It’s a rare event where a speech by Paul Keating gets overshadowed, but that’s what happened at last night’s ACTU congress dinner. Former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty’s address left the crowd exhausted and exhilarated, while few who saw Bob Hawke belt out Solidarity Forever will ever forget it.
Keating praised Kelty, who led the ACTU from 1983 to 2000, as a co-architect of key Hawke-Keating reforms such as Medicare, compulsorily superannuation and the end of centralised wage fixing.
“The trade union movement produced many impressive leaders in the post-war years — but none better than Bill Kelty,” Keating said in his tribute speech.
“He devoted his whole active working life to working people. He was simply for the public good.”
The former prime minister described Kelty as an “anti-narcissist”.
“And God knows there’s a few narcissists here tonight,” he added without naming any names.
During his lengthy speech to the union faithful gathered at Sydney’s Darling Harbour, Kelty examined both the achievements of the past and the challenges of the present.
In the 1980s and 90s, he said, there were “real pressures on living standards [and] high unemployment but we never, ever lost a sense of hope and trust that governments and unions would see it out and there would be a better future”.
“Today, we have better economic conditions, but that hope and that trust has retreated.
“I’ve got to be frank: it’s too easy to blame the media, too easy to blame the playthings of politics.
“And there’s no purpose blaming the Opposition for doing what after all you would expect them to do, and that’s to beat you.”
Kelty said Labor, and the union movement, need to rediscover their sense of self-belief.
“It is the collective responsibility where the party, where unions stand up and say again, what sort of country they want, that is where we have to be.”
He reminded the crowd that Paul Keating had won the “unwinnable” election of 1993 and said Julia Gillard could do the same next year.
After Kelty’s speech, the silver bodgie took to the stage for an impromptu performance, leading the crowd through a rousing performance of Solidarity Forever — the union movement’s most famous anthem.