I’m delighted to have the opportunity to address this year’s Labour conference, for personal as well as professional reasons.
There’s no doubt I owe New Zealand a lot.
I was born in England and came here with my family, as a primary school student.
My father worked as an electrician on the hydro-electric scheme in the Waikato, then we moved to dairying country in Matamata before shifting to Auckland.
Migrating here with my family gave me opportunities that I would never have received if we had stayed in south-east London.
This country lifted our horizons.
It furnished me with a decent education.
I attended Northcote College and then Auckland University, and at both institutions I benefited from the support of teachers and professors who encouraged working class kids to stay on at school, and to aspire to higher learning in order to realise their dreams.
I owe a debt to the professors who identified young people such as Phil Goff and me, and mentored us to become involved and to give something back to a society that had provided us with that most precious gift – opportunity.
Upon leaving Auckland University, I began a career in current affairs journalism, but then left New Zealand during the dark days of the Muldoon Government to take up a job with the Labor Government in South Australia.
I was 24 when I went to work for Don Dunstan, a visionary and charismatic Premier.
Gough Whitlam and Don were the Washington and Jefferson of Australian Labor’s reform push in the 60s and 70s.
I did come back to New Zealand, for a brief stint in 1984, to work as a speechwriter for David Lange in the campaign that heralded Labour’s march to power.
My story is but a thread woven within the strong and enduring historical ties that bind Labor on either side of the Tasman.
In the 1940s, New Zealand Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser and the Australian Labor Governments of John Curtin and Ben Chifley built on the eternal bonds which were forged at ANZAC Cove, and then galvanised at places such as El Alamein and in the Pacific War, as well as in the post-War rebuilding.
In the ’70s, the Kirk Labour Government in New Zealand and the Whitlam Government in Australia worked together to stop atmospheric nuclear testing by the French in the Pacific.
And in the ’80s, despite disagreement over ANZUS, Australia’s Hawke Government and the Lange Government entrenched closer economic relations between the two nations.
Together, they also played a critical role through the Commonwealth to fight apartheid in South Africa, to protect the Antarctic, to pursue disarmament and to serve in peace-keeping roles around the world.
In keeping with Labour tradition and values, we have stood shoulder to shoulder for more than a century.
That’s what friends and allies do, and it’s friendship as well as fraternity that brings me here today.
I’ve known Phil Goff since 1971 when we were both young political studies students at Auckland University.
Phil was smarter. Worked harder.
Got better grades.
In the early ’60s, I’d been at primary school in Mangakino where Phil’s future wife, Mary, was a fellow pupil.
Phil’s Ministerial experience – from housing to the environment, to education, to justice, to foreign affairs, trade and defence – means that no-one comes to the leadership of a Party better prepared and with more experience.
But it’s not just about a political CV.
It’s also about commitment.
No-one in politics I know, either side of the Tasman, works harder.
No-one is more disciplined.
And to lead Labour’s renewal and transition from opposition to government requires discipline, resilience, persistence and commitment.
It’s about fixing your eye on the shore on which you want to land, without being distracted or deterred by the turbulence generated by daily politics.
It’s also about heritage.
Phil Goff has never forgotten where he comes from, or whose side he’s on.
His commitment to Labour and its cause is not an academic one.
It’s born of his background – a grandmother widowed with three children during the Depression, who was helped by a Labour Government.
A dad who served the New Zealand Air Force during World War Two.
Parents in Papatoetoe who epitomised the struggle of working families to buy a house, give their kids their best start in life.
A decent education.
A career with a future.
A neighbourhood free from the constant fear of crime.
But it was not just about their family’s progress.
Phil comes from a household and a culture that thinks in the plural, that is concerned about “we”, not “me”.
About “us”, not “I”.
He’s caring, and I saw that recently when he and Mary provided enormous assistance in the most direct way to a friend of ours with a mental illness.
But Phil is also tough.
He paid his way through university by working in a freezing works.
When he lost his seat in Parliament, he re-connected with his electorate, fought hard and won it back within one term.
I remember riding on the back of his motorbike, a classic Norton Commando, and playing cricket with him at his dad’s bach at Orere Point.
I remember fixing our car in the snow and ice of the southern Alps while I stood idly by.
I picture Phil getting his hands dirty on the farm.
Most of all, I remember doorknocking with him every weekend in order to win and try to retain the seat of Eden.
Phil has always put in the hard yards himself.
But there’s another area where Phil unashamedly shows his true colours.
He’s always been mad about rugby … league, as well as union.
I certainly regret my admission during the 2003 World Cup that I was barracking for the Wallabies.
He told me that if I had to cheer for Australia, then I should at least pray for New Zealand.
And like his politics, there is no-one more partisan about rugby, … with the possible exception of Mary.
Phil has worked with me closely over a number of years, to expose and take on organised crime gangs.
He’s had the guts to tackle these violent gangs that operate on both sides of the Tasman, and deal in murder, blackmail and intimidation in order to control territory for the peddling of drugs to young people.
This initiative is having a significant impact, and is now being taken up in legislation by jurisdictions around Australia.
If I was to back anyone to lead a political party from the trials of opposition back to the Government, it would be Phil Goff.
And believe me, I know just how tough that journey is.
In a week’s time, I will have served 15 years as leader of the Labor Party in South Australia.
I make this point because my time as Premier and as Leader of the Opposition has been evenly spilt -
seven and a half years in each role.
But now I’m a few days in the black, and I intend to win for Labor in South Australia another four-year term at our State election, which is scheduled for March next year.
I know how hard Opposition can be.
It’s the toughest job in politics.
In 1993, Labor in my State – after a long time in Government – was comprehensively elected to Opposition.
It was a demolition by the Conservatives, assisted by a failure in our State Bank.
After that election, we had 10 members in the Lower House, the worst result for Labor in history, much worse than the situation you face here in New Zealand.
When I was elected as Opposition Leader later in 1994 (it was unanimous – no-one else wanted the job), the commentators sneered.
I was an “interim leader”.
I wouldn’t last the distance.
Pundits predicted it would take a generation for Labor to be re-elected to Government.
Some commentators said the next Labor Premier wasn’t in the Parliament yet.
One even went so far as to suggest the next Labor leader of South Australia was not yet born.
They were wrong.
Unlike our Federal Labor colleagues after the 1996 Australian election result, in South Australia we accepted the defeat and the verdict of the people.
They, on the other hand, kidded themselves that Prime Minister John Howard would be a pushover at the subsequent poll because voters in 1996 had somehow got it wrong.
The lesson from that period was “don’t be too proud to win”.
Accepting, understanding and learning from the defeat was crucial.
We won a by-election, and we went on to re-connect with the electorate.
We held 150 ‘Labor Listens’ meetings, in suburbs, in country towns and in regional cities.
In those, and even in our street corner meetings, I asked people the same question time and time again.
What do you expect from us in opposition and, if we are elected to Government, what should be our key focus for the State?
It was a deeply humbling experience.
At first, people didn’t want to hear from us.
They had elected the other mob, and closed the curtain on us.
People crossed the street to avoid me.
The media was a cheer squad for the new Premier and his team, and they didn’t want to know about us.
Every time we proposed a new idea, our previous Labor Government’s record was thrown at us.
If we changed course, it was a ‘backflip’.
If we didn’t, we were hide bound by the past.
The turn-out at some of our meetings was embarrassingly low.
I remember one cold, bleak winter’s night when only seven people turned up at a community hall.
Some of my colleagues suggested we should abandon this approach.
But my reply was that there were thousands of people nearby who had been letterboxed, and knew that we were out and about.
Bit by bit the numbers grew, and slowly but surely we began hearing the stories of good and decent people with aspirations for themselves and for their kids, and how a change of government to the Conservatives had hurt working families.
We learned what their concerns were in personal terms, by interacting with them face to face.
It was essential to our renewal and reinvigoration.
At around 18 months into Opposition, even some members of the media got tired of writing up the Conservatives in glorious terms.
They started seriously asking our opinions on issues.
Despite sugar-coating their image, the true colours of the Conservatives soon became more apparent.
They were revealed as wolves in sheep’s clothing.
We knew we had to be smarter.
We made sure that our pronouncements were visually compelling, as well as substantive, in order to get our story across.
Real people – small business owners and tradespeople, the engine room for economic growth who felt they had become the forgotten people – started to find their voice.
Most of all, we were persistent and resilient.
It paid off. We were elected, and then re-elected with an increased majority.
When we returned to office, South Australia faced tough economic challenges.
Our population and infrastructure were ageing, our traditional manufacturing sector was under challenge, and the State’s collective psyche had become characterised by insularity and self-doubt.
But I told my Cabinet that even though our initial election win was tight, we needed to make bold decisions, and to govern as if we held a 10-seat majority.
I also remembered the philosophy of Don Dunstan, who was a great teacher as well as a great reformer.
In many ways, Don was a radical but he also understood you couldn’t leave the electorate too far behind – that you must always stay in touch.
He knew that you couldn’t just plan and carry out reform, you had to get out there and sell it as well.
That’s why we continued our program of public engagement into Government.
Later this year, we will hold our 50th Community Cabinet, a process through which all Government Ministers and heads of major departments travel to metropolitan hubs, regional cities and country towns where the public is welcome to ask questions and air their views, uncensored and unscripted.
Over the past seven and a half years, we have directly engaged with almost 15,000 people through these forums.
Don also showed me that government should never flee its responsibilities it had to those who had been left behind or left out.
There was no better way of tackling poverty than by providing people with real jobs.
He taught us that we must advance, not by climbing over one another, but by bringing everyone along.
Don led South Australia out of dull conservatism and made us a pacesetter in Australia and, in some areas, a leader in the world.
I’m proud to tell you that South Australia is still a leader in reform.
And now we are able to do so in partnership with a progressive Rudd Labor Government nationally.
My Government has laid down a comprehensive blueprint for the long-term future of our State, and it’s called South Australia’s Strategic Plan.
It was the result of the biggest community consultation process ever undertaken in our State, including a summit chaired by Bob Hawke that involved business and unions, the community sector, universities, environmental groups, and even other political parties.
It is more than simply a compendium of promises; it’s not a collection of glib mission statements.
The Plan outlines where we want South Australia to be within 10 years and beyond, and it includes almost 100 very specific targets and how to meet them.
Those targets cover a range of economic, social, environmental and cultural goals, including social justice issues that are covered by our Social Inclusion Initiative.
Through this strategy, we are reducing the rate of rough sleeping homelessness in defiance of the national trend.
We’ve recorded our highest school retention level in 13 years, and we are undertaking an unprecedented reform of our State’s mental health system.
We are also introducing participation clauses into major infrastructure projects to ensure employment opportunities for young and Aboriginal people who have traditionally faced barriers to gaining jobs.
I was brought up on the old-school social welfare model that advocated simply throwing money at problems, without tackling the underlying causes of poverty and exclusion.
But that only serves to trap families in an enduring cycle of disadvantage.
By developing employment, training and engagement opportunities, we can provide them with meaningful opportunities to break out of this cycle.
A social dividend from our economic prosperity.
Like New Zealand, South Australia has a strong and proud tradition of environmental awareness and protection.
Despite our relative size – we account for just eight per cent of Australia’s population – we are again playing a leading role in the areas of sustainability and climate change.
Our State is home to 50 per cent of the nation’s installed wind power, around 25 per cent of its grid-connected domestic solar power.
We have also attracted more than 90 per cent of Australian investment in the exploration and development of geothermal – or “hot rocks” – technology.
We are also increasing South Australia’s renewable energy production target to 33 per cent by 2020, a globally-ambitious goal for a State without hydro-electricity, and one that is well above our national target of 20 per cent by 2020.
Bt thankfully, at long last, we now have a Government in Canberra that has signed Kyoto and wants to be a leader in tackling climate change, rather than a follower and a denier like the former Howard Government.
I firmly believe that a commitment to the environment is not at odds with economic development.
Indeed, I believe they can actually fuel each other’s growth, which is why I took on the Ministerial portfolios of Economic Development, Sustainability and Climate Change, as well as Social Inclusion.
My Government has worked hard to expand our mining industry, from four operating mines when we came to office to 11 by the end of this year, and 16 – a four-fold increase – by 2010.
To further diversify and grow our State’s manufacturing base, we have aggressively pursued major defence contracts and secured more than $40 billion worth of projects over the past four years.
The strength and resilience of Australia’s economy has been highlighted during the recent global financial crisis.
The Rudd Government’s quick and decisive action has enabled Australia to weather the storm to date better than virtually all other developed nations.
The most recent economic data showed that over the June quarter, Australia’s economy returned to growth.
They also showed that South Australia recorded the strongest annual growth of any State or Territory – 5.2 per cent – in the past year.
We have overseen record jobs growth and employment numbers.
Crucially, rather than sitting around waiting for recession to lift, Labor at State and Federal level has got on with strengthening and stimulating the economy.
The key to the targeted economic stimulus measures we have implemented is they have developed nation-building projects.
Jobs now. But with long-term benefits for the Australian people.
In South Australia, despite the global economic outlook we have pushed ahead with the biggest infrastructure investment scheme the State has seen.
Indeed, infrastructure spending in South Australia is now six-times what it was when we came to office.
We are expanding and upgrading our public transport services, building a new central hospital and a series of Super Schools.
We are investing now, for our State’s future.
That’s because there’s a fundamental difference in the way that Labor responds to difficult times.
We are ensuring that the investments made, are investments made in people.
This is the ethos that enables Labour to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
We can withstand criticism and scornful headlines because we know that we are improving people’s lives and futures.
In tough and uncertain times, the public wants their decision-makers to be solid, and unwavering.
They are the hallmarks of Phil Goff, and I was delighted that he – along with Annette King and Darren Hughes – were able to visit Adelaide last January, to discuss policies and to share ideas.
The message I want to leave you with today is that while life in opposition can seem daunting and dispiriting, it also provides an opportunity for renewal and reinvigoration.
To complete the journey back to government requires discipline, commitment and resilience.
It also includes adherence to the “three Rs” in order to re-connect with the electorate.
- that is, highlight just what it is that a Labour Government can offer working families them about the Conservatives policies, and what they have and haven’t delivered voters that the party has learned and changed, in order to rebuild trust
Labour’s advantage can be found in its willingness to offer a big tent, one that embraces business, the arts, thinkers and environmentalists, as well as traditional Labour supporters.
Victory won’t be easy.
But it is worth the battle because when Labour wins, families, communities and the nation all win.
It’s been a great pleasure to speak with you here today.
I wish you all the very best for the remainder of the Conference, and for the future.