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Positioning Labor For The Future: Bill Shorten’s Leadership Pitch

Bill Shorten has delivered one of his most detailed speeches outlining his approach to the Labor leadership.

Speaking to a forum in Melbourne arranged by the Labor think-tank Per Capita, Shorten spoke at length about party reform, new approaches to policy and the importance of rebuilding trust with the community.


Text of Bill Shorten’s speech to the Per Capita forum in Melbourne.

Josh, thanks for that kind introduction.

I’ve spoken a good deal in recent months of the battle of ideas, concerning the future of our nation.

Of the fair go for the disabled, and the protection of those persecuted, particularly in the workplace and particularly women. Of the right of the older Australians to a roof, to companionship, and the feeling of being valued and useful in your neighbourhoods and communities, and not being discarded because of your age.

Now I believe Per Capita strongly and decently fights alongside Labor in the battle for ideas about the future of our nation.

They like me, like Labor, know that the great and powerful ideas, which define our nation, define our future, are most often very simple.

Ideas like forming the Australian Labor Party one hundred and twenty-two years ago, and of course our two great guiding principles, democracy for all, and a fair go for all.

And upon these twin pillars lies the best future and the full expression of Australia’s future.

It was in Barcaldine, Balmain and Creswick, in the lifetime of some of the fathers of some of us, our movement inspired the greatest of inspirers. They are the phrases that moved us in war and peace, to excellence, and to strive for the common good.

I could perhaps quote Gough Whitlam’s “Men and Women of Australia” – and I will have something to say about him a little later – or John Curtin’s “The Task Ahead” or Ben Chifley’s “Light on the Hill”, but I will, I think today, with a more humble Labor pioneer, and hero.

Jim McGowen was a boilermaker and NSW Labor’s first Premier. He told delegates to the party’s 1911 state conference that their movement “was the hope of the civilised world”.

“Their political movement possessed a soul”, he insisted, “such as was absent from other political movements”.

“Honest Jim” had a theory for explaining Labor’s breathtaking successes at that time – and we should remember that ours was the first party of its type to form government anywhere on this earth.

He believed that Labor’s success was attributable to “the devotion and self-sacrifice of the men and women who had joined up enthusiastically in the work of the movement.”

McGowen finished his address to conference by predicting “that as each decade passed by they would see that the world was better for their presence in it”.

How right he was. How true his words are still.

Ten decades on, it explains why a lot of us are here today.

Deep down, we know that our movement possesses a soul.

A soul unlike any other political movement.

It’s why we’ve achieved so much.

It’s why we’ve survived and prospered over 122 years.

I submit today that Australia is a better place for the presence of Labor in our political debate.

There is a distinctly Australian model in the world. It is our prosperity and growth and rising living standards, tempered with fairness which mark the Australian model.

The Australian model is, in large part, the Labor model.

And the Labor model is because of people such as yourselves.

Because you believe in the hope and optimism of our future, the ongoing right to a fair go all round.

You in this room have not lost your faith.

Labor has made Australia a better place over the past six years – think of the National Disability Insurance Scheme or the National Broadband Network or the apology to the Stolen Generations or putting a price on carbon pollution.

We did work with business, banks and the community to guide our homeland through the ravages of the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Indeed, unlike many parts of the world, nearly a million new jobs were created here.

But – at times – we have disappointed you. At times we have let you down.

I know, you know, the commentariat remark on it. Some swinging voters know it, and know it well.

So I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge on occasion, our vivid failings and to thank you for your support in the good times and the bad times.

I thank you for being here.

I thank you for believing, for keeping the faith.

You know, I believe this leadership contest is a reward for Members in a way, for the faith that you’ve shown – because it is about time that Labor people had a real say in the Labor leadership.

But it isn’t just casting this vote which is part of the process of building a future for Labor.

The responsibility of all of us doesn’t end there.

This is just the beginning.

Starting today, starting this week, you and I will rebuild the Labor Party.

It wasn’t thank goodness, totally shattered on September the 7th, but it was injured. And injured, in part by things that weren’t always our fault.

But we took a hiding, and here we are.

Labor’s Challenge

Now, I’m not here to lecture you.

I’m not here claiming to have all the answers.

I’m not here promising a miracle.

In fact, I’m here today to declare that the Era of the Labor Messiahs needs to come to a close.

I am certainly not Jack Lang, and I never want to be.

But I am here to give it to you straight, and unvarnished.

Talking plainly, our movement has a most serious purpose over coming years.

I have said we have many accomplishments of the last six years, including our economic record.

But the Australian people spoke unambiguously on September 7.

We would be foolish to ignore that only 34 in every 100 Australians cast their first vote next to a Labor candidate in the House of Representatives.

This is sobering news. Tough times for Labor.

Of course let’s not forget that over 3.7 million Australians still voted for us more than any other individual party – and placed their faith in us.

We are the largest party still. More citizens proportionally are voting for Labor than Obama’s Democrats, or Miliband’s UK Labour. We are still in the race, and we have been for 100 years. For a hundred years we’ve lead the debates about Australia’s future and we still can and will.

There are some other reasons to be optimistic:

  • Our membership continues to increase.
  • Our online supporter base has grown exponentially.
  • Tens of thousands volunteered during the election, more than ever before.
  • Our Labor campaign volunteers made 1.2 million phone calls.

Yet today, like you, I appreciate that our party needs to advance.

We have been through tough times before. On no less than six occasions in the last 50 years we’ve secured swings at elections larger than that which is required at the last election to defeat the Abbott government.

Rebuilding, reinvigorating, refreshing our values, refreshing our brand. Refreshing our relevance to the future is our path out of the wilderness. When Gough Whitlam became leader of our party in 1967 we had been out of office for 18 years federally and thrashed at the previous year’s election.

He adopted a simple saying – “Party. Policy. People.” Gough’s view was that the ALP had to spend its first year in Opposition getting the party in order, its second year getting its policies in order, and then its third year, taking the new Labor Party and its new policies to the Australian people.

Forty-six years on – I submit myself to the leadership of our party on the basis that our party should again act with these three P?s in mind.

We may not have three full years but the task of our movement, our party is simple:

  1. We must bring the party together and bring more people – from diverse backgrounds – into our movement.
  2. We must carefully and thoughtfully develop the policy that will make Australia a better place – and offer a better, more sincere and more authentic vision of Labor and our relevance to the future lives of Australians.
  3. And we must work hard to rebuild the Australian people’s trust in us, the labour movement, and above all we need to listen to them.


First – on the party.

Labor should grow. Labor can grow. Labor will grow.

Labor members should be more involved and be more empowered.

Labor can rebuild itself from the bottom up – and I believe if we can display some of the energy and passion we saw in the election for the next three years, and some of the civility we’re seeing in the current leadership ballot then signs are positive.

I want the widest array of people participating in our movement – our membership needs to be drawn from not just the cities but the regions of Australia and across a wide array of occupations and callings.

It should include but not limited to new constituencies in small business, the tradies, the farmers, professional women and academics.

I want us to be a modern, open and inclusive party.

I am a movement-builder.

My particular speciality is not throwing haymakers in the Parliament, and that is an important speciality. My particular speciality is I know how to turn minorities into majorities.

The challenge of Labor is always to empower the disempowered, to turn minorities into majorities.

To organise the non-organised into a collective voice to ensure that the equilibrium of the fair go exists in all the highways and byways of our nation.

I want to build a Big Labor Party.

A Movement for Change.

A Party of Big Ideas.

A Party which is deeply connected to our community.

A Party which reflects our diverse and dynamic nation.

A Party which respects policy development and takes it seriously.

A Party which is ambitious and hungry and dedicated to winning back government for a purpose and govern successfully. But to be that Party we must change, we must reform. I’d like to make three points about how Labor can reform itself:

Easier to join, more engaging

We should be easier to join. We should be more engaging to be a member of.

Labor must work harder to attract and retain members.

The Party should be cheaper to join – new members should be able to join online with discounted rates available for union members as well as for students, pensioners and people out of work.

New members should be quickly and formally introduced to the party and made to feel welcome.

All Labor Members will have the opportunity to be educated in our party’s history and structures, with ongoing mentoring and immersed in the social activities of our party.

If I am elected leader, my Shadow Opposition team will actively incorporate the policy contributions of our members by instituting policy action committees as recommend by the 2010 National Review.

I will also seek to establish an online supporter category of membership. It is no longer acceptable that you can only join our party for two hours every month on the third Wednesday at the local hall. This is not a recipe for growth.

A low cost option will allow all community members to experience the ALP with a view to taking up a paid membership.

Members should also be able to join specific policy branches, enabling them to participate in all forums of the party. Not every person who joins the Labor Party wants to talk about council. Some do though.

Enabling active and connected branches

My plan to reform Labor is also about enabling active and connected branches.

Labor?s branch structures need serious renewal.

We must it easier for members to participate in branch meetings. How do we appeal to working parents at the witching hour as they try to settle their children, feed them, do their homework and also attend a branch meeting?

That is why I am proposing that Skype or other enabling technology be provided to each branch in order that members with families and work commitments can appear virtually at branch meetings.

We must make sure that branches are properly connected to their communities and actively engaged in locally-based progressive, community building campaigns which raise the level of political awareness.

For a start, we can capture the best of the remarkable field campaigns from both the federal election and indeed this leadership ballot.

We also need to reinvigorate our connection to the country. It should be it mandatory for Shadow Ministers to let the regional branches know about their policy announcements and to let them know when you’re visiting. This is as much about respect.

A bigger, better voice for all our members

Labor must also provide a bigger, better voice for all our members.

Labor members are relishing the opportunity to vote for the federal leader for the very first time.

I believe this reform is bringing many new members to our standard.

I think the conservatives are amazed, as are some of the conservative elements of the media that Labor after this election hasn’t crumpled into a heap, but instead we are saying we can do this; we’re proud of who we are, we’re ambitious for the future of all Australians and we can learn from our mistakes.

We certainly need our party rules to catch up with this process – at the moment our actions are ahead of our systems. Which is the first time for a long time.

It should be easier for our members to have a formal say.

For example, all party members should be granted full voting rights much earlier than 2 year probation periods.

Now, I am certainly supportive of moves in this direction in State and Territory branches. And I think it is time to recognise that small cabals of people making decisions for all actually denies all a say in the future of our nation.

I believe that we should continue the ‘primary’ style community pre-selections that have been trialed in a number of seats in order to give our members a bigger say. And Labor supporters a bridge to become engaged. And to help ensure that our Party produces candidates capable of convincing people to vote for them.

Whoever you pick out of Anthony and I, we will both be the better for this process and I believe this process should be extended to many of our colleagues. If you can’t convince people to vote for you in a pre-selection, how on Earth do we convince people to vote for us in an election?

I also think – and my mind is not made up on this but we should use this time to think freely and openly – we should consider quotas for sections of our community that are underrepresented in our state and federal parliaments. And I specifically think here of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders.

We must redouble our efforts to ensure female candidates make up 40 per cent of our number. A rule is not a rule unless the spirit is supported and that’s what we have to do.

I also think we need, and I can help with this, to lead the modernisation of our relationship with the union movement. Let me be very clear – the relationship with unions is fundamental to keeping Labor connected to the real economy and the aspirations and experience of 2 million working Australians. But we need to enrich and deepen that connection.

We should welcome more individual unionists to be active.

Individual affiliated union members should be part of a new deal and be given the opportunity to:

  • Be able to join cheaply and without a fuss.
  • Having pledged their support, vote in pre–selections.
  • Participate in policy development.
  • Drive community-based and workplace based activism.

These reforms are the foundation upon which we must build our new Labor party.


On policy – I believe the question in this leadership ballot is how, and it’s a question for all of us, do we position Labor to be relevant to Australia in 2020 and 2030 and beyond?

We cannot afford whilst we hold the Abbott Government to account, to be solely defined by them.

We need to offer a positive and brave vision to Australians about why we in Labor, we who live in the political house of Labor, understand what Australia needs for the future.

We know the trends.

  • The rise and rise of Asian societies
  • More older people in 2020 than there are now
  • Sustainability and handling the tough environmental questions this generation rather than pushing them down the pipe to later generations
  • The digital age and marvellous and disruptive effect on business models and how we communicate and connect
  • The need in our economy to diversify and invest in science and innovation to ensure we have the best jobs
  • Another trend, albeit resisted staunchly by the Dad’s Army of the Coalition is of course the march of women through our institutions of power

We know, in part, what the future looks like.

Labor’s policy development must incorporate all the available party channels.

We must talk to the community.

We must be clear about the values which underpin what we do.

We must also recognise that unless Labor positions itself to be relevant to the future, offer our optimistic prescription on how we manage change alongside the Australian community then we fail the test of a progressive political party.

We should start from the position that the simplistic binary which says that you’re either for the market or the government, does not describe Australia?s present, past nor indeed our future.

We need to maintain our healthy, traditional Labor scepticism towards both the big State and the unregulated market.

We must always support as the basic economic organising principal that the creation of national wealth is a pre-condition to the fair distribution of national income.

That increasing prosperity, lifting living standards for all, provides the best landscape for the fair distribution of national income.

That’s why Ben Chifley spoke of the Labor movement as:

‘not [merely] as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people’.

But we also need to accept that governments cannot solve every problem and the best form of progress can occur outside of government intervention.

If I am elected leader, our party will engage in a real conversation with Australians.

Labor listening to families, singles and communities will empower people to live long lives full of quality and meaning.

Our Labor movement must be grounded in the everyday aspirations and concerns of Australians. Too many have lost faith in government.

For instance, any Labor team that I am privileged to belong to or indeed lead will fight tooth and nail to defend the rights of those without power; the disability pensioner, the victim of domestic violence and the disadvantaged.

But I also recognise that government policy needs to ensure that individual citizens are not lost within a sytem.

We need to ensure that we always aim to be more responsive and more local, and less bureaucratic and less remote.

It must empower people who rely upon our support.

It must respect the everyday unsung, unflinching professionalism of our public servants.

It was once said of Jim McGowen that he was so widely loved and respected because “his integrity and honesty were such that you could never doubt, that when he advised on a certain matter or advocated a certain course, that his heart was always in it”.

Jim “nailed his convictions to the mast and there they remained”.

Imagine if we could say of Labor, that whenever we pursue a cause that our heart is always in it. Our goal should be that people think that our conviction is there for all to see and there they remain.

We can learn from his example: if the heart is visible, and the speech that does not dissemble, or differ from belief.

When we collectively determine on a policy we must stick it out.

Our heart must be in it.

And while we act on these important things – our party and our policy – we must also hold the Abbott government accountable for its bad policies.

For instance we know that:

  • Direct Action is a national embarrassment.
  • Not building the NBN will create a digital divide in our communities.
  • Liberal ideologues will undermine rights at work and decent pay.
  • They won’t invest in Better Schools.
  • That they cannot keep their hands off people’s superannuation and
  • Absent a coherent plan for the future, they will demonise trade unions

We must make them realise that there are sufficient women of merit in Australia to provide more than one candidate for the Cabinet.

And we should certainly make very clear in light of today’s statements by the Coalition, that restricting access to university is just a plain bad idea.

If I am elected leader I will be part of a team. You will hear less of I and much more of we.

That whilst we will fight the Coalition in Parliament, there are no undecided votes in the House of Representatives. But there are a million plus people we can win back outside the Parliament.

Labor is at its best when we have momentum, when we?re campaigning, when we’re building, when we’re fighting, when we’re standing up, when we?re advocating.

When we’re engaging in the redistribution of power from the few who have it to the many who don’t. When we recognise that Australia should be an inclusive nation and that the more we can help empower people to have control over their own lives, the more likely it is that the whole nation will do better.


Getting our party and policies right is not the entire task.

We must work hard to rebuild people’s trust in our movement and in politics more generally.

We need to listen and acknowledge the lessons of the past.

To hold Tony Abbott to account and present as a credible alternative we must banish division from our movement.

We need to consign to history our destructive internal fights. They belong to the age of prima donnas, and that age is past.

In the new age, we declare our faith in Australia’s people. Who are our masters, and the future they would like, would embrace, and would thank us for.

Then and only then can Labor begin to restore faith in Australia’s future prospects and its people.

The best means of doing this is to be what Labor should always be – a people-led party.

Such a politics means that each and every one of us will have an obligation to get out into the community, to sincerely listen and reflect what our fellow citizens have to say.

We need to listen to them about the ideas they believe will best shape the lives they’re living.

We belong to a clever tribe – we know that we need to manage our prosperity over longer years of life, to educate ourselves to the multiple jobs of our future, to ensure we maintain our health.

To ensure that we have interests and passions outside of work, to ensure that our communities have sufficient resilience to help us when the ‘shafts of fate’ occur beyond our control.

People need to see Labor as being authentic, as being passionate. That we can talk in the language of the lives people are living.

Less spin. Less focus groups. More real conversations.

Australians do not expect us to win every argument, they’ve never met anyone who’s right all the time. But they certainly expect us to be consistent to the promises we make, try as hard as we can and to do so in way that empowers people and gives them hope for the future.

We need to do more relationship building and leave some of our stale orthodoxies behind.

If we listen to the Australian people and respect the diversity, I believe we can win.

Labor is a party that can win from adversity. Think about the legacy of those we sit on the shoulders of; the efforts of those before us.

  • Chifley’s nation-building.
  • Whitlam’s Medibank and higher education
  • Hawke’s consensus economic reforms and the Accord.
  • Keating’s superannuation.
  • Rudd and Swan’s response to the Global Financial Crisis
  • Gillard’s education reforms.

We should never forget our duty as Labor people.

We have to understand that – with our great legacy, with our optimism, with our vote in the leadership ballot – comes the burden of responsibility.

There are some in the community that will simply sit back. But for others falls the task of taking Australian forward.

Change in this country is never inevitable; reform is never guaranteed. But if enough people with earnestness, and endeavour push on that half open door of progress we can open it. We can take Australia into new chapters of our future.

We can’t afford three let alone six years of conservative rule.

Six years of conservative rule, is enough to destroy the nation. Three enough to injure it gravely. And they’ve made a big start in that direction.

The reason I ask you to elect me leader of the Labor Party is not because it’s my turn, it is not a reward for services rendered.

Rather it is a conviction that we need to position Labor for the future; what are our ideas which will position Labor to be relevant to the lives of Australians.

I believe we can have a united team, a rejuvenated party, a broader more expansive dynamic movement.

We can re-earn the trust of the Australian people.

What I hope is that if we were to meet here in seven or ten years? time that we could agree, looking back, that we made a decision that Labor’s best days are yet to come.

That we the current generation of Labor, be it 16 or 86, are relevant to the future of this country, we have a vision for Australia and we’re capable of receiving your trust.

This is our challenge.

Thank you very much.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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