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‘Eight Years Of Howard Is Enough’: Carmen Lawrence Opens ALP Conference

This is the text of the opening address to the 43rd ALP National Conference by the National President, Dr. Carmen Lawrence.

Text of speech by Dr. Carmen Lawrence.

LawrenceWelcome, delegates, to our forty-third National Conference.

I’m honoured to address you today as the first National President directly elected by the party’s members and the first woman National President of a major political party.

I’d also like to congratulate Barry Jones, one of Labor’s great advocates, and Warren Mundine, our first indigenous National President, on their election.

I look forward to working with them.

This presidential election has been a significant step forward for our Party, more proof that we aspire to be a progressive, inclusive and fundamentally democratic organisation.

This desire is reflected in the increase in the number of Conference delegates to 400 and the involvement of hundreds of proxies, and thousands of observers from all over Australia.

Since the last time we met, the Conference has doubled in size, we’ve added a fringe program to foster debate, and we’ve moved to Australia’s biggest city.

This means more rank and file members can participate – and I welcome all of you to Darling Harbour today.

[Long pause.]

Delegates, we meet here with a golden opportunity to set the course for Government.

And we meet as a Labor family, carrying the responsibility of representing the Party’s many thousands of members and millions of loyal Labor voters.

With a new, young and energetic leader, progressive policies based firmly on Labor values, and a renewed sense of purpose comes the very real prospect that we are only months away from victory.

It’s an election year, and the enthusiasm and optimism coursing through this room are palpable.

No one here needs reminding that eight years of Coalition Government is eight years too many.

So, let’s commit ourselves this week, and every day until polling day, to putting an end to the inequities and division of the Howard years.

Let’s use the opportunity to provide the framework for decent public policy.

As Labor activists, let us show that improving our society is both necessary and possible.

That as a Party committed to democracy we value public debate, and even disagreement, about how we can improve our society.

Indeed, that without such debate, we would be denying our fellow citizens an opportunity to hear the arguments and the evidence they need to help them decide how to vote.

This conference is a perfect opportunity to show that we embrace vigorous discussion driven by good ideas, by progressive, humane values, by concern and passion; that such debate is not a sign of weakness or uncertainty, but rather of our optimism that we can again be a fair and just society.

It’s a time for us to show that we are ready to work to improve the lives of millions of Australians.

People expect that of us.

No one ever complains about the stale and barren state of ideas at a Liberal Party conference – they expect it.

Left to us is the responsibility to tell the great stories, to depict the sort of Australia we can be, to spell out how people’s lives can be improved.

As a start, we have to do what we can to dispel the current atmosphere of foreboding and fearfulness.

As someone said to me the other day, “fear stops people thinking clearly.” At least, that’s what Howard hopes.

The Howard government has cynically exploited people’s insecurity for political advantage, rather than dealing with the very real challenges of protecting our country and promoting world peace.

Security is not achieved by whipping up fear in the community or by demonising refugees or by clinging abjectly to the coat tails of George Bush.

From Labor’s point of view, security is about recognising and addressing specific threats; it’s about co-operating with the international community to reduce armed conflict and the roots of terrorism.

At home, it’s about protecting our borders from real threats, but treating those seeking asylum with decency and humanity.

Labor believes the best of Australians; in giving people a fair go rather than promoting selfishness and exclusion.

As Australians we have always taken pride in our generosity; we regard our commitment to a “fair go” as our greatest virtue.

But we know that this commitment is being eroded; that the Howard government has been steadily reducing the life choices of many Australians; that ours is a more unequal society now than at any time since Federation.

We need to reassert our central egalitarian claim – that each person has equal worth; that any limitations on their achievement and their ability to share in what our country has to offer should be systematically broken down.

The conservatives fail to understand that promoting equal opportunity actually requires action to reduce disadvantage; so that the accident of your birth does not cripple your future.

Labor built the government programs that helped people achieve their potential and build decent lives for themselves and their children.

Labor governments gave us Medibank and Medicare to make sure that your income didn’t determine your access to health services.

Past Liberal governments destroyed Medibank and Howard is hell bent on trashing Medicare.

Labor governments expanded opportunities for those who wanted to go to university; now there are thousands who can’t get a place even though they are good enough.

Once we could boast that no matter where you came from or how much your parents earned you could get a top quality education. That’s getting harder and harder.

Howard is a reverse Robin Hood – pouring money into the richest schools at the expense of those who really need help.

Such inequality undermines our society; it concentrates more and more wealth and power in the hands of a few; it threatens our ability to provide for the weak, the poor and the old; and it leads to a poorer community, in every sense.

That’s why it is imperative for Labor to reverse this course; that’s why the theme of this conference is “Opportunity for All.”

So let’s have the debates, the competition of ideas, and leave here as a Party committed to common ideals, to decency and equality, to a renewed sense of purpose and a common goal of defeating one of the worst governments in the history of the Australian federation.

A united and reinvigorated Labor Party, with a vision for this country and its people, will warm the hearts of every Labor supporter, and all Australians who are crying out for change.

As I open this forty-third National Conference I feel confident in our prospects for victory and equally confident that the policies we decide on here will form the basis for a progressive, reformist Government of which we can all be proud.

[Long pause.]

Now, having officially opened the Conference, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Mark Latham, leader of the Labor Party.

But before Mark addresses Conference and formally moves Chapter One – Enduring Labor Values, I’d like to pay tribute to the man who will lead us back to government.

A government that provides opportunity for all.

It’s often said that being Leader of a Labor Opposition is the toughest job in Australian politics.

But in his short time in the job Mark seems to have quickly won the electorate’s respect.

Many will see him as we do – as a straight talking leader with a vision for this country.

And he will lead us in the best traditions of our Party.

We know this because Mark is a man who never forgets where he came from.

What’s more ‘Labor’ than a kid from a public housing estate, who worked hard, studied hard, looked after his family, and went on to represent working people?

So we also know that ‘Opportunity for All’ is more than just the theme for this Conference, it is the theme of Mark’s life.

Delegates, observers and guests, it is my honour and privilege to introduce the leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, the next Prime Minister of Australia, Mark Latham.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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