Thank you very much Peter, Ian Carson, my federal parliamentary colleagues, my state parliamentary colleagues, my fellow Liberals and my fellow Australians.
Thank you for the warmth of your welcome to this very important gathering of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party. I want to start my remarks by thanking all of you for the remarkably constant loyalty and support and energetic participation in our common cause that you have extended to me and to all of my federal parliamentary team over the last seven years. It has been, as Peter said, a seven-year period not only of remarkable achievement, but a seven-year period of remarkable unity and remarkable consistency. There are many iron laws of politics. There is no one iron law but one of the iron laws of politics I think stands above all others and that is unity of purpose, constancy of communication, and clarity of vision will always be attractive to the Australian people. And that essentially is what we have represented over the last seven years. But I address you at a time when different challenges confront our nation.
We are involved in a military operation in Iraq. We are involved in a military operation in Iraq because our cause is just, because it is soundly based in international law, because it is in partnership with two nations in particular whose values and aspirations we share, whose policies like ours are for the ultimate benefit of the people of Iraq, and we're also involved because the campaign is an expression of the determination of like minded countries to confront the new realities in which we live. The world did change forever on the 11th of September 2001. That has become a cliché but in becoming a cliché does not rob it of its veracity. We confront in the 21st century challenges unlike the challenges we faced in the 20th century. The old notions of military aggression have given way to the new and infinitely more insidious menace of international terrorism in a globalised world.
The old idea was that you were attacked if the army of one country rolled across the border of another as the German army rolled across the Polish border in September of 1939, and as the armies of Europe rolled across each others' borders in 1914, and as North Korea rolled across the border of South Korea in 1950. Now we confront a different, more insidious, a new and more dangerous menace and that is the ultimate evil for the world of the forces of international terrorism coming into possession of chemical, biological, and even worse still nuclear weapons. And as we think of this conflict in which Australia is involved let us not forget the reasons why we have become involved. Let us not forget that we have joined the coalition because we believe that if Iraq is allowed to retain those weapons, other countries of equal mark when it comes to terror and authoritarianism and despotism will seek to do the same thing, and as possessions of those weapons multiply, so the like! lihood of them falling into the hands of terrorists will escalate. And mark my words ladies and gentlemen, if terrorist organisations get hold of those weapons they will not hesitate to use them regardless of the human cost that they will inflict upon the victims of their terrorist attacks.
We're also involved because the regime in Iraq has an almost unique record of horror and terrorism and intimidation. It has been associated with terrorist organisations in the past. It does pay US$25,000 to every family of a Palestinian suicide bomber who embarks upon a murderous suicide attack upon the people of Israel. Don't anybody suggest for a moment, don't anybody be allowed to suggest for a moment that there is no link between the regime of Saddam Hussein and terrorist behaviour. He has a long record of sponsoring terrorist attacks on neighbouring countries. So we should as we reflect upon this situation, we should remember the reasons why Australia has committed 2000 young men and women to military conflict in the Gulf. And our dominant thoughts are of course with our forces. I think all of us feel a great sense of pride and gratitude to those 2000 young men and women who are now on active service. In all the manifestations our remarkable Special Forces, and you will understand why we say very little about their activities. But I can say this - they are without parallel or peer when it comes to their bravery, their capacity, their professionalism, and indeed the respect that they have won not only for what they have done in the Gulf but also for what they have done in Afghanistan.
We have the units of the Royal Australian Air Force, the squadron of Hornets who are involved in the air campaign. We have the personnel, the Naval personnel, HMAS Anzac provided naval cover for the British Royal Marines landing at the beginning of the war just a week ago today, the first occasion since the Korean War that guns of a Royal Australian Naval vessel have fired in anger. And on the humanitarian side I'm very proud to say that this morning the British vessel Sir Galahad was able to berth at the port of Umm Qasr and unload the first real humanitarian supplies of large quantities to go to the Iraqi people, and that berthing and that unloading took place at Berth Five which had been an area cleared by Royal Australian Naval diving bomb experts. So there's a very direct, practical link between the expertise of Australians in clearing mines from that port and the provisions of humanitarian supplies to the people of Iraq.
I think it is important as we survey what has occurred over the last week to take as I said yesterday something of a reality check and to confront those people who say what's happened, it's not over, it's been going nine or ten days, why isn't it completed, is this a reversal for the United States, is this a setback? Let me remind you of a few salient facts. The core campaign in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda and the Taliban took 37 days; the NATO bombing campaign on behalf of the people of Kosovo against Milosevic in Serbia directed mainly at Belgrade took 79 days; the Gulf war of 1991 took 41 days; and the Falklands war of 1982 waged by the British to recapture the Falklands from the Argentinians took 74 days. And yet nine days into this people are saying, the critics of America are asking the question why isn't it over. That is unrealistic. And you're dealing here not with a discrete limited campaign as 1991 was. 1991 was to expel the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait. It was not to liberate the entire nation of Iraq. So when you reflect upon those figures and you reflect upon the challenge of liberating an entire country you then reclaim some sense of proportion and some sense of perspective.
Another issue that I see creeping in in some of the commentary is just a suggestion of moral equivalence. Now let me state very emphatically there is no moral equivalence between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the motives and the aspirations and the values and the conduct in war of the coalition led by the United States.
This campaign has been characterised by a number of things. But the most dominant characteristic of this military campaign has been the unprecedented length to which the coalition forces have gone to minimise civilian casualties. I can't think of any military operation where that has been such a dominant consideration. Sadly and tragically no military operation can be conducted without the likelihood of some civilian causalities. I don't pretend otherwise, no honest man or woman can. But on this occasion, that has been a dominate motivation and I have no doubt that if more ruthless methods had been used, if indiscriminate bombing had been employed, maybe further gains might have been made over the past few days. But at a very great (inaudible) moral authorities of the nations that we hold so dear and most particularly our own. And I make no apology, and I don't believe the leaders of the United States or the United Kingdom would make any apology for the ethical way in wh! ich this military operations has been conducted. And our forces are fighting under our own rules of engagement, under a separate Australian national command. They are fighting according to the laws of war to which Australia has subscribed and to which I am very proud and to which we remain strongly committed.
Contrast this of course with the methods being employed by Saddam Hussein's regime. The placement, the deliberate placement, of military assets in civilian areas, inviting attack in the sure knowledge and the certain hope that there will be civilian casualties. The use of women and children as human shields, forcing children to fight against the threat of death of their families. The use of hospitals and other medical facilities as para military bases. Add all of that to 30 years of tyranny and torture and intimidation and a reign of domestic terror which has produced a regime with very few parallels since World War II and you have an idea of where the balance lies in the moral argument between the cause of which we are justly part and the cause against which we are fighting. It is always important on occasion such as this to argue the moral case, the argument of principle as well as to dwell on pragmatic considerations.
So ladies and gentlemen, as we gather here today let us primarily express our support for, our admiration towards and our affection for the men and women of the Australian Defence Forces. And let us also think particularly of their families here in Australia and try and begin to share the sense of anxiety that many of them will understandably feel. And to express the united hope that all of them will return to their families and to their homes in Australia safe and sound. And that they will return having successfully and victoriously completed a mission which is right, which is just and in the long term interests of our nation.
Much as our focus my friends has been on international events, we have not taken our eye off the domestic ball. We remain a government that recognises that we have responsibilities, to not only maintain the long term security of this country, internationally and from a defence perspective, but also to maintain its internal, domestic, economic and social strength.
The Australian economy, particularly due to Peter Costello's stewardship as Treasurer, continues to be the star performer of the OECD area. we've reclaimed our Triple A rating, lost if my memory serves me correctly way back in 1986 when somebody whose name escapes me once talked of a Banana Republic. Due in no small measure might I say to the fact that we now have an astonishingly low debt to GDP ratio. It's something like three per cent, the OECD average is 47, in the United States it's 45 or 46, and in Japan it's something like 76 or 80. Now nothing is more guaranteed to deliver a secure future to our children than to deliver them a nation free of debt.
In the years to come when they write the economic history of the last seven or eight years, I believe above everything else they will write that this Government paid off Australia's debts, debts run up by our predecessors, but nonetheless which if not paid off would have been a burden on future generations of Australians.
Ladies and gentlemen, our unemployment rate is markedly lower than what it was when this Government came to office. We've generate more than a million and a quarter new jobs over the last seven years. And that along with the higher real wages and the lower interest rates has meant that the Australian consumers capacity to spend has never been better. And it's one of the great drivers of our domestic economic strength. But our unemployment rate could be even lower. And we could consistently have a five in front of our unemployment rate for a number of years into the future, if only the Senate would pass some of the changes or our industrial relations laws. And if you've heard me talking in the past about getting our changes to the unfair dismissal laws through and you're getting a bit of tired (inaudible) can I say I'm sorry, but you're going to have keep hearing it because I'm going to keep talking about that and we're going to keep trying it and eventually we will get those laws through and will drive Australia's unemployment rate even lower.
Australia's health system has many faults. But like Winston Churchill's famous description of democracy, "it's infinitely better than any alternative." And when you look around the world I defy anybody in this room to nominate a health system which is fundamentally better and fairer and more available in an egalitarian fashion to all the citizens of the country than the ones that operate in Australia. I say this very deliberately because I think we collectively talk down our health system to our great detriment. And this is a criticism that's got to shared right across the political spectrum, at both a state and a federal level because the fundamental elements of our health system are based on principles of fairness and affordability and availability. This Government, despite the predictions of the Labor Party back in 1995, has preserved and strengthened the Medicare system. So I want to repeat the very strong and unequivocal commitment of my Government to the principles of universality contained in Medicare. That is the right of every Australian citizen, to free treatment in a public hospital, the right of every Australian citizen to receive the Medicare rebate in relation to GP consultations, and participation in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. They are the three great universal principles of Medicare, and they have been preserved and they've been enhanced in the time we have been in government. We have added things, we have made it affordable and possible for many millions more Australians to return to private health insurance. When we took office the participation rate was about 33 per cent, it is now some 45 per cent. And right at the moment Kay Patterson and I and other members of the Government are in discussion with the AMA and others about some further changes which will continue the process of expanding choice and enhancing affordability and access to Australia's health care system.
These changes will address some of the doctor shortages, particularly in rural and outer metropolitan areas. They are designed to address a trend where it has become more difficult for people to access bulk billing where on every principle they have a right to do so. And they are changes which I believe will further underpin and strengthen the positive elements of Australia's health system.
As I said a few moments ago, it's not a perfect system, it never will be, it never was and it's never possible to create a perfect health system. But compared with those of many other nations it is infidelity superior. And not only have we over the last seven years preserved the fundamental elements of our health system, we've strengthened Medicare and the changes which I hope to announce within a few weeks will be further steps along the path of further strengthening the health system, making it more attractive, more affordable and fairer and guaranteeing legitimate access to the system for all Australians.
Finally my friends can I return to the theme of my opening remarks. And that is that this seven year journey has been a period not only of remarkable achievement but it's been a period of great political unity and great political consistency. In comparison to our political opponents who have to be the most opportunistic bunch of federal politicians I've encountered in the last 29 years. They accuse me from time to time of being poll driven, for heaven's sake. If you look at the way that Simon Crean has bobbed and weaved around, not only on the issue of Iraq, but on so many other issues. He must read a different paper each morning with a different opinion poll. Ours has been a government of consistency and commitment through times of public support and also times of public reservation and public criticism. You can never assume that on every issue you take a stand on, the public is going to agree with you all of the time. That's impossible. And a government that is dom! inated by that consideration is a government destined not to do good things for the country it governs, but also to be fairly summarily dismissed from office.
The Australian public is the most sophisticated electorate in the world. It understands when it's got a government that believes in something and it knows when its got an Opposition that believes in nothing. And that is the reality that confronts the Australian people at the present time. I ask of the Australian people always to make the judgements that they believe are in the best interests of our country. And I will always accept the judgements they make. And over the last seven years we have taken stands on issues because we believe that they are the right stands for the long term future of our country. That is why we persevered with economic reform, that is why we bought in gun controls laws, that is why we took action to free the people of East Timor, that is why we secured and protected our borders against illegal immigration, that is why, my friends, we have taken action with our friends and allies, the Americans and the British and others, to liberate the people of Iraq. But even more importantly than that, to make sure that in the medium to longer term this country was freer from and less likely to be the object of a devastating terrorist attack.
We are in Iraq because of the long term security of Australia. We are in Iraq because it is in the interests of the world to disarm a dictator who's shown in the past that he has no compunction about using chemical and using biological weapons. We are in Iraq because if he is allowed to get away with it, others will do the same and the likelihood of those weapons falling into the hands of terrorist will multiply as a consequence. That is the reason, that is the national interest reason and it's the moral case for our involvement in Iraq and I believe that a growing number of the Australian people are giving support to that policy because they know it is right and they know it matters for Australia's long term security.