It was a packed house at NSW Trades Hall this morning for former climate change and industry minister Greg Combet’s book launch, hosted expertly by former prime minister Julia Gillard and ALP national secretary George Wright.
The recent excerpts from The Fights of My Life have focused on the chapter in which Gillard offered to stand down in favour of Combet in June 2013 to fend off Kevin Rudd. In the book, the former climate change minister says he declined the offer because of demoralising ill health and a lack of conviction that another change of leadership so close to an election would succeed.
Combet said this morning that most of the book was a recount of his passion and commitment to the Labor movement, saying that he supported the proposals tendered at last weekend’s Labor conference aimed at opening up preselections to a wider audience.
“The relationship between Labor and union movement needs to be democratised,” he said. Unions contain “thousands of people who are not union apparatchiks or factional heavies”, so why not give them a say? Making those changes would ensure that “creeps like Eddie Obeid will not be able to abuse the Labor movement for personal gain”.
Commenting on the current government, he said he was constantly stopped in the street by people bemoaning the latest budget.
“There is no debt and deficit disaster and no need to be making painful cuts that are hurting so many people in our community,” he said, adding that he exhorted all those affected by the changes to “stand up and fight! There’s no point moaning about it all — stand up and join together and bring about change.”
The former head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, who followed previous heads Bob Hawke and Simon Crean into Parliament, said that the book was “really about my life in union movement — every opportunity I’ve had is because of the trade union movement and the people in the movement who have supported me.” It contains a lengthy chapter about the waterfront dispute — “and the MUA’s still around, where’s Peter Reith and Chris Corrigan? They’ve gone, and the MUA is still here.” (Huge cheers from the audience)
Carbon pricing was a very difficult public policy reform, he said, adding that the recent repeal of the carbon price was “no more than a setback.” “Great reforms like that have to be fought for time and time again … but they are the right thing to do.
“We lost the politics, and I bear substantial responsibility for that, but I am absolutely convinced that we had the right policy stance. A government and a prime minister that denies science will never have a sustainable policy.”
In addition to Gillard — who got a three-minute long bout of applause from the audience — there was a huge roll-up of party faithful, including Bob Hawke and Blanche, Tanya Plibersek, Albo, Penny Wong and John Faulkner.
Also there were Doug Cameron, Luke Foley, Wayne Swan (who also has a book coming out) Peter Garrett and Craig Emerson.
The launch was preceded by a short film made by Richard Keddie, who has made several ALP campaign advertisements, including the infamous Your Rights at Work ads, which are credited as helping the ALP fight off Work Choices and win the election in 2007. The film featured many shots of Combet on the waterfront (cue the rottweilers) and at James Hardie rallies with Bernie Banton, bring tears to the eyes of the many union members in the audience. By the time the final chorus of Green Day’s Time of Your Life had finished, I was ready to join the CFMEU myself.
Gillard issued a language warning to potential readers, saying that anyone who blushed from bad language needed to have a cold compress to hand to apply to their cheeks. She spoke briefly about the leadership offer, saying only that she had formed the view that Combet was the best person to take the ALP to the next election. The real heart of the book was Combet’s life in the Labor movement and their substantial achievements.
At one point, Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Man rang out, and I realised it was someone’s mobile phone ringtone. Only at Trades Hall.