Opposition Leader Bill Shorten Tells MUA Conference 'We Will Prevail"

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten spoke at the MUA Conference this morning after not being able to speak at the dinner the previous evening because of a grounded plane. The full speech is below:


It’s great to be here.

Looks like a fantastic turnout – and that’s no surprise.

Even Christopher Pyne was giving this conference a plug in the Parliament on Wednesday.

I was sitting at the table, trying to tune him out as usual, I and heard him say:

‘The Leader of the Opposition will be up on the Gold Coast on Thursday with the MUA’

And I thought to myself…sounds quite reasonable .

Friends, I’m here to pay respect to the work your members do – and the legitimate role of the MUA, representing its members.

I come from a family of seafarers and dock workers, it’s in my DNA.

My great uncle Bert Nolan was a merchant marine seafarer from the Second World War, who rose to be a respected union leader .

My Dad was a fitter and turner from Newcastle-upon-Tyne,  he went to sea for 20 years, came ashore and worked in Melbourne’s ship repair industry. 

It was a hard job – in a tough business.

Sometimes he’d take my twin brother and I down there on the weekend - we loved it.

We met a lot of characters – and we learned a lot of new words.

Ever since those days, I’ve understood and valued the hard work done on docks and ships around our island nation. 

In fact, Melbourne dock workers and seafarers as far back as the 1870s raised donations to help their English brothers during the great strikes of the 19th century.

Your industry is a mighty part of Australia’s history – and you are essential to Australia’s future.

 And I’m here because of the bond we all share as members of Australia’s great trade union movement.

And no $80 million taxpayer-funded, politically-polluted Royal Commission will ever change that.

Of course, every day the Liberals set out smear the unions of Australia.

They seek to attack an irreplaceable force for progress.

A force for better living standards, safer workplaces and a growing middle class.

Theirs is a reflex, Pavlovian prejudice aimed at every working Australian.

And every one of us who has ever dared to organise our fellow workers to try and achieve a better deal, a safer workplace or fairer conditions.  

Tonight I wanted to share with you a bit of what being in a union means to me.

The contribution we make – and the responsibilities we owe to members.

You understand what makes a strong union:

representing members honestly and effectively

advancing workers’ interests not just for the short term, but over the cycle. 

And you know unions are an important part of a pluralist democracy, making a wider contribution to our society. 

You also understand what unions can achieve – not just for members, but for the economy as a whole.

As our economy has opened up to more competition,  free independent trade unions have taken responsibility in the direct bargaining process – increasing productivity and adaption. 

You understand that we don’t measure the consequences of these decisions over a few hundred days, but over the cycle – restructuring agreements to boost productivity. 

In fact, it can be argued that in the last 20 year period, unions have achieved the largest increase in real wages in Australia’s history. 

And, together with universal superannuation – the most significant advance in the living standards of working and middle class families. 

This is what  modern unions have helped deliver for all Australians:

Fair, strong wages

Safe workplaces

Dignity at work 

Better living standards for the working class and middle class

Universal superannuation 

Economic growth

And increased productivity.

I never forget that.

Despite conservative propaganda to the contrary, Australian trade unions seek harmony and cooperation in the workplace.

Australian Trade Unions know how important a good employer is to the welfare of working people.

The good employer invests in the long term security of a company for the long-term welfare of employees.

The good employer pays decent wages, provides a safe working environment and continuity of work, and offers opportunities for training and development essential to the improvement of workers’ living standards.

If a good employer looks for increased productivity to ensure that working people got a fair share of the profits which results from improved productivity, why seek to frustrate them?

In fact, when a union weakens good employers, they weaken unionism.

Seeking mutuality between employers and employees is the the philosophy of strong successful unions everywhere.

But I never forgot what my job was as a unionist and what that would sometimes require.

Always put your members first.

I was prepared to reject inferior agreements.

I was always prepared to make a stand and encourage members to do so too.

Being willing to negotiate enterprise agreements that adapt to new circumstances is not weakness - it is a sign of strength. 

Refusing to negotiate – that is weakness.

It is as weak as failing to take industrial action.

Finding the right balance is the job of strong unions and leaders like you. 

I know it’s hard.

And it’s harder still when you’ve got a government that sees you as the enemy…

A government that has shown, time and again in the past two and a half years…

That they see Australian workers as expendable.

They think Australian jobs are not worth fighting for.

A government  who, when crisis hits, offer only indifference and inaction.

Just by coincidence, I was in Sydney last year when a hundred workers at Hutchison Ports got sacked by text message. 

I went down to Botany terminal  - and the MUA were already there.

Not just speaking out against this heartless, cowardly act.

But also supporting union members and their families through this most difficult time.

Because that’s what the MUA does.

But the Liberals didn’t have a problem with permanent employees who were working hard to see their company succeed … 

…having their phone go off in the dead of night, being told not to bother coming in tomorrow, and that their lockers had already been cleaned out. 

Perfectly appropriate, they said.

And we saw the same callous, shoulder-shrugging indifference to the jobs and lives of Australian workers on the MV Portland.

Australian workers and Australian crews marched off a ship so they could be replaced by workers from overseas.  

What an appalling act of cowardice. 

What a disgraceful way to treat hardworking Australians.

The Liberals always say they love our flag – so why don’t they want to see it on Australian ships?

And the worst thing is, under the Liberals, the Portland is only the latest in a long line of betrayals of the red ensign.

Last year, the Turnbull Liberals voted in favour of the most extreme piece of industrial relations legislation since WorkChoices. 

New laws that would allow overseas flagged and crewed ships, to undercut Australian operators on our domestic trade routes. 

Laws designed to undercut Australian workers and Australian wages.

Laws to smash the playing field, and tip the balance in favour of international competitors, low wages and foreign workers. 

This is Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to take down the Australian flag in our sea-lanes., and run up the white flag on jobs.  

When we stand against this…when we call it out as wrong. 

We are not being militant or radical - we are doing our day-jobs.

The Liberal laws Labor voted against made no sense.

They were purely ideological.

After all, if you move freight by train in this country…

The train driver is paid Australian wages and operates under Australian workplace and safety standards.

And the rail sector is subject to Australian standards and Australian laws.

If you move freight by road: the truck driver is paid a fair wage, in accordance with Australian law.

And they apply Australian safety standards, including a maximum number of hours driving without a rest.

And if you want to move freight on coastal routes, then the same rules should apply.

Australian wages

Australian conditions

Australian safety standards – for stevedores and for ships 

It’s not just about our economy - it’s about the environment too.

Since 2004, Australian inspectors have detained 122 foreign-flagged oil tankers because they’ve been:


Using defective equipment

Or had a serious deterioration of their hull that was deemed to be a risk to their seaworthiness

Not one Australian-flagged oil tanker was detained. 

In 2010, a Chinese-registered bulk carrier called the Sheng Neng 1 ran aground near Rockhampton… 

10km away from Australia’s shipping lanes.

Under law, there should have been an Australian pilot aboard this vessel.

But there wasn’t .

The mariner-in-charge had little knowledge of Australian conditions and less sleep, because he wasn’t held to Australian safety standards. 

He would later be sentenced to 18 months’ jail for his negligence.

The Sheng Neng 1 put a hole in the Great Barrier Reef 250m wide and 3 kilometres long.

It spread an oil slick over 3 kilometres of ocean.

Australia holds the Great Barrier Reef on trust for the entire world, it is one of our planet’s great natural treasures. 

And it is one of our country’s great drawcards, attracting $5.7 billion in tourism dollars and supporting 65,000 jobs. 

And if we loosen our safety standards, if we reduce the seaworthiness of vessels off our coast…

Then we are putting the Reef - and the regional towns who depend on it for their livelihoods – at risk.

We fought these laws – and we defeated them in the Senate.

For now.

But you can bet the Liberals will try again – and again.

They’re happy to give up on Australian jobs – but they’ll never give up attacking the unions.


The progress we seek for the middle class and the working class – in the unions, in Labor – is about making change work for all Australians. 

Ensuring people aren’t left behind.

This is why we reject, utterly, the bleak idea that creating jobs and building prosperity depends upon locking Australians into a race to the bottom on pay and conditions. 

There is nothing for our people or our country to gain by driving down wages and safety standards.

We believe in an Australia competing and winning in the world, on our terms. 

This is something the Liberals have never grasped:

There is nothing old-fashioned about decent conditions.

There is nothing out-of-date about a fair wage.

There is nothing old-school about the idea that Australians who go to work every day have the right to come home safe to the people who love them.

This is an election year, it will be a tough fight.

Our opponents have money, power and vested interests on their side. 

They will throw the kitchen sink at us, they will say anything to disguise the civil war in their party and the failure of their policies.

Yes, we are the underdogs this year.

There is no pretending otherwise.

But we should own that title, it should drive us to dig a bit deeper.

We don’t have the right to give up - and I know you won't.

Too many people are counting on us.

On Labor and the union movement. 

Australians in commission houses, people on fixed incomes, families who spend every dollar they earn to make ends meet.

Millions of Australians who expect us to be the Labor party they have always supported and believed in.

The Labor party which will defend their way of life and their rights at work.

We don’t have the right to give up.

That’s not the Labor way, that’s not why we’re here, that’s not who we are.

And if you can give up time to help us spread our message 

If you can help us tell our story: 

At railway stations and bus stations and ferry terminals and door to door. 

If we are prepared to go one day longer to explain to Australians what our vision for the future looks like..

A future of 

Australian jobs

Fair taxation

Decent healthcare

Great Education

Real action on climate change

A proper NBN

Equality for women in Australia

If we can dig a bit deeper and work a bit harder and go one day longer. 

We will prevail.