Originally published in The Australian – 24 November 2017
Political anniversaries are a peculiar beast. A decade on since the election of my government, none of us can lay claim to perfect objectivity in reflecting on what we got right and wrong. Least of all me. But here’s my top 10 of what I think we got right in our period in office.
No 1: Defeating John Howard, the most formidable conservative leader since Robert Menzies, and defeating him in his own seat of Bennelong. This was only the third time since the war that Labor had won government from opposition.
Howard had already seen off Paul Keating, Kim Beazley, Simon Crean and Mark Latham. We would have to blast Howard out of office. Had we not done so, there would 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. We also defeated Howard’s exploitative industrial laws known as Work Choices.
No 2: Preventing Australia from falling into recession during the global financial crisis, in contrast to every other major economy, thereby saving the jobs 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. We did so with one of the world’s lowest ratios of net debt and deficit to GDP, and preserving Australia’s AAA credit rating.
We also guaranteed the savings accounts of every Australian citizen, despite Malcolm Turnbull’s opposition. 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.
No 3: Helping secure the establishment of the G20 as the pre-eminent economic decision-making body in the world, including Australian 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 Tony Abbott hosted the G20 in 2015, 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.
No 4: Launching a new national productivity strategy based on skills, infrastructure and industry policy. We established Skills Australia. We established Infrastructure Australia. We reformed and preserved the Australian car manufacturing industry. We launched the biggest national infrastructure build since the war, including major road projects such as widening the Pacific Highway; 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 by changing it from fibre optic to the premises to fibre optic to the node.
No 5: Initiating a new period of foreign and security policy activism including repairing the damage done by Howard to the bilateral relationship with Indonesia; withdrawing our military forces from Iraq and later Afghanistan; releasing the 2009 defence white paper, which explicitly identified the new threats to regional security, increasing the Australian surface fleet by a third and doubling the submarine fleet; persuading the US 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; defeating Japan in the International Court of Justice on so-called Japanese scientific whaling; launching bilateral free trade negotiations with India and South Korea; and securing 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 bipartisan support in our international campaign.
No 6: Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol; twice introducing legislation for a carbon pollution reduction scheme (defeated in the Senate twice by Turnbull, then Abbott); and critically legislating a mandatory renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020, which has become the most important vehicle for reducing Australian greenhouse gas emissions.
No 7: Introducing major reforms and investments in the education system including new libraries or multipurpose facilities for all 7500 primary schools; mandatory preschool education for all four-year-olds; the MySchool program granting publicly transparent data on literacy and numeracy testing for all schools; Australia’s first 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 students a chance, making it politically impossible for future governments to walk away from renewing these investments.
No 8: Negotiating successfully with the states the most comprehensive, systemic reform of the health and hospital system since Medicare, including the clear-cut allocation of funding and functional responsibilities for preventive healthcare, primary healthcare, 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. We also mandated comprehensive hearing tests for all newborns; brought in the world’s first tobacco plain packaging regime; as well as Australia’s first National Organ and Tissue Authority to improve transplant rates.
No 9: In social justice, helping those under financial pressure through the biggest single adjustment in the aged pension in history; increasing the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent; introducing Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme; and launching the development of our first National Disability Insurance Scheme. We also removed discrimination against same-sex couples in 87 commonwealth statutes, from social security to inheritance law, as well as fighting for marriage equality, which Abbott opposed, in the 2013 national elections.
No 10: The national apology to Australia’s indigenous people; the national closing-the-gap targets in health, education, housing, employment and longevity; the first collection of comprehensive national data in these areas; measurable improvements against some but not all these measures through Australia’s first National Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap between the commonwealth and the states.
I have written elsewhere what I believe we got wrong in government. And I’m sure others will add to that commentary in the days ahead. 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.
Kevin Rudd was prime minister from 2007 to 2010 and again in 2013.