Kevin Rudd: On the Nature of Labor and Conservative Governments

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On the Nature of Labor and Conservative Governments

Address by the Honourable Kevin Rudd

26th Prime Minister of Australia

Le Montage, Sydney

1 December 2017.


My name is Kevin.

I’m still from Queensland.

And one decade on I’m still here to help.

Friends, its one decade since we removed John Winston Howard from government.

One decade since we removed John Winston Howard from Bennelong.

One decade on since we were sworn in as the democratically elected Labor Government of Australia.

And one decade on since we removed Howard’s Work Choices from the statute books.

These, friends, are the things of which we should all be proud.

And these are things of which we the great Australian Labor Movement should be proud.



In the short sweep of our nations’ history, these were no small things.

Indeed, ten years ago, they seemed almost impossible things.

In the 117 years since our federation as a nation, only four of my predecessors had come from the hard fields of opposition to become Labor Prime Minister, and only two of them in the 72 years since the Second World War.

Andrew Fisher, who was destroyed by the Great War.

Jim Scullin, who was destroyed by the Great Depression.

EG Whitlam who was destroyed by a dishonourable conservative conspiracy which continues to blight the nation’s constitutional history.

And RJ Hawke, our longest serving Australian Labor Prime Minister still.

And on the 3rd of December 2007, I was honoured to have been sworn in as only the fifth.



In all our nation’s history, winning office from the conservatives has proven to be a bloody hard thing.

There are reasons for that.

First, the politics of hope are always harder than the politics of fear.

Second, the politics of compassion are always harder than the politics of greed.

And third, throughout most of our history, the conservatives have had the great trifecta resting comfortably in their back pocket:

They have more money.

They have most of the media.

And for nearly the last half century, they have virtually been owned by Murdoch.

Money, the media and Murdoch – each a virtual synonym for the other.

So, winning government for the Australian Labor Party is a hard thing.

Keeping government for the Australian Labor Party is even harder.

So when Turnbull is smashed at the next election, and he will be, let us understand that holding the reins of government as a progressive political party in Australia is a precious thing, to be nurtured carefully, not to be thrown away lightly through petty personal ambition, and then for government to be deployed to the absolute full in the prosecution of a reformist agenda to secure the nation’s future.



For let us never forget, it is the Labor Party that has always had the passion to plan the nation’s future.

It’s the Labor Party that has always had the determination to build the nation’s future.

It’s the Labor Party that has had the imagination to carve out the great sweeps of the nation’s history.

Just as the self-anointed mission of the conservatives has been to seek to un-write the great chapters of that history that we have already written.

Or as much as the conservatives think they can get away with.

Always to return, as much as they can, to an Australia for the few, rather than the many.

Always, as in Manning Clark’s monumental history, the party of the ‘punishers and straighteners,”

Too fearful to paint a broad canvas themselves for the nation we could become.

Too ideological to invest in the nation’s future, in order to secure the economy’s future.

Too cynical to understand, or to even care, that the politics of race are a dangerous thing for our community’s future.

Too provincial to be a government engaged fully in the world, rather than separating us from the world, as if that was somehow possible to secure our future.

Too selfish to be a government for the many, not the few



For those who may doubt this account, or who may not want to believe it, consider the historical record:

Labor commissioned an independent  Royal Australian Navy.  The conservatives argued for an Australian Squadron within the British Fleet.

Labor established the Commonwealth Bank. The conservatives said it was a waste of money.

Labor commissioned the Trans-Continental Railway to link eastern Australia with the west. The conservatives said it was a waste of money.

Labor backed the introduction of the age pension. The conservatives said it was a waste of money.

Labor brought in workers compensation for injury in the workplace. The conservatives said it was a waste of money.

Labor brought us victory in the Second World War. The conservatives when the chips were down supported appeasement under Chamberlain.

Labor brought our troops back from the Middle East to defend Australia. The conservatives supported Churchill’s demand that we keep our troops in the Middle East, win victory in Europe first, then save Australia last.

Labor unapologetically looked to America in our hour of national need. The conservatives still looked to the Mother Country.

Labor supported the independence of Indonesia from the Dutch. Menzies wanted Indonesia to remain a Dutch colony.

Labor actively engaged in the construction of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The conservatives supported the continuation of the British Empire, the continuation of Imperial Preference, until the British told us to get knotted when they later joined the EU.

In 1949, Labor was preparing to recognise Communist China. The conservatives reached for their smelling salts, even though Churchill went ahead and did so in 1950, while it took the reelection of a Labor Government in 1972 to do what we should have done in 1949, thereby wasting a quarter of a century.

Labor established the Australian National University because we needed to develop an independent understanding of Asia after the war after being so disastrously mis-led by the British before the war, leading to the fall of Singapore. The conservatives said the proposed new university was a waste of money.

Labor launched the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme. The conservatives said it was a waste of money.

Labor established universal health care under Medibank. The conservatives said it was waste of money and got rid of it.

Labor re-established universal health care under Medicare. The conservatives argued it was still a waste of money and campaigned for another decade to get rid of it, first  by the front door and by the back.

Labor made university education available to all, not just the rich. The conservatives said it was waste of money.

Labor introduced aboriginal land rights legislation. The conservatives opposed it.

Labor introduced the Racial Discrimination Act. The conservatives opposed it.

Labor internationalised the Australian economy by deregulating  exchange rates, interest rates, bringing down the tariff wall,  introducing enterprise bargaining and national competition policy. The conservatives after 30 years in government since 1949 had done absolutely nothing to make the economy competitive for the future.

Labor brought in superannuation for all working people. The conservatives opposed it.

Labor introduced the Native Title Act.  The conservatives opposed it.

Labor led the way with the establishment of APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Cambodian Peace Settlement, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The conservatives – well they gave us Tampa, the Howard Doctrine of Australia as the US deputy Sheriff in Asia and, of course, the invasion of Iraq.

Now friends, I know we may not have been to the most elite schools in the country, but  I detect a bit of a pattern here.

We build up.

They tear down.

We invest in the future.

They retreat to a past that no longer exists.

We write the nation’s enduring history.

They try to un-write it.

But the great achievement of Labor is that the conservatives never quite succeed.

Because we generally bring the people with us, albeit sometimes kicking and screaming, because we may be ahead of the curve of public opinion, rather than leading from behind by simply echoing  public opinion.

But also because when it all shakes out in the end, we remain a party and a government of the many rather than the few, and the people, for all our faults, ultimately recognise  that.



Friends, the same spirit of governing for the many and not the few, the spirit of nation-building for the future,  was the pounding heart of our government as well.

Let me say this loud and clear.

I am immensely  proud of the governments that I led.

Our record of Labor achievement is strong.

And I am a little tired of the repeated peddling of a revisionist account of it.

Driven in the main by conservative parties whose historical mission has always been  todelegitimise Labor.

Supported of course by the third and most potent member of their conservative coalition, the Murdoch Party.

And from time to time aided and abetted by a few rats in the ranks of our own, always seeking to deflect from their own unique contribution to certain recent events in our party’s history.

And for all three of the above, there has been a certain symmetry of interests at work.

It’s time on this tenth anniversary of the government’s election to dismiss this revisionist account of the achievements of our government for the self-serving politics that it is.

By any reasonable measure, our record of achievement was strong indeed.

First, we defeated John Howard, the most formidable conservative leader since Menzies. This was no easy thing. Howard had already seen off Keating, Beazley, Crean and Latham. We would have to blast Howard out of office.

And had we not done so, there would then have been a transition to a post-Howard leadership with every possibility of political renewal and Labor being out of office for an entire generation.

And in defeating Howard, we also defeated Howard’s “Work Choices” and replaced it with the Fair Work Act which remains in force today. The “Your Rights at Work” campaign was brilliant. But unless we also prevailed in the daily parliamentary and public debate against Howard directly on the exploitative nature of his industrial laws, Howard’s “Work Choices” regime would still be with us to this day.

Second,  we saved Australia from falling into recession during the GFC. In contrast to every other major economy in the world. Thereby saving the jobs and small businesses of hundreds of thousands of Australians.

This also put Australia into the economic history books by making possible 26 years of consecutive economic growth, the best in OECD history. And we did so with one of the lowest net debt and deficit to GDP ratios in the world,  preserving Australia’s  AAA credit rating.

We also guaranteed the savings accounts of every  Australian citizen, despite Turnbull’s opposition. And through our sovereign guarantee for inter-bank lending, we kept the arteries of credit open, prevented the collapse of a single Australian financial institution, unlike the multiple collapses we saw elsewhere.

Third, we were essential in  securing  the establishment of the G20 as the ‘pre-eminent economic decision making body in the world,’ thereby enabling Australia’s permanent membership. The diplomatic challenges in securing this were formidable, given other formulas were being advanced that would have excluded Australia. For the first time in  history, Australia had a seat at the top table of global decision-making.

The tragedy was when Abbott hosted the G20 in 2014 he squandered it and became an international embarrassment instead. Neither he nor Turnbull have injected the political and policy energy necessary to preserve the vitality of the institution for the  future.

Given  the great uncertainties that lie ahead, it is in Australia’s vital national interests that we do so.

Fourth, we launched a new national productivity strategy based on skills, infrastructure and industry policy.

We established Skills Australia and established more than half a million new training  places for the nation.

We established Infrastructure Australia and launched  the  biggest national infrastructure build since the war, including major road projects rail projects such as the Victorian Regional Express; new port infrastructure such as the rail freight network supporting the Port of Botany; and the National Broadband Network until Abbott and Turnbull  buggered it up completely by changing it from fibre optic to the premises to fibre optic to the node, thereby appeasing their political masters in News Corporation.

In industry we reformed the car manufacturing industry by making it clean and green, thereby saving the industry, until Abbott and Turnbull destroyed the industry in an act of pure political and ideological vengeance.

Fifth, we brought in a new period of foreign and security policy activism.

We repaired the damage done by Howard to the bilateral relationship with Indonesia.

We withdrew Australian  forces from Iraq in 2008.

And later from Afghanistan in 2013 having defined and then executed our strategic mission in Uruzgan Province.

We released the 2009 Defence White Paper called Force 2030 which explicitly identified the new threats to regional security, increasing major naval assets by a third, and doubling the submarine fleet.

We persuaded the United States to join the East Asian Summit along with China in the only fully inclusive regional security institution to reduce security tensions over time, rather than just compounding them.

We defeated Japan in the International Court of Justice on so-called Japanese scientific whaling.

We launched  bilateral free trade negotiations with India and Korea.

We secured a seat for Australia on the UN Security Council for the first time in nearly 30 years – despite Abbott’s unprecedented decision to deny the government bi-partisan support in our international campaign. We ratified the UN Optional Protocol of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Just as we did the UN Convention on Indigenous Peoples. Both had been rejected by the conservatives.

Number six, we ratified  the Kyoto Protocol as the first act of the government.

We introduced legislation for a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme( defeated in the Senate twice by Turnbull then Abbott, supported by the Greens).

We legislated successfully for a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target of 20% by 2020 which has since become the most important vehicle for reducing Australian GHG emissions.

We installed solar panels and ceiling insulation in about two million Australian homes, or about one quarter of the total Australian  housing stock.

We also introduced Australia’s first effective Murray Darling Basin Authority, a Catchment Management Plan with an annual, legally enforceable cap  balancing rural, urban and environmental flows, to give this precious river system a real chance of survival.

And we had the great Ningaloo Reef off West Australia added to the National Heritage List and nominated it for World Heritage listing, protecting it from future hydrocarbon exploration and extraction.

Number seven, we introduced  major reforms and investments in the education system including new libraries or multi-purpose facilities for all 7,500 Australian primary schools;  mandatory pre-school education for all  four year olds; the MySchool program granting publicly transparent data on literacy and numeracy testing for all  schools; Australia’s first ever national school curriculum to make it easier for kids moving interstate; laptops for every secondary school student from year 9 and above to give all kids a chance, making  it politically impossible for future governments to walk away from renewing these investments in the future.

Number eight : we negotiated successfully with the states the most comprehensive, systemic reform of the Australian health and hospital system since Medicare, including the clear-cut allocation of funding and functional responsibilities for preventative health care, primary health care, acute hospital care, post acute care and aged care; national health workforce planning; digital medicine and patient-controlled digital health records to prevent unnecessary repeat diagnostics. Regrettably, Abbott killed this reform. It nonetheless remains the best blue-print for the future.

We also built a national network of Regional Cancer Care Centres around non-metropolitan  Australia to give rural people the same change if cancer survival as people form the major cities.

We also mandated comprehensive hearing tests for all new-borns.

We brought in the world’s first tobacco plain packaging regime.

And we established Australia’s first ever National Organ and Tissue Authority to improve transplant rates.

Number nine: In social justice, we helped those under financial pressure through the biggest single adjustment in the aged pension in history; increasing  the child care rebate from 30% to 50%; and introduced Australia’s first ever paid parental leave scheme.

We launched the development of our first National Disability Insurance Scheme, a proposal from the 2020 Summit of March 2008.

We also in our first term removed discrimination against same sex couples in 87 different Commonwealth statutes, from social security to inheritance law, as well as fighting  for Marriage Equality in the 2013 national elections which Abbott, then supported by Turnbull, opposed.

Number ten: We promised a National Apology to indigenous Australians. And I delivered that apology as the first act of the new parliament.

We introduced the National Closing the Gap strategy including targets in health, education, employment and longevity; the first ever collection of comprehensive national data in  these areas; measurable improvements against some, but by no means not all these measures, and the mandatory annual reporting to the parliament on  the anniversary of the apology by the Prime Minister of the day on progress or regress in meeting these targets.

We then negotiated  Australia’s first ever $4.6 billion National Indigenous Reform Agreement between the Commonwealth,  the States and Territories.

And finally, my friends, I’m proud of our record on women.

I was proud to have Australia’s first woman as Deputy Prime Minister.

Proud to have recommended the appointment of Australia’s first woman as Governor General.

Proud to still hold the record for the greatest number of women in the cabinet.

Including in the biggest  portfolios in the government of industrial relations, education, health, social security, climate change.

Proud also in appointing Australia’s first Ambassador for Women and Girls.

As well as introducing Australia’s first fully funded national strategy against domestic violence.



Friends, we were elected with a big policy agenda.

There were no small targets there.

We were met with the biggest threat to the global and national economic and financial stability since the Great Depression.

But we came though both.

We survived the GFC and what for others became the Great Global Recession from  which many are still recovering

And yet we also implemented virtually all of our policy platform.

This was not a season for the faint-hearted.

We worked our guts out.

And the record is strong.

Despite the collective interests of the far right, and the faux ( green ) left to argue to the contrary because it is simply because it is in their political interests to do so.



When I was approached to return to the Prime Ministership in 2013 it was for a narrower purpose: to save the furniture in what had already become an almost impossible election to win.

And Albo, Chris, Joel, save the furniture we did!

Fifteen more seats than would otherwise have been the case, according to the public report of the National Secretary of the Party.

Which made our recovery, and what turned out to be near victory, in 2016 possible.

My price for returning, as you will recall, was to change the rule of the Parliamentary Labor Party, to require a 50-50 vote of both the caucus and full party membership for future elections of the leader,  so that future leaders would not  face the prospect of a midnight knock on the door from the faceless men of the factions.

And that we have achieved.

We have stability in our party.

Whereas the conservatives today are a wreck.

Even when Bill  has personally polled particularly badly, the rule change I introduced in 2013 has protected him from instability.

A little ironic given that in nearly four years as leader, I went below 50% only twice.

But politics, again, definitely ain’t for the faint-hearted.



I have already written elsewhere what I believe we got wrong in government. All governments get things wrong. And we were no exception.

And many others, both honestly and dis-honestly, have added to that commentary on what we got wrong in recent years.

But in the limited time we had in office, I’m proud of what we achieved.

Indeed my challenge to Abbott and Turnbull is to produce anything comparable to this list of achievements for their own period in government, where I fear their  record has been very thin indeed.



For the future, I cannot believe how bad this current government has become.

I have never understood why people seek the highest political office without a clear-cur policy agenda to deploy once there.

But we have had two of them in a row.

Abbott and Turnbull.

Abbot, at least consistent with the conservatives tradition, just set about repealing anything in sight.

Kill the carbon price.

Kill the car industry.

Kill the National Health and Hospital Plan.

Until Abbot finally hit upon the single major forward-reaching reform of his government.

The  introduction of knighthoods.

And a return of the deep and ancient mysteries of the Land of Hope and Glory.

At least I suppose Abbott was a conservative from central casting: try and kill the progressive record of achievement, and then wallow in a world of cultural nostalgia for a bygone age.

But Turnbull is neither fish nor fowl.

Neither Conservative nor Liberal.

Turnbull is just Turnbull – standing for nothing apart from Malcolm himself

A profound disappointment to his party, which has now become little more than a bad joke.

To the Nation, whose economy is now languishing for want of leadership, a clear productivity reform agenda and the development of the new industries of the future.

And to the world at a time when Australia more than ever needs a leader capable of negotiating the shoals of Trump’s America, Xi Jinping’s China, fragile regional security, a fragile global economy and a deeply fragile planet.

But we are left with Malcolm.

Unless of cource you understand, as I finally did some months ago, that its all like a scene from lChauncey Gardner in Peter Sellers last and greatest movie, “Being There.”

That in fact is the only reason Malcolm is there.

Just to be there.

The final fulfillment of personal political ambition utterly detached from any real policy agenda.

Just being there.

Malcolm, for the good of your party and the country, just go.

Let the others sort out who should replace you.

And then let the contest begin on who should form the next government of Australia.

Our country deserves so much better than what we now have.