People of Australia
In my House of Representatives’ eulogy to the late Mr Tom Uren on Monday 9 February I cited, with approval, his words: “The fit look after the wounded, the young look after the old, and the rich look after the poor”.
s51 of our Australian Constitution Act sets out our responsibilities as members of Parliament. It states “The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth.
Recent events have indicated to me that there are many in our community who hold the view that the action taken by the government since its election in 2013, in their view, do not constitute good laws as defined by the Constitution.
We have acted in ways that we believed to be correct. However, as members of Parliament are representatives of the people and we need to act in accordance with their wishes. As I said, I have listened and I have changed and in consequence, I make the following undertakings to you.
1. While we may be correct in the view that government debt needs to be reduced, we have erred in concentrating our efforts on making cuts to social services rather than examining ways to fairly raise revenue. I undertake to have the requisite consultations with my cabinet and community stakeholders in how we might adjust our debt levels by increasing revenue, as against cutting services to the public.
2. I understand that a government cannot function adequately without public servants because, after all, it is public servants who work hard to implement government policy. I undertand that cuts to public servants undermines the government’s capacity to adequately deliver government policy. I undertake to direct my relevant minister to restore recently sacked public servants to their positions, and to offer to any one who wants one, a public service job for the asking.
3. I understand that a great deal of work is done by community organisations which take the burden from government departments. I undertake to restore community funding to all organisations that have been notified of funding cuts.
4. I understand that since the time I was a young man, housing has become unattainable for a person on a minimum wage. While in those times a person could buy a house at a cost generally equivalent to a yearly wage, that is not the case today. I undertake to work with community groups and relevant stakeholders on how me might make good laws to help our people in this regard.
5. I understand that since those days, there has been a casualisation of the workforce. The unexpected consequence of such casualisation is that people are unable to live independent lives. I undertake to promote well-being in our community by consulting and seeking advice from those relevant stakeholders who can assist in stopping the progress of this insidious attack on our people’s economic and psychological independence. I undertake, that in future, I will speak in terms of “livelihoods” for our Australian in the belief that such a change of focus will be the condition precedent to our steps to improve employment conditions for all adults who currently cannot say that they enjoy a “livelihood”.
6. A consequence of such casualisation of the workforce, and subsequent loss of livelihood, people who work in casual “jobs” are prohibited from obtaining the requisite conditions for a housing loan which is one of the great Australian dreams. This is a shame on our country. Apart from good health, a livelihood and housing are the barest essentials for everyone. I undertake to consult and seek advice with the relevant stakeholders on how we might desist from talking about “jobs” and instead, aim to provide “livelihoods” to Australians so that they may live independent lives by promoting housing availability to all Australians. If Mr Whitlam and Mr Uren were capable of improving the lives of Australians by creating sewerage systems, we should be capable of improving the lives of Australians by such an undertaking. We are the liberal government, and it is not inconsistent with our values for good government that we cannot take steps to improve the material good for our people.
7. I understand that many good people worked very hard to establish our world-envied public health system Medicare. I cannot doubt that I too, in some way or another, have been a beneficiary of Medicare, as has my family and as have many Australians that I know. I understand that costs of Medicare have not grown in comparison with our GDP, and what’s more, are an investment in our country’s good health and prosperity. I undertake to consult and seek direction from relevant stakeholders to ensure the integral survival of Medicare, un-fractured by price signals or any other wounding strategies.
8. I understand that for child care is a serious concern for many people. It is a concern for my government. I undertake to consult with states so that we may include childcare, also known as preschool education into the already existing infrastructure of our public and private schools and to make it as free as we make primary and secondary education. We have many teachers who are out of work and such an initiative will be of benefit for many of our families, our children and our administrators.
9. When I was a young man, tertiary education was free. There are many people in society who remember the difference that a free tertiary education made to their lives and careers. I undertake to restore free tertiary education to all who would wish to take advantage of it, on the understanding that providing such free tertiary education is an investment in our society.
10. There are many in the community who are concerned about Climate Change and wish to see more done to develop policies for the creation of renewable energy. In any period of transition there are difficulties, whether it’s transition from coal or uranium to renewable energy. I undertake to consult with the relevant stakeholders on how we might take your concerns and submissions, and to act positively according to your advice. Energy production need not be a zero-sum game.
11. This year we are remembering Gallipoli, and we acknowledge the growing view around the world that war is not the answer either for the invader or the invaded. Not only were Australian lives lost at Gallipoli, but also were thousands of Turkish lives lost. I undertake to consult with my cabinet and members of government, on how we might change our language of war, and instead, learn to speak the language of conflict resolution and diplomacy.
12. And now for a very delicate proposition that I make to you. Australia is a signatory to international conventions. In fact we have been drafters and proponents of international conventions. Being signatories to conventions indicates the intention of our country and our citizens to be good international citizens. Sadly, it has happened that we have relied on international conventions when it suits us to, while we have ignored international conventions that do not, on their face, suit us. I am speaking of our signature to the Refugee Convention. My government, on seeking to solve an unforeseen and unexpected rise in the number of asylum seekers to our country has taken drastic steps. Many of you in the community consider those steps to be in breach of our international obligations and believe that off-shore processing is tantamount to punishing people who have committed no crime. I have listened to those who say that our upholding of the Refugee Convention is not only for the benefit of those who seek asylum in our country, bit also for our own pride and benefit as law abiding members of the International community. Australia has grown and developed not only by those who have arrived to our country by choice, but also by those who have arrived to our country in the belief that as signatories to the Refugee Convention we will offer them protection. Our decisions to open Manus Island and Nauru are the result of an imperfect and faulty narrative that has been articulated and promulgated to the Australian people, in the belief that it was necessary to do so. But, I have listened to those of you who would ask: “Who of us, or who of our ancestors, has not sought protection in this country?” Successive Australian governments since Arthur Calwell have praised those persons who, leaving everything behind, have come to be citizens of Australia, in spite of the pain of living in exile from their home country for the rest of their lives. As a result, I undertake to restore our domestic legislation to import the requirements of the Refugee Convention, so as to comply with the Vienna Treaty, to close Nauru, Christmas Island and Manus Island and to return asylum seekers to the mainland. I undertake to restore our upholding of the Refugee Convention to which we are a signatory, and which we helped to draft, and to treat asylum seekers according to its rules, with a right to work in the community, with applications being processed expeditiously. We have up to now, acted in fear, but we are greater than this. Instead, we will not act in fear in regards to those who seek our protection, but will act in good faith and courage, in the firm belief that anyone who seeks asylum in our country, on compassionate grounds, and is granted it, will in turn, and together with their children, learn to live as compassionate citizens.
13. Next year is the 800 anniversary of the Magna Carta one of the foundations of our rule of law. Let us not dismiss its importance, but instead, take it and teach it to our students so that they may carry on its work into the future. I understand that our Attorney General has commissioned our Freedom Commissioner Mr Tim Wilson to undertake a national project on the significance of this important document.
14. None of what I have said so far in my address to you, is to deny, or resile from our promise that Australia is open for business. But, government is not a zero-sum game. Being open for business need not be at the cost of our good governance for, or the well-being of, our people. Business makes beneficial use of the country’s infrastructure, both material, financial and governmental, infrastructure that is paid by taxpayers, either directly, or by way of opportunity cost. I undertake to ensure that my government does not take advantage of the good will of our people by turning a blind eye to the benefits that business enjoys at the cost of our citizens’ well-being and to take steps to ensure that the beneficial exchange between business, government and the Australian people be fair.
15. I grew up in the Christian, albeit Catholic, tradition of which a basic Christian principle is to “love thy neighbour”. It is also a fundamental principle of law. Our constitution demands that its parliamentarians make laws for peace, order and good government of the people. My government is committed to enact our responsibilities under that very important statute.
16. My government has changed. I repeat the words of the late Tom Uren: “The fit look after the wounded, the young look after the old, and the rich look after the poor”. These words are suggestive of our responsibilities under our constitution – to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth.