The Joan Kirner Oration - Moonee Valley Racing Club - Melbourne, Victoria - 18/05/2021

18 May 2021


I acknowledge the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung as the Traditional Custodians of the Country on which we meet today and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

And I thank Denis Moriarty, Carol Schwartz and their team for bringing this conference together and for initiating the Joan Kirner Oration a decade ago.

It’s a great honour to be invited to give this oration and a particular honour to have Ron Kirner here with us.

I love the title and the attitude of this conference.

Communities in Control. Think Bigger: Fix Everything.

It is ambitious, it’s determined and it’s courageous.

Just like Joan.

Joan understood – as do you – that change requires us to be all of these things.

We often hear these days that there is an abounding sense of disempowerment; a sense that political engagement is pointless.

But despair is a luxury those most vulnerable cannot afford, and cynicism only serves the status quo.

It’s only ever been up to us to make the world a better place.

Last year we lost two of the great women activists of our times. Icons like Joan.

Susan Ryan, a Labor sister to Joan and me.

And Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

One of the things that we often miss in thinking of these women is they didn’t necessarily set out to become what they ended up being.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn’t set out to be a Supreme Court Justice. The idea might have been preposterous to her younger self.

She just set about applying herself to the issues and causes that mattered to her.

Much of her contribution happened before she was on the court.

A series of steps, one foot in front of the other.

Each step an act of grit, humbly defying so much about what we assume is possible.

Just like Joan.

When Joan Kirner got involved in her school parents’ clubs, she didn’t do it to become education minister and, of course, eventually premier.

These women remind us we cannot treat progress as only the work of great figures in history.

It’s never just been up to a venerated few to make our world better.

It’s up to all of us.

Because ultimately what made all these women great – to paraphrase another activist, Arthur Ashe - was that they used what they knew, where they were, to do what they could.

Joan understood this. She always knew what she was up against. And she always persisted and deployed every tool at her disposal.

She was a friend and a mentor to so many of us.

As well as changing our Party and changing what we thought was possible, she taught us a lot. She taught me a lot.

She thought bigger – beyond her immediate circumstances.

She was able to imagine a world where structural barriers were removed and, even better, could chart a course to remove them.

She knew the power of her own agency.

She took control and refused to allow others to tell her the change she sought wasn’t possible – particularly those who benefited from the status quo, like the blokes.

Her contribution on policy – especially education and the environment – is lasting.

But changes in our culture are as important as changes in our laws and public policy.

And Joan insisted on changing culture.

She did that by being who she was, and she did that through her work in Emily’s List, through her work on affirmative action inside our party; by paving the way for others.

Including me.

According to many who sit opposite me in the Senate – Mr Morrison’s frontbenchers and backbenchers alike – I’m a quota girl.

And as much as anyone, I have Joan to thank for that.

Among what I’m most proud of in my political career is that I’ve tried to pay that forward.

At the Labor special rules conference in 2002, just three months after I entered parliament, my dear friend Sharryn Jackson and I led a push to increase our affirmative action target. With Joan’s support and her backing.

Joan Kirner – in perhaps her second most important musical contribution, after earlier subbing in for Joan Jett on the Late Show – joined with Sharryn in organising an all-woman, purple-sequinned marching band for the day of the conference.

We ended up winning an important victory on the way to 50:50, with the conference deciding that candidates for winnable seats would be a minimum 40 per cent women.

I will never forget, as a part of negotiations, paying a visit to a factional heavyweight.

He blew his stack and I endured one of his familiar tirades, where I was told that our audacity in seeking this change was… not to his liking.

I told him: ‘You misunderstand why I am here. I’m not consulting you. I’m telling you where we are at.’

I’m take this trip down memory lane partly because it’s a lane built by Joan Kirner.

But also because it’s relevant to where Australian politics is right now.

Joan helped change the composition of Australian Labor and so she helped change the Australian Labor Party.

While affirmative action was difficult to negotiate because ultimately it meant some people with power had to share it, there was less need for explanation as to why it mattered.

Because Labor understands that inequality is so often structural.

Whether that inequality is on the basis of gender, race or socio-economic factors, or some combination, it persists until and unless we take steps to overcome it.

Inequity exists not because of individual attributes but regardless of them.

It is something our political opponents don’t understand and that’s obvious every day.

You can hear it in everything they say in the national conversation about women in Australia.

You can hear it in their refusal to recognise that the structural inequality that results in underrepresentation of women in parliament can only be remedied by structural change – and so their representation of women has stalled.

You can hear it in their double standards: they don’t see anything wrong with a quota for National Party men.

And you can hear it in the words of so many of their people.

Take Amanda Stoker.

I wouldn’t have brought her up, given that like the Fox News talking heads she mimics, her main purpose is to polemicise precisely so she is talked about.

But now the senator has been appointed by Scott Morrison to address his so called ‘women problem’, as Assistant Minister for Women.

The Assistant Minister for Women, who complains about ‘skewed gender sensitivity training’.

In her first speech in the Senate, she decried what she said were people:

‘finding some immutable characteristic like your sex or skin colour to justify being treated with a privilege over others, or to claim some kind of special victimhood.’

She later expanded on this, saying:

‘The victim develops a sense of entitlement to elevated status, and if it is not given, whether by government or others, it confirms victimhood… ‘

I don't think I need to explain that to this audience; that there are a whole range of ways in which people of colour, women, people with disability, experience less advantage. They don't imagine it.

Women in Australia spend twice as much time on unpaid work as men and retire with about half the superannuation balance of men.

Are we really to believe that seeking to specifically address the causes of this economic inequality would see women ‘claim some kind of special victimhood’.

It is an argument that demonstrates a disdain for people who face disadvantage and seeks to justify preserving structural barriers – and the Government doing nothing.

Senator Stoker has also campaigned against a woman’s right to choose – a campaign she continues in her new role.

When I heard something she’d said, I imagined what Joan would have said.

Senator Stoker said when asked where she stood on a woman’s right to choose:

‘any adult woman has the opportunity to choose in their behaviours every day of the week and there are probably 100 decisions one can take leading up to the point at which one finds oneself pregnant. That’s a woman’s right to choose.’

This is a word game, deployed to deny women the right to choose.

It diminishes and disregards advocacy that has spanned over decades. Advocacy that I was so proud to be a part of, as Joan’s friend and colleague.

But I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.

We had seven budgets brought down by this Government, with no women’s budget statement.

It’s why last year’s budget measures were focused on mentorships and we heard such nonsense as the Budget benefited women because money was being spent on roads and women drive on roads too.

Remember Mr Morrison’s answer when he was confronted with the realities of women giving birth on the side of the Barton Highway. He said:

‘That’s why we have committed $150 million to upgrade the Barton Highway.’

I’m glad that money has at last been found for child care – though an insufficient amount - just enough to demonstrate the problem but not enough to fix it.

And I’m glad money has been found for services helping women in crisis. But services for women in crisis have themselves been in financial crisis for some years.

I wish the Government had not ignored a key recommendation of the [email protected] report which would confirm that employers have a positive duty to keep their staff safe from sexual harassment.

But you see fundamentally - and this is not a partisan point, it’s a philosophical point – too many of our political opponents in the Liberal Party don’t agree - do not believe - that there are structural barriers faced by women, and they don’t understand or believe it’s government’s job to remove those barriers.

That would be, as Senator Stoker might say, indulging victimhood.

How different was Joan Kirner? She understood. She believed that government has a role in shaping opportunity. She knew the capacity of governments to redress injustice and disadvantage.

So do I. So do you.

Last week’s Budget was an opportunity to invest in a vision for our nation.

An opportunity to build back better.

But regrettably, instead of harnessing the power of government to deliver the reform needed to make Australia’s economy stronger, broader and more sustainable, the Budget read like a laundry list of political fixes.

You had $1 trillion of debt but wages will still go backwards.

So little effort to actually address the disadvantage of so many Australians.

I think we can build back better. To seize this once in a century opportunity:

  • To reinvent our economy;
  • To lift wages and make sure they keep rising;
  • To invest in advanced manufacturing and in skills and training with public TAFE at its heart;
  • To provide affordable child care;
  • To address the housing crisis;
  • To champion equality for women; and
  • To emerge as a renewable energy superpower.

This is what a social justice agenda for Australia should look like in 2021.

As our leader, Anthony Albanese likes to say, an economy should work for people, not the other way around.

But we know that too many Australians who are counted as ‘employed’ can’t get enough hours to pay the bills, or can’t count on regular hours.

And there are too many Australians who are being exploited or underpaid or subjected to an unsafe environment – hostage to their insecure work.

It’s well past time for government to crack down on the abuse of cowboy labour hire firms.

People who do the same work should get the same pay.

We should do what Labor has called for and write job security into the Fair Work Act and properly define casual work.

We should do what the Victorian Government has already done, but we should do it nationally. We should criminalise wage theft.

These and so many other policies are all about ensuring Australians get a fair share of the prosperity our nation generates.

And we should act on climate change.

Positive action on climate change and moving to net zero emissions by 2050 will create jobs, lower energy prices and lower emissions.

Part of our plan is creating a New Energy apprenticeships program to train 10,000 young people for the new energy jobs of the future.

Jobs in renewable energy generation and renewables manufacturing.

As you would know, one of the most acute social justice issues facing this country is affordable housing.

Young Australians worry they’ll never be able to afford a first home.

Families are struggling with the cost of housing and older women are the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness.

Last week Anthony Albanese – himself the beneficiary of social housing – committed Labor to a ten billion dollar off-budget Housing Australia Future Fund.

This Fund will build social and affordable housing now and into the future.

It will create jobs, it will build homes and it will change lives.

Over the first five years, it will build 30,000 social and affordable houses, including 4,000 for women and children escaping domestic violence.

It will also:

  • invest in improving housing in remote Indigenous communities;
  • invest in crisis and transitional housing for women and children fleeing domestic and family violence, and older women on low incomes who are at risk of homelessness; and
  • build housing and fund specialist services for veterans who are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness.

Just this morning I had the privilege to be at Launch Housing East St Kilda and met with some of the women that service has helped to escape domestic violence situations.

As a result of the support they’ve received, these women are building a better future for themselves.

Such inspiring women.

Labor’s vision – and our policies – are about seizing the opportunity to build a better future, improve living standards and promote fairness.

And these are genuine measures that tackle disadvantage.

As we have always done, Labor understands the role of government to address structural inequality because we accept structural inequality exists.

But none of this is easy.

Yes, we need ambition.

But we also have to convince people who don’t agree with us.

At the last election, Labor fell short of a majority.

We won’t change the government without respecting where people are at and earning their trust.

That’s how change happens. That’s how we write a new chapter.

Take Medicare, so beloved by Australians you could easily forget that Labor had to build it twice – and we had to win government twice to secure it.

Joan Kirner knew as well as anyone that social justice meant little to people’s lives as ideas alone; it took governments with progressive agendas to make social justice a reality.

So little change would become a reality if we hadn’t secured government, which always requires convincing those who don’t naturally agree with us.

Think of some of the structural, transformational change in this country that has only happened because we were able to do that.

The NDIS, accessible education, the Sex Discrimination Act, the Racial Discrimination Act, Native Title, the Apology to the Stolen Generations.

We know they were all years in the making.

We know none would have happened without Labor governments.

And we know there is so much left to do, including on our path to reconciliation with Australia’s First Nations peoples.

I was privileged to be in the Parliament for the National Apology.

A moment of such great import for our nation.

And I hope we can all be a part of Australia achieving truth, treaty and voice.

We in Labor are committed to this, as we all should be.

As you conclude this year’s conference, I implore you to heed the call to arms you yourselves have set out.

Because – as Joan’s life and work demonstrated – it will take all of us.

It will take our collective ambition, all of our collective determination, all of our collective courage, to think big and to fix everything.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.