Costello And Howard At The Liberal Party Federal Council

These are the remarks of Peter Costello and John Howard at the Liberal Party’s Federal Council meeting.

Treasurer Costello introduced Prime Minister Howard.

  • Listen to Treasurer Peter Costello (5m)
  • Listen to Prime Minister John Howard (38m)

Transcript of Prime Minister John Howard’s speech to the Liberal Party’s Federal Council.

Thank you very much Peter for that very warm and generous introduction. To the Federal President, Shane Stone, my other parliamentary colleagues, fellow Liberals, and very importantly my fellow Australians. As I look back on what has happened to our nation over the last year since we met as a Federal Council the starkest event and the most searing experience that comes to my mind is of course the terrible pain inflicted upon our nation when 88 of our fellow Australians died at the hands of terrorists in an act of blind unforgivable hatred on the 12th of October last year.

And as long as I live and long into the future I will never forget the experience of comforting those of our fellow Australians left bereaved and devastated and torn by the loss of loved ones. People we would ordinarily know in our daily lives. People whose only desire was to enjoy some fun with their mates at the end of the football season. People who were enjoying a well earned holiday after working hard and saving a bit left over, in other words, they were the people of the mainstream of our nation.

Nobody had any right to take their lives in such a cruel and wanton way. And that foul deed, that terrible act, which brought the new horror of terrorism to Australia in a way that we would never have contemplated, together with the events of the 11th of September, have as Peter rightly said changed forever the world in which we live. And it changed the way in which we must not only respond but we must also anticipate in all of the policies that we develop.

We have had a great opportunity over the last weekend to reflect upon what we have achieved over the last seven and a quarter years. And it has been a period of massive achievement. It has been a period which has changed the way Australians see themselves, it has been a period that has given our nation a greater degree of self confidence. We have ended that long seemingly perpetual symposium on our self identity that seemed to occupy the 10 years between the middle of the 1980s and the defeat of the Keating Government in 1996.

We no longer naval gaze about what an Australian is. We no longer are mesmerised by the self appointed cultural dieticians who tell us that in some way they know better what an Australian ought to be than all of us who know what an Australian has always been and always will be.

The other great event which although it did not touch our lives in the way that Bali did, and through a great providential act did not involve any loss of Australian lives was of course our joining the United States and Great Britain as a Coalition of the Willing to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, to render that country incapable of inflicting through weapons of mass destruction the suffering it had inflicted on its own people and had threatened other neighbours with, to liberate a long oppressed people and to lay the ground work for the long sought after settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

It was a difficult decision, it was a unpopular decision, it was a lonely decision, but what made it a decision successfully implemented and carried forward was the extraordinary loyalty and commitment and strength of commitment and trust reposed in me and the members of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet by all of my parliamentary colleagues and the Liberal Party organisation.

I was never prouder of being Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia than the day the House of Representatives by a vote of 80 to 63, with two of our colleagues absent through ill health but having publicly said how they would vote, a full muster, a very difficult decision with the opinion polls pointing in the opposite direction, the newspapers very equivocal most of the nations of the world sneering at and trying to undermine what the United States was hoping to do, I was never more proud than I was on that occasion and I never felt greater contempt for the opportunism of the Australian Labor Party, particularly those on the so-called right wing of the Labor Party, particularly people who paraded themselves as supporters of the American alliance, but when the role call came where were they. They were voting with the fanatical anti American left of the Australian Labor Party and that will never be forgotten by us because in the end when it comes to things of this kind no matter what your loyalty to your Party is your loyalty to the Australian national interest is even greater.

Ladies and gentlemen we have had a very successful seven and a third years in office, but if we are to maintain office, if we are to continue the Liberal dominance of national politics in Australia, we must reflect only briefly on what we have achieved and we must always turn our attention to what we can achieve in the future.

This country is at a moment in its history of unparalleled world respect, unparalleled domestic economic strength with all the social stability and tranquillity, a place in our history that other generations would envy. That is something that we are entitled to be proud of but it is also something that places an enormous responsibility on this generation of political leaders.

And our single irrevocable aim in the years ahead must be to continue delivering policies which create three circumstances. The circumstances of social stability, which if a nation ever loses everything else becomes unattainable. The national unity and sense of common purpose of the Australian people. Our sense of obligation to each other and our sense of shared obligation to our children’s future is the strongest thing that binds us together as Australians. If we ever lose that spark of egalitarianism, if we ever lose that spirit of mateship, if we ever lose that sense of looking after the person who through no fault of his or her own has fallen behind, if we ever lose those components of our social structure which make Australia the nation we readily identify and others readily identify then we will have failed future generations. And our first obligation is to maintain through fair and decent policies, the social stability of our country.

The second thing that underpins that future is of course economic strength. Due more than anybody else to the personal efforts as Peter Costello as Treasurer, the economic strength of this country underpins so much of what we have been able to achieve. Together as a Government and as a party organisation, we have made Australia an envy country in the international economic firmament. Our growth rates, our inflation rates, our low debt levels, the freeing of our labour markets, the competitiveness of our economy, the way in which we are forging new trade linkages with different parts of the world, the opportunity that negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States represents the huge actual as well as symbolic value of the signing of that giant natural gas deal with China last year against very intense competition. They are the achievements of a nation punching well and truly above her economic weight.

And the third of the trilogy of policies that will underpin the pursuit of our goals for the sort of future that we owe to our children, is of course national security in all of its manifestations. For many years into the future, perhaps indefinitely, this nation will need to devote a higher, indeed perhaps increasing proportion of its wealth towards defence and national security. We face no immediate military threat in the conventional sense, but terrorism is not a conventional mode of attack. I cannot guarantee to any Australian that we will not suffer a terrorist attack on the Australian mainland. But I can guarantee to all Australians that my Government will do all in its power to protect and secure this country against such an attack. I can guarantee to all Australians that we will do all in our power in association with our friends and our allies to root out the causes of terrorism, to attack terrorism at its sources, to continue the war against terrorism because it is a war that must be waged unceasingly and unrelentingly. If it all becomes too difficult, the terrorists will have won. And if anybody imagines that it is the Australia way to change our policy in issues in the hope of buying immunity from a future terrorist attack, let me disabuse them immediately of that notion. You do not buy immunity from terrorist attacks by changing your policies. Australia is a terrorist target not because of what we have done, but because of what we believe in and because of who we are. And if we ever lose sight of that fact, the terrorists will have won and not we Australians.

So my friends, maintaining and improving that stability, that social stability, that economic strength and that national security, together will build a kind of Australia I know all of us want as we go into the 21st century. And it will involve in all areas a willingness to undertake and embrace change and reform. One of the greatest challenges of statecraft is to balance the need for change and reform whilst preserving and protecting those attitudes and values and institutions that continue to be relevant and continue to work in a productive fashion for our country. There is much about Australia’s past that continues to be relevant to our present and will be relevant into the future. But there are attitudes and there are practices that have needed to change. One of the reasons why Australia is a vastly stronger country economically is that our workforce, over the past 25 years, has become more adaptable. Talk to any managing director of a major employer of people from different parts of the world and he or she will tell you almost instinctively that the most sought after employees are Australians. And they are sought after because they are well educated, they are often well travelled, many of them have great language skills, but above all they are very adaptable.

As we move into the future, we will need further changes. And we continue to face on a day-to-day basis as a government the need for change and reform. We need the education reforms that were announced in the Budget that have been so well crafted by the Education Minister, Brendan Nelson. The tertiary education sector in Australia needs greater freedom and more resources. Those two things can only come from the education reforms that the Government has proposed. They need more money, Australian universities but no government, let us be frank, can provide all of the additional resources that are needed by Australia’s universities in the future. Governments can provide some and that is why part of that package includes such a significant increase in the HECS funded places at Australian universities. But there is no reason why the Australian universities should not tap an ever-greater income stream from the private sector. And the essence of our policies are that the universities should be able to do both. We need of course, as part of pursuing our social stability; we need to maintain the great social security safety net, which has always been an accepted given in a fair society. The Australian people were told by our opponents in 1996 that if I became Prime Minister we would dismantle Medicare, that I would tear up the social security safety net, that I would alter the social compact in this country. More than seven years on, nothing of the kind has happened. This Government has preserved Medicare, it has strengthened Medicare. Additionally, what this Government has done is to take some of the load off the public component of healthcare provision in Australia by strengthening and expanding the private component.

We believe in a partnership between the public and private sector to deliver superior health outcomes for all Australians. And whatever may be the deficiencies of the Australian health system – and there are deficiencies – it is far from perfect. It is an infinitely better system than of any comparable nation around the world. And if you are a battler, it’s better you fall ill in Broadmeadows or Bankstown than you do in the Bronx or Brixton because you’ll get superior medical care and you’ll get it more rapidly.

We have proposed a number of changes in the area of both education and health. The education changes will give new life and strength and opportunity not only to Australia’s universities but to thousands upon thousands of more Australian students. They are generational reforms, they are overdue reforms and they are reforms that strike the right balance between public and private provisions. We face, like all other western nations, an ageing population. Our birth rate has fallen not as badly of those of others, but further than we would like. And I think we all know from our life’s experience that there is no one simple easy way of reversing the fertility rate in an affluent western nation. And simplistic notions suggesting that one or other individual policy is going to bring about a very big change, mistates and completely misunderstands the complexity of the challenge and as the years go by we will need to have policies which maintain the affordability of things like the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and our national health arrangements. And unless we are willing to make measured, sensible, moderate changes as time goes by those policies with an increasingly aging population will become less and less affordable. And that is why in the Budget before last there was an intergenerational report produced by the Treasurer which sought to initiate, and it did, a public debate on this issue. And that is why we proposed some moderate changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, But those changes like so many other things remain deadlocked in the Australian Senate.

And that brings me to say something about the role of the Senate in our parliamentary system and the way in which power is exercised by the Australian Senate at the present time. We all know from our learning of Australian history that the Senate was essentially given the powers it was given as a result of the federal compact between the various states of Australia at the time of Federation. The ideal was that it would be a state’s house as well as a house of review. The reality is that long years ago the Federal Senate ceased to be the state’s house and in more recent times its also dropped, certainly through the instrument of the Labor Party and the minor parties and has certainly also dropped the pretence of being a house of review. Tragically for Australia the Australian Senate is recent years, so far from being a state’s house or a house of review has become a house of obstruction. As a result of the changes that were made in 1983 when the size of the parliament was increased, I might remind you against the determined vote of the Liberal Party, it is for practical purposes impossible for the Coalition in its own right to obtain a majority of the 76 members of the Federal Senate. Some people have suggested that the way of tackling the dilemma of a Senate which opportunistically blocks legislation that is important or necessary to our future, the way in which you respond to that is to do some kind of deal with the Australian Labor Party to alter the voting system for electing Senators and to make it harder thereby for minor parties to win seats in the Senate. I have to say that I am against that and I’m against it for one very simple reason, I think it’s unfair and I think it’s undemocratic. And I think the innate sense of fair play of most Australians would react to the big boys as they would describe them ganging up on the smaller parties. The truth is that in the less tribal Australian political state in which we now exist people want the option, whether we like it or not in a major party, of voting for smaller parties in the Senate. And if we look as though we are kicking against that choice instead of going on persuading them as to the unwisdom of that choice then I think deservedly we will suffer.

The deadlock provisions of the Constitution in section 57 were inserted way back at the time of Federation. And they contemplated the holding of a joint sitting after a double dissolution in order to resolve deadlocks between the two Houses. The reality is that in a period of 102 years they have only been used to produce a joint sitting on one occasion and that was in 1974 after the double dissolution election half way through that never to be forgotten three years of the Whitlam Government. Only one occasion in 102 years, that has got to say something about the relative unworkability of those provisions in a practical sense of resolving deadlocks between the two Houses. And unless we are to accept that a non-government majority in the Senate represents, absent a double dissolution, a permanent veto on the aspirations mandated at earlier elections of the serving government, unless we are prepared to accept that then perhaps another way of addressing in a moderate, non-radical fashion and in a fashion that is respectful to the role of independents and minor parties some other approach has to be found in order to resolve deadlocks.

And not surprisingly when you look back through the history of constitutional examination you find some nuggets and I found a nugget back in 1959, it was a joint parliamentary committee on constitutional reform and it has impeccable bipartisan credentials. One member of it was the then Member for Werriwa, Edward Gough Whitlam, and the other was Sir Alec, or later to become Sir Alec Downer, that well known South Australian Liberal, the father of our present Foreign Minister, a former Minister in the Menzies Government and former Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. And what that committee essentially recommended was that the Constitution should be altered by referendum to provide that if legislation were rejected on a number of occasions by the Senate in the way described in section 57 now there could be a joint sitting of the two houses called without the necessity to hold a double dissolution. And that if the legislation were passed that joint sitting then it would become law. I think that could offer some years into the future a way of providing a more modern and contemporary and workable method of resolving differences between the two Houses. And it is the Government’s intention to prepare and issue for public debate a discussion paper on such a proposal, we have not made a decision as yet to commit ourselves to the holding of a referendum, at this stage we have made decision to commit ourselves to the issuing of a discussion paper and the initiation through it of public debate. We have to find a way which is moderate and non-threatening and which respects the desire of the Australian people often to differentiate their vote between the House of Representatives and the Senate to resolve the deadlocks that we are facing. The proposition that every time a bill that is important to a government that in our case has been elected on three consecutive occasions, the proposition that the only way you, for years into the future, are going to solve that dilemma is by going to the expense of having often a premature double dissolution of Parliament, is I think increasingly unacceptable in the modern Australia in which we now operate. I know that constitutional referendums are notoriously difficult to get passed, we tried to break the nexus between the size of the House of Representatives in the Senate back in 1967, and that was overwhelmingly defeated, even though it had the support of both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, and we all know the history of more recent constitutional referendums.

But that doesn’t absolve me or the Government of the responsibility of trying to find a way around this challenge. Conditions could exist for a double dissolution of the Parliament, in fact technically they exist now, although let me repeat my view that the current parliament ought, absence special circumstances, run its full term. No Prime Minister responsibly forswears his right to call an election if the circumstances are required, but I have the strongest possible view that the Australian people rightly visit electoral judgement on prime ministers and premiers who go expeditiously on an earlier occasion than they might to the polls without a proper reason based on public policy. But double dissolutions in the present circumstances would not produce as good an outcome in the Senate for us as would a half Senate held at the normal time towards the end of next year. And they are all the circumstances that I have to take into account. So I take this opportunity my friends of saying to you very frankly that we do need to look at whether the time has come to alter the deadlock provisions of the constitution. And if after that process of three months consultation we thought there was a reasonable prospect of community support the likelihood is that the Government would seek to run the referendum in conjunction with the next general election, whenever that occurs. Now let me repeat this is not a radical proposal. It is a moderate, practical, sensible, long ago thought of idea to resolve what in some circumstances is a legislative nut without the necessity of the constitutional hammer of an expensive and of course inappropriate double dissolution.

Ladies and gentlemen, can I conclude my address by returning to a theme that I canvassed last night at the gala dinner. And that is the debt I owe to all of you as the collective soul, if I can put it that way, of our great party. What I have achieved in public life I owe more than anything else to my membership of the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party has been very kind to me, its been very generous, its been very forbearing, its been very forgiving on occasions. Its always been very decent and very loyal to me. I’ve always endeavoured in everything I’ve done to factor into my decisions the interests of the Liberal Party. And what is the most sustaining thing about the Liberal party is when you really need its loyalty and its support and its understanding you receive it. And I felt that a few months ago at the time of our decision on Iraq. I knew that there were people who entertained reservations, I knew there were people who worried, I knew there were people who’d go to branch meetings and they’d shake their heads and say I don’t know about this, does he really think this is a right thing to do. I knew that and you know exactly what I’m referring to. But everybody stuck, everybody trusted me, everybody supported me, probably on occasions holding your breath and closing your eyes and crossing your fingers and all of those things. But that is part and parcel of the political covenant between a party leader and his party. And I want to say that I felt that in relation to Iraq more than I have any decision that I’ve taken in public life. And of course the apex of that expression of loyalty was the attitude of my parliamentary colleagues. And that means an enormous amount to me and I do wish on a more personal note to express my special gratitude to Peter Costello for the tremendous work that he’s done as Treasurer, to the loyalty he’s displayed to the party, to the things he believes in and to me. It has been a priceless asset in our journey over the past seven or more years and is something that I value very deeply. He has made an enormous contribution to public life in Australia and I have no doubt that he will make an even greater contribution to public life in the years ahead.

I do have a great team. I felt the value of that team through the enormous contribution of Alexander Downer and Robert Hill, the Ministers to whom I related from day-to-day during the difficult period of the Iraq war and their professionalism and my capacity to rely automatically on their judgment and their commonsense was tremendously sustaining.

My friends this Convention, above all other things, is an opportunity to do something that I did on that wonderful Saturday early in March 1996 and that was to commit myself to the service of the Australian people. Whilever we remember that holding office is something you do in trust for the people of Australia, whilever we remember that we are there to serve them and not ourselves, whilever we remember that the aspirations and hopes of the mainstream of the Australian people are really counted not by personalities or by factions or this or that belief but by what we do to improve the quality of their lives and by what we do to give them a sense of hope and a sense of security. And let us out of this convention renew our collective commitment to one thing and that is to the service of the Australian people in the years ahead. Thank you.

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