President’s Report 2015

Christopher Sheil

With great sadness, I note the passing of two major figures in the history of the Evatt Foundation since we last met, Faith Bandler and Tom Uren. Both were Life members of the Foundation, Faith being one of the speakers at the inaugural meeting in 1979, and Tom being the President from 1989 to 1997. Both were of course also major figures in the history of Australia. Vale Faith and Tom.

I’m otherwise pleased to be able to report that the Foundation was active over the year in pursuit of its aim of advancing the ideals of the labour movement. In both Australia and Evatt, the year can be characterised as one marked by leadership change. 

Australia’s leadership

Rarely do we see the Karmic principle of like deeds producing like effects work out so quickly and completely as in the case of Tony Abbott. In opposition, Abbott campaigned relentlessly on the basis of the Labor government’s alleged broken promise over carbon pricing, and then broke more promises outright than any new government in living memory; he never tired in accusing Julia Gillard of lying, and then never tired of lying in denial of his own pre-election promises; he promised an adult government, and then indulged adolescent nostalgia in restoring imperial honours; he objected to being called out for his sexism toward Gillard, and then accused his own colleagues of the same when they objected to his chief of staff; he absurdly decried Labor as providing the worst government in Australian history, and is now widely regarded by the country at large as having led exactly that; he pilloried Labor when the previous prime ministers were removed by their colleagues, only to be removed by his own colleagues in turn.

It would be difficult to imagine a prime minister who embodied a starker antithesis of all that the Evatt Foundation represents than Abbott, and his demise can be counted as a great victory for the ideals of the labour movement. His successor in Malcolm Turnbull represents a victory for the liberal wing of the conservative parties. Whether this amounts to a structural and historical defeat of the Liberal-National Party’s reactionary wing remains to be seen, as almost all the policies that Abbott managed to establish remain in place. The Turnbull government also presents a more difficult political challenge for the labour movement, fracturing the alliance between liberals and social-democrats against Abbott. Effectively, the onus is now on the labour movement to develop a social-democratic agenda with broad appeal in a national and global context where inequality, economic stagnation, war and terrorism are continuing to fuel extreme political reactions that threaten human rights and social tolerance.

Evatt’s leadership

On a distinctly more regrettable note, the past year also featured the resignation of two of Evatt’s key executive members, our Secretary Anna York and our Treasurer Sue Tracey. I mean no adverse reflection on the always excellent work of Anna in mentioning that Sue’s departure has been particularly keenly felt. This isn’t merely because she undertook many of the less glamourous duties involved in running the Foundation, but is mainly because she was an executive member prior to my election and an ever present voice. Following Sue’s departure, Evatt now seems like a different place.

Fortunately, Eamon Waterford agreed to put himself forward to take over from Anna, and was elected Secretary by the executive in June, bringing a good deal of experience in the community sector to Evatt. Likewise, Matt McGirr agreed to stand for Sue’s positon, and was elected Treasurer by the executive in September. In the meantime, executive member Alison Rahill was elected to the vacant position of Assistant Secretary in July. While the changes caused some disruption, it’s good to be able to report that Evatt ended the year with a full team of office bearers, all of whom are standing to be returned for next year, giving the Foundation a full executive as we look toward 2016.

Evatt’s activities

It will be recalled that Evatt’s central concern has been with pursuing the issue of inequality, arising from discussion at the AGM’s of 2013 and 2014. The initial impetus behind this direction was to draw some boundaries around the anticipated direction of the Abbott government. As it happened, Evatt anticipated rising worldwide concern over the issue, and we soon found ourselves in company with the direction of major world figures such as President Obama and Pope Francis, among many others. International interest rose further following the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in March 2014. Evatt also anticipated the explosion of interest in Australia following the Abbott government’s first budget in 2014, now regarded as probably the most unfair ever brought down by any federal government.  

In 2014 we primarily focused on bringing research on the issue to bear, publishing more than 50 articles on the Evatt website and generally taking a lead in raising awareness of Piketty’s work in Australia. In the past year, we have turned more to presentations. Evatt executive members staged a Fringe event at the ALP’s National Conference in Melbourne in July, titled ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, which attracted standing-room-only attendance. Very well attended presentations were also made at Politics in the Pub in February, titled ‘Inequality in Australia’, and at the Balmain Institute in July, titled ’The rise and rise of the super-rich’. Evatt is fortunate in having one of the foremost authorities in the field in Professor Frank Stilwell as a Vice President.

While there is no doubt that much progress has been made by Evatt and others in raising a consciousness of inequality in Australia, there is also no doubt that there is a good deal more to do with respect to the extent, the mechanisms by which it is inexorably increasing, and the possible solutions. More presentations are anticipated in 2016.   

The other major event was the 2015 Annual Evatt Dinner, which featured a lecture by Professor Lesley Hughes titled ‘Not Just Polar bears: Climate Change as a Social Justice Issue’. As always, the dinner was held in association with the Katoomba branch of the ALP, and this year we also worked with the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute. The dinner was well attended as usual, and a change in the timing from April to October proved fortunate in that the lecture supplied a comprehensive update on climate change on the eve of the current conference of world leaders in Paris. Given the timeliness, copies of the lecture were specially printed and distributed to the leaders of the labour movement and other influential figures throughout Australia, as well as to Evatt members.

Other issues

Under the leadership of executive member, Dr Andrew Mack, some initial steps have been taken toward attempting to better define a contemporary understanding of Doc Evatt’s legacy with respect to the independence of Australian policy. We hope to further develop this direction in the new year and bring it to bear in public debate.

Under the leadership of executive member and former President Bruce Childs, we have also become associated with initiatives to establish a Tom Uren memorial fund dedicated to pressing for nuclear disarmament, which we also expect to develop further next year.

I should note the Foundation’s affiliation with Sydney University is in good repair, and indeed we are looking to strengthening the relationship in the new year. Evatt also continues to support the national debating competition hosted by the United Nations Youth Association.                      

I thank all members of the executive committee for their efforts and support over the past year, and in particular I thank our new Secretary, Eamon Waterford, and our new Assistant Secretary, Alison Rahill. Special thanks also to Bruce Childs and his wife Yola Lucire for their numerous generosities toward Evatt over the past year.    

Looking to the future, I would suggest inequality remains a major field in which the Foundation can usefully continue to plough. I also think Evatt should look toward helping to discipline the public debate over productivity, particularly in view of the prospective reports by the Productivity Commission on industrial relations and the Royal Commission on trade unions. Foreign policy and nuclear disarmament are two other areas where we have planted seeds that look good for growing.

No doubt there are other issues and priorities, and I will conclude in the traditional way by inviting ideas and suggestions on the Foundation’s future direction and emphasis.

Christopher Sheil

President

8 December 2015

 

 

 

 

Suggested citation
Sheil, Christopher, 'President’s Report 2015', Evatt Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, February 2016.<http://evatt.org.au/news/president%E2%80%99s-report-2015.html>