The politician as community catalyst: A conversation with Kevin Rudd

A conversation with Kevin Rudd recorded 9 February, 2006 at Parliament House in Canberra

Extract Only

Australian Prospect: Social Entrepreneurs are people who achieve social results using market forces not just the old social justice perspective, is there such a thing as a political entrepreneur? what would they look like? How would they operate?

Kevin Rudd: There is a great opportunity for any member of parliament at any level of government throughout the country to become a community entrepreneur. What do I mean by that? Work within market structures or normal local community structures to achieve social outcomes that benefit the community rather than waiting for some huge centrally driven social justice machinery to roll out one day which will deliver nirvana in our times. We all hope that will one day be the case. But absent that I think we’ve got on our side of politics, a dual responsibility to work locally as an entrepreneur to achieve community outcomes using the resources available and then to work separately and simultaneously at a policy level to try and achieve outcomes through a change of government and overall national policy.

Kevin Rudd

In practice my interest in this kicked off by accident. Before I was first elected to parliament the meatworks in my electorate was about to close. The meatworks was a complete hang over from a bygone era. It was as state owned meatworks. In Queensland the meatworks had miraculously managed to stay alive until 1998. But having walked around this meatworks as it was in the process of being closed down, one thing hit me right between the eyes was that the 800 employees that were employed there had very limited opportunities for alternative work. These were guys who had lost digits and in some cases had lost more than digits from working in a meatworks for in many cases decades. These were blokes who didn’t have a lot of transferable skills and they were mainly blokes.

As I was walking through the meatworks with Simon Crean when he was Industry spokesperson and Deputy Leader, and we started talking together about what we might be able to do to get a private investor in there, the penny dropped I realised I didn’t have to wait for the majic of the market to occur through spontaneous combustion or wait for the central machinery of government to fix this problem. If I tried to bring the parties together myself we might be able to bring about a rebirth of this business.

It took two years. I went into the State government who were in the process of flogging the business off and I said I have tracked down an investor, a bloke who owns a small meat processing business who would like to expand. The business was in the Port of Brisbane, on the Brisbane River, close to a rail head and the airport, and I pointed out to the government that food processing was part of the government’s overall economic strategy. So we know that the business in its current form is unsustainable. But lets see if we can do a deal here. I then brought together the investor, a guy from Australian Country Choice, Trevor Lee (the son of a former National Party Minister in Queensland, and had longstanding beef property interests around the state) and the mandarins from the State bureaucracy. The first wall of resistance was the Treasury who wanted cash, and wanted to flog the site off, so there could be a direct return to consolidated revenue. Having beaten them away we looked at what commercially viable deal on behalf of the State could be achieved. Of course it had also to be viable for Trevor Lee to take over the business, modernise it and make it commercially competitive.

Five years later that’s what’s happened. The business is now vibrant. As I am best informed it sells the bulk of its product off shore supplying supermarkets in South East Asia. It is the largest supplier to Woolworths nationwide and we’ve got a situation where manyof the people still had a job. Of course there are all sorts of new people from all over working class Brisbane with new jobs there.

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