Address-In-Reply Speech: Mark Latham, Leader of the Opposition

This is the Address-in-Reply speech of the Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham.

The Address-in-Reply debate is the formal occasion in which members can respond to the Governor-General’s speech opening Parliament.

The speech turned out to be one of Latham’s last contributions to the House. He resigned the leadership of the ALP and his seat of Werriwa in January 2005.

In the speech, Latham baited visitors in the public gallery who were waiting to hear Malcolm Turnbull’s maiden speech. The future prime minister spoke after Latham.

  • Listen to Latham (20m)

Hansard transcript of Address-in-Reply speech by the Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham.

Mr LATHAM (Leader of the Opposition) (3:47 PM) —On this day 150 years ago more than 10,000 miners gathered on the Bakery Hill in Ballarat to protest their rights and demand democracy. At this meeting, the Southern Cross flag was unfurled for the first time, its dramatic design inspiring the miners to burn their licences and continue their campaign against unfair taxation and the unfair use of colonial power. The next day, Peter Lawler led a group of miners to Eureka, where they built their stockade. Three days later, on 3 December, the troops attacked and the battle of Eureka was fought out—one of the most important events and legends in the history of our country. We should not let this parliamentary week pass without honouring the significance of Eureka. It says so much about the Australian character and identity: our love of the underdog and support for those who have a go; our willingness to stand up for our rights, to not buckle in the face of authority; our tradition of defiance, dissent and the larrikin spirit that makes us truly Australian. This is why Eureka is often described as the birthplace of Australian democracy, where we learn the importance of human rights and the great values of a free society; that individuals should be able to express themselves freely, to protest and mobilise politically without being punished by the oppressive power of the state.

Can I just say how glad I am that the spirit of the Eureka rebellion is alive in the chamber today, with so many of the preselectors of Wentworth here to listen to the parliamentary debates. The spirit of rebellion was free in their own preselection decisions when they sent Peter King away, burning his miners licence, and stood up for their rights to preselect a new member for Wentworth, from whom we are about to hear for the first time.

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The gallery should come to order!

Mr LATHAM —I welcome their applause because never have so many people from Vaucluse travelled so far to also listen to me in the parliamentary forum.

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition should be neither distracted nor overly encouraged by the gallery.

Mr LATHAM —I am reminded of the great words of John Lennon. Perhaps, instead of applause, they could just jangle their jewellery and make their noise known around the chamber. Mr Speaker, they are not well amused, but I hope they enjoy the following speech.

Eureka also established the great Australian tradition of social diversity. Only two of the miners were said to be Australian born; others came from lands like California, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Jamaica, China and, of course, Britain. In its diversity, its spirit and its egalitarianism, this was the first multicultural community in Australia and, despite the violence of the stockade, it worked. It worked in its rich ethnic background and sense of common purpose.

This was the vision proclaimed on the Bakery Hill by the Italian rebel leader Raffaelo Carboni, who called on the miners—irrespective of nationality, religion and colour—to salute the Southern Cross as the refuge of all the oppressed from all the countries of the earth. It was a community of fairness, a community of nations. The miners of course had diverse backgrounds as tradesmen, lawyers, doctors, sailors, farmers and mechanics. History tells us there was even a politician present at Eureka, the President of Victoria’s Legislative Council, Sir John Palmer—not the first politician, of course, to have gone digging for gold nor the last. I will refrain from the obvious comment about the next speaker. It is a terrible shame that politicians in the Howard government are not participating in the first sesquicentenary celebration of Eureka in Ballarat. The celebration is to be held this week, and of course the celebrations started last week. I congratulate the Victorian government, the Ballarat Council and also the member for Ballarat for participating in and organising such a great round of celebrations.

The Prime Minister obviously sees this as a Labor style celebration. But no one party has a final claim on Eureka. It is a political event that can be embraced by different parts of the spectrum. A campaign against high taxes and the oppressive power of the state are not uncommon themes for right of centre parties around the world, so why is it that the Prime Minister has effectively placed a boycott on the Eureka celebrations? In fact, one of his predecessors at the time of the centenary of Eureka, in 1954, Prime Minister Menzies, who in fact went to school in Ballarat, described Eureka as a movement for the proper control of public finances. He would say that, of course. On our side of politics, the left of centre, we take inspiration from the struggle of the workers, the great nationalism, the great patriotism of the movement and, of course, the struggle for democracy and human rights. So I say we should all share in the celebration of the Eureka spirit. As Australians, as patriots, we should all have the maturity and confidence in our own views and values to embrace the legend of Eureka.

It is regrettable that the Prime Minister has refused to fly the flag above Parliament House and has rejected the member for Ballarat’s private members bill to give the Eureka flag official status. However, like the miners, we struggle on. I congratulate the state and local government authorities who will be flying the flag and the members of parliament who will display it in various parts of the building. We, too, shall salute the Southern Cross. This boycott of Eureka highlights one of the great flaws in the Howard government: its meanness and its divisiveness—in this case expressed through its ignorance of Australian political history. The Prime Minister is often fond of saying that the things that unite us as Australians are more important than things that divide us. Well, surely one of the things that unite the nation is our love of Australian history, our love of Australian culture and heritage, our love of the Eureka legend. It should have been celebrated by all the parties in this place. We should all have been represented to share in the historical significance of that great event. But this is the meanness and divisiveness of the Howard government.

This leads me to the second theme in this response to the address of the Governor-General: the government’s neglect of the education, training and skills development agenda—an area of meanness in the allocation of public investment that is costing Australia dearly. In fact, this great debate about education, training and skill development is one of the longest-running debates in the history of the Howard government. Labor made the point in 1996 that the government was setting down a path of underinvestment in the basic skills of the Australian people. The biggest cut in the first budget of the Howard-Costello government was to education. Their biggest and harshest cut in that first budget was to education and training investments. We warned then of the folly of underinvesting in the skills of the Australian people. The government’s decision—the eight- or nine-year underinvestment in the skills of the Australian people—defies the logic and the true meaning of the new economy.

The basic message heard by economists, financial experts and indeed workers right around the world is that jobs based on muscle and machine power are disappearing; the jobs of the future are coming from brain power. The best investment a nation can make in its future is to invest heavily in the skills and capabilities of its people. The greatest mistake of the Howard government has been to ignore that lesson and underinvest over eight or nine years. Of course, we are now seeing the critical skills shortage in Australia damaging our prospects for future prosperity. It gives the Labor Party no joy in pointing out this historic error—the failure of the government over a long period of time to invest properly in skills—and now the skills shortage is one of the greatest threats to our long-term prosperity as a nation. It is leading to capacity constraints, putting pressure on businesses and, of course, putting upward pressure on interest rates.

Let me just give the House some of the key figures. I welcome the fact that the minister is at the table. Earlier, in question time, he was trying to deny these basic realities. Skills growth, as a driver of productivity in Australia, has dropped 75 per cent in the last 10 years—that is a Productivity Commission statistic. The Australian Industry Group, in its submission to the Senate skills inquiry, reported that over half of the businesses surveyed face skills shortages in this country. Surely a government that cares about business capacity and economic expansion would be moving quickly to address this skills shortage, especially given its failure over the past eight or nine years. It is also estimated that skills shortages will cost the Australian economy $9 billion in lost output over the coming decade. That is the economic cost to the nation of the government’s neglect: $9 billion in lost output over the coming decade, with $20 billion worth of major infrastructure and resources projects in jeopardy. Moreover, there are currently between 18,000 and 21,000 unfilled vacancies for tradespersons in Australia.

Mr LATHAM —The minister says, ‘The government talks about trades.’ Minister, how about investing in the trades to fill the shortage? There are nearly 22,000 unfilled vacancies for tradespersons in Australia. If this government had been investing in trades instead of just talking about them over the last nine years that figure would not stand there as a major blockage to the prospects of the Australian economy. It is also estimated that the number of apprenticeships in traditional trades has dropped 15 per cent under the Howard government. So there is a record of neglect, and all the minister can do in question time is make the cheapest points to try and overcome the neglect of the Howard government over a long period of time. What has been the government’s response? What do we find in the Governor-General’s address to the parliament? The government’s plan is to build a series of federally controlled and run technical colleges to try to reinvent the wheel. The skills shortage is affecting Australia right now. We do not have four years to waste, four years to wait for the construction of these technical colleges. What is wrong with investing in TAFE right now to build a world-class training and vocational education system? Why wait four years, Minister? Why wait four years to solve a problem that threatens the prosperity of the Australian economy right now?

The minister and the government need to accept the neglect. They need to recognise these figures and they need to do better than a four-year wait to build the infrastructure and invest in the capacity of Australians to develop their skills. What is wrong with investing in TAFE right now? There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We need the investment in TAFE right now. In fact, this would be the most efficient use of public money. Why reinvent the wheel and build a new system that involves duplication of resources, red tape, more administration and bureaucracy? Isn’t the whole purpose to get scarce public resources into the education and training system for the benefit of the Australian people? So wouldn’t it be wise for this government to not have to reinvent the wheel—a separate system with its own administration systems, its own bureaucracy and its own red tape? Why duplicate the system when we could invest in TAFE right now, put in the federal resources and build a world-class system?

There are further problems with the duplication, the reinvention of the wheel through these technical colleges. Will there be accreditation of courses for students? Say a student goes to year 11 in a technical college in a particular part of the country and then the family moves to another part of the country where there is no federally run and managed college. Will there be accreditation of those courses when they go to the local TAFE or the local school that specialises in the technical skills? Also, will there be portability for teaching staff? Will there be consistency of the curricula between the various institutions? The minister just shakes his head. It is going to fall off soon. He does not know the answers to these basic propositions that are fundamental to solving the skills shortage in this country.

It defies the Prime Minister’s own advice at the recent Local Government Association conference about the best way of getting a solution to a public policy problem. This is what the Prime Minister said at the Local Government Association convention in Canberra on 10 November:

… we really have a responsibility to make the present system of government work as efficiently as possible and one of the ways in which we do that is to recognise that nothing is more destructive of the efficient working of the present system of government than for any level to engage in cost shifting, to recognise that if you do have a division of responsibilities and particular levels of government are given resources they have a responsibility to use those resources wisely to discharge their responsibilities.

Applied to the skills shortage, applied to the question of training and vocational education in Australia, that statement by the Prime Minister is a recommendation to invest in TAFE: don’t duplicate, don’t cost-shift, don’t reinvent the wheel; invest in TAFE right now to solve the critical skills shortage in this country. That is Labor’s approach. Labor’s approach is to ensure that in the future TAFE will be a world-class system, that we invest in it, that we build quality, that we build efficiency, that we build the outcomes that are needed for a skills revival in this country. The government is talking about trades but it is not investing in them, and it will not have a solution to the problem that we have right now until four years down the track, if and when these technical colleges are constructed and open.

Labor’s approach is to build a world-class TAFE system, and I am sure that employers in small and large businesses right around the country looking for a solution right now would see the sense in our approach. There will be a lot of questioning of the government’s long delay in addressing this problem; of the duplication; of the extra administration and bureaucracy; and of the issues of portability and accreditation. The government is yet to answer any of these questions, but right now businesses are looking for an answer to the skills shortage. Australian homebuyers of course want the skills shortage and the capacity constraints addressed so that there is less pressure on interest rates in this country.

Labor support the TAFE system; we want to make it truly world class and we want to put it in the framework of lifelong learning. The skills of the Australian people rely on lifelong learning, not just at TAFE but right through the education system. Early childhood development is the great area of underinvestment and neglect by the Howard government. They have been talking about an early childhood agenda for eight years but they are doing nothing. Labor want to see early childhood development extend the principles of public education into child care and preschool. We recognise that learning does not start on the first day of school; it starts on the first day of life. Around the world, there is recognition that we need to invest early in our young people—invest early in their literacy, their skills and their capability and extend the principles of public education into the child-care and preschool system.

So, too, Labor want to invest properly in our schools with a needs based funding system. Early development of skills and ensuring that every school in this country is a good school: this is the basis of Labor’s school funding policy. It defines a new national standard of resources and excellence for all Australian schools, government and non-government, and then allocates funding on the basis of need, ensuring that 9½ thousand underresourced schools can reach the new national standard as quickly as possible.

The government of course has attacked this policy for its reallocation of resources away from 67 wealthy schools identified in the election campaign—schools which have already exceeded the funding benchmark in their fee income alone. However, given the limited nature of government funding, there is no logical alternative to this approach. Redistribution is not only a fair policy; it is also the most efficient way of achieving a rigorous national standard. Indeed, there is no point in governments establishing a national approach to schooling unless they are willing to protect its integrity. The sooner all schools can reach an acceptable standard, the sooner governments can maximise the number of families in Australia that realise their aspirations for the education of their children. The skills base would be set in the early years through school, and then they would build on that through a world-class TAFE system.

Labor’s schools policy is not a punishment policy; it is an efficient and fair way of achieving a vital national goal: all schools offering their students a quality education and a decent start to life. In the name of equity, why should schools without libraries and computers wait any longer for fair funding when schools with boatsheds and rifle ranges have been overfunded for quite some time? These are already successful schools and they would remain successful, with a high standard of classroom excellence, under Labor’s policy.

What we are on about is an aspirational policy—aspirational not just for the few but for all parents and students; aspirational not just for the King’s School and Geelong Grammar but for every Australian school. This is about defining a common standard, a national standard, and needs based funding for government and non-government schools alike. Why should people who do not have a school that is up to scratch because of underresourcing wait any longer to realise their legitimate aspirations for the skills development of their children and the education of the next generation? Under this policy, 2½ thousand needy private schools would benefit from the needs based funding.

Beyond that—beyond early childhood development, needs based school funding and a world-class TAFE system—we need access and affordability in the higher education system in this country. Beyond that, we need a commitment to adult and community education—to skills for life—through the renewal of education and vocational capacity across a full lifespan.

These are the critical issues. It is the blending of economic and education policy; it is the area where the government has got it wrong. These two issues need to come together. There is no more pressing issue for the management of the economy than the skills shortage. There is no more pressing area of government neglect than the underinvestment in TAFE, the underinvestment in vocational education and training. There has been an historic underinvestment for eight or nine years, and that is why the figures are so bad. That is why we have the Australian Industry Group reporting that over half of the businesses surveyed in Australia face skills shortages.

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr LATHAM —The government backbench think it is funny. They claim to represent business and trade interests, but they will not invest in the trades to overcome the skills shortages.

The minister has no answer for these things. He cannot give a basic answer as to why the government will not invest in TAFE. He cannot give a basic answer as to why it is going to take four years to build the technical colleges. He cannot give a basic answer as to why they should try to reinvent the wheel with duplication, new bureaucracy and new administration. He cannot give answers about accreditation of courses or portability of staff. There is an answer, Minister, and it is called TAFE. It is time that this government invested in it properly and addressed the skills shortage that way. These are the critical issues that come out of the Governor-General’s address.

I again welcome the preselectors of Wentworth to this fine chamber. I congratulate the new member for Wentworth on his long struggle to arrive in this place; we look forward with great interest and anticipation to the things that he is about to tell the House of Representatives.

The SPEAKER —Order! Before I call the honourable member for Wentworth, I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech. I ask the House to extend the usual courtesies.

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