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Transcript - 23813

Address to the National Press Club 50th Anniversary Dinner, Canberra

Photo of Abbott, Tony

Abbott, Tony

Period of Service: 18/09/2013 to 15/09/2015

More information about Abbott, Tony on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 10/09/2014

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 23813

I suppose Laurie the only respect in which I take after Sir Robert is that I am just as hard to get to the National Press Club.

But Laurie Wilson, Tony Eggleton, Juris and Lois Greste, my parliamentary colleagues and I can see three in the room; Dan Tehan, Angus Taylor and Peter Hendy, ladies and gentlemen, it is great honour to be addressing the National Press Club to mark its 50th year.

As some of you would know, like Alfred Deakin and John Curtin, I was a journalist before eventually becoming a prime minister.

I have often said that as a journalist, I was a frustrated politician; and as a politician, I am a frustrated journalist; and while a trainee priest, I was just frustrated!

I once observed that it was my hope to raise the status of both occupations; to which a wag replied: by leaving journalism to become a member of parliament, you did!

There’s always an element of tension in the relationship between members of parliament and members of the media.

We are both deeply interested in everything that impacts on people’s lives.

We’re both committed, I hope, to advancing the national interest and to helping people to come closer to being their best selves.

The National Press Club’s roll call of guest speakers – national and international leaders, thinkers and doers who have changed Australia and the world – testifies to that.

Yet the media’s job is to sit in judgement on politicians.

For our part, we must put up with it but we don’t usually like it!

In the end, though, our country and our world are stronger thanks to a media that speaks truth to power.

On my very first day as an MP, I walked proudly through the House of Representatives entrance.

“Where’s your pass?” said the attendant.

“I didn’t think I needed one anymore,” I said.

“Come on, show me your pass,” insisted the attendant.

“Look,” I said, “I’m the newly elected Member of Parliament for Warringah.”

“Sure,” said the attendant, “and I’m Paul Keating.”

Just at that moment who should walk past but the late, great Paul Lyneham, who told the attendant that I was in fact who I claimed to be.

It was, I thought, probably the only time in history that the presenter of the 7:30 Report would ever help a Liberal politician out of trouble!

So, I wholeheartedly acknowledge the media’s role in our national life and in our polity.

Indeed, the country we are owes much to the quality of our journalism.

Yet the media’s job is to improve our country as well as to report it.

The best contribution, if I may say so, the media could make right now – is not to be more right wing, or more left wing – but to be more ready to give credit where it’s due; and to acknowledge the strengths as well as the weaknesses in our country and its people.

Of course, now as 50 years ago, there is much that could be improved: our country doesn’t always seize its opportunities; too many people, as always, feel trapped and helpless in the face of life’s challenges; and governments could always be braver, surer, and more compassionate.

Still the fact that Australia is undoubtedly amongst the freest, fairest, and most prosperous countries on earth means that we must be doing something right.

It means that all of us are doing something right; and that should be acknowledged and celebrated even as we strive for more and for better.

Fifty years ago, middle class Australian families typically had one car, one bathroom, and one telephone.

The last five decades has seen the greatest explosion in material wealth in human history.

To be born Australian, as always, is to have won the lottery of life; but while the lives of many of us have gone from comfortable to luxurious, the lives of billions of people across the globe have gone from precarious to comparatively prosperous.

In Australia, lifespans have gone from under 70 to over 80; in the rest of the world, they’ve gone from under 50 to over 60.

This is the best antidote to pessimism about the future, particularly pessimism about future conflict: the fact that everyone, these days, has so much more to lose from war and conflict.

People are often irrational but governments rarely are – thanks to collective decision making, even in countries without a democratic tradition.

Of course, here in Australia, there’s more family breakdown and more mental illness and more people dependent on social security than 50 years ago.

Yet there’s also more freedom for individuals to be whoever they really are, and there’s far more sympathy for the social and cultural outsider.

There’s more diversity – sometimes challenging diversity.

Paradoxically, the assurance that Australia stands ready to give to everyone – that you can be part of our team – means that national unity has probably never been stronger.

I think it was Lord Salisbury who said that change is to be resisted to the last possible moment because change is always for the worse.

I prefer Disraeli’s view that change is to be welcomed; provided it’s change that accords with the best customs and the best traditions of our people.

Most of the past 50 years’ changes have been to make us freer to be our authentic selves – or at least, that’s been their intention if not always their outcome.

There are better and worse times; but there is no perfect time, there never has been a perfect time to which we need return.

The past is to guide us and to inspire us, not to shackle us. That, at any rate, is my idea of true conservatism.

At least in this country and in our culture – with our strong tradition of freedom – liberalism and conservatism are no more than opposite sides of the same coin.

I will, if you will forgive me Laurie, leave others to judge how far, and how well, I might have changed over the 30 years that I have been in the public eye and the 20 years I have been in Parliament.

For my part, I will admit to two significant policy areas where I am now different.

I’ve shifted from being a critic to a supporter of multiculturalism, because it eventually dawned on me that migrants were coming to Australia not to change us but to join us.

And I’ve shifted from being an opponent to an advocate for paid parental leave, because it dawned on me that if modern women were to have children they needed encouragement to be both mothers and workers.

In other words, there were good conservative reasons – liberal conservative reasons – for changing a traditional position.

Over the past 30 years, the two greatest political leaders – perhaps the greatest leaders of their Parties ever – were Bob Hawke and John Howard; both, of course, on numerous occasions, speakers at this National Press Club.

Howard and Hawke were both true to the best elements in their Parties’ tradition – Hawke wanting to give workers the best chance to get ahead; and Howard wanting to combine economic freedom with social cohesion.

Both, of course, adapted these to the realities of modern Australia.

Both were strong leaders with strong cabinets.

Both were tough minded reformers, prepared to take on vested interests – although, in Hawke’s case, he could usually rely on the support of the Opposition.

Hawke’s achievement was to overcome internal dissent; Howard’s was to overcome the initial contempt of almost the entire politically correct establishment.

And so in light of your opening vignettes, I ask, how does Menzies rate against them?

There’s a marvellous passage in Heather Henderson’s book where she quotes her father describing his three and a half weeks of the 1961 election campaign: he’s the Prime Minister, he is fighting the election campaign and this is what he does in three and a half weeks. He says there’s 13 meetings, six ten minute broadcasts, and several appearances on TV “so I will not be unemployed”, says Menzies.

You should have organised more for him Tony!

The gulf between political life then and now is so vast that comparisons are simply impossible.

Menzies was the titan of his time; Hawke and Howard are the giants of ours.

Australia’s comparative economic strength owes everything to a quarter century of reform under Hawke and Howard and almost nothing to the six wasted years that followed.

The Budget – much criticised for poor politics but not for poor economics – is a sign that the age of reform has merely been interrupted, not ended.

This Government’s mission is to demonstrate that the six years between 2007 and 2013 – the political instability and the policy retreats – were just an aberration, not the new normal.

Our success or failure will determine whether or not Australia is doomed to bad government. It is that important.

Like most politicians, I am often asked about my vision for Australia.

The last thing people should want is someone else – even a prime minister – dictating their lives and their dreams for them.

My vision for Australia is a country where every person is better able to realise his or her own vision.

Yes, my vision is better schools, better hospitals, and more productive businesses – but a government that tries to dictate this will end up wasting billions of dollars.

The best way to achieve better schools, better hospitals and more productive businesses (that employ more people and pay higher wages), is to liberate our people and our institutions so that they can do what they know must be done.

My vision is not bigger governments but stronger people:

  • whether it’s the Work for the Dole scheme – about giving people a chance to show what they can do, not what they can’t;
  • entrenching the fee for service principle in the health system – so that people will respect what they get;
  • establishing the Cole Royal Commission when I was the Workplace Minister into the construction industry – so the rule of law cannot be flouted;
  • setting up first the Green Corps, and now the Green Army – so that we can give our children a better environment than that we inherited;
  • or even supporting the crown in our constitution – because we should never lightly junk what’s stood the test of time.

There is, if I may say so, a consistent thread running through this public life.

People deserve a fair go – that’s the Australian way; and they need to have a go too – because that’s also the Australian way.

Everyone can be good at something.

Our challenge is to empower each person to discover what that is and to make it happen.

Finally, I want to thank you for being here at the National Press Club to celebrate 50 years of discourse on public policy.

A better life, in a better country, in a better world is the star that guides us all.

And I have to say, tonight, is my vision for the National Press Club – a speech with no questions afterwards.

Thanks very much.


Transcript - 23813