Standing up for Canberra

May Day Rally Speech (May 2013)

I don’t have to imagine what the workplace is like under a Coalition Government. The best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour. In 1996, I was working at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi. Three months in to a three year posting I was called in to the High Commissioner’s office. Darren Gribble is a friend and a man who always gets straight to the point. “You’ve been sacked”, he said. I was shattered. But it was a message that was being delivered around the world that day to 50 of my colleagues as the entire public affairs division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was given its marching orders. I shouldn’t have been surprised. 

The Howard Government had just been elected and it had signalled how it would treat the workforce under its direct control in the months leading up to the 1996 election. The slashing of the public service was done in the name of fiscal consolidation but Peter Reith would reveal in an interview the following year, when asked about the Howard 2 Government’s attitude to the public service – “Well Canberra did vote Labor”. So part of the Coalition’s so called reform agenda was driven by revenge. I got to see out the year because the government wanted to continue the promotion of Australia that I was managing. And at the turn of 1997 I returned to a city that was devastated. 30,000 public servants had lost their jobs Australia-wide. Fifteen thousand of them in Canberra. To put that in some perspective, that’s two thirds of the population of Weston Creek.

The economic effect on the city was shocking and immediate. Businesses went to the wall. House prices plummeted. Many local shops died. We went into an economic downturn when the rest of Australia was growing. People left town. And it was recognised years later that Australia’s diplomacy suffered as the important work of promoting the country 3 evaporated. Just as Pauline Hanson was wreaking havoc on our international reputation in Asia. So no one should have been surprised in 2005 – with the Howard Government controlling the Senate – that its signature policy would be a law to make everyone’s wages and conditions as disposable as public service jobs. WorkChoices revealed that at the heart of the Coalition there is a deep contempt for the ordinary worker. Left to its own devices between a choice of the worker getting a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, the Coalition will always side with the bosses. It’s profits, not people that count to them.

I represent a party that was born of the workers. That is run by the workers. For the workers. And all it has ever wanted is to share the wealth of this great nation fairly among its people. Businesses should be able to make decent profits. But the people that work for them should be able to enjoy their fair share of creating that wealth. 4 This is the fundamental divide between the progressive and the conservative forces in this nation. I don’t have to imagine what the future for workers in Australia looks like under a Coalition Government. I have seen it. You have seen it. I have suffered under it. The Australian people have suffered under it. The past is the best indicator of the future. If you, like me, are determined to protect the rights of workers – hard won in Australia since the battles of 1891 – there is only one way to ensure it. On September 14 vote Labor.

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