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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 21912

Address at the Launch of the Publication 'The Conservative' Parliament House, 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: 08/09/2005

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 21912

Thank you very, very much Nick. To all of my colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, I am truly delighted to have been asked to launch this publication. And the most important reason why I'm delighted to be involved in this launch is that this is the latest piece of field evidence that when it comes to debating the great issues and the ideas that will shape Australia for decades into the future there's only one party in town, this town, that's involved in the debate of ideas. And that is the most important thing, the most important thing of all about this publication and the other two publications - one that I launched and one that my colleague the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Peter Costello, launched. And both of those publications along with this one address serious issues. We are not afraid to debate ideas, we are not afraid to welcome a public contribution to a sensible debate. It's the mark of a mature, successful, cohesive political party that it can welcome debate on ideas. And if it's done in a respectful fashion, if it's done on the basis of merit and intellectual exchange it can only be to the good of our party and to the good of our society.

Appropriately enough just before I came here I took part in a very private and a very touching ceremony. The Polish Ambassador came to see me and awarded me the Medal of Gdansk - the medal that's been struck to mark the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity movement. Now solidarity is not a word that I normally allow to roll off my tongue with conservative alacrity. Solidarity is a word that is more normally employed by those who march to a different political drumbeat than I do. But solidarity, of course, was the name that Lech Walesa gave to that great movement that did more than any other individual activity to bring about the collapse of communism in Poland and that of course played a major role in the collapse of communism around the world. As I look back on the events of my political lifetime none has been more transforming and none more important than, of course, the fall of communism - something which changed the world and represented the greatest single triumph for liberty in my lifetime and in the lifetime I am sure of everybody in this room.

The Liberal Party is a broad church. You sometimes have to get the builders in to put in the extra pew on both sides of the aisle to make sure that everybody is accommodated. But it is a broad church and we should never as members of the Liberal Party of Australia lose sight of the fact that we are the trustees of two great political traditions. We are, of course, the custodian of the classical liberal tradition within our society, Australian Liberals should revere the contribution of John Stuart Mill to political thought. We are also the custodians of the conservative tradition in our community. And if you look at the history of the Liberal Party it is at its best when it balances and blends those two traditions. Mill and Burke are interwoven into the history and the practice and the experience of our political party.

Nick has quite rightly said that we are a party that is committed to the role of the individual. Our classic liberal tradition is manifest in our attitude to economic policy. We see on display right at the moment... [bells ringing]... it's red it is? A word we do not accept here. Now can I possibly continue my speech without the presence of ... I think I can, yes I can continue my speech. I think it is important to just take a moment to identify some of the things that we have done and we have stood for over the last few years to make my point. If you look for evidence of the classic liberal tradition within our embrace and within our activity, we think, I think instinctively, of our commitment to labour market reform. Labour market reform is not about transferring power from the States to the Commonwealth, labour market reform is about transferring power from institutions to individuals. Because the essence of our drive for labour market reform is to create flexibility at the individual workplace level, to empower the individual with appropriate protection to make the bargain that he or she thinks is best for that person's individual circumstances and that person's family. I have often described myself, and I do so again this morning, as somebody who is an economic liberal and a social conservative. I see no incompatibility between the two. And some of the oddest pieces of political philosophy that I've listed to or read is that philosophy or attitude that says if you're an economic liberal you have to be a social libertarian. Or if you are somebody who is conservative in social policy you have to have a conservative approach to economic policy. My view is there is nothing incompatible with the blend of those two. And from my own personal point of view I have always thought that that mix best suits both the needs and the temper of contemporary Australian society. Contemporary Australian society understands that we do live in a world of change, they understand that globalism is with us forever, they may not like some aspects of it but they know they can't change it and they therefore want a government that delivers the benefits of globalisation and not one that foolishly pretends Canute-like it can hold back the tide. They accept and they understand that. But they also want within that change, sometimes that maelstrom of economic change, they want reassurance and they want to protect and defend those institutions that have given them a sense of security and a sense of purpose over the years.

And that of course where our conservative tradition comes in. We carry the Burkean tradition of conservatism within our ranks. We believe that if institutions have demonstrably failed they ought to be changed or reformed. But we don't believe in getting rid of institutions just for the sake of change. We need to be persuaded that they are failed institutions. We shouldn't rise to the clarion call of radical change just for its own sake.

It was Edmund Burke who famously said that "a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation". Now that is an interesting way of expressing the blend and the mix that we must, of course in a contemporary Australian society, try and achieve. I am sceptical of radical reform of our society. In fact, I've been a profound opponent of radically changing the social context in which we live. As Liberals we support and respect and promote the greatest institution in our society, and that is the family. There is no institution that provides more emotional support and reassurance to the individual than the family. There is no institution, incidentally, which is a more efficient deliverer of social welfare than a united, affectionate, functioning family. It's the best social welfare policy that mankind has ever devised.

But we also see liberty in our community as bound up with a sense of order. And we also as Liberals believe very much in a sense of individual and personal responsibility. And that is both a concomitant of personal liberty, but it is also an acknowledgement of the need that if we are to enjoy personal liberty we must have an ordered society. And we believe very strongly in the concept of mutual obligation. It's a concept that we have championed over the last 10 years and it's a concept that has won widespread support within the Australian community. And it is a concept that expresses the essential balance we must achieve, the compassion of looking after people who need help but the reasonable expectation of a society built on individual achievement that having given people a fair go they will return the compliment by themselves having a go. And that is really the philosophical basis of our ideal. And our strong belief in personal responsibility of course leads to, or in fact flows from our deep commitment to the obligation we have to each other.

But another thing that, of course, has united all Liberals, and in that collective unity has separated ourselves from our political opponents, is our profound respect for and pride in the history of this country. We may have a debate about the appropriate balance between the central government and the states, we may talk about centralism and federalism. But there is one thing that Australians should never tire of talking about and should never tire of identifying themselves with, and that is the cause of Australian nationalism. Some people say I'm a centralist - I've even heard one or two of my colleagues say that. I am certainly not a stake-rightist, and I am not a centralist but I am an Australian nationalist. And my national sentiment transcends any regional parochial or state sentiment that I might in the dim distant past have had. I not only refuse to barrack for New South Wales in State of Origin rugby league matches out of respect for the marvellous generosity of the Queensland people at the federal election, that is one of the reasons why I refuse to barrack against my good friends from Queensland, but of course another reason is much and all as I love the city in which I grew up I have never felt any personal identification with the State. Perhaps that varies according to where you grew up. But a sense of commitment to the unity and the wholeness of the Australia nation is something that I think is very important to Australian Liberals.

Unlike occasionally our political opponents, we don't share the Manning Clark view of history that the history of this country started in 1972. We believe that this country has had a proud record of achievement. And indeed it is interestingly expressed in the equivocation that governments sometimes have about how they mark great political events. I can remember in the 1980s as a member of the Fraser Government we were starting the preparations to mark the Centenary of Federation. And the label, the description we wanted to give to it was 'The Australian Achievement'. And when were replaced by our political opponents in 1983 they got rid of that and I think they had the description of 'Australians Living Together'. Now, I mean that's nice and you know I'm all in favour of that. But it sort of said something to me, an equivocal view within that party about the history of this country. Now this country of course has blemishes in its history and I've said before and I'd say it again today that the greatest blemish of all has been its treatment of the indigenous people. But if you look at the balance sheet of this country's history of achievement, it is not impressive, it is heroic and it is something that every individual Australian should be immensely proud of.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think this publication will make a huge contribution to the debate on ideas. I welcome it as I do the other two publications. I congratulate Santo for his indefatigable work in bringing this together and all others who have contributed to it. And can I again say to you that we do occupy as the Liberal Party of Australia a special position amongst centre-right parties around the world. We are a party that must care for both of those traditions. We should never see it as our role as Australian Liberals to see the triumph of one of those traditions to the unfair detriment and certainly not the obliteration of the other. Our success has been to recognise that each has a rich contribution to make and when we blend them in the right way we are not only at our most compassionate and also most effective, but we are also at our most politically acceptable. The average Australian, that overworked expression for which there is really no proper or valid alternative, the average Australian is a mixture of a lot of things - he believes very much in the traditions of this country; he or she believes this country has been very successful; he or she doesn't think this country has much to be ashamed of; he or she believes that this country is well regarded around the world. But he also believes that individuals should be given a fair go, that if they're down on their luck as he would describe it they should be helped, but having been helped they should then get on with their lives and not expect the rest of the community to keep on assisting them. He or she believes in traditional institutions, like the family and the traditional view of the family, but he or she doesn't want to persecute people who might have an alternative view. He or she is a very tolerant individual, but also a person who believes that when we face a common threat we need to be a united, cohesive people. And finally and very importantly the average Australian believes in a classless society. The average Australian believes that a person's worth should be determined by a person's character and hardwork and not their religion, their race, their social background or their class.

Now that's not the most perfect definition of what an Australian believes in and what an Australian stands for but after some, collectively at various stages with the odd interruption here or there of some 14 years of leading the Liberal Party of Australia which is the custodian of this unique blend, that's my assessment humbly and respectfully of what I think the average Australian cares for and what matters to that person. And they want a government that responds to and expresses those values. And they are, they are in some respects universal values but they also contain a number of unique Australian values and I think they're very good values and it's our job to understand those values, constantly keep them in mind and respond and I think in the great debate of ideas this document will make a huge contribution as will the other two and I thank the authors of it and I congratulate all of my colleagues for the willingness to engage in a debate of ideas.

And I finish on this note - it's not a mark of fragmentation, it's a mark of cohesion and strength and maturity and success that we can engage in this debate of ideas and thus be an example to other political parties in Australia.

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 21912