Release type: Speech


Politics and Integrity - Delivering an Education Revolution

John Button Memorial Lecture, Melbourne

Thank you for that welcome.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that we meet on, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

And thank you for that introduction and the reflections on your father – his values, his relationships, his drive and his unique contribution to Australian life.

It is a great honour to have been invited to give a John Button lecture. It is a great sadness that it is the first John Button memorial lecture.

I was able to attend John’s funeral and to see the extraordinary outpouring of admiration and affection that accompanied his farewell.


As I said at the time of his passing, "John Button entered politics with the reputation of being an honest man who spoke his mind and left politics with the reputation of being an honest man who spoke his mind"

He was a shining example.

Apart from his straight talking, John was known for the quality of his thinking, his work ethic and his sense of humour.

He played a crucial political role in the Australian Labor Party.

As a member of the ‘participants’ – a group of predominantly middle class professionals who sought to open up the Victorian ALP – he was able to make the party more responsive, more representative and more electable.

His own reputation for integrity enhanced his influence. Perhaps the best known illustration of this was his role in bringing the message to Bill Hayden in 1983 that he should make way for a new federal leader.

To be able to convey that message to a close friend and ally, on the basis that a change of leadership would be in the national interest, is a sign of true character. That Bill Hayden was prepared to speak so movingly about John Button at his funeral is a tribute to them both.

He represented the people of Victoria in Parliament and led the Senate.

And his policy leadership as Australia’s longest-serving Industry Minister was a model of effectiveness in the pursuit of reform.

Button helped transform Australia’s economy while never losing sight of the need to support those most affected by the changes.

In all aspects of his political life he demonstrated that to achieve positive change you need three things.

First, you need persistence and clarity about your long term purpose. Without a strong commitment to the future, the energy for reform soon fades.

Second, you need to be open-minded about the best way to achieve your ends, prepared to learn and to compromise.

And third, you must recognise that you need the legitimacy of popular consent and participation if you want your reforms to become embedded permanently in everyday life.


As John Button reflected in ‘As it Happened:'In politics and football there are small triumphs and sometimes big prizes. It's the same in most people's lives. You have to persevere, to take sides and, win or lose, accept the consequences. I keep the faith my team will make it, and Australia, too. It may take time.'

I am glad that John Button’s long life included witnessing Geelong win the 2007 Grand Final. I am proud that John Button’s long life included witnessing the 2007 election of the Rudd Labor Government. Both the ALP and Geelong were his teams.

And I believe that we can draw a thread between his commitment to political and economic renewal in earlier decades and the reform agenda that the Rudd Government has adopted.

It is an approach that comes from the ‘progressive centre’– a form of modernising, social democratic politics which seeks long term reform from the democratic centre ground.

It recognises that most people want a government which helps them to combine higher living standards and prosperity with an active commitment to social fairness and a rich quality of life that includes family, friendship and community connections.

It was originated in Australia by the Hawke-Keating governments, beginning with the commitment to economic liberalisation and tripartite consensus through the Accord.

It continued through the 1990s through the reforms of superannuation, higher education funding and urban, industry and competition policies.

These examples became highly influential for the Clinton and Blair administrations.

The Rudd Government is in the same tradition.

It is focused on the challenges of today and tomorrow.

As a movement, in this historic period of coast to coast Labor Governments we have an opportunity to blaze a new trail of reform.


Labor has embraced the view that for Australians to thrive in the world of the 21st century, we must invest more in their capacity to adapt and innovate.

Earlier generations of Labor reform opened our national economy to competition and investment from abroad. That reform was essential to maintaining our competitiveness and our prosperity.

Now, globalisation is driving change in almost every aspect of life, from how we connect with our friends and family to the kinds of work we do, from where we live, to who lives in our communities.

The result of greater openness and connection to the world is that, as well as opportunities, there are new risks.

New environmental threats, like those associated with climate change.

New public health threats, like mass pandemics and the more subtle, but still contagious, cultural influences which buttress unhealthy lifestyles and attitudes.

New security threats, like fundamentalist radicalisation and terrorism.

New economic risks, like the ripples from the current global credit crunch, or the impact of recession among our trading partners.

Most of us have access to more opportunities, more information, more choices. But we are increasingly aware that they come with new risks and new responsibilities.

This is a world in which individuals are more exposed to global change than ever before.

As John Button put it in one of the last speeches he wrote last year,

"In each period of history there is a challenge for new governments, which the best governments accept".

The job of governments, and of democratic politics, is to manage and shape these great processes of change in ways that lead to better, richer lives for all Australians.

Labor won the November election because we offered fresh ideas for the future.

These ideas were about our readiness to succeed in the world of the 21st century – a world in which skills and innovation will determine our prosperity, in which we share responsibility for tackling climate change, and in which power will continue to shift eastwards towards the Asia Pacific region.

As a Labor government, we recognise that prosperity and fairness are mutually dependent. Higher living standards might, in the short term, be bought at the cost of leaving a significant minority behind.

But there is a better way, a virtuous circle where sustained prosperity facilitates greater investments in fairness and resilience which in turn sustain prosperity.

The force which drives this virtuous circle is active investment in the skills and capabilities through which people can adapt and seize new opportunities.


That’s why the Rudd Labor Government has promised an education revolution.

Our election commitments are now well known and being delivered.

For schools, our commitments include:

  • The Digital Education Revolution, funding computers in secondary schools across Australia;
  • Trade Training Centres, with the first $90 million of investment I announced earlier this week;
  • The Education Tax Refund, available to assist with school-related expenses from the 1st July this year;
  • Investing in teaching the languages of our region speaks;
  • Funding new shared facilities; and
  • Establishing a new National Curriculum Board to develop a world class Australian curriculum in English, Maths, Sciences and History.

But in the days since the election, we have driven the Education Revolution in schools further than our election commitments by agreeing through the Council of Australian Governments shared education goals.

This is the first time ever in our nation’s history that we have shared national reform objectives including:

  • Ensuring that all Australian children begin school healthy and ready to learn;
  • Lifting the rate of students attaining a year 12 or equivalent outcome to 90 per cent by 2020; and
  • Halving the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade.

Tonight I want to talk to you about the breadth of our reform agenda in schooling beyond our election commitments.

In Australia, over many decades, the focus of the schooling debate has been the competitive relationship between government and non-government schools.

We have an historic opportunity to overcome this public-private divide.

But we will not succeed in taking that opportunity if we only use tools of reform drawn from the past. And that presents a challenge to all of us, including the Australian Labor Party and its traditional supporters.

Let’s not pretend to ourselves or to each other that our education system can be simply broken down into two groups, with a disadvantaged public sector on the one side and a highly resourced non-government sector on the other.

The most cursory examination of Australian schools would tell you this simply is not true.

There are schools that struggle with limited resources trying to serve disadvantaged communities in both groups.

I specifically reject the proposition that the only way to debate differential need in our school system is through the prism of the public/private divide.

And let’s not pretend to ourselves or each other that understanding educational outcomes is as simple as getting a statistician to break schools down on the basis of the socio-economic status of the children to predict their future achievement, on the assumption that demography is destiny.

The reality is that schools with comparable cohorts of children come out with different results.

While children from poorer family environments tend to need more from schooling, great schooling can meet that need and enable those children to excel.

I specifically reject the proposition that every difference in educational attainment in this country is explained by differences in the socio-economic status, broadly defined, of the students.

The debate we need to be having is not a sterile debate about public versus private.

Instead it should be a rich new debate, a debate in which we wrestle with and then resolve the question of how to measure the needs of the children in each school and each community across this country.


To do so we would at least need nationally available data school by school showing the socio economic status and the numbers of Indigenous children, children with disabilities and children from non-English speaking backgrounds especially recently arrived migrant backgrounds and refugee children.

We could supplement this with data from the Australian Early Development Index, which captures information about the physical and emotional development of children.

There may be other factors and measures that also matter. The aim should be to robustly ascertain what mix of capacities and needs children are bringing to their school.

We need this information in order to understand what schools, in turn, should offer to these students, and how Governments and communities working together can support schools to do so.

The Rudd Labor Government will be seeking to agree with our State and Territory colleagues new transparency measures to make clear the needs of our schools.

We will be prepared to enter a new national partnership and bring to bear new resources to assist those schools which are clearly catering for disadvantaged students and communities.

As a nation, we should then be tracking attainment, knowing that we are in the powerful position of comparing like schools with like schools. If two schools have comparable school populations but widely varying results we would be able to ask the question why and ascertain the answer.

We should be able to identify best practice and innovation, and work systematically to ensure that they are spread more widely. We should be able to especially assist those that schools that need it.

Specifically we should be identifying excellent teaching and excellent school leadership.

All the research tells us that the single biggest variable effecting outcomes at school is the quality of the teacher in the class.

That is why standing alongside our transparency measures, the Rudd Labor Government is prepared to enter a new national partnership on teacher quality.

Nearly a third of our serving teachers are over 50. Many of our key subjects, particularly maths and science, are struggling with teacher shortages.

Around 10 per cent of secondary and primary schools report an unfilled vacancy in 2006.

At the same time, 17 per cent of secondary school teachers resign within the first five years and half of teachers say they are unsure how long they intend to keep working in schools.

Statistics show that the tertiary entrance rank (TER) scores of school leavers entering teacher education courses vary widely. The minimum requirement is set by demand for places and sometimes falls below 60.

We need to change this situation. We need to re-establish in Australia something that the labour movement has long recognized, that there is no higher vocational calling than teaching.

In the UK imaginative public communication has changed perceptions of teaching, making it one of the most popular career choices for graduates.

I believe we can do the same and I am exploring how a similar campaign could work in Australia.

But perceptions will only change if the reality also changes.

This means getting serious about national professional standards for highly accomplished, high performing teachers, as recently proposed by the Business Council of Australia and introduced in New South Wales.

These standards must be combined with a coherent approach to professional learning so that teachers can develop their skills rigorously and continuously.

They must be meaningfully related to excellence in practice. And teachers should be rewarded for their contribution, through comprehensive and trusted assessment and performance management against those standards.

I also believe that we should urgently develop a national scheme which recruits the most talented graduates to teach in the most challenging schools and communities.

Teach First in the UK and Teach for America in the US give a clear example of these programs bringing together business, charitable organisations and government to attract the best and brightest graduates into teaching in the hardest to staff schools. And they do only take the best.

Graduates get access to accelerated teacher training, intensive mentoring and support and future opportunities with some of the leading businesses in the country.

And the students have access to bright, motivated and committed teachers – some of whom have gone on to set up innovative education models of their own.

I would like to see a similar program developed collaboratively between the Australian Government and partners around the country.

Beyond identifying need and identifying excellence, a new era of transparency in schools will also keep policy makers honest.

With the information I have talked about, we would be able to demonstrate what differences increased resources make to the task of education. As a nation, we need to share accountability for improving educational outcomes.

Surely there can be no better way of getting the political consent of Australians to increase resources into education than to clearly demonstrate what difference those resources make.


But to succeed in reform of this magnitude requires trust.

That is why it is so crucial that Governments should keep their commitments.

The political modernisers of the 1990s in Britain and America underlined this conclusion with their emphasis on making and keeping specific, deliverable pledges to the electorate.

It is an essential part of modern politics and it is essential to the integrity of government.

But delivering reform also requires compromise, negotiation and partnership. It requires learning over time what works and what doesn’t.

As John Maynard Keynes once said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

Sticking blindly to a course of action or a particular method regardless of what else is changing is not a sign of fortitude, but a form of narrow-mindedness.

And the ongoing debate about citizen trust also shows that the factors influencing people’s trust in different institutions is more complex than a simple "We promise, you support, we deliver, you support again’ equation. Maintaining the confidence and trust of the communityover timeis also necessary

People’s willingness to trust is bound up with their own sense of identity and their own experiences of participation.

In his later years, John Button became increasingly concerned with the future of the Labor Party and the trade unions and with the changing nature of political and civic participation. These concerns were given powerful expression in his 2002 essay, Beyond Belief.

In it he argued, consistent with his lifelong approach to politics, that institutions cannot deliver beneficial change to the community unless they actively secure the consent and participation of that community.

Our reform agenda recognises that, to improve our nation’s future resilience, we need the active participation of all Australians.

Nowhere is this more true than in education, where student and parental engagement are the only factors beyond the classroom which have a similar impact to the quality of teaching within it.

Our Education Revolution needs every community to be active in helping its young people to achieve, linking them to activities and opportunities that further enhance their experience of school.

So in this process of revolutionising education, we deliberately want to spark a raging public debate.

A raging debate about how our education system compares to the best in world.

A raging debate about how to ensure every school is a great school.

A raging debate about how to ensure every child gets an excellent education.

And a debate that feeds the momentum for positive steps for change.

John Button was a fearless reformer. What I am proposing is reform in that mode.

Nothing about being a government of reform is easy. Nothingbutbeing a government of reform is worthwhile.

Thank you very much.