to is preserved. But the health care equation doesn’t just stop with Bulk Billing. The reality is if Bulk Billing goes, where does a patient go if they can’t find a doctor that Bulk Bills? They go to the emergency ward at the local hospital. No wonder we’ve getting additional pressure on the public hospitals. But what’s the John Howard Government’s solution? It’s to say to the governments of the states, “You’ve got to pay for that.”

What I say, is that if we’re to seriously address health care it’s got to be about a new partnership with the states, not just cost shifting to them. The new partnership isn’t just about money; it’s about reform within our system. I believe in that. I know that you believe in that. I know that the unions associated with it are prepared to be part of it because they were there over the weekend at a conference of the Health Alliance to get a better health system in this country. Everyone that cared about health in this country was there, but there was one noticeable absence: it was the Health Minister of this country in John Howard’s government. She wouldn’t go. She said that such a conference was politicising it. Well, let’s understand this: health care is about people’s rights. You can’t avoid it getting into politics. But a Health Minister that thinks the way you solve a problem is by staying away from the conference doesn’t deserve to hold the portfolio. What I’m saying is not only was every State Health Minister in the country there, but so was the Shadow Health Spokesperson. I’m committed to doing a new deal, a new partnership with the states to ensure that on the back of our commitment to restore Bulk Billing and save Medicare we also get decent hospital care in this country as well. The country deserves it; they’re entitled to it.

Education is another important area of where we’ve got to make this distinction between what they’re about and what Labor proposes. It’s very interesting that if you look at these two critical areas of public policy two things stand out: whilst there are private benefits associated with both health and education, overwhelmingly they are public goods and they demand substantial public investment in them. That’s the first point. The second point of course is that we’re seeing in this government a preparedness to shift the cost of that investment from government to the individual – in the case of health care, making you pay each time you go to a doctor, such that your Medicare card is no longer important, what the doctor wants is your credit card. It’s happening in health, it’s also happening in education.

You know, it’s very odd that this is a government that makes a virtue of reducing public debt, but when it comes to addressing fundamental services in the community it wants to increase private debt. In my day, the big debt burden one had to incur was saving for a house and paying off the mortgage. I don’t understand how we expect our young kids today to get a start in life when they’re being saddled with a financial burden to get a tertiary education and when their families are being saddled with an additional burden to look after the health of that family. That’s not the Australian way. It’s not a fair go. It’s something that we must resist.

I said before that education is overwhelmingly a public good, and for that it requires public investment in it. There needs to be more investment in our schools, in particular our public schools. There needs to be more investment in early childhood because we know that if the investments are made there the cost later on diminishes. We pay a very heavy price if we ignore the importance of education in the early years. We need to invest more in the life-long learning cycle and the down payment that Labor made on this last month was the announcement of what we were prepared to do in terms of post-secondary education. A commitment to 20,000 additional TAFE and University places – not between them, but each: 20,000 in the universities and 20,000 in the TAFES. Why? Because the killer statistic is that these days a person that has an education post Year 12 has twice as good a chance at getting a job. Now, if we are a country about opportunity, we’ve got to give those people the chance to experience that opportunity. I want education in this country to be based upon a person’s ability, not their ability to pay. That’s where it’s headed under this government.

You know, I was out at the University of Western Sydney, a university that Labor opened, a university where two-thirds of the students on the campus are the first members of their family ever to have attended university. I want to make sure they’re not the last. Because this is what we owe future generations as part of their opportunity. It also makes us better as a nation. It is about skilling the workforce. It is about us becoming more educated, more skilled, taking advantage of the opportunities, becoming truly a nation built on innovation and skills, because that’s the path I want us to head – high skill because that’s the path to higher wages. It won’t happen unless we as a nation are prepared to invest in our education system and do it as a nation, not force the cost back on the individuals. I can say this to you, that we will not be supporting the government’s measures through the parliament that increase the cost of going to university and deregulate the university system. This is not an education system that I want for this country.

The other issue I think that’s terribly important for us to address is in growing as a nation there’s got to be fairness in the distribution of the fruits of our labour. It was in essence what the Accord was about in the 80s, a preparedness, if you like, to be part of wealth creation but to have a say in its distribution. We argued then that distribution could take different forms – the social wage, Medicare, superannuation and the like. But we still need to have a strong economy, delegates, because that’s the wherewithal by which the distribution can be effected. But increasingly we have to also have a sustainable economy, sustainable in environmental terms. That’s why I have made the commitment to the ratification of Kyoto, and it’s why I’ve made the commitment of repairing our river system, saving the Murray River, addressing salinity and halting land clearing. These are the things that again we owe future generations – and done smart, it can also be the basis upon which we export services and create jobs – green jobs. This is a win-win outcome done properly, but it’s something that we have to tackle together.

So far as the distribution is concerned, Labor supports you in your campaign for decency in wages and remuneration. We supported you in the Living Wage claim. The government, of course, argued for a position that would have reduced your real wages. The commitment from Labor is to not just support decency in wages at work, but also through retirement incomes.

On the question of taxation, because I know it’s being addressed at this Congress, it’s important to understand this: bracket creep is there for distribution. It’s your money. We need to be smart and clever about the way in which it’s distributed. Of course it can be given back in tax cuts, or it can be given back in services. The challenge for us collectively is to find the right balance between those things. I must say, as the highest taxing government this country has ever had, you’ve got to be asking yourself the question, “What is the dividend? If we’re being taxed more than ever before, how is it we can’t afford a health care system? How is it we can’t afford an education system? How is it we can’t afford to repair our environment?” But as I demonstrated in the budget speech in reply, the reality is that bracket creep can be given back through a combination of tax cuts and services, because what I committed to was to not oppose the tax increases but to commit to restoring Medicare, to commit to opposing their education proposals and coming forward with the re-ordering of the budget so that those issues, those services vital to us as a community were also secured. I might also point out if you look at the tax avoidance that’s running rife in our economy – even with the GST – the Tax Commissioner yesterday conceding that we’ve got a huge black economy off the back of the GST – I think we can start looking at a bit of fairness in the tax system by cracking down on the tax avoiders and by making them pay their fair share of their contribution to the economy.

Can I just make the point, too, that security in the workforce isn’t just about wage justice. It does involve good industrial relations laws, and they don’t exist at the moment. I’ve been on the picket lines at Morris McMahon and Geelong Wool Combers, for example. These are disputes that should never have happened. They happened because this government has taken away the requirement that employers bargain in good faith. What sort of a crazy system is that? No-one is saying that you’ve got to force them to do what you want, simply that they be prepared to sit down at the table and bargain in good faith. As a result of those disputes, Labor has introduced a Private Members Bill into the parliament that will restore bargaining in good faith. It goes with a democracy. It goes with fairness. It goes with the Australian way of a fair go. I tell you what, if that legislation had have existed, we wouldn’t have the stupidity that’s happening down at Geelong at the moment, and the Morris McMahon wouldn’t have gone on for 17 weeks. Labor is committed to re-establishing good faith bargaining, because it is the Australian way.

Labor is also committed to securing and protecting worker entitlements – 100% of them for all of the workers in this country, not just those who happen to work for John Howard’s brother’s company. What’s fair about a system that recognises the scheme that gives that protection for one company but no one else? The same fairness, it would seem, that recognises in terms of an ethanol production bonus – you introduce it for one company in the country at the disadvantage of all their competitors. That’s not the Australia that I want to see. So Labor has also introduced a Private Members Bill to protect 100% of worker entitlements. The other legislation, and I happened to introduce this yesterday, was legislation to change the corporate law so that sham companies can’t be able to be set themselves in which a workforce can be sacked overnight and all of its entitlements stripped away. It’s not fanciful, delegates, as you know, because it happened in the Patrick’s dispute. It happened in the dead of the night where the cabinet approved such a process. Under Labor it won’t ever be able to happen again.

Also we’ve continued to oppose the government’s so-called Fair Dismissal laws, the laws that make it easier to sack people on the pretence that this is going to increase employment opportunities. Can anyone really explain to me how you improve employment opportunities in this country by making it easier to sack people? Labor has opposed this legislation and put forward a constructive alternative. We recognise the rules have to be changed. But you can’t do it in a way that disadvantages and makes it easier to sack people without any cause. There’s got to be fairness in the workplace, and that’s where the laws and the industrial legislation of this country come in. I go further, though, because there is another pressing issue in this country, and that is the hours that people work, the pressures on families. Australians work the second-longest hours of all OECD countries. If we really want men and women in this country to be truly equal partners, we must make workplaces much more friendly.

Labor is committed to introducing paid maternity leave in this country. Now, I notice that Tony Abbott said paid maternity leave in this country will be introduced over his dead body. Well, I tell you what, sounds like a good win-win outcome to me. We also as part of this equation have to address the issue of improved access to affordable childcare. That too has to be addressed by us, and it will be. But we’ve also got to change the workplace culture. I want a circumstance in which the workforce of this country doesn’t have to choose as to whether being a good employer or a parent is what they have to do. I want them to be able to be both. That’s why we’ve got to look at changes in terms of the workplace culture to enable people to balance work and family life a lot better.

What I want to see is an amendment to the public interest test under the act to require the commission to have regard to the impact of employment conditions on families and communities. We will give workers the right to negotiate with employers on issues such as the right to return to part-time work following a period of parental leave. No one should be sacked from a large firm like Telstra for wanting to return to work part-time after having a child. It happened there, it can happen anywhere else. It shouldn’t happen in this country where we are about commitment to family values and bringing up families and caring for them. We’ve got to make the workplaces much more friendly. I also want to see workers have the right to negotiate to extend unpaid parental leave from one to two years; to take your family needs into account when rosters are being determined and, further, the option of job sharing and working from home.

Now, these are issues that should be on the agenda. I know you will be debating them. But the reality at the moment is, the legislation provides a barrier to dealing with these circumstances properly and fairly. There’s no requirement to bargain in good faith. There’s no entitlement to negotiate these types of conditions. There should be, and we will establish them.

Now, I mentioned before superannuation, because security for people isn’t just whilst they’re at work. It’s also for them in retirement. This increasingly is going to become a growing issue for this country. Why? Because the nation is aging, people for all sorts of reasons are retiring earlier – in some cases they’re forced to, in others they choose to. Superannuation was the great revolution that this Labor movement was associated with in the 80s. Without the commitment of the Labor movement, superannuation would still be the province of chief executives and the public sector. They were the only ones that really had adequacy of coverage before the 80s. You know, Labor has always been the party of the pensioner. Now it’s becoming the party of the superannuant. The only time that superannuation was ever extended for the whole of the workforce in this country was when Labor was in power. Since the Liberals have come to power, it’s stalled.

There has been huge growth in the numbers covered by superannuation. Interestingly, it’s a pretty regulated environment. It’s common rule, it’s compulsory and it’s something that in terms of retirement income is the antithesis of what’s being argued in terms of working income. Deregulation in terms of working wage, regulation accepted as the norm when it comes to retirement incomes. We have to advance this agenda, delegates, and that’s another issue that together we need to talk on. I’ll be having something more to say about it in coming months.

But it isn’t just the question of advancing the adequacy of superannuation; it’s about protecting that investment. Again, it’s your money. It’s your money, it’s your entitlements and we have to make sure that those savings are safe and secure. That does depend on proper regulation of the corporate sector. It is time that chief executives took responsibility for their failures instead of just multi-million dollar payouts. It is time in this country that we actually understood the circumstances in which people who have made bad decisions that cost you and your members retirement incomes shouldn’t be rewarded for it, or that there shouldn’t be unchallenged the deductibility that goes with those corporate handshakes. Under Labor, all redundancy payments over the value of $1 million will no longer be eligible business deductions for companies. I can think of better ways to spend that money.

We also see the need to double the current penalties when executives break the corporate law. There has to be some discipline in terms of decisions that affect your retirement income. We also think that there should be better disclosure of what executives have by way of their pay packages, not just the salaries but those share options that have become so widespread in their packages. In all, delegates, we see the need to protect these investments because Labor values hard work, not corporate greed.

Now, I go through all of these issues because they’re important to you, they’re important to us in the Labor party, but they are vital to the community out there. There’s been talk of a double-dissolution. But let’s understand the issues that are going to be fought around that double-dissolution if it’s called. It’s going to be whether or not the rest of Telstra is sold, and Labor says it should not be sold. Selling Telstra is bad for the nation, it’s bad for the bush, and it’s bad for the budget – $1.7 billion according to the latest figures would be lost by selling it. Only the other day there was that interesting comment when Rene Rivkin was inside and the question of those mobile phones being used to get messages from the outside and how this was breaching security. I think there’s a pretty simple message if they want to stop the law-breakers from using mobile phones in the prison: move them to the bush. The problem will be solved completely because you can’t get a mobile phone to work out there.

But Labor will not sell the rest of Telstra. The services are run-down, they’re sacking people left, right and centre and we as a nation understand the importance of public ownership in the telecommunications provider – no longer just for the standard telephone, but for connecting the nation, giving access to broadband, to fast speed Internet. This is the new communication, the new infrastructure that this nation needs.

So Telstra will be an issue. So will health, the future of Medicare. So will education, the question of whether we’re prepared to invest in it as a nation; the question of whether it’s right to make it easier to sack people. These are the sorts of issues around which the nation will have a very strong view. The task for us is to campaign around those issues, not just the issues but the values that underpin them, values that we hold dear, values that we believe – and quite frankly only we in the Labor movement believe. Our challenge, delegates, is to campaign together to extend those beliefs, to get people understanding that there is a difference, there is an alternative. We can do things a better way, a fairer way, the Labor way.

I urge you in the deliberations of this Congress to make wise counsel, to continue to talk with us, the Labor advisory council that was re-established after the September conference of last year has been working extremely well. Many of these issues that I’ve talked to you about today have been discussed with your representatives on the ACTU Executive. We have the policy, delegates, we have the commitment. What we need is the urge and the determination to get out and convince our membership that there can be a better way, a different way, a Labor way. I urge you to get behind this agenda and I look forward to working with you in coming months to deliver this outcome, a new deal for Australia, a new deal for Australian families. Thank you.