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Labor’s 2001 Capitulation Should Be Forgiven, But Not Forgotten: Tanner

The ALP’s Shadow Minister for Communications, Lindsay Tanner, has called for Labor to revive “idealism” and “to restore definition to Labor’s identity.”

Delivering the Arthur Calwell Memorial Lecture, named in honour of the former ALP leader who held Tanner’s electorate of Melbourne between 1940-72, Tanner said: “Labor’s capitulation to the tactics of group vilification and racial discrimination in 2001 may be forgiven, but should not be forgotten. We can’t fight that battle again, but we can learn from this terrible episode. We must never again allow ourselves to be forced to jettison our fundamental values in pursuit of political survival.”

This is the text of Lindsay Tanner’s Arthur Calwell Memorial Lecture.

Lindsay Tanner, Shadow Minister for CommunicationsTonight we honour the memory of a man of courage and compassion, a great Labor leader, Arthur Calwell. Few Australian political leaders have influenced the shape of our modern society more. Few have received less credit from history for such a major contribution.

The Australia that Arthur Calwell knew when he entered Parliament was a profoundly different place from the one we know now. In those days being anything but Anglo-Irish was a matter for curiosity and suspicion. Arthur Calwell had the heart and imagination to see the part Australia could play in relieving the suffering of millions of European refugees. He had a vision for a stronger and more vibrant nation. He imagined a bigger and better country, and played a vital role in bringing it into being.

Arthur Calwell’s immigration program truly shaped modern Australia. History has unfairly portrayed him as a symbol of the White Australia Policy. He should be remembered as the very person who made the end of White Australia possible. Calwell pushed the boundaries of racial inclusion at a time when it was extremely politically risky to do so. He facilitated Lebanese immigration. He promoted citizenship rights for Chinese – Australians. He even spoke some Mandarin, and was revered by the Chinese community in Melbourne. In 1944 Calwell wrote to Ben Chifley about his dream ‘to develop a heterogeneous society: a society where Irishness and Roman Catholicism would be as acceptable as Englishness and Protestantism, where an Italian background would be as acceptable as a Greek, a Dutch or any other’. Calwell’s outstanding achievement is that he largely fulfilled this aim.

Immediately after the war the appalling magnitude of Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jewish people was not widely understood, and anti-semitism was widespread in Australia. Calwell had the moral courage to defy these attitudes and accelerate the immigration of thousands of Holocaust survivors. The Arthur Calwell Memorial Forest planted in Israel in 1996 reflects the depth of gratitude felt by the Jewish community. His courage and compassion gave hope to people who had endured appalling suffering.

Through passionate advocacy and dogged determination, Arthur Calwell won community acceptance for an enormous influx of people he dubbed “New Australians”. He was so successful that the term itself later came to be seen as condescending. The substance of his achievement overtook the label designed to drive it.

Our generation of political leaders now faces the challenge of achieving community acceptance of Asian, African and Middle Eastern immigration. As we continue the struggle for racial tolerance and understanding, we should never forget Arthur Calwell’s contribution.

The agonizing process of changing Australia into a truly multicultural society began with Calwell. His vision expanded Australian horizons. Subsequent leaders from both sides of politics made important contributions to this process of transforming Australian society. Menzies, Holt, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating all advanced the cause, building on foundations laid by Arthur Calwell.

All that progress came to a shuddering halt under John Howard in 2001.

For over thirty years Australian leaders from both sides of politics have chosen not to exploit latent racism in the Australian community for political gain, conscious of the longer-term damage it could do to our country. John Howard had no such scruples. Under serious political pressure he responded with the cunning and morality of a cornered rat.

Labor’s support for the Howard Government’s brutal approach to asylum seekers in the 2001 election was the most traumatic experience of my political career. Labor’s capitulation to the tactics of group vilification and racial discrimination in 2001 may be forgiven, but should not be forgotten. We can’t fight that battle again, but we can learn from this terrible episode. We must never again allow ourselves to be forced to jettison our fundamental values in pursuit of political survival.

It’s beyond me how any civilised society can imprison little children for something their parents have done. As the father of children aged nine and six the very idea that they could be punished in this way for something I have done horrifies me. Right now helpless children are incarcerated in Australia because their parents sought a better life by trying to come to our country. Some are even born into imprisonment. How can our nation do this?

Values are not a dispensable item for a political party. They are not optional extras to be deployed only when circumstances are appropriate. Without coherent values a party has no identity, no recognizable brand. In the wake of the asylum seekers debate, Labor stands on the brink of losing its identity.

The Labor Party I joined was a calling. It thrived on a heady mixture of idealism and justice. Although compromise was common and perhaps even inevitable, the crackly flame of idealism somehow always stayed bright. Pragmatists and idealists have always fought great battles inside the Labor Party. Labor needs both in order to succeed. Pragmatism without idealism is pointless, and idealism without pragmatism is hopeless. Idealism is now at a low ebb in modern Labor. It is our task to revive it, to inspire the dreams of a better society, to restore definition to Labor’s identity.

Our identity has been forged in the great battles of the past. From conscription in World War One to the Communist Party Dissolution referendum to the Vietnam War, courageous and compassionate stands have defined who we are. With such a history, is it any wonder that since 2001 many Australians are asking who we are and what we now stand for?

If you think I’m angry about the 2001 election, you’re right. I’m angry with myself as much as with others. But I can’t allow such anger to consume me, and we must not allow it to consume the Labor Party.

The great battles of principle of the past have never been as simple as they might seem from afar. Enormous internal convulsions were usually involved. A large section of the Labor Party left the party in order to support conscription in 1916. Labor initially supported the Communist Party Dissolution Bill. Many who believed in that position left the party in 1955. Labor was originally equivocal about the Vietnam War. Even our opposition to Australia’s participation in the war in Iraq was conditional.

Labor has always sought to marry principle with majority community support. Sometimes that challenge overwhelms us. We may regret our 2001 position on asylum seekers, but there is no use wringing out hands about it now. We have to rebuild Labor idealism. The answers to this challenge don’t lie in trying to re-fight battles of the recent past. They lie in imagining the future.

Labor’s great mistake since 1996 has been to focus too much on what is wrong with the Howard Government and not enough on what is right for Australia. For many Australians, substantive differences between the major parties have diminished, while the intensity of political conflict has increased. Violent language and macho posturing are no substitute for vision. Brutality in politics might entertain but it will never persuade. For Labor to recapture the spirit of idealism and vision we have to rise above Punch and Judy politics. Courage and compassion require content, not calumny.

I want an Australia where compassion is an honoured ingredient in public life and respect for rules and institutions is ingrained. I want an Australia made up of open markets and inclusive community institutions. I want an Australia where taxes are judged by the value they deliver, and not just the cost they entail. I want an Australia based on the principle of opportunity for all. I want an Australia that offers a better life and a larger future for our children.

Compassion for those who are struggling requires genuine courage. Reviving Labor idealism does not mean hunting about for symbolic issues on which to knock up a manufactured emotional crusade. It is about connecting with the realities of people’s lives.

And what are those core realities? I want to outline several opportunities for Labor to rekindle our idealism and connect with burning needs in our community. Each theme is ultimately about our children. About their life opportunities, their health, the support their parents are able to give them.

Protecting low paid and casual workers

The Australian economy is sustained by an invisible army of low paid and casual workers who are struggling just to get by. The rest of us benefit from the cheap clothes, restaurants, cleaning services, financial services, laundry, transport and entertainment they provide. Labor market deregulation has certainly allowed some workers to increase the rewards for their skills, but for many others it has meant being pushed into the margins of our society. For many Australian children it means inadequate family income and insufficient parental involvement.

The statistics tell their story. Only 61 per cent of workers have permanent full time jobs. And for the rest? Since 1984 the percentage of casuals in our workforce has increased from 16 per cent to 27 per cent, with roughly half having no sick leave, no paid holidays and that’s even if they have worked in the same place for over a year. These workers suffer insecure employment, low hourly rates, inadequate training and hours that can almost destroy family life. Some told their stories recently at the Senate Poverty Inquiry. A common theme was bosses reducing working hours to counteract wage increases, while still expecting the same work to be done.

Outsourcing and Australia Workplace Agreements have created even more low-paid workers trapped in a cycle of faster work, longer hours and shrinking pay. Australia is gradually creating a working underclass like the United States, so graphically described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.

These workers are almost always overlooked in public debate. Whenever I see yet another survey of small business attitudes to unfair dismissal laws, I ask myself: what do sacked workers think? Dismissal can be devastating for vulnerable workers. It can trigger prolonged unemployment, poverty, depression, family breakdown, and even suicide. Yet no one ever surveys workers about the merits of unfair dismissal laws.

So it is with low – paid workers generally. This invisible army keeps the wheels of our economy turning, but to the Howard Government they are merely an economic input, a cost to business, not people. Liberals regard the contract of employment as just another contract, to be determined by the market. Labor sees it as the cornerstone of our society, the measure of our living standards and self-worth.

Protecting vulnerable workers is core business for the Labor Party.

Some labour market deregulation has been unavoidable because of major changes in the production process, but there is no excuse for allowing more and more workers to drift into poverty. Improving their living standards will not harm our international competitiveness, but it will strengthen social cohesion and opportunity. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by Australia in 1975, empowers the Australian Parliament to make laws providing for fair minimum wages and working conditions. Labor should use this power to legislate for leave entitlements for casuals, permanent employment options and better minimum rates of pay. The award system can no longer carry the entire load of protecting vulnerable workers. It’s time for some direct legislative intervention.

Bringing Dental Services into Medicare

Australia once had the best health system in the world. Now the Howard Government is pulling it apart. Labor is committed to defending Medicare. We should also aim to extend it.

After the Keating Government introduced the Commonwealth Dental Scheme in 1993, community health centres in my electorate told me they were seeing dental patients in their 50s who had never been to a dentist before. The Howard Government axed this program in 1996. It has done nothing since to deal with this gaping hole in our health system.

For many Australians, proper dental care is an unaffordable luxury. If you haven’t got private health insurance or a health card, you can face a choice between enormous bills or enormous queues. From 1989 to 1999 dental fees rose by 50 per cent while the overall cost of health services rose by only 22 per cent. Too many Australians suffer prolonged pain and misery because they cannot afford dentists’ fees. Too many families with children face great financial pressures from dental bills.

Labor is reviewing the future of the Howard Government’s wasteful and regressive private health insurance rebate. Basic dental services could be included in Medicare for little more than a third of the cost of the rebate. It already pays for a least $264 million in dental services, but only for those with private health insurance. There are other reform options to be considered, but ensuring basic dental cover for all Australians would relieve the pressure on thousands of Australian families. Dental into Medicare should be our objective. How simple, bold and positive is that?

Putting Public Education First

Families these days are paying twice for education – once through their taxes and again though user pays arrangements. Two thirds of the Howard Government’s school funding goes immediately to private schools. The Government spends more on private schools than it does on public universities.

Children educated in an increasingly under-funded public system who go to university will face a debt equivalent to a second mortgage. That’s if they are lucky enough to have scored a place in the beginning!

How often do we hear right–wing commentators lecture lower income Australians about the evils of middle class welfare? They never apply this critique to private school funding. The Howard Government is lavishing millions of extra dollars on our wealthiest private schools. The families who benefit are mostly well off. The Howard Government is now creating a two – tier education system: a private system overflowing with public funds, and a public system starved of adequate funding.

Much has been written in recent years on the collapse of the Australian Settlement of a century ago. One crucial aspect of this settlement has been overlooked – our society’s commitment to free, compulsory and secular education. Of all the elements in that settlement – White Australia, compulsory arbitration, tariff protection – universal education has been the most crucial and the most enduring. It has guaranteed opportunity for generations of Australian children.

It is Labor’s task to ensure that our children are not denied their right to life opportunities because of the gradual erosion of public education. To guarantee opportunity for all, our commitment to public education must always be paramount. That means committing more resources for schools and universities, and vigorously opposing the ever-mounting flow of largesse to wealthy private schools. If ever there is to be a line in the sand for Labor, this is it.

Caring for Carers

If you happen to be the parent of a child with cystic fibrosis or juvenile diabetes or some other chronic illness, do not expect the Howard Government to give you much help.

These parents make heroic sacrifices to care for their children. They suffer loss of sleep, loss of income, loss of well-being and loss of enjoyment of life. The current Carer’s Allowance is a very modest acknowledgment of these sacrifices. Yet even that is under threat.

Let me give you an example. A seven-year old girl at my children’s school in Clifton Hill suffers from complex congenital heart disease. She has undergone eleven serious heart operations and is always in and out of hospital. She sees a bewildering array of medical specialists. Her fluid intake requires continuous monitoring. As you can see, looking after her requires extraordinary time and effort. That time and effort is provided by a single person: her mum. Just last week her mother was notified that her Carer’s Allowance is being withdrawn.

When the Government’s coffers are overflowing with record tax revenues, the sheer viciousness of this crackdown on carers is almost beyond description. We are a civilized, affluent country. Why are we unable to afford even this very limited assistance for those who care for children with the most special needs?

Our society has to take greater responsibility for helping parents who are caring for seriously disabled children. We need to extend our assistance to carers and boost resources for integration aides and special assistance in schools. If ever there was a genuine need for compassion from government this is it.

Throughout long years in opposition, Arthur Calwell’s courage and compassion prevailed. He weathered the 1955 Labor split, suffering such severe vilification that he was forced to leave his local church. He stood firm against the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War. He suffered electoral devastation but laid the foundations for a generation of Labor resurgence. He even narrowly escaped assassination, but in typical fashion forgave his would be assassin. Modern Labor should draw inspiration from this spirit of determination and compassion.

In his book Labor’s Role in Modern Society, Calwell described Labor as both a party and a movement. In defining Labor’s fundamental objective as ‘prosperity and justice’ he set out the core belief which has driven generations of Labor idealists:

‘We believe that the human spirit is too noble a thing to be shackled for a lifetime by harsh economic necessity. At a time when our knowledge and power have placed prosperity within the reach of everybody, we wish to see each man and woman enabled to reach the high dignity of being a human being, a child of God.’

In passing on the torch to Arthur Calwell, his predecessor as Member for Melbourne Dr William Maloney described him as a devotee of ‘the great religion of humanity’. It is time to reignite the courage and compassion of Arthur Calwell and so many other great Labor leaders of the past. It is time to fight for vulnerable workers, to help families under pressure, to support public education, to relieve the burden on carers. It is time to revive Labor idealism and connect with the realities of people’s lives. Let us commit again to that great religion of humanity.

A few weeks ago, my nine-year old daughter won $50 in a newspaper competition. She told me she wanted to save the money until she is an adult, and then sponsor a child from a poor country. My heart leapt at this spontaneous display of compassion from the child I love. But then I thought of the many children in detention in our own country. I wondered how I could possibly explain to her that the children she wants to help could be locked up if they came to Australia?

This dark period in Australia’s journey must not be allowed to prevail.

In a world where compassion is almost a dirty word and pragmatism has become an end unto itself, let us unite to revive the idealism of Labor, honour the courage and conviction of Arthur Calwell, and harness the optimism and generosity of young Australians. We have it in our power to make a better world – let’s do it!

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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