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Speech to the Don Dunstan Foundation (Queensland) for the inaugural Tom Burns Memorial Lecture, Brisbane.



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Prime Minister of Australia

Speech

Don Dunstan Foundation (Queensland), Inaugural Tom Burns Memorial Lecture Brisbane

31 July 2008

E&OE

I’m honoured to present the inaugural Tom Burns Memorial Lecture, an event that from today will become a fixed part of the Queensland political calendar.

Tom Burns was a great Queenslander.

Tom Burns was a great Australian.

Tom Burns was a great Australian internationalist.

Tom Burns was in all these things a proud son of the Australian Labor Party and the great Australian labour movement.

His contribution to the cause of Labor stretches back to the 1950s.

Despite that, he was a man who always grasped the future.

Before his time, he understood the potential of Asia for Australia’s economic future.

Before his time, he understood the importance of reform if the Labor Party was to win government.

He understood too that political life is a marathon, not a sprint. And so he worked tirelessly, year after year, holding the party together through some of its darkest hours.

Always pointing the way forward.

Forward to government - after 23 years in the wilderness federally, and after 32 years in the wilderness here in Queensland.

Forward to a better future both for working families and for the nation.

When the Don Dunstan Foundation invited me to give an inaugural Tom Burns Memorial Lecture, I was a little surprised.

You could hardly imagine more different personalities.

Don Dunstan was an urbane, cultured South Australian. A man most at home watching the opera in the Adelaide Festival Centre - performing his poetry readings; Australia’s very own renaissance man.

Tom Burns was an in-your-face, colourful Queensland larrikin from central casting, a man who embodied Australian mateship; most at home in his boat on Moreton Bay, a fishing line in the water, pelicans overhead and wearing a very attractive pair of stubbies.

In terms of sartorial splendour, both displayed a passion for shorts - Don, his hot pants; Burnsey, what could be described as Queensland formal attire.

What they have in common is that they were outstanding Labor leaders of their time.

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Both were men of vision - deeply committed to the Labor cause of fairness and reform.

They were friends, too - indeed just two days after Tom had become party leader in December 1974, when the ALP representation in the Queensland parliament was reduced from 33 to 11 - the cricket team that is now the stuff of legend -Dunstan got on the phone and told him he was coming up to Brisbane to help him with the enormous challenge he’d just taken on.

That’s when the Queensland Party began to professionalise its operations.

Both were also colourful, larger-than-life personalities - never afraid of causing offence, and yet well liked by political friends and foes.

They were leaders who have left a deep imprint on political life, long after they had departed the stage.

This memorial lecture is a very appropriate way in which to remember Tom - as well as a great way to raise funds for Indigenous literacy and homeless youth.

I knew Burnsey for almost 20 years.

He was always an inspiration - a source of advice and encouragement, and sometimes the source of a good clip behind the ears.

And he brought colour and life into any room he entered.

Like Don Dunstan, Tom had a great sense of mischief.

On his retirement in May 1996, Tom recounted a remarkable story about the day he ended up in a sauna with the infamous Russ Hinze, the Minister for Roads in the Bjelke-Petersen Government.

Tom was asked who he most loved to hate in his political life and he surprised people by answering that it was not Joh Bjelke-Petersen, but big Russ.

Tom explained that though Russ Hinze was a “bloody old crook”, he liked him.

One day, he saw big Russ and complained to him that National Party politicians in government never went to a Labor electorate to give schools a holiday.

Apparently it was the practice for government MPs to go to schools in their electorate and declare a holiday, a sure route to political popularity - at least for the kids, if not the parents!

But kids in Labor electorates never had such good fortune.

So Russ Hinze replied - “Do you want me to come?” and Tom said - “Yes”. And Russ responded immediately: “Thursday”.

And Russ did exactly as he said - by 11am that Thursday, Tom Burns and Russ Hinze had gone to seven schools in Tom’s electorate and shut them all down, declaring holidays.

The two of them thought they were doing quite a good job, so next they began visiting pubs in the area, trying to declare holidays there as well - though with less success.

The late afternoon saw Russ Hinze singing the Red Flag in the Colmslie Hotel at Morningside - in my own electorate - and finally, Russ and Tom had their photo taken under the Gabba scoreboard, before retiring to the sauna at the Gabba.

Only Burnsey could have got away with that.

Tom Burns, ahead of his time in understanding Asia

Much can be said about Tom Burns’ achievements in his public life, and there are endless stories about how he relentlessly championed the interests of people in the bush throughout his years in opposition and government.

But I want to focus on an aspect of Tom Burns far less well known.

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That was his role as one of the first Australian political leaders to embrace the potential of Asia for Australia’s future.

Tom was a trailblazer in building Australia’s relationship with China.

As Federal President of the Labor Party, he helped lead the first official delegation to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, meeting Premier Zhou En-Lai while Gough met Chairman Mao Zedong.

That visit is now the stuff of political history.

But if you place yourself back in the context of Australian politics in 1971, undertaking that trip took real political courage.

There was a clear risk the visit could backfire.

But Tom Burns as President, alongside Gough Whitlam as parliamentary leader and Mick Young as Federal Secretary, took the risk because they had the foresight to realise the role that China could play in Australia’s future.

Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Billy McMahon attacked Labor for taking this delegation, famously remarking that in the Great Hall of the People, Zhou En-Lai had played Mr Whitlam like a fisherman plays a trout.

McMahon’s remarks were a not-so-subtle attempt to revive the spectre of communist influence used against Labor in previous two decades - so often, and so effectively.

But this time the scare campaign didn’t work.

Instead, it emerged just a couple of days later that Henry Kissinger had secretly visited Zhou En-Lai in Peking, and it was announced that President Nixon would visit Peking soon after.

Labor had showed it was far more in touch with contemporary international developments than the Liberal Government.

And Beijing still recalls that visit as a sign of Australia’s friendship and engagement with China.

Tom Burns worked tirelessly to strengthen Australia-China relations forever after the 1971 visit - visiting China more than fifty times, with the rare distinction of meeting the four generations of Chinese leaders.

Most recently, he chaired the Queensland China Council forr the Queensland State Government.

His support of Australia’s relationship with China was recognised when he became the first Australian not of Chinese heritage to be awarded the prestigious Gold Magnolia Honorary Award from the Shanghai Government for his contribution to Chinese-Australian relations.

This achievement is all the more remarkable when you think of Tom Burns’ background.

He had no university qualifications; he had never been a student of international relations or Asian studies.

And he had come from a State regarded in that era as the most parochial of all the States.

Yet he grasped the significance of China like few others of his time.

Tom was a walking, talking example of experiential learning.

Tom was ahead of his time on the question of China.

He worked hard to build bridges between Australia and China.

He recognised early that China would be of critical importance to Australia in the future.

When China was still an inward-looking nation with little economic power, Tom engaged with China.

He realised that China would play a bigger role in world affairs as time went on.

And, instinctively, he knew that the best choice for everyone was to involve China in the international system.

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I think the world has now caught up with Tom’s thinking.

A few years ago the American Deputy Secretary of State, Bob Zoellick wrote an article urging China to become what he called “a responsible international stakeholder”.

Zoellick’s point was that, as an emerging economic and political power, China had much to gain from supporting the international order.

The Chinese Government, too, has begun to use its own words to talk about similar concepts.

It is talking about how to build an “harmonious world”.

These two ideas - “responsible international stakeholder” and “harmonious world” - have some similar ideas at their respective cores.

The idea of a “harmonious world” depends on China being a participant in the world and - like other nations - acting in accordance with the rules of that order.

Working in cooperation with others is what “harmony” is about.

“Responsible stakeholder” contains the same idea - China working along side other nations to maintain and develop the global and regional rules-based order.

China’s positive engagement with the world is good for China and it is good for the world.

In recent days, we have seen a major setback in Doha.

China however has been playing a constructive role - notwithstanding its reservations about its agricultural sector.

When I visit Beijing next week, I will again explore with China’s leadership what might be possible to keep the flame of Doha alive.

Multilateral action on trade liberalisation is a major challenge.

Multilateral action with China on climate change is also a major challenge.

The case for global and national action on climate change is clear.

The economic costs of inaction on climate change will be far greater than the cost of action now.

The environmental cost of inaction is stark.

For Australia, the case is clear: We are already the world’s hottest and driest inhabited continent.

We therefore will be hit hardest and earliest by climate change, unless we act.

It is vital to our national interests that we act internationally on climate change.

So either we do as the Liberals did for 12 years past and for the future, and bury our heads in the sand.

Or we act.

We say that we have already wasted too much time.

We say that action through a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is the responsible way ahead.

It will be tough and it will cost - but it is the responsible course of action for the future.

Acting in partnership with China will be important - with China as the largest coal consumer in the world, and Australia as the largest coal exporting nation - Australia and China have a combined responsibility to act on clean coal.

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That is why during my visit to China with Senator Wong in April, we announced that the Australian Government will invest $20 million in an Australia -China Joint Coordination Group on Clean Coal Technology.

Overall, the Government is now investing $95 million in China specific climate change and water programs out to 2015.

During my visit, our two nations also agreed to establish a new Ministerial level dialogue to drive enhanced cooperation in clean energy technologies; climate change science, adaptation, and building the capacity of China to respond to climate change.

And under the Australia-China Climate Change Partnership and the Australia China Environment Development Program, we announced:

z A feasibility study into the development of the largest solar city in the world at Weihai in the northeast of China. z A pilot project applying Australia’s National Carbon Accounting System at a provincial level in China, and z A trial of the Australian river health monitoring systems in the Yellow river, The Pearl River Basin and the Da Ling River.

Collaboration with China on climate change, on the Doha Development Round as well as the rest of the global multilateral agenda is part of Australia’s goals for the future - to shape a common future characterised by peace and prosperity for the Asia Pacific century that lies ahead.

Tom Burns, the party reformer

Tom Burns was both an internationalist and a passionate Australian nationalist.

In the same way, Tom Burns championed reform to the Labor Party itself.

He joined the party at the age of 18 in 1949, and spent much of his spare time working for the party during his six years in the RAAF in Victoria, where he trained as a radio mechanic.

In the half century that followed, he served in an extraordinary range of party positions - State organiser; State Secretary; State President; Federal President; State Opposition Leader and Deputy Premier.

It’s unlikely that anyone will serve such a wide range of roles again.

But, in today’s idiom, Burnsey was no party hack or machine man.

He was a flesh-and-blood true believer.

He believed politics wasn’t about power for its own sake.

It was about representing ordinary people who otherwise never had a voice in government.

It was about achieving social progress.

They weren’t easy days for the Labor Party in Queensland or indeed federally. The roles he played often brought their share of conflict and tough internal challenges.

One of the highlights of his period of Federal President was Burns was given the tough job of investigating problems in the NSW branch in 1971.

His report was typically blunt, and recommended a comprehensive program of reform.

Alongside Mick Young’s reforms to the Victorian branch in 1971, Tom’s efforts helped lay a platform for the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972.

The Labor Party that Tom Burns knew was far from perfect, but he gave unending loyalty and commitment.

When he became Queensland Labor Leader in 1974, he inherited a divided party, a poor organisational structure, and just 11 members in the Queensland Parliament.

But Burnsey didn’t complain - he just got on with the job of rebuilding.

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He knew the art of the possible - how to push the envelope, without pushing it too far.

He showed great enterprise as Opposition Leader.

To overcome the astonishing lack of resources for an Opposition Leader - he was given only two advisers - he went out and established an informal policy advisory network - the ‘Bank on Burns’ committee, that comprised up to 80 people including academics, Reserve Bank staff and even a few brave state public servants.

As a result, he was able to take a substantive and ambitious 20-point employment plan into the 1977 election, where against a wily Joh Bjelke-Petersen and a gerrymandered electoral system, he more than doubled representation to 23.

In fact, he came near to tripling the party’s representation, falling short by less than 300 votes in a further seven seats.

When he felt his time as leader was up in 1978, he gave up the leadership but he didn’t walk away from his party. He continued to serve in the parliament for almost twenty years.

What kept him going was his commitment to the Labor Party and the people it represented. Just a few days after the election of the Goss Government in December 1989, he remarked:

“Of course there were times when I felt like giving up during the 17 years I spent on the Opposition benches.

But then I would go to some little country town where we had no hope, and an old bloke would tell me he had taken the day off to meet me, and would take me to his home for morning tea or lunch.

You could see they were putting out food they couldn’t afford, and that they couldn’t really afford to miss a day’s work.

But they would be filled with enthusiasm and pride in the organisation, and I would think: ‘They’re not giving up. How can I?’

They were the people really kept the faith, who never deserted the Labor Party. And I’m not ashamed to say I cried out of pride for them.” (“Tom’s tears flow after 32-year wait”, Courier Mail, 10 December 1989)

His role was significant at a national level as well as in Queensland:

z his was the vote that prevented Gough Whitlam from being expelled from the Labor Party in 1966; z he, along with Mick Young, led the successful 1972 It’s Time campaign, and z he was instrumental in adopting modern campaign techniques.

Our democratic system relies on political parties to generate candidates and policies that address the needs of their times.

Tom was someone who understood that. He had an extraordinary ability to get warring parties into a room and knock good sense into them - and I’m sure many in this room could furnish examples of times when he did just that.

Tom’s spirit of party reform must continue to guide us as we confront the great reform challenges ahead, and develop new forms of engagement with the Australian community.

And he was always focused on the real purpose of politics and the Labor Party - to stand up for the interests of ordinary working people.

Conclusion

Tom Burns got it right on party reform.

He got it right on China.

And he left an inspiring legacy for a new generation to take forward.

Tom Burns brought good humour, colour and passion to a long public life.

Tom Burns is one of the greats in Australian political life and especially in Queensland political life.

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I am honoured to be the first to deliver the Tom Burns Memorial Lecture and I’m grateful that like you I was able to call Tom a friend.

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