Our area has a rich and colourful history.
A vital part of that history is the stewardship of the Darug people of these lands and waters.
We are also home to the first act of reconciliation, the meeting between Samuel Marsden and female Indigenous elders on Prospect Hill in 1805.
They were trying to bring peace after the demise of the warrior Pemulwuy, who is now appropriately remembered with the naming of one of our newest suburbs.
I honour that history, as I pay my respects to the elders of the Darug people and renew my commitment to one of the most important tasks of public life in Australia: to eradicate Indigenous disadvantage in our country.
In thanking you all for coming, I’d also like to acknowledge some of my parliamentary colleagues, both federal and state who join us today. My friends: Julie Owens, who represents Parramatta, Julia Finn the Member for Granville and Linda Voltz and Anthony D’Adam both from the NSW upper house.
Of course, another part of our area’s history is the fact that Guildford gave our state a very important figure in Jack Ferguson, whose legacy I am very proud to be honouring today.
Jack was of course, the bedrock of the Wran Labor Government.
The perfect Deputy. Loyal to a fault. A source of constant good advice. An anchor to the suburbs.
His was an important Labor story. And it has lessons for us today.
Born in a Zetland terrace, his family moved west when he was little, and a life-long association with Guildford ensued.
His family was dirt poor, but young Jack’s reading life was rich.
There was no chance he would get the opportunity for tertiary education, so he educated himself.
He served his country in New Guinea when the call came.
It was the Chifley Government’s determination that returning soldiers should have the opportunity for re-training that saw him attain his trade of brick-laying.
And it was his self-taught understanding of the world and his observations of the challenges of working life for the poor that set him on his life-long course of trade unionism and commitment to our cause.
I only came to meet him after his retirement from public life. He and Mary would do the grocery shopping in Fairfield.
As an enthusiastic and very young Labor Party member, on a couple of occasions I approached him in the supermarket, surprised to see the former Deputy Premier in the vegetable aisle.
When I would nervously approach him, I would see up close a sparkle in his eye. He’d squeeze my hand tight, bring me in close and look at with me that sparkle, despite the fact I was the most junior Labor Party member imaginable and he was a retired Deputy Premier.
I saw in an instant how he was such an effective and effectual politician.
At a time when the Labor Party is re-assessing how we go about achieving our mission following too many election losses, the successful Wran model, and Jack’s role in it, is worth some reflection.
The Wran Government was an ambitious one with a big agenda. Social, economic and environmental reform were a constant. It was also one of the most remarkably electorally successful governments in Australian history.
They didn’t shirk the big issues, the big challenges. They didn’t choose between social reform and being in touch with voters in traditional industries in the suburbs. They did both.
And they did both because they focused on people and winning elections. They understood the power of government to deliver for people meant you had to be IN government – and they were unashamed about that pursuit.
The Wran Labor Government were given the license to make social progress because they got the big issues and the big priorities right.
They decriminalised homosexuality, massively increased the size of our national parks, established a state Anti-Discrimination Act, passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and much more.
But they also built Westmead Hospital, moved hospital beds to the West, engaged in a massive modernisation and upgrade of our train system and improved electricity reliability.
At its heart, the Wran Government was always in touch with the concerns of the people of the suburbs and regions.
Ministers bringing forward Cabinet submissions would be greeted with a simple question from their Premier. “What’s in it for Joe Blow and his Missus?” Neville would ask.
This simple question was a powerful one. It meant that the Cabinet was always considering how its agenda was helping the people it was elected to serve.
And it also honed the Government’s communication with voters: if a Minister couldn’t convince the Premier that their idea was good for Joe Blow, how could they convince Joe Blow himself (or his missus)?
Jack Ferguson was a key player in this connection. The man who built his family a house in Guildford and stayed there until he died was a constant anchor in what the suburbs were thinking.
Today, I want to pose some questions.
It is eighteen years since Jack Ferguson left us.
It’s a useful exercise to ask, what would Jack think of the developments in the two decades since we said goodbye to him at St Patrick’s Church, Guildford?
If Jack Ferguson were to miraculously re-appear today, we would have a lot of explaining to do.
Since becoming Shadow Minister for Health eighteen months ago, I’ve had the opportunity to think a lot about the health of Australians. But also about the health of our society. And the two are very much linked.
We are in the middle of a pandemic. But we are a society with too many epidemics.
And they are getting worse.
We have epidemics of diabetes, obesity and mental ill-health.
We also have epidemics of household debt and job insecurity.
We have epidemics of drug addiction, with ice use still rife in too many communities.
We are the most debt-laden, most depressed, most addicted and medicated, most insecure generation in our country’s history.
There are real fault lines in our society. Things aren’t working as well as they should.
And while these are national crises, there are particular ramifications in and for our suburbs, where so many Australians live. In many instances, it’s the suburbs where these phenomena are having the most acute impact.
And so, it is the suburbs of Australia I want to spend the rest of my time talking about today.
I want to do this for a few reasons.
Firstly, despite the fact that we are one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with 90% of the population living in urban areas, I think that suburban issues often get overlooked in the policy debate.
It is just assumed that they will “keep on keeping on”. When in fact, if we care about the quality of life of our population, we should be thinking of ways to improve the quality of life for the millions of Australians who call the suburbs home.
While state and local governments obviously are key stakeholders in urban affairs, the Federal Government has to care about how our cities work if we are to be truly invested in the quality of life of our citizens.
And from the point of view of the Labor Party, sometimes discussions of our political future and strategy seem like a zero-sum game between the inner cities and the regions, as if the millions of voters who live in suburbs are just flown over in the debate between the inner cities and the bush.
Let me be frank, this debate sometimes frustrates me. We could win every Inner-City seat and every conceivable vote from possible voters in the regions and still fall far short of government, if we are not winning the support of the millions of voters in the suburbs.
If we are not in touch with their aspirations, we will still fall short.
Joe Biden’s recent victory in the US was built in suburban America, and the road to government for Australian Labor will also surely be through the suburbs.
Like Jack, most Labor MPs represent the suburbs.
But like other centre-left parties around the world, our political opponents have all too often painted us as inner-city elites, unaware and unconcerned about the lives of most Australians.
We need to remind voters that we are from the suburbs – from them, and for them.
That we celebrate and will protect the rich diversity of backgrounds, faiths and vocations that the suburbs hold, and that each of them has a place in our Party.
That we understand that living in the suburbs is a choice - not just a stepping-stone to somewhere else - and that Labor supports that choice with policies for better lives and livelihoods in the suburbs.
There is often a debate about aspiration in Australian politics, and which side best represents aspiration. But we have to recognise a good life in the suburbs, supported by good public services and infrastructure, with access to safe and secure jobs, is a very noble aspiration for millions of Australians.
We know that Australia’s suburbs face challenges, and that we as a country need to tackle them head on.
Today, in particular I want to focus on three factors that are impacting our suburbs, and suggest we need to have a much better national conversation about them.
Firstly, is the impact of casualisation and the gig economy.
Secondly, the decline of manufacturing and sucking of jobs towards the central business districts of capital cities.
And the third is that rapid growth in housing in outer suburbs has not been accompanied by a growth in social and physical infrastructure, with negative implications for the health and well-being of millions.
Now the first is not exclusively a suburban issue, but I think the impact of casualisation is at its most acute in our suburbs.
One of the things Jack wouldn’t recognise in the suburbs today is the ubiquitous Uber Eats. Fellow Australians hanging around restaurants and fast food joints hoping to pick up a delivery gig which will return $5 if they’re lucky, with no minimum wage or guaranteed conditions.
They ride around the streets delivering food as quickly as they can, risking their lives- and all too often losing their lives - without adequate workplace safety protections or workers compensation.
Guarding against the development of an Australian under-class has been an enduring and important element in Labor’s mission.
But I am worried we are all seeing an under-class develop before our eyes, every time we walk past our local take-away and see members of our community living such a precarious life.
This precarious working life for so many of our fellow Australians affects their health and the health of our society.
Australia has one of the highest rates of casualisation in the OECD.
One in four Australian workers is a casual. Half of those have no guaranteed hours.
That’s a problem for very many reasons, including the overwhelming evidence that such job insecurity damages physical and mental health.
It’s not surprising that insecure workers face increased stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.
It’s also the case that casual, insecure workers suffer physical ill-health than more secure workers.
Insecure workers, for example, have a 34% higher risk of heart disease.
These platforms, whether it be Uber, Uber-Eats, Air-tasker, or any of the others, have brought convenience and efficiency for everyone – and that’s pretty much all of us - who have used them.
But they have also stretched the relevance of industrial conditions and protections to breaking point.
A recent survey of Australian rideshare and delivery drivers by the Transport Workers Union bears that out.
When you take into account all of the variable and fixed costs and income, these workers make an average $10.42 an hour.
$10.42 an hour. In Australia. One of the wealthiest countries in the world. In 2020.
Not even $100 for more than a full day’s work.
Jack wouldn’t be impressed.
If COVID has taught us anything, it is that these precarious employment arrangements are an increasing risk to public health.
People without sick leave come to work sick, risking themselves and everyone else. We have introduced pandemic leave for this crisis, but what about our community standards after the crisis?
We need to have a serious look at our community standards and protections to ensure we don’t allow the development of an Australian under-class of casual workers.
Of course, another related economic phenomenon impacting on our suburbs has been the decline of Australian manufacturing and sucking of economic activity towards our inner cities.
I have the honour of representing the Smithfield-Wetherill Park industrial estate in Parliament. It’s the biggest industrial area in the Southern Hemisphere.
I happen to live right on its edge. I’ve watched it change. I’ve watched it shrink.
In Jack’s day, many of his constituents worked in local factories. Kids would leave school with a decent chance at an apprenticeship in a manufacturing related trade.
By 1960, manufacturing employed one in four Australians and was the bedrock of employment in our suburbs.
The decline in Australian manufacturing that has been occurring since the 1960s has gotten a lot worse since the Global Financial Crisis a little more than ten years ago.
And this decline has been accompanied by the rise of the services sector and the gig economy - with new jobs created at pace, but closer to central business districts.
The entrepreneurial economy, represented by start-ups and venture capital has many positives. But it is also a fact that the greatest indicator of entrepreneurial activity is population density, meaning economic activity concentrates towards inner city laneways, not suburban expanses.
The Grattan Institute has estimated that as many as half of all the new jobs created in Australian cities in the last ten years have been within two kilometres of the Sydney or Melbourne post offices.
The decline in Australian manufacturing has many negative consequences for the Australian economy.
If we all agree, as the vast majority of economists do, that innovation is the key to productivity and growth, we should be very concerned about the decline of traditional manufacturing, because it is the most innovation intensive part of the economy.
But it is the social impact of the decline in manufacturing that I want to focus on today.
And that social impact is felt in our suburban heartlands.
Higher unemployment and the pushing of people into the insecure gig economy is a significant factor, in my view, in the creation of the national epidemics I spoke about earlier: mental ill-health, addiction, obesity. The common factor is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
And in turn, the absence of a realistic chance at a trade, apprenticeship, career path or a good, fulfilling job in manufacturing is part of the cause for that hopelessness.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am the last person who would argue to stop economic change.
There was no way that the manufacturing structure of old was going to survive in a rapidly changing world.
But nor does that mean we should be fatalistic and accept that Australia can’t have a modern, high-tech, high-skills, high-wage manufacturing sector.
While every developed economy has experienced changes in manufacturing, Australia is in some ways unique.
Australia now has the smallest manufacturing sector of any OECD country. We have one of the least complex economies. And while services growing as a proportion of the economy is inevitable, the absolute decline in Australian manufacturing was not necessarily so.
In a country that has literally every natural and human resource at its disposal, these failures can only flow from a lack of policy ambition and imagination.
Economic change is inevitable and can be positive, but must be managed.
The current Liberal Government has an appalling record when it comes to waving manufacturing goodbye.
Goading and crowing about the demise of General Motors Holden.
Presiding over a decline of 150,000 apprenticeships and traineeships since they came to office.
Multiple failed energy policies which means energy intensive manufacturing has faced higher energy prices and uncertain supply.
This is of course not the approach taken by other governments around the world, or by the Labor Party.
Manufacturing plans abound around the world, from Germany’s High Tech Strategy 2025 to China’s “Made in China 2025” to Sweden’s “Smart Industry Strategy” to the United Kingdom’s “Industrial Strategy”.
Amongst rail manufacturing and landmark defence industry investments, our budget reply committed to 1 in 10 spots on major Commonwealth projects for apprentices and trainees.
This is so that countless Australians can cut their trades teeth in the projects that build our country back better.
The Morrison Government wants a pat on the back for recently coming up with a manufacturing plan.
But the plan bears a striking resemblance to the Gillard Government’s manufacturing plan, which the Liberals abolished seven years ago.
Seven years of missed opportunities. While our competitor nations have been making strides, we have been asleep.
And the Government has even acknowledged that, in the middle of our worst recession in eighty years, the money under the plan will be a minor trickle for the foreseeable future.
We need a Government which doesn’t see manufacturing as a convenient back-drop for an announcement in hard hat and high vis, before moving on to the next photo-opp.
But rather sees a modern manufacturing sector as a vital part of our economy and bedrock in our society.
The last of the three suburban trends I want to talk about today is in some ways a result of the economic change I have talked about so far.
The increasing concentration of economic activity in central business districts, together with a lack of infrastructure development and federal support means that people are spending longer in their cars and on trains, and less time with the families and communities.
This too has negative impacts on the physical and mental health of our nation.
For example, an average worker in Point Cook, in Melbourne’s South West, spends an estimated 28 days a year sitting in traffic. A month of their life each year which they could be using much more productively and healthily.
Closer to home, in Sydney, we know that the T1 Western line is at 286% of its capacity and is running late 3 out every 5 days.
As I said earlier, the Federal Government needs to be concerned about how cities work.
This is yet another area where the Morrison Government talks a big talk but has delivered very little.
Over the five years to 2018, total annual infrastructure investment in this country was down by 17 per cent compared with average levels during the period of the former Labor government.
In the same period, the national population increased by 1.5 million or 6.5 per cent.
It’s not just about transport infrastructure, I’m talking about social infrastructure as well.
More than one million people have been added to the population of the outer suburbs since 2011, representing 35% of the national population growth.
But these areas have received 13% of the federal infrastructure spending over that time.
And that has real consequences.
We wouldn’t dream of building new suburbs without roads, or electricity, or water – so-called ‘hard’ infrastructure.
But as the National Growth Areas Alliance highlights, ‘soft’ infrastructure lags years behind.
Schools. Health services. Libraries. Sports fields. Playgrounds.
As a general rule, we don’t build these things until new suburbs have filled with residents and reached critical mass.
And so people are forced to live for years without access to basic services.
They’re less likely to be healthy and connected to their communities.
And they’re more likely to have to travel to meet their daily needs – exacerbating the trends I described earlier.
This pressure will only grow, with another two and half million residents expected to move to the outer suburbs in the next decade.
Now of course, managing this is a joint responsibility. But will the Federal Government be there to work with the states and local government on this urgent national task?
Based on their track record so far, the current Government won’t be.
Friends, 2020 has been a year like no other.
We will never forget it.
But will we look back on it only with sadness at what was lost?
Or will we look back on it as also the beginning of something new?
It’s no exaggeration to say the COVID pandemic has changed everything.
Or at least, to say it can be the circuit breaker to mark the beginning of a new, better era.
Curtin and Chifley used the shock of World War Two to build a new and better country.
It’s only Labor that has the imagination to take a shock like this and turn it into a new beginning.
The COVID crisis taught us many things. Or perhaps, more accurately, it has reminded us of what we have lost focus on.
It reminded us that global supply chains are uncertain things, and that it is important to be a nation that makes things.
The lessons of masks, ventilators and hand sanitizers remind us that manufacturing is a vital element of a modern, sophisticated country.
We’ve been reminded about the importance of community standards and the risks of an overly casualised workforce, as we have had to step in and create new entitlements like pandemic leave so that precarious workers don’t feel they have to work when sick to keep food on the table.
The way we have come together to help neighbours, family and friends has reminded us of the strength and importance of community.
I’ve been reminded a lot during this crisis of my childhood in Smithfield, the suburb I still live in today. We lived in a small, fibro house in a quiet cul-de-sac, but we looked out for each other. We were part of something bigger: the Australian suburbs.
We’ve been reminded that when governments really want to do something, when they are really focussed on some key priorities, then what has been in the too hard basket can be put on the “to do list”.
The Australian achievement during COVID has been remarkable. Together, we’ve increased hospital capacity, housed thousands of homeless people, given up our freedoms and flexibilities all for a greater good.
And so, is a modern, high tech, vibrant manufacturing sector for Australia to be in the too hard basket?
Is a Federal Government which cares about our cities and their suburbs too hard?
Is a Federal Government which cares about the development of an under-class of casual, insecure workers too hard?
It’s been a great privilege to have been asked to honour Jack Ferguson today.
Of course, the greatest honour we can bestow him is to live our lives as he tried to do: loyal to Labor to end.
Determined to ensure that Labor is the party of pragmatic progress. Connecting Labor in policy and politics with our suburban heartland. Working every day, for a better life for working people.
It falls to us to continue the great Labor mission to which Jack devoted his life.
And I know we will.