12 November 2023

It’s a pleasure to be here in Parramatta today, in the heart of Sydney, on the land of the Dharug people.

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

And I thank the Westmead branch for inviting me today.

Can I also acknowledge some of our guests who are joining us.

Andrew Charlton, the federal Member for Parramatta.

Donna Davis, the state Member for Parramatta.

Julia Finn, the state Member for Granville.

Anthony D'Adam, from the NSW upper house.

And of course, Laurie Ferguson and his wife Maureen Walsh, representing the Ferguson family.

It’s lovely to see you again Maureen and Laurie.

Friends, it’s a great honour to give this lecture today in memory of Jack Ferguson.

There will be people here who knew Jack, who saw him in full flight, who were made richer by his friendship. 

And there will be others who came after Jack, but who have benefited from his contribution to public life.

As Bob Carr said of Jack, he was a big man in every way, with a big laugh, a big heart, a big mind.

And I would add to that list – a big legacy.

As a bricklayer, who rose to the second highest office in NSW.

As Neville Wran’s closest advisor and right hand man, who left his permanent mark across this city and this state. 

And as a man of unbending loyalty, to his class and his community, to the people he represented here in Western Sydney.

Jack lived an extraordinary life. One of those exceptional lives, that manages to tell the larger story of a generation.   

When I think about Jack Ferguson, I think about my own parents. 

Migrants to this country, who made a home in the suburbs of southern Sydney.

Like Jack, and like so many of their generation, they were smart people, who never had the chance to finish school themselves, but who gave their adult lives to making sure their kids had choices and opportunities they never did.

Working hard jobs, taking extra shifts, pouring their hope and their faith into the next generation.

Making sacrifices but feeling no bitterness.

Instead their prevailing feeling was one of gratitude and great good fortune.

As new Australians, they felt like they were winning the lottery every day by living here.

I also think about the world they passed on to us.

Thirteen year old kids don’t leave school anymore, like Jack did, to help support their families.   

They don’t walk home on unpaved streets, to houses lacking proper sewerage, sleeping in rooms without electricity.

And for that we have leaders like Jack Ferguson to thank.

Today I want to reflect on Jack’s example.

As a worker, as a union organiser, as the Member for Merrylands, as the Deputy Premier of New South Wales.

I want to explore what Jack’s example means for our Labor government and for Labor governments of the future.

And this feels like the right place to make those reflections – here at Western Sydney University.

A university built on the great Labor principles – of equality and opportunity, of pride and aspiration. 

A university very much in the spirit of Jack Ferguson.

As Jack argued in his maiden speech to parliament:

‘We must ensure that all the things needed to make a happy community are provided for’ – wherever people live.

And as he made clear throughout his life:

‘The people of the western suburbs are more than hewers of wood and carriers of water’.

This was personal for Jack.

People who met him were always struck by his lifelong, almost fanatical, commitment to learning. 

Denied a formal education, leaving school at thirteen, he became his own teacher.

Reading novels on his lunch break at the building site.

Snatching moments after work, next to an oil lamp.

Reading everything – Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire.

Some of his peers considered him the best read man in parliament, this self-taught tradie from Guildford.

There was a story from one particularly rowdy state Labor conference, not uncommon here in New South Wales, where Jack told the delegates that his Left faction was now ‘crossing the Rubicon’.

As always, the Left cheered him on. He was their champion.

But afterwards, Jack walked over to Rodney Cavalier and said:

‘Comrade, what do people do at university? I’ve got all these graduates coming up to me and asking what the Rubicon is. Don’t they read history?’

Like people across Western Sydney today, Jack understood the life changing power of education, with a hunger that was sharpened by deprivation.

And driven by that great love, he left two lasting monuments to learning here in Sydney.

One was the new wing of the State Library, which he built on top of the old parliamentary tennis courts.

The second was his passion project – the Guildford Public Library.

So any local kid, from any class or background, could have their life transformed by the magic of words and reading.

Jack Ferguson was a man who always sought to better himself, while never believing he was better than anyone else.

This was a man who lived in the same Guildford house for fifty years – a house he built with his own hands.

A man who would introduce himself at conference in the same way, year after year, even as Deputy Premier.

It was always ‘Delegate Ferguson – Building Workers Industrial Union’.

This was no exercise in false modesty, but an expression of genuine loyalty and devotion.

As a local member in Merrylands, Jack Ferguson would go above and beyond for his constituents. 

This was back before modern electorate offices, so people would drop in at the house, at all kinds of strange hours.

People who had lost their jobs, who had issues with their landlord.

Or on Saturday night, people walking over from the pub and asking their local MP to settle a point of argument.      

Whatever the topic, they knew Jack and his wife Mary would front up and hear them out.

As John Faulkner said, Jack had two iron laws in politics: 

Always remember who sent you. And never forget why they did. 

Words that everyone in public life should make time to reflect on.

Words for all of us to live by.

From the Prime Minister down – in the Labor Party, we know who sent us. 

Labor seeks the support of every Australian.

We govern as a national party, in the national interest. 

Unlike the Coalition, we don’t seek to manufacture division between the suburbs and the regions, between the outer suburbs and the inner city.

That is why you see Labor MPs elected from right across these communities – in a way that no other party is.

Because we recognise the common demands and wishes that unite the majority of Australians, wherever they live.

Labor MPs are sent to Parliament from every corner of our country, but it’s the suburbs that send Labor into government.

The kind of suburbs that Jack Ferguson represented so faithfully.

We succeed when we convince suburban families that we are on their side. 

Fighting for the security of working people, making life a bit easier.

Taking care of the basics.

A strong economy, a secure nation.

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

That kind of security is the precondition to a good life.

Without that security, without confidence that life is predictable and manageable, people have less time and space to worry about other things.

Not because they don’t care.

But because they are busy and stretched trying to keep food on the table, a roof over their head, petrol in the car. 

I have always believed that Labor is the party of “bread and roses”.

To quote Helen Todd, the suffragette who coined that phrase:  

We push 'forward the time when life's Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child'.

Good societies and good governments provide both. 

Economic security, reliable healthcare, a home to live in.

But also equality between men and women; social inclusion and tolerance; music and art; recreation and outdoor space; a stable climate and a healthy environment. 

The roses of life are not luxuries. They are what take us from surviving to living.

When we imagine our children’s lives, our first thought is the bread, with the hope they will never experience hardship or want. 

But we dwell too on the roses: on the quality and richness of their life, the people they will love, the passions they will discover, the communities they will form. 

We also wonder about the kind of world they will inhabit.

When you start thinking about the future of your kids, and about the future of their kids, it’s impossible to call the environment and the climate a luxury issue.  

Obviously, it wasn’t like that for Teal supporters in the last federal election: it was a fundamental vote changing matter.

But these are not luxury issues for working people either.

We hear an unbelievable amount of nonsense on this topic from the Coalition and their cronies.

People claiming that nature is a concern for the inner city, or the beachside towns, but not the outer suburbs.

As if you need a harbour view to appreciate or want nourishment from the natural world.

But in my experience, that isn’t true at all.

Growing up, my dad mostly worked six days a week. But on Sundays, after mass, we’d pack the picnic basket and head to Cronulla beach, with our family and our family friends.

We had the full picnic spread laid out in the shade, with all our washed fruit, with the grill ready to go, the salads and the cakes.

If it wasn’t the beach, it was the Royal National Park, or the picnic grounds at Cataract Dam or Warragamba or Woronora.

That was what relaxation looked like to us, that was family time, at the beach, in a national park, anywhere there was water and trees.

It was beautiful. And it was free.

And you still see it right across Sydney, by the river, in the Royal National Park, next to Sydney Harbour.

Whole families out there fishing and swimming and barbecuing together, multiple generations at once, all laughing and smiling.

And there’s the special love that boating, camping and fishing enthusiasts have for nature.

They might not always call themselves environmentalists, they might not use that word.

But if you told them that their favourite fishing spot was about to be concreted over, you would have a revolution on your hands.

So when people say environmental protection is for the inner city, I think they're missing point. 

But it is true to say that people are less likely to vote on these kinds of issues if they lack economic security.

Which is why we must always show that we are focussed on the basics.

Making people’s lives a bit easier, reducing their stress, giving people a chance to breathe.

And as a government, we are directing all our energy towards delivering for these people – the people who sent us.

Fighting for their economic security. And then helping them enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Not just to slog away, but to enjoy the good things in life.

We proudly stand for bread and roses.

Even when Peter Dutton seeks to mock the idea – the idea that working people might care about nature and the planet. 

That attitude is disappointing. But it’s what we’ve come to expect from the modern Liberal Party.

They have completely given up on Australians who might work in white collar jobs and live in the city, the people who voted Teal last election – the people Peter Dutton assumes vote on climate and the environment.

And in their search to compensate for that loss, for the loss of the Liberal heartland, they have one answer and one answer only.

Stirring up another culture war. Sowing conflict and building resentment.

Making climate and the environment another point of endless division.

Look at what we’ve seen from the Liberals in the past couple of weeks alone.

Tony Abbott confessing that he always rejected the science of climate change.

Admitting that he spent his time as Prime Minister lying to Australians about his true feelings.

Describing the scientific community as a ‘climate cult’.

Which was an interesting choice of words, from someone who just appeared on the Jordan Peterson podcast. 

Before that we had Peter Dutton in Newcastle attempting to frighten local communities about renewable energy and wind farms.

Trying to keep a straight face while talking about his love of rare birds.

And through it all, more lies and scaremongering about transmission lines in regional Australia.

Lies designed to slow down our transition, by terrifying country towns, spiking the discourse with a cocktail of misinformation. 

That’s their climate policy – lies, denial and distraction.

Like their half-baked idea about small modular nuclear reactors.

Which you might have seen in the news the other day.

The nuclear company that the Coalition had been pointing to as proof of the technology, the only company with an approval in the United States, just cancelled the project due to a lack of subscribers.

Which might be amusing if it wasn’t already baked into their energy strategy.

Because Peter Dutton and the Liberals were never really invested in these modular nuclear reactors.

It was only ever there as a smokescreen, as cover for their opposition to renewable energy and emissions reduction. 

If people thought the Teals would prompt the Liberal Party to enter the Age of Enlightenment, we can safely put that idea aside.

They have not changed. We are facing the same full court press against climate action that we did under Tony Abbott.

And we have to be prepared for it.

We have to be vigilant and persuasive.

Our government has a systematic approach to reaching our target of 82% renewable energy by the end of the decade.

Passing our safeguard laws and legislating a path to net zero.

Investing $20 billion to rewire the nation to get more renewables into the grid.

Cheaper electric cars.

Investing $1.6 billion to get homes and businesses off gas and on to electricity.

And doubling the number of renewable projects being approved.

In the past month alone, we’ve approved the largest battery hub in Asia. One of the largest battery systems anywhere in the world. 

Powering one million Victorian homes and supporting 365 jobs. 

A week before that, we approved a massive new solar farm in Queensland.

Producing enough energy to power around 200,000 households, a city the size of Townsville.

We’ve ticked off a solar farm in New South Wales that will power 56,000 homes.

A new wind farm in one of Queensland’s oldest mining regions.

So we’re getting on with it, the transition is moving.

But we can’t just rely on policy, we have to reinforce it with social and political support.

We need to continuously remind people why these changes will help them.

Not just by preserving the climate and helping our kids and grandkids.

But by creating jobs across regional Australia.

And by pushing energy prices down in the medium term, as more of these renewables come into the grid.

This is economic as well as environmental reform – and the payoff will be enormous.

But we have to keep making that case, we can’t slow down in our advocacy or our persuasion.

Sometimes I think people across the environmental movement see a government like ours make progress on climate action, and they bank it.

They move onto the next fight, assuming the last one is over.  

But that has not been our experience with climate action in Australia.

There’s always the possibility of going backwards again if we’re not careful, if we let the Liberals and the Nationals win the public argument.

This is something the Greens Party and their ilk need to remember: the real fight isn’t amongst people who support climate action, who agree on the need for significant emissions reduction.

The real fight is between those who want action and those who don’t.

Between the obstructionists in the Coalition and the people of good faith outside it.

That is where we need to focus our attention.

Compromising in Parliament, delivering new renewable projects on the ground, making government work. 

That is how we convince people on the fence that the emissions reduction and energy transition is in their interests.

Not to win another obscure fight within the bubble of climate activists.

But to land the argument in the wider community, in the suburbs and the regions.

As Jack Ferguson said, these are the people who sent us.

It was their support that put us into government. 

And it will be their judgment that will decide the next federal election.

The trust of our suburbs is precious.

Hard to attain, and once lost, even harder to win back.

We know we can never take that trust for granted.

The times where we have done that, when we have slipped up, we have been punished for it, and rightly so.

The families of the suburbs of Australia sent us to Parliament to make their lives a bit easier. To open up opportunity. To help their kids live a better life than they did.

Guaranteeing the bread and watering the roses.

We recognise that.

And we will spend the next eighteen months using every tool at hand to make that happen.

That is why we are here. That is how we will be judged.

And that’s what makes us the Australian Labor Party.

Thank you.