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John Howard’s Address To The Liberal-National Convention

This is the text of Prime Minister John Howard’s Address to the Liberal-National Convention in Melbourne.

John HowardWell, thank you very much Peter, for that very warm introduction. To Shane Stone, the Federal President of the Liberal Party and all of my Parliamentary and Ministerial colleagues, fellow Liberals.

This Convention meets at the beginning of the fifth year of the Coalition’s term of office. Just over four years ago on that wonderful evening, that beautiful summer evening in March of 1996 when after 13 years in opposition we came back into government and I went to the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney to accept the decision of the Australian people with a great mixture of emotions the dominant one being a sense of great humility and awe at the responsibility that had been thrust upon me and my colleagues. I made a number of commitments to the Australian people. I made a commitment that we would govern for the entire Australian community. I made a commitment that we would govern for those who voted against us as well as for those who voted for us. I made a commitment that I would propound and defend the values of Australia, both home and abroad. And I am very proud to stand before you today and say that I and the Government I lead have kept faith with those promises made in March of 1996.

We have been a government that has governed for the national interest, rather than for the sectional interest. We’ve been a government that has been concerned about the welfare of the mainstream of the Australian community, but always having an eye to those most disadvantaged in our community. We have governed for those who voted against us as well as those who voted for us. And one of the comparisons between this government and the former government, of which all of us are immensely proud, is that under this government the real incomes of Australian workers have gone up. That the trade union members and the non trade union members, the workers of Australia, now are much better off than they were under either the Keating or the Hawke governments. And nothing that Mr Beazley or anybody else can say can gainsay the fact, because a combination of the economic stability and strength that we have given Australia, the productivity gains coming off the back of our industrial relations reforms, all of those things have delivered higher real incomes. And when you add the reduction in mortgage interest rates of $245 a month to that, you get a double, that the working men and women of Australia have never before had, and are never likely to have under an alternative government.

But we have been, also, a government that has defended and propounded the interest and the values of Australia abroad. The humanitarian record of this government stands proud and strong. Twenty years ago, the Fraser Government accepted into this country more Indo-Chinese refugees on a per capita basis than anyother nation on earth. And once again, when the tragedy overcame the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, this country rose to the occasion. And in relative terms took more refugees from war torn former Yugoslavia than virtually any other country. Ours is a rich humanitarian record. And on the international stage, of all the things that we have done over the last four years, there is none of which we are entitled to derive greater pride than the decisive leadership we displayed in relation to the tragic events in East Timor. On that occasion this country provided leadership. This country demonstrated a capacity to solve a difficult problem in cooperation with our friends in the region. This country stood for and defended the great human values that it has always treasured.

The economic reform record of this government is one that has won it acclaim not only here, but around the world. The lower rates of inflation, the consistently high growth, the capacity to stare down the Asian economic downturn, the commitment to economic reform, the willingness to pursue the goals of reform despite hostility and opposition from our political opponents and others. It is a great record of reform and I particularly want to thank Peter Costello, the Treasurer and Deputy Leader for the magnificent job he has done as the principle steward of that economic reform programme. But that reform programme, my friends, has not been pursued because we want to get an A+ in the exam for economic rationalists. It has not been pursued because it’s an end in itself. Economic reform is about satisfying human needs. Economic reform is about making people feel more secure, happier, more able to care for their families. When you generate 650,000 more jobs, you don’t get a tick from the International Monetary Fund, what you get is 650,000 happier Australians and potentially three or four hundred thousand happier Australian families.

When you cut interest rates, when you see them come down, you don’t get a tick from the financial writers, you get happier Australian families, you get more disposable income, you get more money for family holidays, you get more money for educational options, you get more opportunities for all of the Australian families. And economic reform is all about satisfying human need. Economic reform is about achieving social goals. I have never understood this artificial disconnect between a strong and growing economy and the need to satisfy the social goals of a nation. And I can look back and my colleagues can look back over the last four years and say that the social estate of this country is stronger and better and more soundly based than it was in March of 1996 because we have a stronger economy. The industrial relations reforms, which have played such a crucial role in bringing about higher productivity have provided the basis for significant income gains by so many millions of Australian workers.

And of course, as Peter mentioned, we stand on the threshold of the introduction of the biggest single economic reform ever undertaken by any government in this country since the end of World War II. And that reform is not there as an exercise in academic economic self gratification. It is there to build a stronger and better Australian economy. It is there to cut the income tax paid by average Australian families. It is there to provide more incentive for Australian companies. It is there to abolish provisional tax, a great benefit, particularly for retired people. It is there to reduce the capital gains tax. It is there to make our exports cheaper. It is there to underwrite a growth tax for the states of Australia, so that they will be able to better discharge their responsibilities in areas such as public health and police and all the basic service provisions which decade after decade, Premiers of both political persuasions have come to Canberra, demanding. And I have got to tell you that of all the Premiers’ Conferences I have attended either as Treasurer or as Prime Minister, none was more instructive than the one we had immediately after the 1998 election when we signed the inter governmental agreement, which guarantees that every last dollar of the goods and services tax goes to the states of Australia. We had the lectures, we had Bob Carr, we had the other Labor Premiers coming and say that this is outrageous. And I still remember the Premier of New South Wales, saying to me, Prime Minister, you know, this is outrageous, it’s a shocking reform. Where do I sign?

And the real social message out of taxation reform is that for the first time in fifty years, the states of Australia have been provided with the growing wherewithal to underwrite social provision within their areas of responsibility. So when we talk about social policy, it’s not over there in some vague disconnected compartment, isolated from economic achievement. It is the product of economic achievement. Economic reform is the flesh and blood of social reform. Economic reform without a social goal, or a social vision is an economic reform that is destined to fail and ought not to be embraced. And as I look back over the last four years, I can report that the social estate of this country is stronger and better and more soundly based. But we intend to do more. We intend to pursue a measured reform of our welfare system. The reference group, chaired by Patrick McClure, who addressed the Convention on Friday, will be reporting to the government in a final form within several months. And out of that the government will consider measured, consistent reforms to our welfare system. But those reforms as Jocelyn Newman and I have already indicated will be based upon a number of consistent principles. The first of those is that the social security safety net of this country will remain intact. We are a nation which is committed to caring for those who genuinely need help. There is an Australian way of dealing with social welfare, and that Australian way increasingly says, yes, it is our moral responsibility to care for those who really need help. And it is not unreasonable, consistent with the principle of mutual obligation, that we should ask those who are provided with assistant if they are able to do so to give something back to the community in return.

That principle of mutual obligation was derided and denounced when it was first given form through Work for the Dole by our Labor opponents, but those criticisms are now a lot more muted. Just as their criticisms are more muted of the Job Network. An absolute world first in contracting out labour exchange management. There is no other country in the world that’s done it. And the results of it have been quite magnificent. The Job Network is out performing the old Commonwealth Employment Service by every measure. The Job Network has provided opportunities for participation by private organisations. It is an absolute world first in terms of reform of the labour market.

But our approach to so many of these things, my friends, has been based on some of the great bedrock values for which this country and the Liberal Party of Australia has always stood. And one of those, of course, is our absolute unshakable belief that the greatest institution in Australian society is the Australian family. And that strong stable functioning families are not only the source from which most of us in different ways derive our personal fulfillment and our daily happiness and the love and support and emotional encouragement we all need through life to keep going. It is not only that. But it is also of course the best social welfare system that mankind has ever devised.

But the truth of course is that not everybody lives in a happy family. Not every family in Australia is doing well. Some are under financial stress. Some are under emotional stress. And the role of government is to provide help for those families in danger, in need and under stress to rid themselves of those burdens. And that is why I am pleased to announce today that in the coming Budget we will commit an amount of $240 million over four years for a stronger families and communities strategy.

This strategy has been devised by Senator Jocelyn Newman, the Minister for Family and Community Services, and I thank her very warmly for the leadership that she has shown in this area.

There are many elements of it and they will be made available at the end of the Convention. But let me highlight but three of them. We do recognise, and we must all recognise, that not every person in the community who becomes a parent, has the necessary sense of responsibility or the necessary skills to raise children. We often unwisely take for granted that people are trained and equipped to do those sorts of things, and yet in reality in many cases they are desperately in need of help and advice. And instead of further isolating them by neglect or insensitive stereotyping, what we should be doing is reaching out to some of those people whose parenting skills are inadequate and we should be offering to support services and organisations that will reach out to those people and will provide them with more skills and will better inform them on what is required to be a successful parent. And therefore a crucial element of our strategy will be programmes designed to help families at risk, particularly those in need of assistance and advice in relation to parenting.

In relation to the raising of children, it has always been our belief that we should provide the maximum amount of choice to parents as to the care of their children when they are young. It is not the role of the government to say whether mum or dad should stay at home when the children are young with the other partner going out to work. Equally it is not the role of government or the role of society to in any way denigrate and regard as inferior the choice of those women or men who choose to stay at home full time while their children are young. And what we have sought to do my friends, is to change the taxation system in order to provide greater choice for parents regarding the childcare arrangements they want to make and leave them to make the choice and a principle element of the tax reform package that comes into operation on the first of July is exactly that greater choice.

But in the area of childcare, I believe we need to go further. There are many in the community who can’t access childcare even though they want it. Because all that is essentially available now is institutional childcare, of a formal variety or of the less formal kind. And what we need to do in the childcare area is to provide men and women with more choices. And that is why a major component of the strategy will be bold new choices in relation to childcare. And this will be of particular benefit to families where the working members are in shift work, are in remote or regional areas, where children have prolonged periods of illness or for other reasons they are not able to access existing childcare arrangements. And what we will do is to provide approximately $70 million over a period of four years to allow the childcarers to go to the home rather than insisting on every occasion that the children to be cared should be taken to an institution. And just as it is appropriate in relation to the care of the aged that we should provide the option of supporting elderly people to remain in their homes longer, so it is in relation to the young that we should provide the option where it is appropriate and fair that the care go to the home, rather than in reverse.

And the final element of this strategy that I want to mention to you is that we recognise and this particularly came out of the Regional Summit, that many more isolated communities and disadvantaged communities, in both the city and the country, are in need of a greater level of community leadership. And we’re going to provide financial support for community leaders in socially disadvantaged areas. And this particular section of the strategy is going to include a Youth Cadetship Programme whereby 10,000 young people in over 200 communities will be funded to take part in a range of activities.

Ladies and gentlemen, this strategy is designed to address a need. It is based on the belief that although the great bulk of Australian families, and the great bulk of Australian communities are not only coping well, but indeed happily operating within the Australian nation. But the ideal is not available to everyone, that we must recognise that there are some families in some communities that do need additional help, and this strategy is designed to do precisely that.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have often spoken when I’ve addressed gatherings of the Liberal Party of the tradition of our party. I’ve reminded Liberal audiences all around Australia that unlike centre right parties in other parts of the world, we are the trustees of two streams in the Australian political experience. We are the trustees and the custodians of the classic liberal tradition in Australian politics and we’re also the trustees of the conservative tradition in Australian politics. And that is why I speak often of the broad church of our party. We do healthily and I think entirely appropriately, we do host within the Liberal Party of Australia a range of views on the many issues that confront a national government and confront state governments.

And in all of the decisions we take it ought to be our goal to balance that blend of philosophical heritage. To understand that we are a party that stands for the values and the virtues of individual liberty, free speech, the right to put one’s point of view strongly and vigorously. We’re also a party that values the bedrock institutions of our community. And over the last four years we have done that. We have stood for the liberty of the individual, and we have preserved and defended the bedrock institutions of our community.

As you know we face some time, in the normal political cycle, an election at the end of next year. That’s no secret, I am not announcing any dates I am simply indicating to you when in the course of events normally there’ll be an election. And as I always do at these gatherings, I seek to share frankly with you, and through you with the Australian people, my assessment of the political challenges that lie ahead. I promised myself many things when I became prime minister. And one of the things I promised myself was that I would never take for granted, the tremendous trust and faith that had been placed in me and the party I lead when I was elected prime minister.

We have won two elections, and we have won them magnificently. And we won the 1998 election despite our advocacy of a sweeping and fundamental reform very much in the national interest, but very capable of misrepresentation and unfair attack. And I don’t underestimate the challenge that lies ahead of the Coalition as we move towards the next election. And increasingly as we move towards the next election we’ll be inviting people to compare and contrast the performance and the record of this Government with the performance and the record of the Labor Party, not only when it was in government, but importantly since it’s been in opposition.

Because political parties should be judged not only by what they do in government, but also by how they behave in opposition. And I sometimes imagine when I listen to Mr Beazley, and I look at the Labor Party, I get the impression that he thinks that nobody’s watching while he’s in opposition, that nobody takes any notice of anything he says while he’s in opposition. Because he seems to say just about everything on every side of every argument. I have never known anybody in Australian politics, more accomplished at walking both sides of the political street. He opposes the goods and services tax, but he’s going to keep it. He says that the native title amendments that we bought in were racially discriminatory, so you’d think he was going to repeal it, but no he’s going to have a meeting to talk about it. He says that the private health rebate is a failure, but he’s going to keep it, and incidentally it is not a failure, it’s a tremendous success.

And I think increasingly as we move towards the next election, the Australian people will see that the alternative government of this country is led by a person and is made up of men and women who in the four years that they have been in opposition, have not produced one solid alternative policy that might be acceptable to the Australian people. It is the responsibility of political parties when they go into opposition to reflect upon the reasons for their defeat and over time develop an alternative programme. And unless political parties both in government and in opposition, stand for something and are prepared to argue through the propositions supporting those values and beliefs, then they are not worthy of support.

The Coalition over the last four years has on every major issue confronting this nation in the time that we have been in government, the Coalition has stood for what it believes. It has been willing to take risks, it has been willing to reform in the teeth of hostile opposition. And it has been willing as it was in opposition, to be candid with the Australian people about what it stands for and what it will do if it is in government.

And so once again it is that the Labor Party and its leader, in relation to the sale of Telstra, another example, in Government the Labor Party privatised everything they could get their hands on, after having solemnly promised all of their constituencies that they wouldn’t. And they were able to do so because we adopted a consistent accommodating in the national interest approach and supported the privatisation of organisations like the Commonwealth Bank and Australian Airlines. The other night Mr Beazley made a speech in which he said, it was entitled ‘Why it’s not a good idea to sell the rest of Telstra’. And I suggested that the title should be amended to ‘Why it’s not a good idea to sell the rest of Telstra until Labor gets back into government’. Because who can doubt given their record that back in government, the Labor Party would find some reason to walk away from their commitment regarding the sale of Telstra?

Ladies and gentlemen, the journey over the last four years, undertaken by the Coalition in government has been a very rich and rewarding experience for all of those charged with the immense responsibility of forming a national government. People have been kind enough to talk of my own role and I appreciate that, but I want to take the opportunity at this National Convention to acknowledge the contribution that has been made in the successes of the last four years by so many of you who have gathered here in Melbourne this morning.

I want to thank my parliamentary colleagues, in particular, my Cabinet colleagues. The contribution especially of Peter Costello and Robert Hill and Richard Alston, comprising the Leadership of the Liberal Party. The contribution of the federal organisation – there’s no better political strategist in Australia than Lynton Crosby. I want to thank Shane Stone, I want to thank Tony Staley for the contribution that he continues to make magnificently in assisting in relation to a number of the state branches. And Ron Walker for the sinews of war that his efforts continue to provide. And to the rest of my ministerial colleagues, but most importantly to all of you as members of the hundreds of Liberal Party branches, all around the country.

I have never lost my contact with the party organisation. I was a child of the party organisation. I love the Liberal Party and everything it stands for. I don’t always agree with everything that everybody says, and I know you don’t always agree with every single thing that I say or do. But that is the nature of a great, broadly based, representative political movement.

I spoke at the beginning of this address, about the promises I made to the Australian people on that beautiful summer evening in March of 1996. And one of the other promises I made to the Australian people was that in our years in Government, we would not be beholden to sectional interests because the Liberal Party was owned by nobody, we belong alone to the Australian people. We’re not a party that’s owned by the trade union movement, we’re not a party that’s owned by big business, we’re not a party that’s owned by vested interests. We are a party that is answerable only to the aspirations and the hopes and the dreams and the passions of the ordinary men and women of our country.

And that is what we have tried to do in all the decisions that we have taken over the last four years. We have made our mistakes, we have got our priorities wrong on occasions, but the great balance sheet has been one of massive, and impressive achievement. We are a stronger country, we are a better country, we are a safer country, we are a more respected country because over the last four years we have been willing to do things.

When you get into government you only have a short period of time to achieve your goals and to realise your dreams. Political office comes and goes in the natural ebb and flow of the life of a nation. And you therefore have a very special responsibility when you reach the pinnacle of political office, not to squander or waste the opportunity, but to use your every waking hour to do good things for your country and for your fellow Australians.

And as I looked at that video just before Peter’s speech, it reminded me of the variety of things that we have done, and the variety of challenges that we have faced. I can report to you at this second national convention that four years on the Government is in good heart, it is in good spirit. It retains the commitment for economic reform in the national interest. The Coalition is strong and healthy and I record my affection and gratitude to both Tim Fischer and John Anderson for the great loyalty that they have displayed to me and to the Liberal Party in government.

We have achieved much, we have conquered opposition but much remains to be done. The challenge ahead of us is every bit as great as it was when we sought to come back into office in 1996 and to hold office in 1998. Never underestimate your political opponent, never imagine that your political opponent is not possessed of the same determination as we have to hang on to office and to influence the national affairs of this country.

I thank all of you for the tremendous loyalty that you have displayed to me. You have made the journey not only immensely rewarding and immensely satisfying, but you have reminded me of the great depth of decency and loyalty that resides within the Australian people. I thank you all. I look forward to the next great national convention of the Liberal Party in two years time after we have once again earned the respect and the support and the votes of the men and women of Australia. Thank you.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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