ALP National Secretary Gary Gray’s Address to the Queensland ALP Conference

ALP National Secretary Gary Gray says the ALP needs to “act as a Party” if it is to return to office federally and in the states.

Addressing the Queensland ALP Conference, Gray said it was important that the ALP not behave “as a bickering and jostling collection of factions, more interested in small victories over internal rivals than in the larger victory: over the hearts, the minds, the perceptions and the votes of the electorate.”

Gray said: “The way back to government for Labor, all around the country is: the pursuit of a “common cause” through “common sense”. Common sense doesn’t sound like a grand ideal. But it is – I would argue – the core value of the Labor Party.”

Gray said NSW Premier Bob Carr and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley were successfully imparting a simple message: “It is a simple message. That Labor is accessible. That we are listening. And that Labor is responding to the things that matter to the community. Simple plain old standard-issue grass-roots politics.”

Text of Gary Gray’s speech to the Queensland ALP Conference.

Delegates, party members, observers.

Queensland. Perfect one day, National Party the next.

That’s the sad truth of it.

And – for quite a while to come – we’ll see an extended Howard honeymoon, with spin-off benefits for even the most incompetent Conservative State Governments.

Don’t expect to see the Coalition’s national primary vote dip far below 55%, and don’t expect to see an immediate surge back to Labor. And here in Queensland we cannot simply assume that the votes will just come back to Labor. There is no golden rule that guarantees our electoral recovery.

But don’t let it get you down. There are some chinks of light in the gloom, and they are beginning to glow a bit brighter. Look at Tasmania in February; we are not in government but we did receive a solid swing towards us of 11.6%.

Bob Carr – down and counted out by virtually every expert commentator in the polls – pulled a rabbit out of the hat in Clarence and put a rocket under a coalition still basking in the warm afterglow of March 2. 16.4% to us in Clarence, 13.8% in Orange, shows that the rural seats we have focused on in recent years will still vote Labor. If we go out to the regions and listen, and learn from our mistakes. That’s the core message.

That’s what Bob Carr has started to get across in New South Wales; that’s the impression Kim Beazley got across in far north Queensland a couple of weeks ago. It is also the message we take when the Shadow Cabinet meets in Townsville in early July.

It is a simple message. That Labor is accessible. That we are listening. And that Labor is responding to the things that matter to the community. Simple plain old standard-issue grass-roots politics.

Recruiting new members; going along to community meetings, hearing what people are saying, consulting with the party membership, reforming the Party where it needs to change, developing commonsense policies for the future.

It’s not glamorous. It’s not trendy. But – when your opponents are distracted by the spoils of office, and the weak links in the various ministries are starting to show themselves – it is effective. It works. And we need it.

One of the things that lost Labor office – here in Queensland especially – was the perception of distance which we put between ourselves and the people. But you see we do have the antidote to that poisonous perception.

Another factor in our demise in Queensland was a farcical level of factional brawling. That is poison too. We used it to great effect ourselves for years in Federal politics: but division equals weakness.

And trust – regaining the trust of the broad community, the mainstream – is the only way back to government, in Queensland and all around Australia.

In my view, there are four elements in the process of regaining the faith and trust of the majority of Queenslanders and Australians.

1. We must analyse where we went wrong.

And do so realistically, honestly and thoroughly – without demonising ourselves, or repudiating the good things that the Labor Party did.

2. In both 1972 and 1983, Labor won government after long and determined processes of policy formation, on the basis of well thought out agendas.

The same was true in Queensland in 1989. The need for us to stockpile a range of fair policy alternatives is no less urgent now than it was on either of those occasions.

But Queensland and Australia are changing and the good policies of the past may not be the best policies of the future: we cannot afford any purely sentimental attachment to past positions, recent and reasonable as many of them may seem.

We must however, remain committed to Labor principles.

We cannot allow ourselves to rest on achievements, or go to the next round of elections hoping and praying that current Coalition governments will erode their own vote by clear-felling Labor’s programmes and undermining Labor’s principles of fairness.

We will have to earn our return to government, and overcome the corporate label of arrogance.

3. We need candidates who bring experience, local knowledge and depth to our teams.

Our candidates must express not only the diversity of the community they represent, but take with them, into Parliament, a grounded understanding of families – real people and real issues. Not a theoretical model of how the country should be, or a tired untried collection of slogans. Or, worse still, more political opportunism. Our candidates cannot be captives of this or that interest group.

And 4. We need to be – and to act as – a Party.

Not. Capital Not. As a bickering and jostling collection of factions, more interested in small victories over internal rivals than in the larger victory: over the hearts, the minds, the perceptions and the votes of the electorate.

The way back to government for Labor, all around the country is: the pursuit of a “common cause” through “common sense”. Common sense doesn’t sound like a grand ideal. But it is – I would argue – the core value of the Labor Party.

Common sense saved Australia from Fightback in 1993. Common sense, once again, can and will keep this country from the worst excesses of doctrinaire economic Darwinism. Common sense is as Australian as “fair dinkum” and it is as Labor as “fairness”. Common sense is what we need to have to be an alternative government, not just an Opposition party.

Common sense government – the kind of government which Australians will endorse with their votes – is government which recognises that change, even where change is urgent, is attainable through negotiation and understanding. Common sense means governing in the common interest not in the interests of small but powerful interest groups.

Common sense means understanding the difference between responsibility and rights. Striking the balance between “collective responsibility” and “individual rights” is not only common sense: it is Labor principle.

In government, we pursued both sides of that balance with vigor and commitment. When we had to cut spending as we did in the late 1980s we were consistently fair – we built a model of fairness out of our targeted benefits system. Labor’s model is the envy of social democratic parties around the world. We committed ourselves to providing a safety net – a national form of insurance – which helped those who were hurt by the massive changes which were called “structural adjustment” or “micro economic reform”.

At the same time our policies were designed to allow individuals the greatest possible opportunity to succeed. That is our commitment to individual rights. And together they make for common sense government.

We introduced universal superannuation. We created sustainable jobs. We pinned our colours to the goal of fairness. That is collective responsibility.

Individual rights and collective responsibility make for commonsense government.

Medicare – is a great example of the collective responsibility to pay for and maintain a cost effective health system and the individual right to quality health care. The health of one person or one family is a collective concern and responsibility.

So you see in 13 years of office federally we do have a lot to be proud of.

But the Liberals – the Conservatives, philosophically, subordinate collective responsibility to individual rights. And already we are starting to see just how different this policy direction is.

Our role in Opposition is to intervene, where we can, to defend those whose lives and families will be devastated by the grotesque posturing of John Howard’s Ministers. Trying to prove their cuts are the biggest. Trying to cut $8 billion in spending …. when prior to the election they had accused us of lying when we said they wanted to cut $5 billion.

Not all of those we will seek to defend are part our traditional constituencies.

The tertiary education sector fought the Dawkins reforms every inch of the way even though they paved the way for a huge expansion of the system. But the Vanstone era will make those days look golden in hindsight. Without any apparent rhyme or reason she is hacking away at the universities and telling a new generation of Australian kids that there’s no room for them in the educated classes.

Industrial Relations – Our so-called “scare tactics” were as accurate as smart bombs.

Peter Reith is taking his marching orders straight from the board rooms, not of our best companies, but the worst; and he’s not even trying to disguise the fact!

Honest John’s election promises? The Howard government thinks people will be so busy trying to hang on to their jobs, they won’t remember what they were promised back in March.
Just last week here in Brisbane John Howard has talked of his government meeting only “core” election promises. What does that mean for his promises to the people of regional Queensland. In Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton and Mount Isa?

We must remind voters of the reckless vote buying of John Howard.

But merely saying “I told you so” is not enough. That will not win us back government; nor should it. We have to be more honest with ourselves; and the sooner we do so, the better. We also need to get out into the community.

Over the next few months Labor Senators will, as part of the Senate inquiry travel the length and breadth of the country discussing the Coalition’s Industrial Relations legislation. So to all of you delegates from Townsville and Cairns and here in Brisbane be prepared to spread the word in your own communities that our Senators are coming to town to listen to concerns about that IR legislation. I’ve circulated some information on this, but remember Labor’s reason for existence is to protect those who need protection and so our response to this legislation is critical.

Let me now speak of our National Executive Review of the election. The analysis I presented at the National Press Club on 21 March argues that there were four perceptions which led us straight to the Opposition benches. These four perceptions don’t hold entirely for the Goss government but they aren’t bad indicators . . . even for Queensland.

  1. As a government, and as a Party, we became complacent.
  2. We stopped talking to people and – subsequently – people stopped listening to us … we became arrogant.
  3. We became administrators – administering policies as though they were natural laws.
    Occasionally we became social engineers … telling people what was acceptable… occasionally we became captives of self interested lobby groups, doing deals which most of our traditional supporters thought were purely about our self interest.
  4. We convinced ourselves that people would continue to support us, despite their pain, for the sake of future gain.

We missed the mood, we missed the anxiety of the electorate.Those four weaknesses saw us enter the federal campaign banking on a miracle – hoping the opinion polls would turn. Instead, they remained at almost exactly the level they had been in mid 1995.

We lost a lot of good parliamentarians on March 2. Here in Queensland we lost too many; Gary Johns, Con Sciacca, Mary Crawford, Garrie Gibson, Michael Lavarch, Ted Lindsay, Peter Dodd, Marjorie Henzell, Wayne Swan and Les Scott.

The task of rebuilding is massive. But nationally we still have a strong core of people who are seasoned and experienced, and who know how governments must operate. We have a core of people who are knowledgeable and are able to judge the performance of the Howard Government.

Nationally we have a unanimously endorsed leader, with intellectual and practical muscle, and a wide cross-section of policy experience. We have a Federal Parliamentary Party which is gathering itself together and which has a strong unity – more than anything else because it has learnt to work together in government, and to put aside petty rivalries in the interests of unity, common cause and common sense.

But history tells us that the Australian Labor Party is not at its best in Opposition.

Perhaps it is necessary for some faction leaders to remember that the rights of individuals are a collective common responsibility. We cannot revert, now, to tribes of warring factions.

We do not need to, and we must not deliver another term of government to the Howard Coalition. This is especially true in Queensland where the Borbidge Government is hovering in the wings waiting for the gun laws to go away and for an election chance.

The Party is more important than the factions – and only the Party can win government.

Labor, despite its lumps and bumps, is a much more cohesive organisation than any Coalition can be, and very much more united than the Queensland State or John Howard’s Coalition will prove to be.

That is a strength for only as long as it is perceived to be so. Journalists will be looking for the cracks, and even inserting a wedge or two, because a party in turmoil is much more newsworthy. Being fated by the media is not a sign of self worth – you get picked over by vultures with ballpoint pens and minitape recorders. And if journalists can’t find what they need at the national level, they will head for the Queensland Branch, and local Branches for the next preselection coming up.

For that reason, we must hammer home the message of unity right throughout the branches.

Not only to stop the possible perception of division, but to guarantee that we preselect the best possible candidate for each and every seat. Those who regard themselves as leaders must continue to act like leaders instead of lemmings.

There is an anecdote I would like to relate – it comes from Victoria where our Review Committee met a few weeks ago.

It goes like this . . . Imagine ourselves as ALP members to be like the supporters of a football team. The loyal fan, the person who turns up each week, wears the beanie, the scarf and cheers. Imagine you are an activist for the team – you help make the banners, the hot dogs, you sell the drinks or coach the juniors. After such loyal support is it plausible to expect to play for the team in the grand final? Of course not. But in the ALP there are many . . . too many who feel that their support can only be rewarded by a seat in parliament.

Its about time we returned to the simple principle of common sense. Labor goes into the next election as the Coalition went into the last one. With no fat, with much to gain and a lot to risk.

An excellent candidate – known to the local people, with a track record of community involvement and a broad understanding of the issues which families … which people care about can deliver a substantial benefit to public office, public policy and to us.

By that logic, enough excellent candidates in the right seats can help return us to government – sooner rather than later.

Opposition is not a rest break. For this reason our platform consideration at the October 1997 National Conference here in Queensland will be important.

Now is a time for us to demonstrate that the ALP is still the policy powerhouse of Australia, and that we are the people who – despite our mistakes and our past errors – have what it takes to prepare the nation for the changes and challenges of the next century. Without consigning large parts of our community to poverty, powerlessness and despair.

We are the people who have learnt humility. We have learnt to listen. We have learnt to establish a dialogue with the whole community not just with narrow self interested lobby groups. We learnt these lessons the hard way.

Our responsibilities – are no less now than they were for the thirteen years we were in office.

Common sense tells us we scored some great goals. Common sense tells us that Labor’s task always remains incomplete.

We must continue to show the working people, the families, all Australians that our common sense approach is in all of our best interests.

Friends, our political adversaries have been at the wheel for three months. The Prime Minister and the Premier are riding high, the Coalition is politically strong. The honeymoon will be over eventually and the hangover will begin, and we have to be ready with the antidote. We can be ready. We must be ready. But we have to show that we are.

That, delegates, party members, is in our hands.

If there is any one message I would like to leave you with it is this. Queensland remains central to Labor’s future. Queensland is the birthplace of the Labor Party, we need to rebuild our stocks in Queensland and each of you as well as the Party nationally need to work to this end.

Let us begin that task now.

Thank you.

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