WAYNE SWAN MP
MEMBER FOR LILLEY
125TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE 1891 SHEARER’S STRIKE
DEDICATION SPEECH – MR KEVIN O’LEARY
SUNDAY 3 APRIL 2016
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Thank you very much Sister Rita, the O’Leary family, the Premier, all of the other Labor Party members here today and to the wider community.
We have come here to mourn Kev’s passing. We come here for a much more important reason than that and that’s to celebrate his life and to understand why his life is such a lesson to all of us.
For me, personally, he was such an inspiration in my political life.
It’s really important to understand why Kev wanted to have part of his ashes placed here underneath the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. Because it goes to the very core of why we are members of the Labor Party, why we have a trade union movement and how we need to be in the future honouring his example so we can be victorious for the people who we represent in Elections.
So today it’s my task to place his Life Membership badge with his ashes and I just think it’s important to read that Life Membership badge. And what it says is ‘Unity of Labor is the hope of the world’ and that’s something that Kev understood in his very bones. He understood that the origin of the Labor Party and the trade union movement were here in Barcaldine.
He understood that a brutal, authoritarian squattocracy crushed the workforce when they came together to collectively bargain for decent wages and working conditions. And it is the case as we look up that we should be thinking about how they crushed those workers back then, how they sent them to jail at St Helena.
Their names down there remind us of why unionism and the Australian Labor movement is such an important force for good in our world. Because coming out of that defeat, that brutal suppression of the workforce was the creation of the Australian Labor Party. A party which went on to win elections against that squattocracy and against their subsequent incarnations which I’ll talk about in a moment. It went on to win elections. To change the ideas that drove our country.
Kev joined the Labor Party in 1930, he joined the Labor Party at the height of the Great Depression, an economic event that lead to unemployment levels as high as 30%, brutal poverty across our community and a whole generation lost and ravished by those affairs.
Australia never recovered from the Great Depression, and then the Second World War, until well into the 1950s. But the policies that in the end drove the modern Australian economy that put recession and entrenched poverty behind us and made us one of the most prosperous and egalitarian developed nations in the world, were the policies put in place by the trade union movement working with the Australian Labor Party. These stand as an example in the western world of how social democratic movements can succeed in creating wealth and distributing that wealth fairly.
Kev back in 1930 when he first joined the party didn’t know then, nor did Chifley or Curtain, that Australia would become such a great and successful nation. But by winning the battle of ideas that took place in the early 20th Century, through the formation of a Labor movement and the putting in place of Labor Governments, such as those led by Chifley and Curtain and Whitlam and Hawke and Keating and Rudd and Gillard. They are policies that changed our country for the better and have made us a stand out social democracy in the western world. And that battle of ideas was won by people like Kev, who extraordinarily in his 86 years of party membership was out there every day inspiring people like me and hopefully young people in this audience today and people going to school that are learning about the great strikes of 1891, the Great Depression. Learning about what Labor did in office to avoid the Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession Mark II that scrounged the rest of the world. They are learning about the social democratic movements that people like Kev made put in place to make a better world, a better and fairer world.
So when we think of Kev here today, when we look up at the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, when we look down there to the embodiment, if you like, of those striking workers who were sent to jail, what we reaffirm is that a political life is an honourable life and an honourable political life can change a country.
Forces opposed to the Labor Party and the trade union movement, more broadly, want people to give up on politics. They want people to go away so that the modern day equivalent of the squattocracy that crushed the union movement in 1891 can come back again and do what they like. What Kev learnt and knew intuitively and what all of us who are members of the Labor Party know is that when you have obscene distributions of wealth and power and when increasingly too few people have too much power and too much wealth, that that is not a sustainable basis of which you develop a modern civilised society.
And the 19th Century that we are commemorating here today, when we talk about the 1891 strikes, is something that our political opponents now in the 21st Century hanker to go back to. And the reason Kevin came here to Barcaldine, but more importantly the reason that he got up every day and went out and put up the signs, turned out on polling day, was there for people to talk with them about why they should be engaged, is that he doesn’t want to see us go back to the 19th Century.
Because it was the ideas of the 20th Century that belonged to Kev and his contemporaries that have won out in the political debate, but which are now front and centre once again and being recontested around the world - dare I mention Donald Trump.
So why this is so important and why I’m sure Kev wanted to be here – under the ‘Tree of Knowledge ‘ - is just to remind people of how important that essential commitment of all of us is to a better society, to a prosperous society, but to one where wealth is distributed fairly amongst all people.
And to him, unity of Labor being the hope of the world was something that he always practiced. You know, whenever I used to speak to Kev I never ever heard him reflect on a Labor leader, and god knows there are plenty of reasons he could have about any number of them. Because Kev knew that unity of Labor was the hope of the world. He also knew we were a deeply flawed movement from time to time. That we didn’t necessarily get every decision right. But in Kev’s world, and in our world, you don’t necessarily have to get every decision right but your values have got to be in the right place. And that’s the message that Kev’s life leaves for all of us. So in my world, he lives on.
He lives on as an example and an inspiration to each and every one of us. Which is why it’s such a privilege to place his Life Membership badge here with his ashes today.