16 November 2020
TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
OPENING REMARKS – THE SYDNEY INSTITUTE BOOK EVENT
UPTURN: A BETTER NORMAL AFTER COVID-19
THE SYDNEY INSTITUTE
MONDAY, 16 NOVEMBER 2020
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I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
I also want to thank the Sydney Institute for giving me the chance to speak here once again.
Thank you Gerard and Anne – for all you’ve done to encourage discussion and debate over the years.
We need more of it.
A year ago, people would have told you it was impossible for school children to shift overnight to online learning.
Impossible for banks to offer mortgage holidays.
Impossible to house rough sleepers or put a hold on evictions.
Impossible to provide wage subsidies or double the unemployment benefit.
And absolutely impossible to get Australians to stay home from the pub or the beach.
Many things we assumed about ourselves, many things we assumed about the world, have been proven wrong.
The coronavirus has tested us as Australians – and for the most part, we have risen to the challenge.
Overwhelmingly, Australians have shown themselves to be disciplined and kind.
We listened to experts.
We followed advice.
We put our lives on hold for the health of others.
For every act of selfishness, there were ten acts of love and community spirit – of patriotism and solidarity at their practical best.
Sometimes we can fixate on our problems as a country.
On the things we do wrong.
But we shouldn’t be embarrassed to celebrate our successes – to acknowledge the things we’ve done well as a people.
Of course, Australia isn’t out of danger yet – as today’s figures in South Australia remind us.
We can’t afford to become slack or complacent – as the scenes in Europe and America make very clear.
But we do have a responsibility to start thinking about the kind of society and the kind of economy we want to rebuild after this virus.
Wars, recessions, depressions, pandemics – all are devastating.
All change society fundamentally.
This country will face massive questions in coming years – as big as we faced coming out of World War II.
Because Australians have sacrificed a lot this year.
Some have lost family members.
Too many couldn’t be with them in their final days – or even attend their funeral.
Hundreds of thousands lost their job or their business.
Millions more experienced periods of loneliness and isolation.
These sacrifices were necessary – but they were painful.
They should mean something.
They should produce something lasting and good.
Australians have earned a better deal; not a return insecurity and growing inequality.
We know what the conservative plan for recovery will look like over the next few years: wage cuts for Australian workers.
We know this because the plan hasn’t changed since Tony Abbott’s budget in 2014; or since the Liberals cut penalty rates in 2017.
Falling wages are a recipe for a slower, more painful recovery, and a much less equal country on the other side.
We’re already seeing this in our economy.
As the Treasurer admitted last week in Parliament, the unemployment rate has again ‘ticked up’, immediately following cuts to JobKeeper, JobSeeker and other financial supports.
We must not accept years of lingering unemployment and underemployment and underemployment.
We need to be more ambitious than that.
And that ambition needs to start at the top.
The Federal Government should set an official target of full employment – and it should use every tool at its disposal to achieve that goal.
First things first, the Government needs to change its attitude to wages.
If low wages continue to be a ‘deliberate design feature of our economic architecture’, to quote Mathias Cormann, this recession will drag on.
Economic recovery requires a thriving private sector – which requires a customer base that can afford its products.
Low wages mean less aggregate demand in the economy; which means less buying and selling, which means less recruiting and hiring.
It means people don’t have an extra five bucks in their pocket to buy a coffee on the way to work.
It means that people don’t feel confident enough to take their kids out for pizza on a Friday night.
Even the Reserve Bank is now acknowledging that stagnant wages are holding our economy back – and stopping us from reaching the Reserve Bank’s two to three per cent inflation target.
The federal Government also needs to think about how it can directly support employment around the country.
Wherever you look, wherever you live, there’s infrastructure that needs to be built or repaired.
There are projects that would make our cities and towns more efficient and liveable.
They don’t have to be enormous in scale.
In every community across Australia, there is a school, a TAFE, a hospital that needs upgrading.
There are footpaths that need fixing; community halls that need work; public toilets that need a lot of work…
It’s not glamorous – but it can create jobs anywhere and everywhere.
We also shouldn’t be afraid of stronger employment in the public sector.
One obvious example is aged care.
We need thousands more people to look after the more than 100,000 people we have on the waiting list for homecare.
This is true across the caring professions – where work clearly needs to be done, and where we have unemployed and underemployed people available to do it.
The only thing missing is a government commitment to training the workforce and funding aged care, early childhood education, disability services, and other caring professions.
People working in these jobs should be well trained, with permanent work that’s properly paid.
They are honourable professions; we should start treating them that way.
As we’ve tragically learned this year, an insecure workforce only leads to poorer services.
It’s bad for us all.
There’s a lesson there for the recovery.
It’s up to government to make sure people have the job security they need to thrive.
Good pay, good conditions, a reliable safety net.
These aren’t the end result of growth and prosperity – they’re a precondition for it.
I’m thinking of my own childhood here.
My Dad was a plumber and gas fitter at QANTAS – at the jet base in Sydney.
Every week, he would come home on Friday with his pay packet.
Back then, it would actually come in a packet – cash counted out into one of those white envelopes.
I never felt nervous that it wasn’t the biggest or the fattest pay packet.
I felt safe and confident – because I knew he would bring it home again next Friday, and the Friday after that.
That the money would be there to look after our family.
Australians deserve that confidence.
Their kids deserve that confidence.
Insecurity at work is a choice this Government has made – and we can choose to fight against it.
There’s no reason why miners working for profitable global companies should be forced onto labour hire contracts on lower wages.
There’s no reason why aged care workers can’t be on full time contracts – instead of working two or three part time jobs.
There’s no reason why the gig economy’s growth should mean job insecurity and low wages.
John Howard used to talk about wanting Australia to be ‘relaxed and comfortable’.
There’s something in that.
Most of us yearn for a time when we weren’t looking suspiciously at doorhandles; or wondering about how we’ll pay the rent or the mortgage next month.
We all deserve a bit of relaxation after this year.
But we should aim a bit higher than relaxed and comfortable.
It’s too complacent for a country that’s led the world in so many ways.
We should instead aim for relaxed and confident.
We want people to be confident enough to spend and invest, knowing they’ll have a job next week and next year.
Australians should be confident that, if they work hard, their job is safe and secure.
They should be confident that their kids will have a better life than they did – and that their dreams and education won’t be weighed down by a lifetime of debt.
We should all be confident that our beautiful bush and reef will still be there for future generations.
We should be confident that we can withstand the next shock and, if we fall on hard times, be helped back on our feet.
This year has taught us so much about ourselves.
Above all, it’s reminded us that we can achieve truly remarkable things; things we once considered impossible.
It is within our power to build the country we all want to live in, and leave to our kids.
An Australia that builds things.
An Australia that makes things.
An Australia that cares for its people.
An Australia with secure jobs and good wages.
It’s within our reach – we just need to grab it.