By Colin Chapman
Bill Shorten sought to capture the support of middle and working class Australians on Monday in a keynote speech focused on the Australian workplace and restoring flagging public confidence in politicians.
The Opposition leader’s speech at Canberra’s National Press Club came 24 hours ahead of a similar peroration by the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and will set the agenda for Parliament in 2017. Commentators and political observers hope it will be an improvement on a bitter and divisive 2016.
Shorten, whose Australian Labor Party starts the political year well ahead of the governing Liberal-National Party Coalition in the opinion polls, was quick to acknowledge the public’s general disillusionment with politicians.
“There is one certainty in 2017”, said Shorten “People are disengaged from politics and they’re distrustful of politicians. Too many Australians think the political system is broken – and more than a few don’t trust us to fix it. I say ‘us’ because virtually everyone in this room is considered part of the problem, part of the political class. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, we are seen to be members of the same insider club, letting down the rest of Australia.”
Saying that Australians are “sick to the core of petty schoolyard bickering” in politics, Shorten presented a three-point plan for better transparency and honesty. Labor would introduce a UK-style independent body to supervise politicians’ expenses, set up a Senate inquiry into the establishment of a National Integrity Commission, and impose stricter conditions for political donations and gifts.
The Opposition leader also promised to reset the education system to put a greater focus on technical education, citing Germany, Sweden, Singapore and South Korea as models. Labor will tighten up skills immigration, making it more difficult for companies to obtain 457 visas, that are designed to meet skills shortages. “Last year, the immigration minister issued over 10,400 for trade and technician jobs”, Shorten said ”while apprenticeships in these sectors are in decline”.
Shorten deplored the drop in the number of Australian apprenticeships and, if elected prime minister, will call a skills summit involving unions, business and government. Another innovation would be to require that one in ten jobs on any government-funded infrastructure project would have to be filled by an Australian apprentice.