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Taking Your Chances For Reform, The Labor Way

I came into parliament in 1996, after Labor suffered a terrible election defeat. Even though we were in opposition, as a new member of parliament, it was an exciting time for me. Being in opposition meant that I had time to learn; to understand how parliament works, and how to be an active member of parliament. Prior to that, I’d been a researcher, and even though I’d done two big policy reviews for Brian Howe when he was Deputy Prime Minister, that’s not the same as putting things in place yourself. Also, I wasn’t used to the rough and tumble of the parliament, so I needed to learn how to deal with that.

I’d already developed a reputation for standing up for people who needed a strong voice. I felt that older Australians shouldn’t be treated this way, so I took the PM on.

In my first term, I went straight onto the front bench, with responsibility for Aged Care. At the time, John Howard was trying to introduce some radical changes to aged care funding that I thought were unfair. I’d already developed a reputation for standing up for people who needed a strong voice. I felt that older Australians shouldn’t be treated this way, so I took the PM on. We had a big political struggle which led to a change of policy. After my first term, I became health spokesperson. The Health Minister at that time was Michael Wooldridge, who was a smart guy and tough opponent. There were big problems with the way he issued licenses for MRI’s, which became known as the ‘scan scam’, and I had the job of holding him to account for that. Those early experiences, up against Howard and Wooldridge, gave me the opportunity to learn how to take on difficult political fights on the floor of the parliament and in the media, and to develop the skills and temperament I would eventually need in government.

You’ve got to be prepared to withstand the incoming barrage, which can be pretty rugged at times. I remember Wilson ‘Ironbar’ Tuckey, telling me to get on my broomstick and fly out of the parliament, and various other insults. Michael Wooldridge told me that I’d be the only person paying the GST when I had my tattoos removed; a fairly ugly moment in the middle of the GST debate. The whole parliament went into uproar and later, one of the older fellows from the Liberals came over and said he was very sorry for what Michael had said. It was very rude because he knew “that a nice girl like me wouldn’t have tattoos.” On the other hand, one of the rougher blokes on our side came up and said, “Show us your tatts”, which perhaps highlighted the differences between the two parties. When possible, it’s best to take the argument up to people with good humour, and to take them on more vigorously when they deserve it, which Michael Wooldridge and others certainly did.

Gough famously talked about the inequality of luck. What he meant was that at any time, any one of us could be unlucky and have a bad fall, be in a car accident or have a child born with a serious disability.

Outside of Canberra, I thoroughly enjoy being a local representative. One of the great things about Australian politicians is that we’re accessible; people can come and see their local MP directly and we get to make a difference in the community. When I was still a candidate, Jeff Kennett was the Victorian Premier and was threatening to sell a first time the Austin Hospital which I thought was a shocking idea. Everyone in the electorate thought it was a shocking idea too, so we organised a local campaign to ‘Save the Austin’. Not only did the grassroots effort win that battle but the new Labor state government, under Steve Bracks and John Thwaites, committed to rebuilding the Austin precinct, now also housing the Mercy Hospital for Women and the Olivia Newton John Cancer Centre. Over a twenty year period the single biggest local issue for me has been protecting and doing everything I can for the Austin. It’s enormously important to our local area and internationally renowned. That’s a wonderful thing to be able to do for your local community; to stand up, fight and deliver for them.

Community reforms, and in particular health and social reforms, have been a key focus for most of my career. The idea of disability care and support being delivered via an insurance rather than a charity or welfare model was first looked at by the Whitlam Government. Legislation for a disability insurance scheme was actually before the Parliament when the Whitlam Government was removed in 1975. Gough famously talked about the inequality of luck. What he meant was that at any time, any one of us could be unlucky and have a bad fall, be in a car accident or have a child born with a serious disability. It wasn’t until forty years later when the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments started to talk about supporting people with a disability through a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) rather than via welfare payments. Brian Howe had been the Minister responsible for disability support back in the early 1990’s when he introduced the Disability Discrimination Act. While working for Brian, I learned an enormous amount about building a case and demonstrating the need for reform. The NDIS required exactly that.

An enormous amount of the credit must go to Bill Shorten. Some may say that we were a good combination.

It started with a meeting; Brian Howe and Bruce Bonyhady came to see Bill Shorten (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services) and I at the beginning of 2008. I put the legislation into the parliament in 2013, which shows how long it took. Big reforms, really big reforms, take that long… hopefully not forty years, but even five years of effort is not uncommon. An enormous amount of the credit must go to Bill Shorten. Some may say that we were a good combination. Bill was a great advocate and a great activist. He was wonderful at getting out there, banging the drum and building the case, whereas I was the senior cabinet minister, working hard on the policy detail and the cabinet process. The Productivity Commission did a wonderful job on the policy detail, and the disability advocates were outstanding. The NDIS never would have happened if people with disabilities, carers, parents and the disability providers hadn’t come together in an alliance. You need all stakeholders working actively to deliver fundamental change.

We were very fortunate to have a Prime Minister, Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan who were prepared to say, “We have to do this”. Real leadership is essential. The truth is, if you don’t have a Prime Minister who is prepared to make big decisions, major reform won’t happen. Right now in Australia, what we need is meaningful action to tackle climate change. Instead, we have a Prime Minister who basically chickens out whenever big decisions are required that might upset a few of his backbenchers. By contrast, in 2013 when we were making these decisions about the NDIS, Julia Gillard was under enormous political pressure from Mr Abbott and from internal tensions in the Labor Party. Yet Julia did not walk away from the needs of the disability community. She took the decision and she fought for it. And it is now being delivered.

Real leadership is essential. The truth is, if you don’t have a Prime Minister who is prepared to make big decisions, major reform won’t happen.

It should be no surprise that throughout such a process, stability and unity is absolutely essential. You can achieve major reform in the service of the Australian people if you have a strong leader. A strong leader is someone who is actually prepared to get things done, even in the face of enormously difficult economic circumstances, such as was faced by Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan in 2008. What Kevin and Wayne showed during the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, is that if you’re prepared to make hard decisions, not squib them, then it will be to the country’s benefit. I don’t think it should ever be overlooked that as Prime Minister and Treasurer they saved Australia from mass unemployment. Compare Australia’s experience to many European countries: mass unemployment that lasted for years and years, families broken, communities destroyed. We were saved from that because Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan were prepared to make the big calls and they made them at the time they needed to be made, which is critical. Sometimes you don’t get a second chance.

The journey to an official Apology to Australia’s Indigenous community also took a long-time. Looking back on the Apology, it may seem that it was always going to be a unifying moment for our country, as the vast majority of Australians came together to acknowledge the wrongs of the past. But it had not come easily. For Aboriginal people it was a nasty, horrible struggle to get there. An apology from all Australian parliaments was a key recommendation of the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report, but for ten years John Howard said “No”; that he wouldn’t apologise because he didn’t feel like the current generation had anything to apologise for. Howard created the false notion that reconciliation required a choice between practical and symbolic reconciliation. We knew we had to do both. Kim Beazley had said following the release of Bringing Them Home in 1997 that Labor would apologise. The political back-and-forth was a very painful process for Aboriginal people. After ten years of denial, the day itself was deeply emotional. John Howard’s behaviour and the hurt that he imposed was unforgivable. Fortunately, Labor won the 2007 election and Kevin Rudd renewed our commitment to deliver an Apology.

Looking back on the Apology, it may seem that it was always going to be a unifying moment for our country, as the vast majority of Australians came together to acknowledge the wrongs of the past. But it had not come easily.

I remember telling Kevin early on that we needed to get moving within a few days of being elected. We ran a period of consultation with the two Stolen Generations groups. They told us that they definitely wanted the Apology to be delivered in Parliament House, by the Prime Minister. They were excited at the Apology being the first order of business from the new Government, which was a massive statement in itself. At the same time, Kevin decided that along with the traditional British-style opening ceremony of parliament, we would also have the first Aboriginal Welcome to Country. That tradition has continued and now every single morning in the chamber, the Speaker does an Acknowledgement of Country, which started in 2008.

It took ten years for Aboriginal people to receive the formal Apology and have the truth acknowledged. Acknowledgement was very important for Aboriginal people because they were finally believed. All those people who had been part of the Stolen Generations – children, parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents and other relatives – had their pain finally acknowledged.

Reform is an ongoing process of engagement. One of the positive things about the current debate on same sex marriage is that it has energised and engaged young people. Whilst the Labor Party doesn’t agree with the postal survey, one of the good things we’re seeing is so many young people sign onto the electoral role. A new generation is becoming politicised because the issue of marriage equality touches them at an emotional level. When I was young, engagement for me came through the second wave of the women’s movement; women being able to be whatever we wanted to be. Marriage equality engages young people at a personal and emotional level in much the same way. Most of the younger generation just can’t comprehend why people shouldn’t be treated equally. If we can encourage and support young people as they become more active in politics through the pursuit of equality, then that’s a great thing.

In my time in politics I’ve seen Australian values demonstrated through engagement in different issues, across many different sectors of the community. Consider Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott’s horror 2014 Budget, where they tried to rip up Australia’s social security system. They tried to change the way that the Age Pension is indexed which would have meant an $80 per week cut to the pension over a ten-year period. They tried to say to young people, if you’re under thirty and unemployed you’ll have nothing to live on for six months. They wanted to take about $8.5 billion out of the pockets of families through cuts to family payments. People have forgotten just how radical it was.

Australians do not want to be like America. We don’t think that if something bad happens to you in life that you’re on your own. We believe that we should look after each other.

Australia would have become a less fair and less just country had those cuts passed the parliament. However the great thing I found during many public meetings at that time was the way the Australian people said, “This is not who we are.” Pensioners were cross about the cuts to the pension, but they were more upset about what Tony Abbott wanted to do to young unemployed people. Pensioners, who were going to be made worse off, were actually more concerned for others in the community. I thought that was a wonderful demonstration of the Australian value of a fair go. Their attitude demonstrated what the fair go really means. Australians do not want to be like America. We don’t think that if something bad happens to you in life that you’re on your own. We believe that we should look after each other. If you get really sick, Medicare should be available. If you have a terrible accident, the National Disability Insurance Scheme should be there. If you’re unemployed you should be able to get decent income support.

The great thing about Australia is that we believe in fairness. The vast majority of Australians really do care about each other. People know that if you work hard, you will be rewarded. If you fall behind, you should get the help you need.