Wran lecture 2015

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Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land. I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I want to acknowledge Jill Wran’s presence here this evening. I sought Jill’s counsel in the earliest days of my leadership and I am so grateful for the advice and encouragement she gives me. The very first person I visited after I was sworn in as a Labor member of Parliament in 2010 was Neville Wran in his office in Bligh Street. I will not repeat the details of our discussion, but I can report that Paul Keating was right when he said Neville had a ‘PhD in poetic profanity.’

In May last year—along with many of Labor’s faithful and many of this state’s citizens— I went to Sydney’s Town Hall to celebrate the life and work of Neville Kenneth Wran. It was a fitting tribute, in the right place. The Sydney Town Hall was, after all, the political stage upon which Wran gave some of his most memorable performances. It was moving then.

It is an honour now to deliver this year’s Wran Lecture.

***

In 1976, the election of the Wran government came at a crucial moment in Labor’s history when, in the wake of Whitlam’s dismissal, some questioned Labor’s legitimacy. But after the rancour and tumult of 1975 Wran soon showed that Labor could still deliver ‘stable, steady, progressive government’. Wran’s success was built on a belief in the power of government to improve the lives of the people of New South Wales.

But he also understood that such power could not be exercised unless Labor was elected. Wran understood that Labor must have modern resonance and not be a dull echo of past glories. So Wran presented a contemporary alternative to the people of New South Wales.

His government built vital parts of New South Wales’ infrastructure: electrifying the railways from Wollongong to Newcastle; approving extensions to the State Library and Art Gallery of New South Wales; transforming Darling Harbour. The Wran government preserved much of this state’s environment and heritage: by conserving rainforests in northern NSW; by introducing the Heritage Act; and by establishing the Land and Environment Court.

Neville’s government defended civil liberties and protected human rights: by passing the Anti-Discrimination Act; decriminalising homosexuality and establishing a Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The Wran government modernised the political processes of this state: by democratising the Legislative Council; introducing a pecuniary interests register and public funding for election campaigns. 

He had an ambitious, restless vision but the member for Bass Hill never forgot the concerns of everyday people. He reached for the stars but always kept his feet firmly on the ground.

Or as Wran frequently put it when considering a proposal that had come to his Cabinet; ‘What’s in this for Joe Blow and his missus?’

Neville Wran did all of these things with flair, with wit, with his formidable intellect and with the aid of his best advisor, Jill Wran. Wran did all of these things because he understood that Labor has always been a party of historic principle and contemporary reform. For Wran understood that a storied past does not guarantee Labor’s future.

Labor’s project always involves a necessary balance between enduring principles and contemporary realities. Labor’s history is a wellspring, which helps sustains us, but equally each generation must renew Labor’s sense of purpose.

Tonight I want to speak to Labor’s future purpose in New South Wales.

***

Governments touch the lives of people each and every day. And state governments deliver the services we all rely on—schools and hospitals, roads and rail, police and emergency services.

In the 1940s, in response to the want of the Great Depression and the desperation of the Second World War, state and federal Labor governments led by McKell, Curtin and Chifley created much of the architecture, and many of the instruments, of the welfare state. These Labor reformers sought to civilise capitalism, to lift people out of poverty, to ensure that merit mattered more than privilege.

In the 1970s, it fell to Labor Governments led by Whitlam, Dunstan and Wran to reinvigorate Labor’s purpose. In New South Wales Neville Wran’s government looked to new ways of delivering services, embracing non-government organisations as partners in the delivery of community services.

Like the Wran government then, New South Wales Labor today must think anew about the delivery of public services.

When I talk of public services I mean the core services that the public requires and government provides, mandates or regulates, regardless of whether they be delivered by the public, private or not-for-profit sectors. For too long, we have been preoccupied with a tired debate about who is best placed to provide these services—a debate which focuses too intently on the quantity and origin of public services but not enough on their quality and capacity.

The issue is not whether the public sector or private enterprise should own assets and provide services, the issue is what is in the best interests of the people of New South Wales. I do not believe that private enterprise always does things better than the public sector. Nor do I believe that private enterprise is incapable of producing public benefits.

For me, what matters is what works.

I believe that those of us who value public sector services should be the loudest and most articulate advocates of their modernisation. We must protect Labor’s cherished legacy—as the party that looks after people—and to do this we must ensure that public services remain responsive to people’s needs. As a social democratic party that cares about the sustainability of the public sector, we have an obligation to pursue value for money, to demonstrate to service users, taxpayers and staff, that they are delivering high quality, cost effective public services.

Those of us who believe in the public sector have an obligation to prove that our confidence in public delivery is justified. To do so, we must create the conditions that enable excellence in the delivery of public services. We must become more effective at listening, and responding to the people who rely on them.

I reject the proposition that, when it comes to the delivery of public services, the private sector is inherently better than the public sector. I believe that public services should be delivered by people who are motivated by a desire to serve the public –wherever they may be. And I do see a role for the private sector in the delivery of public services in this state. I am not ideologically opposed to the delivery of these services by external providers.

But I do challenge the belief that privatisation at any time and on any terms represents economic reform. I believe it is right and proper for governments to ensure that privatisation does not occur at the public’s expense.  

A crude ideological approach to privatisation takes governments to some very strange places.

Consider the proceedings currently underway in the Australian Competition Tribunal.

The NSW Government is taking legal action to appeal the decision of the Australian Energy Regulator to lower the charges the state’s electricity companies can recover from consumers. Electricity is a cost to every business and a cut in power prices makes our entire economy more competitive.

Labor wants to save small businesses up to $528 on their yearly power bills. Labor wants to see each and every household save up to $313 on their annual power bills.

Premier Baird does not.

He is taking legal action to keep electricity prices high – and is prepared to hurt every household in order to do so. It is an extraordinary situation. Mike Baird is so focused on privatisation as an end in itself that he is damaging the community and the economy.

The legal appeal is for one reason only—to fatten the pig for market day. That is, to increase the sale price for the state’s electricity distribution businesses. He has forgotten households and small businesses. He has forgotten the users of this most essential of services—electricity.

Premier Baird should withdraw his legal challenge and let the price cuts stand.

Under my leadership Labor’s primary focus is the individuals, families and communities – particularly the vulnerable and the disadvantaged – that our public services should always serve. The public interest should guide a government’s agenda. What is good for the people of this state should be our guiding principle.

The need for reform in the interests of the people of New South Wales is clear when it comes to the provision of public housing.

***

At this year’s election, New South Wales Labor went from a rump to a real alternative. There are twenty new members of the State Parliamentary Labor Party. I was nourished by the inaugural speeches of Labor’s class of 2015. I was energised by their enthusiasm, excited by how their dedication and daring will be used for the public good.

But I was also struck by how many of them spoke of their frustration at the state of public housing in their electorates. Prue Car—the new member for Londonderry—spoke of a young mother who found syringes in her backyard and when she contacted the department, seeking help, was told to just pick them up. Prue also spoke about the time tenants spent waiting for the most basic of repairs—waiting a decade or more to fix a hole in the floor.  

This is not acceptable. This is not dignified or decent, it diminishes those delivering the service and disrespects those relying on it.

Neville Wran understood the importance of public housing. He anticipated the problems of poorly serviced public housing estates placed on Sydney’s urban fringe. The Wran government was ahead of its time when in the 1980s it began to make public housing a component of new mixed developments.

In the process his government helped create a more cohesive and inclusive urban form.

Housing policy is about more than providing additional stock. It must be about the quality of that stock, its price, its proximity to employment opportunities and public services—its place in the urban fabric. Any new thinking on the delivery of public services must rethink public housing.

The experience of so many tenants reminds us, that, at times, the public sector can fail the people it is designed to serve.

The Auditor General has told us that public housing is ‘increasingly not fit for purpose’— that current arrangements are not meeting contemporary demands.

NSW currently has 140,000 social housing dwellings. Of these, 111,000 have the NSW Government as landlord, while not-for-profit community housing associations act as landlords for the other 29,000. These associations have proven records as providers of affordable housing. These organisations are closer to their communities they serve and more responsive to their concerns.  

A fortnight ago, in my budget reply, I announced that we should build on their success and transfer more of the Government’s stock to the community housing sector. The transfer should include title to the properties. This will empower the associations with the leverage they need to fund the construction of new and additional affordable housing stock.

On that day, I called for 20,000 existing public housing dwellings to be transferred from the government to community housing associations. It is my view that existing tenants, the users of social housing, will benefit because the associations are closer to them; nimble and responsive in ways that a distant and monolithic bureaucracy is not.

I am encouraged by the response of the community housing sector to my proposal. Many providers have contacted my office to signal that they stand ready and willing to do more. Over time, provided the outcomes are sound, all of the state’s public housing should be transferred to not-for-profit community housing associations. To my mind, the not-for-profit sector is best placed to lift the quality and quantity of social housing stock.

This is a clear example of how a future Labor government would approach the provision of services in New South Wales. Where it can be demonstrated that the not-for-profit sector will deliver a better public service, they should be afforded that opportunity. When it comes to public services, ends must trump means. The means of delivery matter less than the ends.What matters is that our public services truly deliver for their users.

***

Our fresh thinking around service delivery must be framed within a clear understanding of Labor’s purpose. We must think carefully and deliberately, about what it means to be Labor in the 21st century.

We live in a time of unparalleled connectivity and extraordinary social and economic change.

Labor should be equipped—ideologically, structurally and politically—to face the challenges and grasp the opportunities of this age. Labor should undertake a clear headed and open-minded debate about its central purpose. 

That debate must include the modernisation of the Party’s official objective. Part A of the ALP’s National Constitution sets out the Labor Party’s ‘objectives and principles’. The so-called Socialist Objective appears at Clause 2. It reads today,

‘The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields’.

The Socialist Objective, or more accurately, the Socialisation Objective, was first adopted at the 1921 ALP Federal Conference in Brisbane. But this eruption of socialist fervor must have startled the delegates themselves for it was immediately tempered—two days later—by the adoption of the Blackburn Declaration, which stated that the Party did not seek to abolish private ownership of the instruments of production where utilised by the owner in a socially useful manner and without exploitation.

The 1955 Federal Conference incorporated the Blackburn Declaration into the Party’s Objective. The 1957 Conference added ‘democratic’ to the objective of socialisation. The 1981 National Conference saw the addition of a long statement—twenty two sub paragraphs in length—that seeks to explain how the objective of socialisation is to be applied in practice. Today that statement, now 23 sub paragraphs in length, forms Clause 3 of the National Constitution of the ALP.

Do not fear, I won’t read the 23 sub paragraphs to you tonight.

The major weakness of the objective is that it confuses means and ends. The socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange is a means, not an end. The Party’s central objective should be concerned with ends—what we are seeking to achieve—not the means of how we get there. Labor does not exist to promote state ownership, but to ensure that the state advances the interests of all people.  

In its current form, the socialist objective is both confused and confusing. Its defenders argue that it does not really mean what most readers assume it does—namely support for the nationalisation of industry. The best defence of the socialist objective—that it does not mean what it seems to mean—is hardly a compelling case for its retention. The fact that no one in the Party today argues that state ownership is Labor’s central, defining purpose is a compelling case for its revision. The central objective of the Party, as stated in its National Constitution, is never used by the Party’s leaders, representatives or members to win votes for Labor or to recruit people to our cause.

Why can’t the Labor Party adopt an objective that its true believers actually believe in? Surely it is not beyond our collective wit to come up with a statement that captures what Labor wants to achieve. The Party review that Neville Wran conducted, with Bob Hawke, following the 2001 Federal Election recommended that:  

‘The party should develop a statement that conveys modern Labor’s objectives and aspirations in a form that can be concisely and clearly communicated to our members and the Australian community’.

I understand that many Party members retain a sentimental attachment to the Socialist Objective. But this is less a fervor for state ownership and more an affinity with the generations who built and sustained one of the world’s few genuine labour parties.

I propose that the traditional language of the Socialist Objective form part of the ALP’s statement of origins. The ‘Origins’ statement draws on several strands of thought which motivated the creation and early growth of a distinctly Australian Labor Party. It reads:

‘The Australian Labor Party had its origins in:

The aspirations of the Australian people for a decent, secure, dignified and constructive way of life

The recognition by the trade union movement of the necessity for a political voice to take forward the struggle of the working class against the excesses, injustice and inequalities of capitalism

The commitment by the Australian people to the creation of an independent, free and enlightened Australia’

Rather than airbrushing the socialist objective from history, National Conference should incorporate it in the statement of the Labor Party’s origins, in recognition of its historical importance to the Party. This could be done by the simple addition of a fourth dot point that would read: ‘the desire for the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange’

Having done this the Conference should then turn its mind to a new Objective. Tonight I announce that I will propose that the Party adopt the following:

‘The Australian Labor Party has as its objective the achievement of a just and equitable society where every person has the opportunity to realise their potential. We believe in an active role for government, and the operation of competitive markets, in order to create opportunities for all Australians, so that every person will have the freedom to pursue their well-being, in co-operation with their fellow citizens, free from exploitation and discrimination’.

This is my suggestion. I look forward to discussing it with Labor colleagues over the coming weeks. This proposed new Objective for the Australian Labor Party in no way departs from traditional Labor values. State ownership is not the end. The end is a just society. Above all else, our Party stands for a just and equitable society. A fair go for all. A decent life for everyone. That is what we work towards.

We seek the trust of the people to govern, and unlike our opponents, we believe in government as a force for the common good. The Labor Party believes in an essential public sector, and an enterprising private sector, operating side by side. We understand that competitive markets are best placed to deliver the economic growth that the people we represent rely on. We also know that regulation and redistribution are necessary to correct market failures, to ensure dignity and opportunity for all Australians.

Modern Labor must say what we mean and mean what we say.

***

Friends, W.B. Yeats’ famous poem, The Second Coming, was published in 1921, the same year Labor adopted the Socialist Objective. It was his response to the brutality and chaos of the First World War and the slaughter that was made possible by the industrial age.

That poem’s most famous line reads:

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity’.

In Australia, and throughout the West, the right of politics is full of passionate intensity. The likes of Reagan, Thatcher and Milton Friedman have imbued today’s conservatives with a clear sense of purpose. 

Labor needs a clear statement of its modern purpose and values.

So I believe that our party—the party of Neville Wran—with courage and conviction must renew its central purpose.

The forum for this debate is this month’s ALP National Conference. We once held conferences where big ideas were expressed with passionate intensity. We were that party once.

We must be that party again.