2023 Bruce Childs Lecture

18 December 2023

Thank you and good evening, it’s wonderful to be here, in a crowd of good friends and true believers.

I note that we’re meeting at the Gaelic Club a week before Christmas.

So in memory of Shane Macgowan, the recently departed lead singer of The Pogues, I expect to hear Fairytale of New York before the night is out. 

Can I begin by recognising that we meet tonight on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

I acknowledge the traditional owners and pay my respect to elders past and present.

Friends, it’s an honour to give this lecture in memory of my dear friend Bruce Childs. 

It’s a particular honour to give it this year, the first held after his death in May.

Bruce cared about ideas, he had a lifelong curiosity about the world and other people, and I know this tradition meant a lot to him.

As the Prime Minister said, Bruce was a gentle giant of our party.

A unionist, a Senator, a feminist, a hero of the peace movement, a mentor to countless people on the left, and the most decent person I’ve known in politics.

Many of you will know that Bruce gave me my first job in the Labor Party.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would look like if he didn’t take a chance on me.

I was young and angry and disillusioned at the time.

Frustrated by Labor’s decision to sell uranium to the French. Frustrated by our lack of progress on land rights.

It was like that Simpson’s episode where Lisa goes to Washington:

‘A little girl is losing faith in democracy!’

But Bruce helped change that. He helped restore my faith in our political system.

Bruce taught a generation of activists that you could be effective in politics and you could be a decent person. 

That you could be gentle and caring and you could be strong and successful.

There’s a concept in engineering called ‘tensile strength’.

It means the amount of force a structure can take without giving way. 

Bruce could sometimes look unassuming, but he had a tremendous inner strength – a quiet core of steel that held true.

Tonight I want to reflect on the life of my friend Bruce Childs.

For those who didn’t know him, I want to give a flavour of Bruce the man – the Bruce Childs I knew.

And then I want to consider what kind of lessons his example offers our party today and in the future.

Lessons to help us rebuild credibility and trust in public life.

When I think about Bruce, I go back to the beginning.

Back to his early days in Earlwood, growing up in working class Sydney after the depression.

Bruce was a bright kid, full of talent. But like his hero Ben Chifley, he left school pretty to earn his keep.

He started off his working life as a printer’s apprentice at the Fairfax newspapers, joined the union, and rose through the ranks quickly, becoming an official at the Printers and Kindred Industries Union.

When we drove around the city together, Bruce would point out the old factories of industrial Sydney.

The glass factory that is now storage units – he had members there.

The Federal Match Factory in Alexandria – now home to the Alexandria Park Community School.

The IXL jam factory in Chippendale – he had members there too.

Bruce would tell me about the negotiations he used to conduct at the union, which often involved the so-called ‘cunning kick’ his members demanded.

This was a part of the pay packet the worker’s wives never knew about – but was of paramount interest to the blokes as beer money.

In so many ways, Bruce was a connection to the Sydney of another time. The inner city Sydney of factories and working class families still recovering from depression and war.

But his politics were not old fashioned at all.

He came from the industrial left tradition, but he was perfectly comfortable with the university educated left the came to challenge its dominance.

He was in parliament for the working class: for decent pay and conditions; safety at work; a strong safety net.

But he was also for equality and social justice, for peace and feminism. 

Bruce was never intimidated by change. He saw no contradiction between working class politics and social liberation.

He rebelled against the idea that working people were automatically socially conservative.

He was curious about new things, he wanted to understand them.

Which made him the perfect mediator between the old and new left.

But also between different interests in the Senate, between factions in the Labor Party, between the broader left in Australia.

Bruce could be a firebrand on a worksite, but he was also a natural conciliator.

If you shared a goal with Bruce, if you held a value in common, he was happy to work with you.

He had this marvellous combination of patience and determination.

Which must have come in handy when he walked into Sussex St as the left’s first assistant secretary in NSW.

Which was a bit like being the first Catholic police officer in Belfast.

You saw what it did to John Faulkner.

He went in a pussy cat and came out as, well, he came out as John Faulkner.

When I reflect on why Bruce was so good at this, why he was trusted by so many people, two answers occur to me – two personal traits.

The first was his endless sense of curiosity about life and people. 

Bruce wanted to understand the world. He wanted to understand humans and why they acted like they did.

He would carry a little diary in his breast pocket, and every time he found a fact or a phrase he wanted to contemplate, he would write it down.

He was always telling me about the latest article he read in the New York Review of Books or the Economist.

He was typical of that generation.

Being robbed of a formal education, he valued it twice as much – and argued twice as fiercely for others to get it.

I recently gave a talk in memory of Jack Ferguson, who left school at thirteen, and who also shared that hunger – that fanatical appetite for knowledge.

Bruce’s values were absolutely solid and unwavering.

But he didn’t assume he had the final word on a subject, he wasn’t arrogant, he wanted to learn from other people and to grow. 

Which leads me to the second reason for his success, which was his fascination with human psychology.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that Bruce ended up marrying two psychiatrists.

Bruce was always interested in different personality types and human behaviour. 

And he applied his psychoanalysis to an infinitely complex subject – the Australian Senate.

As he wrote of Senate committees:

They contain ‘all psychodynamics of a small group without the therapy’.

Bruce would talk about ‘primitive personalities’ in politics, people who would seek out conflict, or come into the committee room to ask a question before leaving immediately, loudly taking a phone call.

But that wasn’t Bruce. Bruce offered a different model of leadership.

A model in many ways ahead of his time, particularly as a bloke in politics.

As Tom Uren said, Bruce was the ultimate collectivist.

He understood that there was strength in empathy, wisdom in listening, power in unity. 

Politics wasn’t about dominating the stage or seizing the microphone. It was about working together and getting things done.

This might not be the first comparison that comes to mind when you think of Bruce, but it reminds me of Jacinda Arden, who said:

‘It takes courage and strength to be empathetic, and I’m very proud to be an empathetic and compassionate leader’. 

There might be some people out there who think these words are mushy and soft.

That basing your leadership on empathy is a sign of weakness.

It’s pretty clear by now that Peter Dutton is one of those people.

Someone who confuses anger for passion, who mistakes bullying for strength.

But that doesn’t work. Not really.

You can’t bring modern Australia together if you feel threatened by difference or diversity.

You can’t build effective coalitions if you assume you’re right and other people are wrong.

That was the model of the Morrison years. A recipe for gridlock and squandered opportunities; for disillusionment and less trust in politics. 

Bruce was someone that made institutions work.

When he retired from the Senate, he left with genuine admiration from across the parliament. 

I’ve got the VHS tapes at home, and you can see his colleagues – Liberals, Nationals, and Democrats in those days – all speaking about his dedication, his patience, his skill.

The same qualities that made him so valuable as the national convenor of the left for many years.

Bruce once said that ‘factions are like families’.

Now he didn’t specify what kind of family.

It isn’t the Brady Bunch, but it doesn’t have to be the Sopranos either.

Bruce was a stalwart of the left during some tough days.

He was the sole left person in head office when the Balmain branch books were stolen one night in a smash and grab.

Luckily, he was smart enough to keep a second set of books.

He would tell stories about men walking out of polling booths on local government election days, slipping on a different jacket, and walking right back in to vote again.

Bruce told these stories in a light-hearted way, but he was talking about a time when threats of violence and actual violence were very real.

And gentle, thoughtful Bruce Childs stood up to it all.

He was against corruption. He was against criminality in politics.

And he was open to working with anyone, across the party, that shared those priorities.

Bruce was always completely clear about his allegiances in the ALP, but he was uniquely trusted by people who otherwise found it difficult to be in the same room as each other.

That was also true across the broader left.

He was rightfully proud of his role organising a decade of Palm Sunday rallies, when more than 170,000 people marched through the streets of Australia for a nuclear free world.

Working with everyone from student activists to churches, to unions.

Even managing to organise the Trots.

Which was like herding cats – only less disciplined, and even less grateful.  

It seems to me that Bruce’s model of leadership is what we need in the modern world.

A model of empathy, unity, patience and hard work.

A model that prizes delivering over personal vanity.

As members of the Labor Party, we have a duty to deliver for our people, for working people.

Making their lives easier, relieving the pressure.

With a reliable job, a good local school, a doctor that bulk bills, a house they can afford.

But we also have a parallel mission – which is to restore faith in politics and democracy.

The Liberal and the Nationals don’t really care if people lose trust in government. If anything, it helps them.

But for social democrats, trust is indispensable. 

We’re the party of progress, the party of active government.

So we need Australians to believe in our institutions.

And the best way to build that trust is to show people, in really tangible ways, that our democracy is capable of performing for them.

That politics isn’t a game played for amusement of the insider class.

That it’s a tool for supplying people with their needs.

This was a test that Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison all failed miserably to meet.

Their ideas were bad, but their ability to deliver them was even worse.

They couldn’t bring people together. They didn’t seek to understand different opinions. They just tried to headbutt their way through – with pitiful success.

I think it’s true to say that Labor is different here, that we are different.

We don’t share their arrogance; we don’t feel that kind of entitlement. 

We believe in solidarity; we practice compromise; we meet people as equals.

Those were the attitudes that Bruce brought to the Senate. And they’re the exact attitudes we need to make politics work.

It’s what we showed in the last week of parliament, when we guided significant industrial relations reform through the Senate.

Tony Burke came up against a deeply dishonest scare campaign, but he held his ground. 

We weren’t pig headed. We were happy to talk. Happy to amend the bill where possible.

We were willing to compromise, but we refused to capitulate.

And we succeeded. Tony Burke made the case, we pulled the votes together, from very different parts of the crossbench.

That is how politics should work.

We had a lingering problem, with workers doing the same job, but being paid tens of thousands of dollars less, because of IR loopholes.

And now we’ve dealt with it. Methodically, purposefully, and effectively.

At the same time, in my own portfolio, we managed to pass three critical pieces of environmental reform in the final sitting fortnight.

Achieving more environmental protection in nine days than the Liberals achieved in nine years.

The first was our legislation to deliver the full Murray Darling Basin Plan.

This was supposed to be finished next year, but the Coalition spent a decade sabotaging and delaying water recovery.

They say they were on track to deliver it, which is true – sometime around the year 4,000.

So we had to rebuild the plan, with new timelines, bringing together state and territory governments, talking to farmers and scientists and First Nations groups.

If you’ve followed water policy in Australia, you’ll know how contentious it can be.

You’ve got upriver and downriver communities, you’ve got competing demands on a finite resource.

But we knew that finishing the plan wasn’t negotiable, we needed to protect these rivers, so we found a way through.

There was enough good will out there, most people were able to compromise a little, to consider the national interest.

And we ended up passing the bill comfortably in the end, with the Greens party, with David Pocock, with Jacqui Lambie, Tammy Tyrell and Lidia Thorpe and David Van.

The Liberals tried criticise me, for seeking every vote possible.

But we work with the Senate the Australian people elected. 

They want us to work together where possible, to make parliament work. To be productive – not sanctimonious.

We managed to do that on our two nature reforms – creating our new nature repair market and updating the water trigger in our environmental laws, to cover unconventional forms of gas.

And that’s what we’ll do next year – as we rewrite our national environmental laws and establish our new EPA.

As a party, we understand the scale of our task in 2024.

First things first, we have to deal with the economic situation.

Breaking the back of inflation, taking pressure off interest rates, building enough homes for our kids.

That is how we earn people’s confidence, by making life easier.

But at the same time, we have a second assignment.

To help Australians believe in democracy again.

To show that we can still solve complex problems as a country.

That we can still work together in good faith, in the national spirit.

Getting wages moving again.

Strengthening the backbone of Medicare.

Protecting our environment.

Transitioning our energy system.

Growing the next generation of local manufacturing.

These are long term issues, which were neglected for a decade.

But they aren’t beyond our capacity to solve.

That is our path to winning the next election.

Dealing with the problems of today, while setting ourselves up for the opportunities of tomorrow.

Delivering for people, while restoring faith in politics.

Living up to the timeless example of Bruce Childs.

Being open and ambitious.

Friendly and fierce.

Decent and strong.

Thank you.