Chris Bowen

CHRIS BOWEN

Revesby Workers’ Club, May 8, 2013

These days book launches, like election campaign launches, come well after a new book is actually released to the public.  And so it is with this book.  The debate that has been generated by the publication of Nick’s book is a good thing.  And I’m delighted to have been able to accept his invitation to read it and to be one of the people launching it.  I’m glad to hear this morning’s launch by Prime Minister Howard at the Art Gallery went well, but in keeping with the spirit of Nick’s book it’s the launch in the heartland of Sydney’s West that is the more important.

A few people have asked why I would agree to launch a book which is not entirely complimentary to my political party. Because debate is important.  Because politics must be about more than ten second grabs. If we want to progress a political cause we need to hear criticism of our cause.  Where that criticism is valid we need to take it on board.  Where we regard the criticism as being invalid we should vigorously argue our rebuttal.  Tonight, I am going to agree with some of the things that Nick argues in his book.  There are other things I am going to take issue with.   But I am going to say at the outset that “The Lucky Culture” is an important contribution to the national debate and the discussion that it has generated can only be good for the quality of our politics.

Nick argues two essential propositions in this book: that there is a growing well educated and higher income cohort in Australia which has fundamentally different views to most non-tertiary educated working Australians on political, economic and cultural issues.  His second core argument is that the ALP has been taken over by this cultural elite and its policies have favoured them at the expense of the traditional ALP support base.

I think Nick is mainly right on his first proposition.  I think he is mainly wrong on the second.  His sociological argument is well made.  From my point of view there is plenty to disagree with in his political conclusions.

Let’s start with the first proposition. That changes in society and government reforms have led to more and more going to university and this has led to societal and political changes in Australia. This is undoubtedly true.

It is not an exclusively Australian phenomenon.  More than twenty years ago, Robert Reich wrote about the importance of the rise of a group he called “symbolic analysts”, well-educated problem solvers.  Since then, Richard Florida has written of the creative class.  Hernstein and Murray have written of the “Cognitive Elite” David Brooks uses the perhaps more pejorative descriptor of “bourgeois bohemians” or BOBOs for short. I think Nick would quite comfortably be persuaded to use the BOBO’s descriptor.

Nick is right to point out that many, not all, but many people in this growing group in society see politics and society through a different prism than people who are toiling in manual or clerical jobs.

And Nick is also right to point to different perceptions of the importance of economic growth is a key example of the difference of approach between these groups in our society.  If you have a comfortable income and a good education to fall back on if the economic times get rough, you may not care so much for a government that prioritises economic growth. You might think that other issues like the environment should be prioritised by the government.  And if you might think that things like social policy and refugee policy should be getting more attention than the drive for economic growth.

But if you come from a lower socio-economic background, then you know that economic growth is not only what keeps you in a job, it’s what gives you the chance to turn your aspirations into a reality.

Australia’s unparalleled and unprecedented period of economic growth over 21 years has seen our national GDP double in real terms and household income increase by four times. It has seen millions of small businesses created, and it has provided government with the financial means to, among other things create hundreds of thousands more places at universities giving many more people the chance to chase their aspirations.

Of course, the economy is not only area in which there are polarised views in our society.

Immigration and asylum is one area that I have a particularly acute knowledge of the bifurcation of views among Australians.

It was common during my almost three years as Minister for Immigration for me to be assailed by people who Nick would describe as being members of the knowledge class, people clearly well-educated and on high incomes, who would tell me very confidently that the only possible reason that I could have for proposing a toughening of our border protection policies and embracing off shore processing is to appeal to the racist voters of Western Sydney.

I would sometimes respectfully ask the people who were putting this view whether it had occurred to them that people of Western Sydney might not be racist, but might actually be right.

I would ask them if they had ever been to Western Sydney.

Of course, the people of Western Sydney do have strong views about asylum policy.  And yes, a small number of people do have racial prejudice.

But the strongest views expressed to me in my community about asylum policy come from migrants and refugees themselves.  People who have waited for years in refugee camps that I have visited, but have conditions so bad that that I find it difficult  to summon the words to describe them.  People who still have relatives in camps that wouldn’t dream of having the money to be able to afford a people smuggler to get them to Australia by boat.  These people actually know a thing or two about asylum policy.  They get that with 43 million refugees or displaced people in the world, Australia can help but we need a more orderly and fairer system.

People who know how dangerous the travel that goes with seeking asylum is.  These aren’t racist people; they are people with valid views that should be listened to.

And so Nick is right when he suggests that there are polarised views in our society on the economy, on migration, on the environment and on social issues like same-sex marriage.   There has always been this distinction.   But of course, society is now much more mobile.  The days are gone in which the children of the working class are constrained from going to university are behind us, although there is still much more to do in this regard.

But what of the thesis that Labor has fallen prey to an elitist, anti-growth agenda?  What of Nick’s view that Labor is now more responsive to the tertiary educated than what we would have once called the working class?  Nick puts a passionate case, which is worthy of a proper and considered discussion.

 

Nick sees the election of Gough Whitlam as the Leader of the Labor Party as marking the beginning of the transition of the ALP from a mass, working class party to an elitist cadre which prioritized social reform and the environment over economic growth.

But this sells Whitlam short. Yes, Whitlam progressed social reforms and proposed symbolic changes important to the progressive and impatient left.  These were justified and in hindsight look incremental.  Yes, Whitlam was cut of a different cloth to Calwell or indeed Chifley or Curtin, being the son of a senior public servant, university educated and an accomplished lawyer.  He was more in the Evatt tradition of leadership, although much more balanced and considered in his approach to politics.

But his program very much had ordinary working families in mind.  Almost forty years after he left office, Whitlam is still much beloved on the streets of Western Sydney, not because he introduced social reforms but because he brought sewers to the West.  It wasn’t some elitist university inspired theorizing that drove him to fund the extension of the sewerage system,  but because his time living in Arthur St Cabramatta Western Sydney had given him an innate understanding of the unfairness of having millions of hard working families living without connected sewerage as late as the 1970s.  It was this same understanding that drove him to fund the construction of Western Sydney’s first major teaching hospital at Westmead, which has seen a massive improvement in health care in Western Sydney.  Whitlam couldn’t understand why Sydney’s populous West was denied a world class teaching hospital.  He offered Premier Askin federal funding for such a facility.  Askin declined the offer because he didn’t see it as a priority. That decision didn’t withstand public scrutiny and was reversed.  As result, Western Sydney now has the first class health precinct at Westmead with Westmead Hospital at its core.

Gough and Margaret retained their interest in Western Sydney matters long after they needed to for political purposes.  Until age forbade it they were a regular visitor to functions in my home City of Fairfield up to a few years ago.  Margaret and Gough were extremely proud when the Joint Replacement Institute at Fairfield Hospital was named after each of them.  It was a justified honour because of their commitment to improving the lot of life of the people of the West.

I can attest that if you sat next to Gough at one of those functions, it was possible that he would regale you with his knowledge of the classics, or foreign affairs or constitutional law.  But he might just as easily share with you with encyclopaedic knowledge of the impact of public policy.

There are plenty of things about the Whitlam approach to economic management that I wouldn’t defend.  But I also would refute the allegation that he was out of touch with the aspirations of ordinary Australians.

Now Nick doesn’t attempt to paint Bob Hawke as an out of touch intellectual.  It would be pretty hard to make that case stick.  And he acknowledges that “Hawke, like Hayden would tie his future to the economy…”  And the self-educated boy from Bankstown who took on the mammoth task of modernizing the Australian economy to drive economic growth which has lasted twenty one years so far warrants just four passing mentions in the book.  Paul Keating didn’t darken the door of a university until he was appointed a Visiting Professor of the University of NSW after his prime ministership. Of course one of Paul’s great skills was taking a complicated case for economic reform and modernisation and putting it in language that was understandable.  He drove economic reform because he wanted an economy built on growth which would provide good jobs to future generations.  Nothing elitist about that.

Now there is one important name that doesn’t appear in the index of Nick’s book at all. The book spends a lot of time talking about Whitlam.  But there is another Labor leader whose name also begins with W who is a big figure in Labor history over the last forty years: Wran, Neville. I know this is a book about Australia and not about any one state, but any discussion about the culture of modern politics needs to include an analysis of the man who did so much to rebuild Labor after the dismissal and who provided a template for modern Labor leaders.  Wran’s importance extends beyond his ten years as Premier of our largest state.  Wran, of course, was tertiary educated. Indeed he was an eminent Queens Counsel.  But he was always a Balmain Boy before Balmain was trendy.  Wran campaigned for and delivered better basic services for working people.  He rejuvenated and cemented the McKell legacy of Labor governing for the suburbs, the regions and the bush. He identified his government’s top three priorities as “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.”  Like Whitlam he introduced important social reforms like the decriminalization of homosexuality and abolition of the Summary Offences Act.  But it was because he never lost sight of the fundamental role of Labor Governments that he governed with huge majorities and with an extraordinarily high level of popular approval for so much of his premiership.  Neville once told me that his only regret in politics was not trying his luck and seeking the prime ministership.  He would have been a first class prime minister, but his legacy is remarkable nonetheless. And his record doesn’t support the narrative that forty years ago Labor chose a path of embracing soft, elitist, “doctors wives issues” at the cost of issues important to our traditional base.

Nor does an examination of Labor’s approach to economic growth. Labor hasn’t lost sight of the importance of growth. Think about this for example.  Last year, the Grattan Institute identified the ten key policy reforms which have improved the efficiency of our economy over the last forty years.  The reforms which have driven that twenty-one years of uninterrupted economic growth. Let’s look at those reforms and which Party delivered them:

Superannuation: Labor

Medicare: Labor

Tariff reductions: Labor

The Broadening of the Tax Base: Labor

Improvements to tertiary education funding: Labor

The floating of the dollar: Labor

Privatisation: Begun by Labor, continued by the Liberals

National Competition Policy: Labor (supported by both Labor and Liberal state governments)

Independent RBA setting of interest rates: Labor, formalised by the coalition

And the GST: Liberal.

 

So six of the ten economic reforms which have contributed to our economic growth over the last forty years are the exclusive product of Labor Governments.  Three have some degree of shared parentage of between the Labor and Liberal parties and the Liberal can claim exclusive ownership of only the GST.

As I said on the day that I resigned from Cabinet, I passionately believe that Labor is the only party that believes in both growth and opportunity.  The Liberals believe in growth but are not committed to improving opportunity.  The Greens explicitly reject economic growth and have policies like to closure of coal mines and dramatically increased regulation which would stymie growth.

And it is the belief in opportunity that leads me to make one other point. Nick talks of the very significant expansion in higher education under Labor Governments.  The Whitlam Government’s abolition of university fees, the Hawke Government’s introduction of HECs and the opening of regional universities. And the Rudd and Gillard’s expansion of university places by the uncapping of university places, which   has seen universities create hundreds of thousands of new places.  Nick is not very excited about this development, worrying about its impact on excellence in tertiary education.

I, on the other hand am very proud of it.  25% of the Australian population comes from a low socio-economic background but only 15% of university students do.  This isn’t just about fairness.  It’s about the economy as well.  The kids from a lower socio-economic background who miss out on going to uni would be more productive and have higher incomes throughout their life if this anomaly was dealt with. We have a stronger economy and a fairer society.

And it is not a trade-off between excellence and equity.  The pass rate for “first in family” university students from a lower socio-economic background is 97% of that of the more traditional university entrant, hardly a statistically significant variation. As Janice Reid, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney which has been so instrumental in many kids being the first in their family to go to university, says, the best predictor of success at university is success at university.  People from any background can go on to achieve excellent university results with the right encouragement and support.

So I want to thank Nick for the years of work which went in to researching and writing this book.  Early in the book he issues an open invitation to disagree with his conclusions saying he wants to foster a debate.  He has done that successfully, and I’ve enjoyed making my contribution to the debate, partly taking him up on his request to disagree.

But I do regard this book as reminder, as a warning if you like, for the Labor Party to stick to its tradition of supporting mainstream issues important to people who have supported Labor all their life, and who have regarded Labor as their champion and advocate.   There is a party which doesn’t represent those mainstream concerns and is out of touch with the aspirations of so many people who need growth and opportunity to make those aspirations a reality.  That Party lies to our left and is known as the Greens Party.  We are different to the Greens and should always remain so.

Here in the mighty Revesby Workers Club it gives me great pleasure to launch “The Lucky Culture” tonight.