National Press Club: The Case for Courage

The Hon Kevin Rudd AC
26th Prime Minister of Australia

‘The Case for Courage: A Long-Term Agenda for Australia’s Future’

Address to the National Press Club of Australia

Tuesday, March 9, 2020

Check against delivery

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of this place, the Ngunnawal people, and their elders – past, the present and still to come.

And thank you for the kind invitation to address the National Press Club to launch the little book I have just written entitled “The Case for Courage”.

It deals with what I call the five mega-challenges facing Australia’s future which I fear have been swept aside in recent years in what passes for our national political debate.

This book is one of a number being released this week as part of a new series by Monash University Press called “In the National Interest” and I acknowledge Monash for their commitment.

When a colleague saw a copy of my book for the first time last week, he quipped I could never have written something like this.

“Why”, I enquired, “because it’s not on China?”

“No,” he replied. “Because it’s so short.

“And you, Kevin, never do short – particularly if the alternative is another volume of ‘War and Peace’.”

But short it is. So I hope you enjoy this lightning read in our increasingly time-challenged world.

I have been back in Australia for the last year, the longest period I have spent here since leaving office.

The reason I have written this book is that for the first time in my life, I now have a deep anxiety about Australia’s future.

This is unusual for me. I am by nature an optimist.

But Australia is now facing the most profound challenges to our domestic and international circumstances since the Second World War.

And it is the responsibility of this generation – what is still my generation – to deal with these nation-breaking challenges as questions of real, measurable, substantive policy.

Not superficially, or as problems of “issue management”, as has now become our national custom, and not as political performance art.

The time for political posturing, theatre and illusion has well and truly gone.

The time for action has come. Otherwise we run the risk by mid-century of becoming a second-rate country that failed to live up to its potential – with corroded institutions, an exhausted economic model, and woefully under-prepared for the radical changes now unfolding around us.

Today, I want to lay out three sets of challenges:

First, the slow and steady decay of our critical national institutions;

Second, the core economic, climate, equity, population and national security challenges which will determine whether our future is secure, sustainable and prosperous, or the reverse; and

Third, how the national debate we need to have on each of the above continues to be diluted, diverted and redirected through the sustained impact of the Murdoch media monopoly, as Murdoch continues to control the terms of our national conversation.

The Integrity of our Parliament

Let me begin with the integrity of our national institutions – starting with the national parliament itself.

Last year, I decided to call this little book “The Case for Courage”. I meant by that the courage necessary to deal with the deepest policy changes facing the nation.

But what we have seen this year is courage of a much greater order as women across our society have come forward to shed light on the predatory sexual behaviour of men. Indeed, we had one such voice at this very podium only last week in our Australian of the Year, Grace Tame.

It is wrong that women should have to fear such behaviour in any place, let alone the parliament which makes laws to protect all of us all.

It is wrong that female staff should fear being set upon by more senior male colleagues.

It is wrong that young women should fear being sexually harassed or sexually bullied by male members of parliament.

It is wrong that any woman should fear being sexually harassed, assaulted or raped by ministers of the cabinet.

And it is wrong that women of any age should fear this anywhere.

It is not only wrong. It is unlawful.

These are hard things to talk about. I know they are hard for women to talk about. Particularly hard for women who are survivors.

But talk about it now we must. Beyond talk, we must act to change this toxic culture. Whatever Mr Morrison and his media minders may wish, it’s clear the women of Australia rightfully will not stand idly by while men seek to push this under the carpet and the government encourages us simply to “move on”.

Let me be plain: sexual harassment and sexual assault in the parliament are an abuse of power, position and authority by my gender, the male gender, by men.

It’s not a problem caused by women, or by the clothes they wear, or how much they have had to drink.

It’s a problem caused by men.

I remember more than a decade ago, then as prime minister, stating that the responsibility for ending violence against women in Australia lay with my gender – men.

I thought this was an unremarkable, simple statement of fact. I was told afterwards that it was the first time a national political leader had said it. And that was before the men’s groups erupted over my supposed crushing blow to national masculinity.

There have been statements from brave young women across politics on this – Liberal, Labor and others. There are many others, also brave, who have chosen to remain silent. I have great respect for them all.

I understand that talking about these matters is deeply disturbing for many women and I encourage you to speak with the many professional services that, thankfully, are now available to provide professional help and support.

I welcome the fact that they will now be able to tell their stories to the national Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

I would encourage the Commissioner to pull no punches in the report she produces and the recommendations she makes.

I would also encourage all women who have experienced sexual harassment and assault, from whichever political party, to come forward and speak with the Commissioner.

As for the political fallout for the parties, let the cards fall where they may.

Now that I have said this, I’m sure my enemies in the Liberal Party, the Labor Party and the Murdoch Party will be hard at work to find examples of harassment and assault among my staff during the period I was prime minister.

The truth is with dozens of ministers, more than 100 members of parliament and probably 1000 staff across the country, I cannot in all conscience state there were no cases. I just don’t know.

What I can say is that, across my period in office, I am not aware of any complaint about my own staff, my ministers or members.

As for News Corporation, and before they resurrect my drunken visit to a strip club while I was an MP, let me note that I was there as the guest of Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand-man, Col Allan, although I have accepted full responsibility for being there.

Perhaps News Corp, which harboured such notorious sexual predators as Roger Ailes, will tell us whether they’ve used non-disclosure clauses to keep quiet allegations of sexual harassment and assault in Australia.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner should be resourced to hold further inquiries across the national media organisations, and other parts of corporate Australia, where she considers it appropriate. Let the sunshine in.

The uncomfortable truth for all Australian men is the game is now up. The age of male sexual entitlement is over. Australian women must be safe in all workplaces – led by the parliament itself.

Failure to do so will leave a stench over the public standing of an institution which remains central to our democracy.

The Integrity of our Democratic Institutions

Beyond the parliament, many institutions are critical for the proper functioning of our democracy. And each of them is now under threat.

First are the political parties themselves, and the corrosive effect of unlimited corporate donations as evidenced by Palmer’s $83 million investment in the 2019 election in support of the Liberal and National parties.

Second, in the office of prime minister, whose standard approach is now to gag the most basic parliamentary debates, stonewall any tough media question until the press gallery tires and “moves on”; and the unprecedented scale to which anything remotely controversial put to him in Question Time is referred to his ministers.

John Howard had the guts to answer questions put to him. So did I. As did Gillard.

Morrison is debasing the high office of prime minister in the name of media management.

Third, the independent office of the Auditor-General is being starved of funding despite the growing list of corruption, mismanagement and waste scandals.

These include the $1.2 billion RoboDebt disaster, the $2.5 billion Community Development Grants scheme, the $100 million sports rorts program and $30 million Leppington Triangle land transfer. With Australia sliding down the global corruption index prepared by Transparency International, the case for a strong federal ICAC is now overwhelming.

Fourth, the collapsing independence of the Australian Public Service. My government restored the independence of the APS. We made zero political appointments to head government departments, restoring the best tradition of Westminster. And we retained all those from the Howard government.

Yet now we have a Secretary at PM and C, the head of the public service, who is a long-term Liberal Party operative. The fish always rots from the head.

As for the Australian foreign service, it’s become a job placement agency for a growing legion of failed conservative politicians.

Fifth, the collapsing standards whereby retired ministers find loopholes to take lobbying jobs at the earliest opportunity.

There is supposed to be an 18-month ban on lobbying by former ministers. But that didn’t stop Christopher Pyne being hired by property developers to lobby his state Liberal colleagues. And now his brief exclusion period is over, he is lobbying his former department of Defence on behalf of a foreign arms manufacturer.

And that’s before we get to Andrew Robb. As trade minister, he encouraged state and territory governments to sell their assets to foreign investors.

Then, just months after Morrison as treasurer allowed a Chinese firm to lease the port of Darwin for 99 years, Robb took a job advising that company – not as a lobbyist, but as a consultant.

These ministers may not have technically broke the rules, but it hardly inspires public confidence.

Sixth, the rolling assault on ABC funding to erode its independence.

The Coalition has cut $783 million from the ABC.

Its real budget is now smaller than it was in 1996.

News and current affairs often shoulder the burden, reducing scrutiny of government.

Extraordinary political pressure has been applied to individual programs, such as Four Corners over its coverage of sexual harassment in politics.

And Morrison continues to ignore the independent nomination process for ABC board members that my government introduced through legislation.

Finally, there is the greatest cancer of all on our democratic institutions – the Murdoch media monopoly. Murdoch controls 70% of Australia’s print media. Virtually 100% in Queensland. And Murdoch now has the biggest YouTube channel in the country.

The truth that everyone knows, but few say publicly, is that Murdoch long ago ceased to serve up credible political news. It’s now a systematic protection racket for the Liberal and National parties.

Murdoch has viciously campaigned for the Liberal Party, and against the Labor Party in 19 of the last 19 federal and state elections. Not to mention between elections. They do this through the total conflation of news reporting and opinion.

And they do so to advance Murdoch’s business and ideological interests – lower tax for the wealthy, minimal regulation and climate change denial.

For Australia, there is a real risk that these seven factors are slowly driving our democracy into the dust.

Each is like a crack in the wall. Insignificant at first. Imperceptible. But then they start to coalesce. And when joined, they threaten the whole structure.

For those who think this fanciful, or limited to Australia alone, I commend Anne Applebaum’s book “The Twilight of Democracy” which explores similar fault lines across the West.

The Diversification of our Economy

Australia’s daily media diet, dominated by the Murdoch media, also skews the parameters of our national policy conversation.

Across the economy, inequality, climate, geopolitics and pandemic management – Murdoch’s relentless political and ideological drumbeat diverts our nation’s attention from these core policy challenges.

Let’s look at our need to radically diversify our economy.

For more than a decade, Murdoch’s analytical frame for the future of the Australian economy has been summarised in two words: debt and deficit.

Good governments had low debt and deficit. That’s the Liberals.

Bad governments borrowed. That’s Labor.

And then along came the Covid reality check and a big dose of whoopsie.

When I left office in 2013, net debt stood at $184 billion or 13% of GDP.

By 2024, net debt is projected to be seven times higher – a mind-boggling $1.3 trillion or 59% of GDP.

So what about budget deficits, which Murdoch proclaimed as the second essential measure of government economic competence?

In 2013, at the end of our term, our budget deficit stood at $30 billion or 1.3% of GDP.

This year, 2021, the Morrison government faces an eye-watering deficit of $222 billion or 11.1% of GDP.

Again, seven times the deficit under us.

And that’s af

ter their eighth budget deficit in a row, having promised in 2013 to “get the budget back under control” and insisting, even after coronavirus emerged, that we would be “back in black”!

By the way, because of early, targeted and decisive fiscal intervention, we were the only major advanced economy to avoid recession during the GFC. Whereas despite the Morrison mega-spendathon, which came too late, we tumbled straight into recession.

But how did the Murdoch media depict our successful approach to fiscal stimulus and its impact on debt, deficit and the economy? You guessed it. Here’s just one of their many front pages screamers proclaiming “Labor’s Debt Bomb”. Really?

And what did the Murdoch boys say about Morrison’s monster stimulus on their front page? You guessed it: “Big Bucks to Bust Covid”.

I assume the Murdoch media and his coalition partner, the Morrison government, will be formally apologising for a decade of lies to the Australian people on debt and deficit? Perhaps that letter is still in the post.

The bottom line is that Murdoch and Morrison have lied, day after day, year after year, about debt and deficit to get the Liberal Party elected and keep it in power.

But it has also utterly distorted Australia’s national economic debate for the last critical decade as well.

Where’s the debate about population? I have long argued for a Big Australia of 50 million-plus to fund our future national security, health, aged care and retirement income needs. You don’t have to agree with me, but we need to have the debate and resolve it, especially now that immigration has collapsed.

Where is the debate about our fully joining the global technology revolution?

With technology re-writing the rules of economic competition around the world, why aren’t we inventing, innovating and commercializing our own breakthroughs at scale – in IT, bio-technology and artificial intelligence, using our deep capital markets established by three decades of compulsory superannuation.

Why have our rates of R&D investment and research commercialisation plummeted when the rest of the OECD is headed north? Our failure to make Australia an essential part of the global technology revolution will turn us into a second-tier economy faster than we think.

Where is the debate on the future of Australian manufacturing where Murdoch joined forces with Morrison’s conservatives in destroying the Australian car manufacturing industry? Did you know we are now ranked stone, mother-less last in the 36-member OECD in our level of manufacturing self-sufficiency? This is just reckless as the recent Covid crisis has demonstrated.

Where is the debate about infrastructure given the combined Liberal Party-Murdoch Party sabotage of the National Broadband Network – abandoning fibre optic to the premises, in favour of legacy copper – just in time to deliver us, in Covid times, among the worst internet speeds in the world?

Where is the debate about an optimal tax structure for small business, with tax incentives to become medium businesses and, ultimately, the new big global Australian brands?

I don’t see any such debate.

Instead we see an attempted tax grab by some in big business, the grafting of JobKeeker payments straight into profits, and forensic tax minimisation schemes by major companies like News Corp to virtually eliminate their tax obligations to the Australian people.

Our big businesses need a reality check. Here are we – an advanced Western economy located in the fastest growing region in the world, which has already become the driver of the 21st century global economy – and only 8% of all ASX top 200 board members have spent at least two years working in Asia. Only 1% speak an Asian language.

We have become a self-congratulatory, complacent, inward-looking economy whose political, and large parts of our corporate, leadership are squandering the enormous opportunities with which we are blessed.

The great global economic transformation now underway – the ownership of new disruptive technologies, the unprecedented wealth generation to which it gives rise, and the engine-room of Asia’s rise – is passing Australia by.

The Remaining “Big Five” Mega-Challenges Facing Australia’s Future.

Climate

On climate change – as the world’s most climate-vulnerable continent, our national interests dictate we must be at the forefront of leading global action, not the reverse.

The uncomfortable truth is the world is now rapidly phasing out thermal coal – and other hydrocarbons will be next. We must pivot to a new economic model based on renewables, grounded in an expansion of the 20% Mandatory Renewable Energy Target that my government introduced more than a decade ago.

We must become part of the great global energy transformation that is already underway.

If we refuse, Australia will not only lose the new industries and new jobs of the renewable energy future. We will also face trade barriers, such the European Border Adjustment Mechanism for climate laggards, starting as early as next year.

The fact we are still having a national debate about mid-century carbon neutrality places us in global La-La Land against the new global consensus. The rest of the world has already moved.

We have been left behind because of indolent national leadership and the political terror campaign run by the Murdoch monopoly against any substantive climate action.

Inequality

On equality – unless we rebuild the Australian social contract between capital and labour we will, in time, make Australia as ungovernable as the United States is now.

Underlying the radical polarisation of American politics has been the collapse of the American middle class, stagnant wages and an explosion in earnings for the top one percent.

This has become a fertile recruiting ground for identity politics, the nationalist far right and the collapse of the political centre of the Republican Party. It’s also become the cornerstone of Murdoch’s Fox News political ecosystem.

As a measure of income inequality, America’s Gini coefficient is one the worst in the OECD. Australia’s Gini coefficient is also headed in the wrong direction after seven years of flatlined wages.

Morrison’s assault on the wages system, rising real health costs and the attempted gutting of the retirement income system – all supported by Murdoch – will exacerbate this trend. These will be particularly acute in regional, rural and Indigenous Australia.

The net result over time will be a divided Australia as we polarise between a rampaging far right and an emerging far left, with centrist reform no longer politically possible.

Geo-politics

These acute economic, social and environmental tipping points are occurring alongside challenges to the post-war global and regional order.

Australian leaders have assumed for more than two hundred years the global dominance of the Anglosphere – first Britain, then America.

China’s rise is likely to change this constant by mid-century, if not earlier. Australia is woefully unprepared, with no effective national China strategy.

Morrison has been shielded from the political consequences by a complicit Murdoch media. Imagine if a Labor government had imperiled billions in exports over what would have, no doubt, been characterised as mismanagement of the relationship.

Morrison’s Liberals, like Trump’s Republicans, have found the China megaphone irresistible for their domestic politics. But it is no substitute for a substantive operational strategy to maximise our interests and values against an increasingly assertive China, recognising that American leadership in our region is no longer assured.

Practically all American allies in Asia, Europe and Canada face similar tensions between their economic interests in China and their enduring security and values-based interests with the United States. But Australia, quite uniquely, has painted a target on itself as China’s public enemy number one.

With America’s future beyond 2024 still unknown, this is dangerous.

We need a new national China strategy to help us navigate the next 30 years.

Future Pandemics

Finally, this won’t be our last pandemic.

Zootic diseases are more frequent and more complex thanks to climate change and other strains on biodiversity.

The 2020 Summit we held in 2008 identified pandemics as a major national security threat, and we conducted a pandemic management exercise later that year – just before we faced the first flu pandemic in 40 years, H1N1. It killed about 575,000 people globally. We lost 191 in Australia. But we contained it.

Rather than heed the 2020 Summit report, the Coalition government and the Murdoch media saw political advantage in ridiculing it. There would be no pandemic exercises under the Liberals before Covid-19 hit, with devastating health and economic consequences.

Morrison’s initial public health and economic responses were late and flawed.

The states have carried the vast bulk of the public health burden and have largely done well.

The vaccine rollout, a federal responsibility, has been late.

Quarantine, another federal responsibility, has been a disaster.

As has aged care, also a federal responsibility.

And it remains to be seen how effective the government’s stimulus strategy will be once JobKeeper is removed later this month.

In all these domains, the Murdoch media has acted as a political protection racket for Morrison rather than an accountability mechanism.

Its venom has been reserved for state Labor governments, especially in Queensland and Victoria.

Again, imagine the Murdoch treatment if my government had presided over the aged care, quarantine and vaccine mistakes, missteps and disasters. Every front page would demand my head.

Instead, the country is done a disservice. We are left no better prepared for the future. We need to revive regular national pandemic exercises.

Conclusion

There are common denominators to these “big five” mega-challenges and changes outlined in “The Case for Courage”.

First, in each of them – the economy, climate change denial, the assault on incomes, the China challenge, and pandemic management – Murdoch has acted as Morrison’s coalition partner, not a source of independent scrutiny.

Second, as part of this protection racket, Murdoch has aided and abetted Morrison in skewing the national policy debate away from the genuinely big questions we must resolve as a nation.

On the economy, we’ve had a bogus debate about debt and deficit rather than a real debate about the future drivers of economic growth.

On climate, a decade-long fear campaign about lost jobs and businesses, rather than a real debate on the transition to the new jobs and industries of a renewable future.

On incomes, we see – for example – a campaign to kill compulsory superannuation by stealth because of right-wing paranoia over industry funds, instead of a debate about decency in retirement and the fiscal consequences of increasing pressure on the aged pension. Not to mention the question of using these national savings to build the national infrastructure and new industries we need.

On China, we’ve had a McCarthyist campaign against anybody who dares challenge the Morrison and Murdoch orthodoxy, rather than a debate on how to develop and manage a balanced China strategy that defends our interests and our values.

And on pandemics, a politically driven campaign focused on “Dictator Dan” and the “heartless” Palaszczuk constraining personal freedom, rather than developing the policies and mechanisms that will save lives and jobs now and in the future.

The pattern is this: everything is about political management, whether it’s these mega-challenges or the avalanche of complaints now being raised by women about our parliament.

Morrison, looking concerned, with furrowed brow, at one level, while backgrounding ferociously against their critics at another, less obvious level.

For Morrison, everything is about partisan politics, media management and the science of plausible deniability – all in order to sustain himself in power – rather than identifying the truth and taking substantive action.

For Murdoch, it’s all about money, power and ideology – and screw anybody and anything that gets in his road.

And that’s why Murdoch and Morrison work so well together. Their interests are entirely complementary.

And that is why this nation needs a Royal Commission into Murdoch’s abuse of his media monopoly.

Together they have stunted our growth as a nation, our security and our economy.

It’s time to take them on.

Our nation’s future depends on it.

 

These are Mr Rudd’s notes prepared ahead of the speech and will vary from those on delivery.