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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 21130

Address to Millenium Forum Lunch Wentworth Hotel, Sydney

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: 27/02/2004

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 21130

Well, thank you John for those very generous words of welcome and I also want to acknowledge Chris McDiven, who has given tremendous leadership to the organisational side of the Party here in New South Wales. And Scott Morrison and Bob Sutton and Paul Nicolaou who also... Scott is the State Director and Bob and Paul in the Millennium Forum for the tremendous work that they do.

I start by thanking all of you for your attendance and your practical expression through that attendance, of support for the Liberal Party here in New South Wales and around Australia. This is a very important year. There will, at some time in the second half of this year, be a federal election. Like all federal elections, it will be very hard for the incumbent government to win, particularly as it will be the fourth occasion that we'll be asking the Australian people to return us. Now it is true, as Chris said, that we will go into that election from a position of unprecedentedly high representation in the national parliament, federally from the State of New South Wales. And the task will be to hold all of those 21 seats that are currently in Liberal Party hands and the challenge will not only be to do that here but all around the country. So perhaps in those parts of Australia such as Tasmania where we have no representation in the Lower House and Western Australia and Victoria where historically we're less well represented than we might otherwise be, hopefully we can gain some ground there.

I don't delude myself, it's going to be quite tough. The longer you're in office the more capacity you have to antagonise people no matter how hard you try - that's life. There's a certain amount of electoral wear and tear and we have to be aware of that. We will face a Labor Party determined, after having been in Opposition for almost nine years, to deliver wall to wall, coast to coast Labor governments and I'll have something to say about the implications of that, particularly in the area of industrial relations in just a moment.

But on the other hand, we do have a very good story to tell and we have a lot of things to offer for the future and I'll touch on a couple of those in a moment. When I became Prime Minister, I essentially set myself three goals for this country. I wanted it to be secure nationally, in other words to have strong defences and strong alliances and strong friends. I wanted it to recover its economic strength. And most importantly also, I wanted Australia to be a socially stable and socially cohesive country because all the good economic policies in the world are of little account unless they deliver a human dividend, unless they give people more choices and opportunities, unless they give them a greater sense of hope and a greater sense of stability and security.

I don't think it can be denied that in the eight years we have been in office we have faced some unprecedented security challenges. In March of 1996, nobody had heard of the expression "the war on terrorism". The name Al Qaeda was probably unknown except to a very select group of people in the intelligence community and the higher levels of government. The notion of a terrorist attack on the most prosperous and powerful city in the world was unthinkable. The notion that 88 of our own citizens would die in what was historically regarded as a lovable pleasure resort for generations of Australians was also unthinkable. All of that has changed, but in the process this country has stood up for what it believed in and the most pleasing thing that I find about Australia at the present time is the very high reputation it enjoys around the world.

You go abroad as Prime Minister of Australia, now you go abroad as a country which is respected because of what it has achieved and is also respected because of what it has been willing to stand for often in very difficult circumstances. And I don't think anybody thought in March of 1996 that Australia would lead the United Nations sanctioned intervention in East Timor to liberate the people of East Timor with whom some earlier generations of Australians in World War II had formed such close bonds in very difficult times. On the national security front, we have a compelling story to tell of a country that has played its part and punched above its weight, been faithful to its allies, but more importantly been faithful to the long-term national interest of this country. And let me say to you that I have no regrets about the Government's decision to join the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq. I have no doubt that the world is a safer and better place as a result of that and it remains an irrefutable proposition that those who criticised our decision were in effect arguing for the retention of the Saddam Hussein regime. So on the score of national security, this Government has responded to the challenges that Australia faced. We are investing more in defence and our defence forces have behaved magnificently in the many missions that they have had.

But in the area of economic strength, it's not an exaggeration to say that the Australian economy is now in better condition than it's been at any time since World War II. It is true that it was in a strong condition in the 1950s and 60s, there were periods of long sustained economic growth during the Menzies years and so much of that came to an abrupt end in the early 1970s when the world fell into a bit of economic turmoil with the floating of the American dollar and the quadrupling of world oil prices and, of course, those international developments were compounded domestically under the Whitlam Government by the most inept economic policies this country's seen since World War II.

But the difference between now and then is that now we are standing on our own feet. In the 1960s, Australia was a protected economy. We had high tariff walls, we had a fixed exchange rate, we had foreign exchange control, we had centralised wage fixation, we tended to look inwards rather than outwards, we depended over-heavily on certain commodity exports. Now all of that has changed. We are competing globally and when you think that for the first time since 1968 we have a combination of inflation below 3 per cent and unemployment below 6 per cent. Our national debt is 4.9 per cent of GDP. The average of the industrialised countries is 50 per cent of GDP. It's over 100 per cent in Japan and it's something in the order of 45 or 50 per cent in the United States. We are running a budget surplus. Regrettably the Americans are not, they are running a budget deficit and that has consequences for the relationship between the exchange rate of our currency and the exchange rate of other currencies. On every measure this country's economic performance over recent years has been amongst the best if not the best of the developed world.

But none of that has happened by accident. And there seems to be a dangerous complacency developing in the community, a complacency that our Labor opponents at a federal level will seek to exploit, that all of this will go on regardless, that it all happened accidentally and that really it's had nothing ever to do with the Government, it's not had much to do with the efforts of the Australian people, it's all sort of come as it were out of the ether and it will go on irrespective of what policies are followed and who's in charge. Now nothing could be further from the truth and yet I detect in the statements of our opponents federally an attempt to implant into the minds of the Australian people that prosperity is guaranteed. I hear these expressions such as, "a country as wealthy as Australia can afford...", "a nation as prosperous as Australia should be able to do...". The important thing to understand is that prosperity gained through good policy and hard work can be quickly lost through bad policy and bad economic leadership. And that more than anything is the threat that this country faces and the business community in particular faces if there is a change of Government at a federal level. We will have a wall to wall Labor Australia if Labor federally wins at the end of the year. We'll have no Liberal governments anywhere and can you imagine what the union movement will do to small business? Can you imagine what will happen to the industrial relations laws of Australia if you nine Labor governments? Not withstanding the fact that fewer than 20 per cent of private sector employees in Australia now belong to unions and unions are regarded as anachronistic by so many Australians particularly in the growth sectors of the Australian economy. And beneath the facade and the feel good politics of the past few weeks, the Labor Party has been ticking off a commitment to an industrial relations agenda which would abolish Australian Workplace Agreements, take the secondary boycott prohibitions out of the Trade Practices Act, require companies doing business with the Federal Government to disclose the identity of their sub-contractors so that those sub-contractors can be subjected to union consultations. So they are some of the things that on the industrial relations front would become real threats to the prosperity and the stability of this country.

And when I talk about what we have achieved, I also want to say something about the Government's agenda for a number of our future challenges. We have just negotiated with the United States a Free Trade Agreement. This is the first occasion apart from the North America Free Trade Agreement involving Canada that the United States has negotiated a Free Trade Agreement with a developed country. There are many tensions in negotiating a Free Trade Agreement between America and a developed country. And I have no doubt that it's been negotiated because of the remarkable commitment of the Administration to the cause of the alliance between Australia and the United States, but also because there are long term economic benefits. And when I think back at some of the positive things that the former government did, and I've never been reluctant to give the former government credit to some of the positive things it did in relation to Australia's economy, such as the progressive reduction in the levels of tariff protection in the 1980s and the 1990s, I find it quite extraordinary that the Labor Party should be apparently opposed to the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement. This Free Trade Agreement doesn't deliver everything we wanted, we would have liked more on beef, we would have wanted something on sugar, but we have secured 66 per cent duty free entry immediately in relation to agriculture, 97 per cent of our manufacturers will enter duty free, there'll be an immediate abolition of the 25 per cent tariff on that great Australian manufacturing icon the ute, there'll be enormous benefits for our service sector, we will have for the first time ever access to the US Federal Government procurement market which is worth over $200 billion a year, for the first time we'll be able to compete for that. And in the process we have ensured that attempts by pharmaceutical companies in the United States to secure changes that might have undermined the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in Australia were not successful and we've also negotiated appropriate protection for Australian culture, Australian voices and Australian history on our TV and our entertainment generally. So overall it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, the planets, so to speak, would never again be so aligned as they were when we were able to conclude the negotiations. And if the national interests means anything in politics and if politics is something other than knee jerk opposition because it is put forward by the bloke on the other side then it's imperative that the necessary legislation to give effect to this Free Trade Agreement should go through our Parliament.

A couple of days ago the Treasurer here in Sydney released a number of changes, a discussion paper and a number of changes that begin the process of tackling a challenge that every Western country faces. And that is the ageing of its population through a combination of thankfully people living longer and living healthier lives, and also though a declining fertility rate. As in so many of these things Australia is neither at the worst end of the proposition or at the better end, we're somewhere in the middle. Our fertility rate has not declined as much as Italy or Spain but it's declined more than that of the United States. And we have to face this, now it may not be a very exciting subject right now because we all tend to worry about the next day, the next week, the next year, but governments are often accused of being indifferent about long term challenges, and what we have to do is prepare the nation for change. We have to encourage a greater level of workforce participation, we have to make sure that people of more mature years who want to remain in the workforce have greater opportunities and greater incentives to do so. We're not saying they have to, but what we're saying is that if you want to, some of the existing barriers should be removed and some of the incentives should be rebalanced. Now this is very much about building for the future and if we don't well our children will face a more difficult and a less prosperous time. They will face a heavier tax burden because as people live longer and there are fewer entering the workforce at the other end of the spectrum then inevitably costs are going to rise and the burden of taxation is going to fall more heavily on those who are in the workforce. And I was listening the other morning to some testimony from Alan Greenspan who is the Chairman of the Federal Reserve system in the United States, probably the most powerful economic figure in the world. And he was lamenting the burden on the American budget when the first cohort of baby boomers hits retirement age in the United States. And he was actually saying to his congressional people who were interrogating him, he was actually saying that America might have to contemplate reducing the generosity of the indexation of pensions in the United States because of the burden this change was going to represent and because of the size of the American budget deficit. Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that that's going to happen because it's not his to decide, but the fact that it would be canvassed and contemplated told me a couple of things, it told me that every industrialised country had to address this issue, and that if you didn't address it you weren't concerned about the long term. The other thing it told me was that how much better place Australia was. We have in fact increased the generosity of the indexation factor for the pension since we've been in office, we don't have a budget deficit therefore the proposition that you would have to make it less generous in the future is something that has not even been contemplated let alone implemented.

So ladies and gentlemen we do have a political movement over the months ahead, we have a very significant political challenge. I enter it with a great deal of optimism, the greatest thing the Government has going for it in my view is that we have a great team. Three of us, myself, Peter Costello and Alexander Downer have held our current position from the very beginning of government. I don't think this country has had a finer, more committed Treasurer than Peter Costello, I think he's done a wonderful job. I mean it is a source of enormous satisfaction to me and it should be to our supporters that we in the process of eight years of government have repaid about two-thirds of the debt that we inherited. That year after year we are able to deliver strong growth, we haven't been able to do everything that people would have liked and I go around the country and I get a long list of people wanting more spending and less tax. That's normal, it's unachievable at the same time but it's perfectly normal, we haven't been able to do that. But governments are elected to provide people with a sense of stability, a sense of security, a sense of hope, but most importantly a sense of creating a climate where they can make their decisions and live their lives according to their values and their priorities. The Australian people don't want their governments telling them how to live their lives, they do want their governments creating the circumstances where they can in security decide how they live their lives. And that really is in a nutshell the philosophy that's governed so much of what we have been able to do.

So my friends I want to do two things in conclusion, I want to thank you for the tremendous support that I know you've provided to the Party over the years, I hope in reasonable measure we have repaid your trust and your confidence. We have enormous commitment to remaining in office, I personally have an enormous sense of commitment and dedication to the task ahead and so do all of my colleagues. We think we have a very good story, we think we have a lot to say about the future, we do need your continued help and together we can go on to another victory at the end of the year.

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 21130