Simon Crean’s Address To The National Press Club

This is the text of Opposition Leader Simon Crean’s Address to the National Press Club.

Text of Opposition Leader Simon Crean’s Address to the National Press Club.

CreanIt’s a shame this speech coincided with the Prime Minister’s XI cricket match, but by the size of our audience here today it looks like England batted first.

The first twelve months

It’s been a difficult twelve months – for me, the party and the nation.

But it’s been a tougher twelve months for Australian families.

I want to change things for them, and for the better.

It’s useful to reflect on the year twelve months after I took over the leadership.

I said at the beginning I wanted a strong economy – not as an end in itself, but for a fair society.

I wanted us to propose, not oppose.

I wanted us to become more tolerant, compassionate, reconciled at home and re-engaged in the region and, through it, punching above our weight influencing the international agenda, not following it blindly.

I argued that we had to modernise, not to ditch our values, but to contemporise them.

What do they mean to people in the first decade of 2000?

The modernisation had to start with us, the Labor Party.

Let’s look at the first twelve months.

We have a Government’s whose deceit was exposed over ‘Kids Overboard’ and the budget, whose divisiveness was on show through the ‘Kirby Affair’, and whose judgement was questioned over the ‘Hollingworth Affair’.

Against this background, I ensured a Labor Party with a rejuvenated frontbench, showing a difference on key issues:

  • Kids out from behind the razor wire;
  • Population policy;
  • Reforming the Parliament;
  • Fixed four-year terms in both Houses;
  • An independent Speaker;
  • Paid Maternity Leave;
  • Stopping the 30per cent hike on pharmaceuticals and proposing costed alternatives;
  • Stopping cuts to Disability benefits;
  • A Children’s Commissioner for the protection of our kids from potential sex abuse;
  • Community Safety Zones to make our streets safer;
  • Re-engagement with Asia;
  • Visiting China; and,
  • Defining our alliance with the United States.

And that’s just the beginning.

None of them timid, no ‘me-too-ism’ about these.

Nor was facing up the difficult position in the party easy.

I said twelve months ago that reform of the party and a new policy on asylum seekers would be completed by the end of the year.

They were.

Internal party reform was necessary, but distracting.

It did take too long, but what it demonstrated was that we were a party about greater openness, greater democratic values, greater fairness, greater inclusion. And why? Not just again as an end in itself but if I am to project those values in terms of how I want to lead the nation, I’ve got to demonstrate I am serious about it internally and I was.

So as distracting whatever length of time it took it was necessary and it was necessary to do it in the first year.

I indicated at the beginning that the path to winning was build around the three R’s.

  • Reform;
  • Renewal; and,
  • Re-electing the party to government – as the only party which through its values, its belief in people’s rights, and its belief in fairness can deliver a better outcome for all Australians, not just the few.

I’ll come to those issues in a moment.

But the year has, of course, been dominated by Iraq and the Bali bombings, leading with the War on Terror coming closer to home.

On security and border protection, John Howard has simply played on that insecurity.

He hasn’t addressed it.

I understand the insecurity, but also that it must be addressed.

That’s why, on border protection, under Labor you’d have the Coastguard; the Green Card; the stiffer penalties for people smugglers; the engagement with our region.

That’s why, on terrorism, I proposed tougher penalties for terrorists, but not turning into a police state; a Department of Home Affairs; a Regional Summit of Leaders.

But this spirit of regional cooperation has been compromised by Howard’s new doctrine of pre-emptive strikes.

How can you build a peace in the region with provocative language about war?

I’m also announcing Labor’s plan for an Office of National Security, with a National Security Adviser directly reporting to the PM, coordinating a policy view on resource and funding priorities across the whole of our intelligence and security communities.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has talked of the lack of central coordination advice to the Head of Government. I will establish it.

As a country of 20million people in a region of 3½billion, the logic of comprehensive engagement is inescapable.

But relations under this Government with our region are not good.

Our alliance with the US must remain at the core of our security, but it’s not incompatible with a strong independent foreign policy.

Independence within a strong alliance is what I will deliver.

I want Australia to lead, not follow.

We are a more valuable alliance partner when we’re fully engaged, informed and involved in our region. We also build a stronger capacity to influence world opinion.

I will also ensure that we are a consistent supporter of the authority of the UN and the role of international law in delivering peace and security. Not using the UN only when it suits us.

That’s why I’ve insisted since the beginning of the year that the Iraq question must be dealt with through the UN Security Council.

What Howard has done to Australian families

Despite the issue of national security, there are serious concerns about living standards.

It’s not just winning the war; we must win the peace as well.

John Howard wants Australians to concentrate exclusively on national security, because he won’t concentrate on standards of living and the quality of life.

We’re constantly being told that the economy is booming.

But if things are going so well, why are so many people asking ‘why am I being left behind?’

During the course of 2002 one of the big public policy debates has been about why our nation’s birth rate is declining.

But I ask you, is it any wonder our birth rate is declining when Australians simply can’t afford to start a family or have that second or third child?

Just look at the legacy of the Government.

Australians are now paying more tax than ever before.

Housing has never cost more.

Household debt and credit card debt are at record levels.

And to pay off their record debts, Australian workers are now working longer hours and spending less time with their kids. Of all the developed countries, only South Koreans work longer.

John Howard said the GST was a tax on consumption but we now have the lowest level of savings ever.

The cost of raising a child is steadily increasing.

In fact, last year the cost of childcare alone rose over 17 percent.

The cost of seeing the family doctor is soaring because finding a doctor who bulk bills has never been more difficult.

If working longer hours wasn’t bad enough, John Howard wants to make it easier to sack people.

And despite the fact that people are living longer and retiring earlier nothing is being done to improve superannuation and retirement incomes.

While ordinary Australians can’t escape paying their fair share of tax, many of the well off have access to crooked tax minimization schemes.

No wonder Australians increasingly believe that there is one set of standards for the ordinary Australian and another for the elite.

The next 12 months

So over the next 12 months we will be outlining clear directions and detailed policies that connect with the priorities and the strong values held by the great majority of the Australian people.

There’s a view around at present that says that only the parties on the extremes of the political spectrum have strong values and convictions.

In this narrow view of the world in which there is no place for alternate views – you are either for the Coalition and their harsh right-wing agenda, or the Greens and their hard left-wing agenda.

But these are false choices. False because the vast majority of Australians are neither strongly left nor right.

And to accuse them of not holding strong values is an insult to every one of those Australians.

Today I want to reclaim for my party the ground held by an overwhelming majority of Australians.

  • Australians who believe that we can fight terrorism but not by becoming a police state to do it.
  • Australians who believe that we must protect our borders but treat asylum seekers decently.
  • Australians who believe that there is a role for private health insurance without destroying Medicare or bulk billing.
  • Australians who support a parent’s right to choose their children’s school but who know that the nation needs high quality public education.
  • And Australians who believe that we can help the environment – by signing the Kyoto Protocol – without destroying jobs.

Labor’s policies will be unashamedly focussed on the difficulties being experienced by Australians in their every day lives.

And like Australians, Labor recognises that while governments don’t have all the answers, we do know that together we can make a difference.

Medicare

Labor will start by saving Medicare and we will stop punitive increases in the costs of medicines.

Only Labor believes that Australians are entitled to the security that a quality universal public health care system provides. We established it under Whitlam and Hawke.

But bulk billing has collapsed under the Howard Government – down from 80 percent in 1996 to just 71 percent today.

John Howard always said that he would pull Medicare apart. Now he’s watching it bleed.

We must save Medicare and restore bulk billing. If that means we have to look again at the Private Health Insurance Rebate – with all its inefficiencies and rorts – we won’t be afraid to do it.

Education for all

In education, the Liberals have spent the last six years opening doors for the favoured few, slamming them in the face of those without money and privilege.

They did it by under-investing in our public schools and universities. They want to do it again with their proposal to deregulate university fees.

My leadership will be dedicated to unlocking the doors to new skills and knowledge so we can give every Australian the opportunities they need.

Labor’s education policies will create of a national system of lifelong learning accessible to all on the basis of need and ability – from early learning programs to universities.

Lifelong learning is critical. While we can no longer guarantee everyone with a job for life, we can try to make everyone employable for life.

I want every child to achieve the equivalent of a year-12 qualification.

Our young people must be given the choice between a job, a university or TAFE place or some other form of structured training. Unemployment will not be an option.

And I give this pledge – Labor will never support the deregulation of university fees because they will lock thousands of talented Australians out of higher education.

Higher retirement incomes for all

People are retiring earlier and living longer. This makes improving superannuation a national priority.

Superannuation was only spread to the whole of the workforce because of Labor. We are the only party that’s going to improve those benefits in the future.

Labor will be announcing new policies that improve the adequacy of superannuation and protect the investments or working Australians.

Labor has always been the party of pensioners, and I want to make it the party for superannuants as well.

Part of this will involve ensuring that the investments of every Australian are protected by a strong system of corporate regulation.

More than 50 percent of Australians now own shares. With over 90 percent of people now in super funds thanks to Labor’s initiatives just about every employee owns shares indirectly.

So we’d all be safer in a system with tighter rules, greater transparency and a code in which integrity is taken as the norm. That’s what Labor will introduce.

Modernising our economy

The key to creating this better future for all Australians is improving our productivity growth.

We have to create new industries and make our old industries new again.

That’s why we’ll have strong industry and trade policies to better realise the nation’s potential.

The Howard Government’s vision is effectively low-wage, low-skill economy.

In the last three years, of the 650,000 jobs that have been created under this Government, only 700 of them pay average weekly earnings. Middle income earning in this country is disappearing.

We’ve got to develop a high-skill knowledge economy, but one that also has wage justice for the low skilled.

And it is also a sustainable economy.

Sustainability is not a choice between creating wealth and protecting the environment.

The challenges of climate change, salinity and water quality present opportunities for Australian industry with growing international markets for environmental goods and services.

If we lead the way, this means jobs, investment and opportunities for Australia, particularly in our regions.

That’s why Labor will ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, introduce emissions trading and drive innovation in emission reduction technologies.

And it’s why Labor will develop a national water policy – a plan to save our rivers, drive investment and renew our regional economies.

To modernise our economy, greater effort is needed to boost R&D, skill formation, capital expenditure and broadband connectivity – all of which have stagnated or declined under the Howard Government.

Labor will also pursue activist trade policies.

While there will always be opportunities in our traditional markets, there is enormous opportunity in China and the Asian region, but only with a government prepared to open those markets up.

Valuing our families

Rather than lecturing family values, Labor will value Australian families.

John Howard talks a lot about issues like paid maternity leave but he has no intention of doing anything about it.

In the New Year, Labor will announce details of our policies on paid maternity leave and to help Australians balance work and family life.

Australians should not be forced to make the choice between a good parent and a good employee. They should be able to be both.

Owning your own home

Labor will also release policies to help make housing more affordable.

In Sydney it has got to the point where people like nurses and police officers cannot afford their own home.

Labor has already floated ideas like:

  • Encouraging superannuation funds to invest in affordable housing for average-income earning families.
  • And Matched Savings Accounts that match, dollar-for-dollar, the savings that low income earners make towards saving for a house.

These policies are in stark contrast to the options being considered by the Howard Government that will turn the banks into both landlord and lender – making entry level housing even less affordable for struggling Australian families.

Cutting the tax burden

Finally, Labor will lower the tax burden on Australian families struggling under financial pressure through targeted tax cuts.

With the exception perhaps of those wealthy friends of the Liberal Party with access to tax minimisation schemes, people are paying too much tax because of bracket creep.

This year Labor started the debate about the best way to return it to them.

Targeted properly – through tax credits for example – tax cuts can also address welfare to work problems and the costs associated with raising a family.

They can also deliver a real increase in the disposable income of working families.

Now I have gone into some detail in these areas and directions but fundamentally when you think about it what are we talking about as the things that matter to Australian families?

Their jobs and the security associated with them and the quality of them, their ability to own a home, their ability to get decent health care for their families, their ability to know that education is available to them and their children and of course the need for them to ensure adequacy for them in retirement.

These values haven’t changed but the responses to them will and that’s why the policy initiatives we bring forward will hold true to those core aspirations of working Australians but will be developed and responded to in contemporary terms.

And of course the means by which we deliver it is the strong economy, the diversified, the realisation of our potential, the sustainability of our economic base.

These are the things that I stand for. These are the things that will be delivered under my leadership.

I will fight for everyone and never give up

I want to finish by letting you know not just what I’ll do for Australia, and why, but how I’ll do it.

I’ve been Leader of the Labor Party for just over 12 months now.

In that time I’ve taken on people in my own party to get the best new talent on my front bench, and won.

I fought for and got the most far-reaching reforms to the Labor Party in 30 years despite people on my own side telling me that my Leadership would be finished if I didn’t back off.

And if I was really timid on asylum seekers, then I tell you what I would have done – I would have gone along with my critics, taken the easy applause, and junked all the bits of our asylum seeker policy that anyone objected to.

I would have said ‘yes, scrap mandatory detention’ and ‘throw the doors open to the country’.

It would have been the easy way out for me.

But it’s not the right policy for the country; it’s not what I believe in; and it’s not what most people in this country believe in either.

Whether it’s in my party, or the parliament, I’ll stand up for what I believe is best for this country.

I’ve been doing it for 25 years – as ACTU President delivering a national superannuation scheme; as Primary Industries Minister delivering value-adding for our farmers; as Science Minister establishing Cooperative Research Centres; and as Education and Training Minister delivering more education and training opportunities for more people.

That’s why I want to be Prime Minister – to stand up for the nation’s security but to also stand up for all those people who have been left behind.

Someone who stands up for the nation’s security and for the nation’s people.

I will fight to return the country to a more tolerant, compassionate and fair society. One where we can be proud again of our place in the world and the region.

That’s what you’ll get from Simon Crean if you elect me Prime Minister – someone who will fight for the best interests of this nation and all its people every time, no matter how hard it gets.

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