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Opportunity For All: Mark Latham Addresses ALP National Conference

The Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham, has addressed the ALP National Conference on the theme of opportunity for all.

The party’s National Conference is being held in Sydney.

  • Listen to Latham (33m)

Transcript of Mark Latham’s Address to the ALP National Conference.

Mark Latham, Leader of the OppositionWhen I became the Leader of our great Party two months ago I said that I wanted to be positive. I said that I didn’t believe in opposition for opposition’s sake.

I said those things because I meant them. I’ve always believed in the Labor Party as the great positive force in Australian politics.

The Party that gave us Medibank and then Medicare. The Party that expanded the education system and dared to dream of opportunity for all.

The Party that built the modern Australian economy and made us internationally competitive.

The Party that made us relevant in Asia and proudly told the rest of the world that we believe in Aboriginal reconciliation. And we believe in Australian independence – an Australian Republic.

We are the nation builders of Australian politics. The Party that does more than talk about problems. We solve them.

That’s the Labor Party I’ve always believed in. That’s the Labor Party I lead today – a positive party.

You know, delegates, it’s a funny thing politics. I’ve been watching the Howard Government a fair bit lately.

Mr Howard and his Ministers are always talking about the things we can’t do as a country.

We can’t do this, we can’t do that.

They are always talking about the things that can go wrong for Australia, never the things that can go right.

I believe in something different. I want to talk about the things we can do together, as Australians.

You ask me the big difference in Australian politics? The Howard Government campaigns on fear. We campaign on opportunity.

I want to talk to you about the future, not the past.

About hope, not fear.

That’s the difference.


Delegates, the Australia I believe in is a big country. Big in size, big in spirit, big in character.

And that’s our task: to be bigger than the Howard Government.

Big enough to invest in the education and health care of our children.

Big enough to provide public housing for the poor and care for the aged and disabled.

Big enough to protect the environment and ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Big enough to protect our great natural assets – to save the Murray Darling and the Great Barrier Reef.

Big enough to care for our regions and – once and for all – stop the full sale of Telstra.

Delegates, we can be so much bigger than the Howard Government.

Big enough to help the working poor and put some decency back into the industrial relations system.

The Tories say it’s a sin to represent working people. I say it’s a virtue.

Like you, I’m proud of where I come from. I’m proud to be Labor.

That’s why my government will abolish AWAs and restore the role of the Industrial Relations Commission.

I don’t believe in a dog-eat-dog industrial relations system.

I want cooperation and productivity in Australian workplaces.

And as we work together as a nation, we need a better balance between work and family.

I don’t want Australians having to make a choice – a false choice – between being a good parent and a good employee.

That’s why a Labor Government will introduce Paid Maternity Leave and improve the rights of working parents.


Delegates, I see Australia as a big country but also a prosperous country.

Labor built the modern Australian economy and we should always be proud of that achievement.

Competition and productivity are Labor words. They don’t belong to the Tories. They belong to us.

Not as goals in their own right. But as the best way of producing jobs and investment for the Australian people.

We are a prosperous nation but surely, delegates, we can make better use of our prosperity.

Surely in a prosperous country we shouldn’t have 370,000 Australians long-term unemployed.

Surely in a prosperous country we shouldn’t have 500,000 Australians, most of them elderly, waiting to get their teeth fixed.

Surely in a prosperous country we shouldn’t be losing bulk-billing doctors and child care workers.

Surely in a prosperous country we shouldn’t have tens of thousands of students who miss out on a university place every year.

That’s the problem with the Howard Government. It’s a waiting list government that’s turned us into a waiting list nation.

It’s wasting our prosperity instead of turning it into opportunity for all.

That’s what I want for Australia: prosperity with a purpose – all Australians climbing the ladder of opportunity.


Delegates, you hear some funny things in politics. When I became Leader, some in the media were asking: where did he get that expression ‘the ladder of opportunity’?

Well, I didn’t have to look too far. It comes from a place called Green Valley. It comes from who I am and where I’ve been.

When I was young, my mum used to tell me there were two types of people in our street – the slackers and the hard workers.

We had our troubles at home, sure, but we were hard workers.

If I wanted to get to university, I had to study hard. So I did.

If we wanted to buy our first family home, we had to work hard and save hard. So we did.

If I wanted to get into politics, I had to be a good servant of the local community and get stuck into local government. So I did.

That’s where the ladder of opportunity comes from. I believe in it because I’ve lived it.

I believe in ambition and aspiration.

I believe in the powerful combination of hard work, good family and the civilising role of government services.

I say that economic aspiration is good and social mobility is even better – all Australians climbing the ladder of opportunity.

The problem is that the Howard Government has been taking out the rungs. I want to put them back in.

More rungs in early childhood development: child care and preschool places, qualified teachers in our child care system, and a national reading program for our children.

That’s the first rung on the ladder of opportunity. The next is school education.

In my life, I’ve been fortunate with good family and good schooling.

I know of no more powerful institution in our society than a good government school.

And today I feel honoured that one of my school teachers from Ashcroft Primary – all those years ago in the 1970s – is here at the Conference.

He’s sitting right there, next to Janine.

Neville Smith has been teaching in public schools in Liverpool and Campbelltown for 35 years. He’s a friend and mentor, for me and hundreds like me in our community.

So let me say thank you, Neville. Thanks for caring and thanks for teaching us about good citizenship and community service.

And if Mr Howard wants a debate about values in education, I say: come and talk to Neville Smith. And the thousands of teachers like him, right around Australia.

And delegates, I promise you this: as Prime Minister, I won’t be sitting on the sidelines – a negative, whinging, carping commentator – taking potshots at government schools.

If there’s a problem in our schools – public or private – I’ll be getting stuck in to fix it. The education of our young people is too important for political potshots.

I want every school in this country to be a high-achieving school – good teachers, parents and students working together.

That’s why Labor will introduce a needs-based funding system: all schools – government and non-government – reaching a strong national standard for resources and results.

We won’t be setting sector against sector, school against school, public against private.

We’ll be bringing all schools up to a decent national standard. Our funding system will be good for needy government and non-government schools.

Delegates, I want more expertise and resources in struggling schools. That’s my top priority.

And I am willing to pay more and reward the teachers who achieve better results in those schools.

Quality teaching is a passport out of poverty. It must be available to every student in our society.

The third rung on the ladder of opportunity is post-secondary education.

When they leave high school, I don’t want any young Australian to have to pause for a moment about whether or not they can afford a higher education.

As a nation we can’t afford to waste our talent. And as a parent and a parliamentarian, I refuse to waste the potential of young Australian lives.

The best way to increase our productivity and economic growth is through investment in education.

Internationally, we stand or fall on the skills and insights of our people.

That’s why Labor will create 20,000 extra university places and 20,000 extra TAFE places, without the need for heavy student debt.

It’s why we will reverse the Government’s 25 percent increase in HECS and abolish its full-fee system.

The health care of our nation – it’s the fourth rung on the ladder of opportunity.

Medicare is a universal system of health care. It can never be means tested. It can never be a two-tiered system. If it’s not universal, it’s not Medicare.

Mr Howard talks about a safety net. But, you don’t need a safety net unless you’re turning Medicare into a highwire act, and families are in danger of falling off.

In government, we won’t be spending money on a so-called safety net. We’ll be investing in bulk-billing, returning the rate to where it used to be – to 80 percent:

  • Increasing the patient rebate for every bulk-billed consultation.
  • Providing incentive payments for doctors who meet bulk billing targets.
  • And making more doctors and nurses available in regional Australia.

We’re going to send teams of GPs and nurses to communities where bulk billing has collapsed, to give families the service they deserve. They’re entitled to bulk billing. They’ve paid for it through their taxes and the Medicare levy.

Delegates, Labor founded Medibank and then Medicare and only Labor will save it.

That’s our mighty crusade, every day between now and the next election.

Reward for effort – it’s another rung on the ladder of opportunity. I want more incentive, more reward for the hard workers in our society.

Under the Howard Government, nearly one million Australian families face Effective Marginal Tax Rates of at least 60 percent.

For some low income earners the rate is 102 percent.

That is, for every additional $100 they earn, the Government takes $102 off them in taxes and the withdrawal of social security payments.

I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. For working hard and having a go, they are $2 worse off in net terms.

That’s a shocking disincentive – one that no nation should tolerate.

As a society, we need to reward the hard workers, not punish them.

We need to make the tax system fairer and put some incentive back into the Australian economy.

There are other rungs on the ladder of opportunity: home ownership, aged care, regional employment. Each of them big concerns for Labor and this Conference.

Delegates, we will do many good things in government – increasing opportunity, fighting poverty and protecting the environment. Good Labor policies, good Labor values.

But we need to do them a new way .

I believe in the public sector. I believe in social investment.

And the government I lead will invest more in the essential services of the nation.

But we won’t be doing it the old way.

The services we deliver must be responsive and flexible, working with communities, not against them.

Our services will provide new opportunities for people, but they must also demand responsibility in return.

We can provide all the services in the world, but unless people are willing to work hard and respond the right way, we won’t get the results we need for Australia.

Responsibility from all, opportunity for all: that’s what I call a good society.

That’s what I want for Australia.


Delegates, a strong community requires more than high incomes and government services. It needs strong, healthy relationships between people.

This is the paradox of our time. The economy has become more prosperous yet people feel more powerless. Record rates of GDP have been matched by record rates of depression, loneliness and isolation.

None of us can live by financial capital alone. We need to rebuild social capital: the trust and cooperation between people.

This is where I want a new Labor agenda.

Government doesn’t have all the answers. It doesn’t have a monopoly on solutions in our society.

We need to rebuild community and work with the voluntary sector.

This is why I have decided to appoint Lindsay Tanner as the Shadow Minister for Community Relationships, in addition to his existing responsibilities. No one in the Parliament has written more or thought more about these issues.

I have asked him to turn his ideas into Labor policy – new solutions to the problems of loneliness, work stress and community breakdown.

His first task is to develop a national mentoring program to give more support to our young people.

In Australia today there are more than 600,000 children living with one parent only.

For boys without men in their lives this is a real issue: a lack of male mentors and role models teaching them the difference between right and wrong.

I see this in my own community: boys who have gone off the rails. And lost touch with a thing called society.

I want a Labor Government to find new answers to this problem, building bridges between people – across generations and across cultures.

I want a strong society as well as a prosperous economy.


In government, delegates, we will invest more in basic services and invest more in the Australian community. But for every dollar we invest, we have to cut a dollar from the existing budget.

That’s our approach for the next campaign: better services, fully paid for.

Delegates, the Howard Government is the highest taxing government in Australia’s history. There is no shortage of funds pouring into Canberra.

Our task is to make better use of this money: to cut waste and mismanagement, to give the taxpayers value for money.

Peter Costello went to the last election promising a surplus, only to deliver a deficit – because he and Mr Howard spent $20 billion in political handouts getting themselves elected.

And now they’re at it again, with false promises on Medicare and the Job Network.

It’s bad policy because it throws money at problems without actually solving them.

I have a different approach: social spending based on budget savings.

Already, since the last election, we have identified over $5 billion in savings – with more to come.

I want to save at the centre of government and send services and assistance to communities on the edge.

I want to cut waste and mismanagement and invest more in the health and education of the Australian people.


Delegates, protecting Australia’s national security is the first and final responsibility of an Australian Government.

And in this country, it’s always been a Labor responsibility.

When Fisher established the Australian Navy. When Curtin brought the AIF home from the Middle East and created the American Alliance. When Whitlam ended our involvement in Vietnam and recognised China. When Hawke and Keating took us further into Asia – security in our region.

That’s Labor’s foreign policy. Always putting Australia first.

Our policy has three pillars. Our membership of the United Nations; our alliance with the United States; and comprehensive engagement with Asia.

But delegates, Labor’s three pillars rest on a rock. And the rock is an independent, self-reliant Australia.

When I have to make a decision on Australia’s national security, I’ll only ask one question: what is in Australia’s national interest?

It’s true, delegates. I haven’t been to as many international summits as Mr Howard. And I haven’t stayed in that many posh hotels.

But I’ll tell you one thing: your travel budget doesn’t teach you how to stand up for Australia. Your love of this country does.

It’s in your heart, not your itinerary.

And delegates, I can assure you: you will never hear me call Australia a Deputy Sheriff.

I know who we are – strong, proud and independent. We’re nobody’s deputy.

I believe in the American Alliance, but with Australia as an equal partner, not a deputy.

I believe in ANZUS, but not as a rubber stamp.

I haven’t got it in me to bite my tongue and stay silent if Australia’s interests are on the line. I couldn’t on Iraq. I haven’t on the Free Trade Agreement. I won’t when it matters.

I will always stand up for Australia.

And delegates I give you this pledge: a Labor Government will never send young Australians to war in search of weapons that don’t exist, for a purpose that’s not true.

I believe in the defence of Australia, first and foremost.

We need to make our country more self-reliant in the war against terror.

Because, delegates, the Howard Government has been neglecting the home front.

We are the world’s largest island with 37,000 km of coastline.

That’s why we need a Coastguard – to keep Australia safe from the people smugglers, the gun runners and the drug merchants.

We have regional airports in this country with 100,000 passenger movements a year – but no screening facilities for passengers or their luggage.

I don’t want the Son of Star Wars. I want screening devices at Australian airports, for the safety of the Australian people.

I also want a Department of Homeland Security – a single Commonwealth agency to do the practical work with the States and Territories on national security.

Delegates, Labor will never neglect the home front.

There is one central idea which will drive our policy: to keep our island home safe and secure. Always, Australia first.


Whether it’s international affairs or domestic issues, there’s one thing about Mr Howard: he has trouble with the truth.

There’s always a missing piece to the puzzle.

There’s always something he doesn’t tell the Australian people.

This is one of the reasons why people are so cynical about politics.
There are too many excuses and not enough openness.

Delegates, modern politics is broken and we need to fix it. And I want this Conference to show the way forward.

This is the most democratic National Conference ever convened by the ALP.

Last year our rank-and-file members were empowered to elect their President and Vice-Presidents – and I congratulate Carmen Lawrence, Barry Jones and Warren Mundine on their success, especially Carmen – our first female President.

Delegates, I believe in grassroots democracy. It’s the new type of politics the Australian people are calling for.

I don’t want people campaigning for better community services. I want them running them – getting involved in their local community and having their say.

When I first got interested in politics 30 years ago, it was an honoured profession. This was the noble ideal of public life – a life lived in the service of others.

But let’s be frank. The Australian people no longer see it this way. After years of broken promises and broken programs, they no longer trust the political system.

They see a system that looks after the powerful, not the people.

They see election campaigns with too much spin-doctoring and stage management.

They see political entitlements with too many rorts and too much featherbedding.

So I commit myself here today to this great national purpose: reinventing and revitalising our democracy, opening up greater public participation, cleaning out the excesses of the political system, governing for the people, not the powerful.

Let me give some examples of what I mean.

Last month I raised the Republican issue – not just to give Australia constitutional independence, not just for a Head of State who is one of us, but as a way of broadening our democracy.

I don’t want this to be a politicians’ Republic. It must be the people’s Republic. That’s why Labor will hold a series of plebiscites: direct voting to involve the Australian people at every stage of the process.

A journalist asked me: would Labor need another constitutional convention? I said No, the Australian people will be our convention. They will decide the best model for Australia, not a bunch of powerful people sitting around in Old Parliament House, Canberra.

That’s my approach: if in doubt, let’s have more democracy, more direct voting, more public participation.

We also need to make Australian politics more ethical in the funding of election campaigns.

I’m not comfortable, delegates, taking campaign donations from tobacco companies.

There is no such thing as responsible smoking and our health policies – Federal and State – are aimed at minimising the harm caused by tobacco.

This is something that you, Madam President, have campaigned on – and you are right.

I’ll be moving an amendment to our fundraising code at this Conference to ensure that the Federal ALP no longer accepts money from tobacco companies.

So delegates, I’m not just talking about a new politics. I’m putting it into practise.

If I believe in something, I’ll say it and I’ll put it straight to the Australian people. I don’t believe in beating around the bush or dancing around the issue.

In the lead up to this Conference, I’ve had lots of advice. Things I should say, things I shouldn’t. Some people said, ‘whatever you do, don’t mention asylum seekers. It’s not popular.’

Well, I believe in our policy. I’m proud of our asylum seeker policy and I’m going to talk about it.

Not because it’s popular. But because it’s right. Right for Australia.

And I’ve come to this conference wanting endorsement of the policy of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

Delegates, I believe in strong border protection – an Australian Coastguard, tougher penalties for people smugglers and a Photo ID Card for Foreign Workers.

If Mr Howard was fair dinkum about protecting our migration system, he would do something about the 30,000 illegal migrants working in Australia – taking jobs off Australians and undermining our working conditions. He’d adopt our Photo ID Card and tough new penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal migrants.

I believe in strong border protection, but I also believe in the fair treatment of refugees.

We can be stronger but also fairer and more compassionate than the Howard Government.

Labor will close down the so-called Pacific Solution and its half-a-billion-dollar cost to the Australian taxpayer. We will also return the detention centres to public sector management.

And delegates, let’s get the children out of detention. Mr Howard talks a lot about family values and Peter Costello says he believes in tolerance. But that’s all it is – it’s just talk. If the Government truly cared about children it wouldn’t have them growing up behind barbed wire.

Only Labor will get them out.


Delegates, I want to win the election to give Australia a Labor Government. But that’s not an end in its own right.
We only exist as a Party – our policy, our platform, our National Conference only exist to serve this country.

The cause of Labor is the cause of the Australian people.

These are the people we worry about.

The four-year-old child who can’t gain access to preschool or child care.
The hard working school student who has got the results but not the finances to pay uni fees and a higher HECS debt.

The small business owner bogged down in GST red tape, worried about the power of big business.

The young families who are working hard to get ahead, but the harder they work, the more the government takes off them.

The workers worried about individual contracts and the casualisation of their jobs.

The families living in long term unemployment and poverty – forgotten by a government that never really knew them in the first place.

The elderly who can’t find a bulk-billing doctor or a nursing home place.

Their worries are Labor’s worries.

They must guide our policies and shape our solutions.

Delegates, I’m absolutely convinced that most Australians want to move beyond the old politics: the fear-mongering, the negativity, the needless division and deceit – Howard, Abbott and Costello-style.

We need to give this country a government every bit as good and caring as the Australian people themselves.

We need to give this country a government that lives up to our national values – an Australia forever young and forever fair.

So, delegates, in every way, there’s a big challenge ahead of us as we enter the campaign for 2004.

Let’s keep up our new momentum at this Conference.

Let’s show the renewed determination of our Party and our movement – to work together, to give Australia a Government as big as the Party we serve.

As big as the country we love – an Australian Labor Government.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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