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Transcript 11443

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP NATIONAL PRESS CLUB LUNCHEON NATIONAL PRESS CLUB, CANBERRA

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 08/12/1999

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 11443

Subjects: Achievements and goals of the Government; East Timor, social

coalition, foreign relations; politicians' standing in the community; refugees,

industrial relations; privatisation, Telstra; East Timor tax.

E&OE...................

Thank you very much Mr Chairman and Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is now almost four years since the Coalition Government was elected in

March of 1996 and I thought it would therefore be useful if I tried in the

few moments available to me to give a brief account of the stewardship of

the Government over that period of time and most particularly over the last

12 months.

It is important when giving an overview of that kind to recall the broad

goals that the Government set itself in March of 1996. Because it is all

too easy in politics to focus far too heavily on the micro detail of day

to day policy decisions and administrative actions and to lose sight of

the fact that collectively they are but means to achieving certain overall

goals. Every Government elected to office in this country has certain national

broad aspirations, has a desire in the period of its office, whether it

be long or short, to bring about beneficial change for the aggregate benefit

of as many Australians as possible.

And so it was with the Coalition Government taking office for the first

time in 13 years in March of 1996. We set ourselves a number of goals, we

set ourselves the goal, a very general but very desirable one, of strengthening

our country. Of strengthening it economically, strengthening it socially

and strengthening it internationally.

I think I can report to the nation that over the four years, and particularly

over the last 12 months, we have achieved to goal of strengthening Australia

economically. The economic performance of this country at the moment is

as strong as it has been at any time since the end of World War II - in

some respects, even stronger - because we operate in a more open, competitive

international environment, we are less protected, we have, and may I acknowledge

our predecessors did in a number of areas, embrace essential changes and

reforms, and that has collectively given us a fundamental generic economic

strength that we have not had for some time.

We sought to strengthen the country socially by recognising that it was

important to draw upon the fundamental values and instincts of the Australian

community. One of the things that I have endeavoured to do as Prime Minister

is to develop what I chose to call in my Federation Address at the beginning

of this year, an 'Australian way' or an Australian approach to handling

particular problems, and out of that we have developed the notion of a social

coalition.

I don't suggest that that notion isn't found in some manifestation in other

parts of the world but I haven't consciously sought to apply some kind of

foreign paradigm to the notion of how we marshal the resources of all of

the people and all of the institutions of this country.

The social coalition seeks to recognise a reality and that is that the government

alone cannot solve all of the social problems of a nation. The great welfare

institutions of our society acting alone cannot hope to do so, individuals

acting alone cannot hope to do so, although they have a role to play and

responsibilities to assume and obligations in appropriate cases to return

to the general community, and finally of course the business community's

primary role is producing economic wealth, but it does have a contributory

role to play in relation to social policy.

And what the social coalition seeks to do is to draw upon those four elements

and working together to tackle problems in a somewhat different and in many

cases innovative way, and for the first time we have more heavily involved

many of the welfare organisations at the policy making end as well as at

the compassion end of delivering social policy.

We have sought through a series of initiatives to encourage greater participation

by the business community. My cry has been not that business should give

more, but rather that more businesses should give because there are many

outstanding examples in the Australian community of the generosity of individual

businesses.

We have not sought through the social coalition in any way to withdraw from

the traditional role of government in Australian society. The traditional

role of Government in Australian society has been that the Government should

have a limited role, that that role should be strategic. Part of the strategic

role of Government is to support and provide and nurture a social security

underpinning or social security safety net.

And it has never been the aim of the Government I lead to drive the Government

proportion of gross domestic product down ever lower as an end in itself,

but rather to recognise that there are roles for Government in our community,

they are limited, but they are important and they are strategic.

And as we come to the end of this century, I hope to believe that we may

have found a reasonable balance in relation to the roles of Government and

the roles of business within our community.

And the third of the goals we set ourselves was of course the strength of

Australia internationally. There were many elements of the foreign policy

of the former government that we found agreement with, and its always desirable

to have a certain continuity of foreign policy as administrations change.

It is never in the national interest to change policy merely for the sake

of reminding the world that a new government has taken over.

But we have sought in the time that we've been in office to bring about

some re-balancing. To move away from what I thought on occasions looked

a little like an 'Asia- only' focus by the former Government to what I have

called an 'Asia first' focus whereby we recognise that although our political,

economic and strategic linkages with the Asian Pacific are far and away

our most important and would continue to be so, we also have very important

strategic and foreign policy and economic linkages with other parts of the

world.

And many of you have heard me before speak of what I regard as that special

intersection of history, culture, geography and economic circumstance that

I believe Australia occupies, with our strong links of all sorts of kinds

with Europe and North America that our strategic and geographic placement

here in the Asian Pacific world. And indeed that intersection and the unique

insight that it gives to this country was very much at work in recent months

in the role that we discharged in relation to East Timor.

So they were, ladies and gentlemen, some of the broad goals that we set

ourselves almost four years ago.

Becoming more up to date, when I delivered my second Federation Address

in Brisbane of this year, I said that the Government had five broad goals

for 1999. I said that we were resolved first and foremost to continue to

pursue policies that will maintain our remarkable rate of economic growth

and economic strengths. I think I can report to you and to the Australian

people that we have in fact achieved that goal and in some respects achieved

it beyond the expectation that we had at the beginning of 1999.

There is the hope that not only will we be able to report in a years time

that we were able to stare down the Asian economic downturn, but in fact

we might have begun to get some of the benefits of the upswing that is now

beginning to occur in some parts of Asia.

I said secondly that we remain absolutely committed to the implementation

in full of our visionary tax plan endorsed by the Australian people at the

last election. And absent the 10 to 15 per cent as I have described it that

was taken out in negotiations with the Australian Democrats I can report

that the Parliament has endorsed and we are in the process of implementing

that taxation plan which is the biggest change to our taxation system, probably

ever and certainly the biggest since the end of World War II, and will return

to this country very major net economic benefits. It is important when the

focus is inevitably on some of the detail and the argument and the political

debate is about some of the detail, it is important to remember that the

big game, the big story out of tax reform, are the major benefits to the

Australian economy. The lower business costs, the lower export costs, the

lower fuel costs to the bush, the major cuts in personal income tax, the

quite dramatic and very beneficial changes to the business taxation system

that will give us a world competitive rate of company tax that will dramatically

cut almost in half in many cases the rate of capital gains tax, which will

stimulate a higher level still of foreign investment in this country.

And the story of tax reform is the story of giving to this country an even

better economic chance, as we go into the next century, of making an already

very competitive Australian economy, even more competitive. And giving to

of course 80 per cent of Australian tax payers a personal rate of income

tax at the margin that can never go higher than 30 per cent.

Thirdly, I said that we would not tire in our efforts to further reduce

unemployment, which although at an eight year low is still too high, and

once again I can report to you that we have made progress. Not as much as

I would have liked, but more than I though at one stage during the year

it would be possible. Even some of the more conservative of the Government's

economic advisers are now suggesting to us that with current policy settings,

and they include of course a continuation of a strong rate of economic growth,

we might see unemployment go even lower.

Fourthly we are going to extend out commitment to the principle of mutual

obligation in Australian society and certainly I can report again that we

have been very active on that front, the extension of the work for the dole,

the introduction in relation to the drug offensive, of the diversion programs

in cooperation with the states. The details of that I launched in Sydney

only a few weeks ago and yesterday the Health Minister went to Tasmania

to announce in cooperation with the Premier of Tasmania the diversion programme

which is built upon, once again, the principle of mutual obligation - that

society has an obligation to do everything it can to assist people who want

to break the drug habit. And we have a very special social responsibility

to do that and I don't pretend that this is an easy challenge and I don't

pretend that the solutions are simple but part of the process must be to

confront people who do wish to break the habit with the reality that if

they are to get assistance, if they are to avoid being caught up in the

criminal justice system then they should avail themselves of treatment and

rehabilitation facilities.

And finally I said in my address earlier this year that we would work to

create an even stronger social coalition to more effectively remedy areas

of disadvantage and under-privilege and I have already spoken earlier of

the importance that I place on the building of a strong social coalition

in this country. So as we come to the end of this year and as we reflect

upon what has occurred and it has by any definition been a remarkably active

and a remarkably productive year but from my point of view and the Government's

point of view it has not so much been the individual policy decisions but

the contribution that those policy decisions have made towards achieving

those broad goals that I recalled at the beginning of my address.

Of course the year has also been characterised, as political years always

are and years in the life of the nation always are, by events that could

not reasonably have been foreseen certainly in the way they worked out at

the beginning of the year. And clearly Australia's involvement in providing

hope and a future for the people of East Timor very much comes into that

category. It was without doubt the most important international event to

effect Australia during the year. It saw for the first time Australia leading

an international peace enforcement operation. It saw Australia assert herself

in an appropriate and sensible way - not a provocative or over-reactive

way in our part of the region - in a way that has brought lasting credit

to our nation and lasting credit in particular to the men and women of the

Australian Defence Force. It represented the act of a country that sought

not argument or disputation with the Republic of Indonesia but rather a

country and an Government that sought to discharge its obligations to a

group of people who in earlier years had more than discharged their obligations

to Australians of an earlier generation. And I believe that history will

see the Australian action in East Timor in a positive light. History will

see Australia as having acted in an appropriate, a restrained, but nonetheless

very determined, very definitive way.

Throwing forward to the year ahead it's a clich to say that it will be

a very active year. I see the role of the Government in the year ahead being

very much one of continuing to pursue, in the name of achieving the goals

I outlined, the economic reform programme that has been a characteristic

of our time in Government. There is a lot of talk in our community about

whether the reform process has gone too far, whether we have reform fatigue.

Once again it is a question of achieving an appropriate balance. The reform

process never stops. In a sense, once governments give up on reform then

the community is entitled to question the continued value of that government

to the community. Reforms of course must take account of the impact of change

on our community. There is an ever present obligation on governments to

explain and interpret economic reform and the benefits of change and reform

to their communities and their societies and if we don't do that resistance

- much of it ill-informed - will build to the process of reform.

It is fair to say that Australia at the present time in a national generic

sense is enjoying great prosperity and great economic strengths. That situation

imposes a special obligation on all of us to make sure that all sections

of the community as best we can enjoy and share in the benefits of that

national economic well-being and economic strength. And I think particularly

of those of my fellow Australians who live in the rural and regional areas

of our nation. Historically and now in present terms contributing so much

to our export income, so much to our wealth and also importantly, so much

to our understanding of what it is to be an Australian. And I have often

said in the past that I cannot conceive the Australia that I grew up to

love as being an Australia that doesn't have the bush and the rural and

regional parts of our country as very much part and parcel of how we see

ourselves and how we relate to ourselves as an Australian community. And

it is a special obligation to make sure therefore as best we can, in the

months ahead and indeed in the years ahead, that the benefits of national

economic strengths are enjoyed by many of our Australian citizens as is

humanly possible. Because when the country is doing well those who aren't

doing well feel the disadvantage ever more keenly and ever more acutely

and that puts a very special obligation on us.

I will seek, and the Government will seek in the months ahead, to make certain

that we continue all we can to reduce our current level of unemployment.

Unemployment in Australia has now assumed a markedly varied character in

the sense that there are large parts of Australia particularly in some of

the large cities, where for practical purpose, unemployment has been reduced

to an almost irreducible minimum. There are many of the central districts

of Sydney where the unemployment rate is in the order of slightly below

or slightly above 2%. And yet if we move into some of the regional areas,

the change is quite dramatic and quite marked. And that once again underlines

the point I make about the need for reaching out and ensuring the best available

assistance consistent with national economic goals is made available to

people in rural and regional Australia. And we will seek over the year ahead

of course to complete the successful and smooth implementation of our taxation

reforms. They are important reforms, their implementation in a smooth effective

manner is an important priority of the government.

We will also seek in the year ahead to build a sensible but restrained an

non provocative way on the new sense of respect, and I believe strength,

in which Australia is viewed internationally. We have been a very good regional

neighbour - not only of Indonesia but also of nations such as Thailand and

Korea. We have a capacity to play a crucial role in the economic and political

development of the region and our capacity to do so is enhanced by our economic

strength and our capacity to do so has also been enhanced by our diplomatic

standing in relation to East Timor.

And finally, ladies and gentlemen, we will seek in the year ahead, to do

something that I said was very important to me and to the Government that

I lead when I accepted the verdict, very pleasingly I might say, of the

Australian people on the 2nd March 1996. And that was to try

and focus on those things that united the Australian community rather than

those things that divided them. Because I have long held the belief in public

life that the things that unite us as Australians are infinitely more enduring

and more lasting and more effective and more important than the things that

divide us. And if there is one goal that any government worth its salt should

set itself and that is to do everything it can to bind together and to unite

the Australian people. And if there is one thing - and I say it finally

- that I can say with every conviction that we have been true to over the

last almost four years, and that is that we have not been a government that

has been beholden to any one section of the Australian community. We have

not been a government that has been owned by one section, we have not been

a government that has pursued an obsessive agenda out of deference to one

section of the Australian community. We have rather been a government that

has sought as best we could to govern for all Australians.

Thank you.

JOURNALIST:

Tony Wright from The Age, Prime Minister. Your review today has been

pretty much about the last years of this century, and we are just about

move into another century and millennium. And yesterday of course you knocked

over a couple of records of the great Liberal Prime Minister Menzies with

cricket scores and by your own lights a better economy. I wonder whether

you attempted at any stage to go for that last record - 16 years as a Liberal

Prime Minister? And perhaps more realistically, as you'll be going to another

election in a couple of years, would you be prepared to commit to serving

another full term as Prime Minister should you win that election, and God

and passing trucks willing?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well thank you Tony. My position on this has really been quite consistent.

I take one election at a time. And I said that after the last election.

I'm in good health. But I'm a realist. I take one election at a time. If

my party wants me to lead them to the next election then I will be happy

to do so. I remind all of you that I don't hold the office I now have other

than by the courtesy and the gift of the Liberal Party of Australia. It's

not mine to pass on, it's not mine to do a deal with anybody about. It is

an office that I hold out of the courtesy of the Liberal Party and my position

is that if the party wants me to lead them to another election I'd be very

happy to do so. What happens after that I will deal with on a term to term

basis. I'm not getting into the exaggerated business of projecting beyond

that. I really think that would be both presumptuous and unrealistic.

JOURNALIST:

Gay Davidson.[inaudible]. Anyway I wanted to ask you Prime Minister what

your reaction was when Indonesia scrapped the East Timor [inaudible] on

protest agreement? And have you had any..that was two days ago. Have you

had any intelligence more about it? What diplomatic moves have you made?

Have you given any advice to the American Government who will of course

be clearly intrigued about this whole thing considering their interest not

only in oil but also this sort of strength?

PRIME MINISTER:

You'll appreciate that I can't go into any detail about intelligence advice.

The view of the Government is that nothing that has happened so far threatens

the arrangements that we've made. We think that applying some of the notions

of successor states in international law that there won't be any difficulty

in working out an understanding in relation to that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Vivienne Stanton from Reuters. After your famous school

report card speech to Parliament earlier this year, we know that you see

quite a bit of talent in your frontbench. I was just wondering how soon

you're planning to rearrange the desks, and who will get to be a prefect

and who will get sent to the back of the class?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't have anything in mind on that front. When, if I were to well

I'd announce it. Were we to make any changes I'd announce them. But I think

the team is doing very well. But I also think that I've got a lot of talent

on the backbench.

JOURNALIST:

Malcolm Farr, the Daily Telegraph. In your 25 years in Parliament,

have you known politicians to be held in the low standing that they are

today? And going back to the referendum but without please going to the

issues of the referendum, do you think a consequence of the 'no' case tactic

or strategy of saying politicians cannot be trusted would exasperate the

current low standing of politicians. What would you do to raise the level

of respect of politicians and consequently of the Parliament?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't know that the attitude has perhaps changed as much as people

including journalists and some Parliamentarians often say. I think there's

always been a bit of that sort of healthy scepticism in this country towards

people in authority. I was asked by President Clinton when he came to Australian

in 1996, we had a talk about some of the comparisons between Americans and

Australians. And I said that I thought one of the differences between Americans

and Australians was that Australians were somewhat more sceptical as a people

than Americans. And that's no bad thing. It may be aggravating for us on

occasions but it is no bad thing. It's I think part of our Celtic inheritance

that we have a certain scepticism. So I'm not sure that it's got so dramatically

worse. I mean we all say that. I don't know that it's changed quite as much.

What would I do to change it? I don't think there's any one thing you can

do. You can only do your best. Try and talk to people as candidly as possible.

Try and understand what motivates the mainstream of the Australian community.

Don't get captured by interest groups. Don't get too remote in not only

a geographic sense but in a sense of understanding what the broad community

feels. You asked me about the 'no' campaign. Well the 'no' campaign had

a lot of elements and had a lot of contributors. Different people put it

in a different way. You wouldn't have found anything I said that involved

any denigration of politicians. I had a view. My view was that we shouldn't

change. Now I haven't come here today to sort of rehearse the referendum,

you shake your head and I'm glad to hear that you haven't either. But I

don't know that out of that there was any great further damage done. But

I'm prepared to be accountable, and bear in mind it was a free vote, and

when you have a free vote the Prime Minister has the same privilege that's

accorded to every other member. And I'm very happy to have anything I said

during the campaign subject to very close scrutiny.

JOURNALIST:

Amanda Buckley, Bloomberg News, Prime Minister. I just wanted to ask you

about privatisation today. We know it was very much on the Government's

agenda when you came into office, and you've had some very big sales and

I think 40% of Australians are now shareholders as a result. But I'm wondering

whether you've run out of a bit of steam on this issue. We know that your

Treasurer is very keen to get more sales and we know that he'd like to sell

the remaining 50.1% of Telstra to eliminate Commonwealth debt. We know there's

less enthusiasm in the National Party, perhaps reflecting what you said

about that reform fatigue out there in the community. And I'm just wondering

if you do have a timetable in your own mind for the rest of Telstra, if

you can tell is where Sydney Airport is in the queue at the moment - I know

there's a bit of a back up of big decisions coming along on that score -

and give us some idea of what the Government's privatisation program will

be in future?

PRIME MINISTER:

Amanda, the policy on Telstra hasn't changed. The policy on Telstra is that

we still have it as a goal to sell the lot but we made a commitment to..once

we got to where we are now we have an examination process in relation to

the adequacy of services particularly in regional Australia. And only if

we were satisfied from that would we then go on. But the goal hasn't changed

and it's not as far as I'm concerned likely to change. I would like to remind

people, particularly those in regional Australia who might be listening

to this program, that a lot of the benefits that are now going to the bush,

for example the rural transaction centres. And I opened the first of them

at Eugowra about six or eight weeks ago. And they'

Transcript 11443