This is the text of a speech given by Prime Minister John Howard to the Benevolent Society’s Annual Sydney Leadership Dinner at the Sydney Town Hall.
The speech is of interest for its expression of the government’s views on social policy, volunteerism, the obligations of the business sector and the policy record of the Howard government.
Text of speech by John Howard to the Benevolent Society.
To Rob McLean, President of the Benevolent Society, to his colleagues on the Board, to Jane Schwager, to the Sponsors who support the Society’s great work, to participants of the Sydney Leadership Programme – past and present, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am delighted to have been asked to address this gathering. The Sydney Leadership programme is a great example of an organisation and passionate, committed individuals investing social capital now so all Australians can reap substantial returns in the future.
It puts into practice the concept of collaborative and collective action to address the serious symptoms of social dysfunction and, more importantly, to identify and combat their root cause.
Given the quite remarkable diversity of talent, experience and background of those drawn to this program, it illustrates the tremendous reach across government, business and community sectors that social coalitions can achieve.
And it gives tangible form to an ideal which has been central to the policy development framework of my government over the past five years – the encouragement of stronger families, stronger communities and the ethos of pulling together for the good of all.
Given the example shown by the Benevolent Society and the Alumni and current participants of the Sydney Leadership initiative, tonight is a great opportunity to speak of Australian unity.
A brand of unity traditionally associated with Australians in times of war, disaster and adversity but which also, if harnessed effectively, has the potential to improve the day to day lives of our countrymen and women and offer a vastly better future for their children.
The Sydney Leadership programme is actively supported by a number of corporate sponsors, the National Bank notable among them, and so tonight is also an opportunity to speak of the interdependence of the government, the business sector and the community ge nerally and the shared commitment that can exist to building an Australian nation that is not only strong, but an Australian nation which is fair. And one that’s able to meet the fundamental and unprecedented challenges which lie ahead whilst ensuring that no one is left behind for want of opportunity.
I know all responsible business leaders accept that companies which benefit financially from market place changes, labour reform, globalisation and access to new technologies have a responsibility to help ensure the difficulties of adjustment are eased and new opportunities found for those adversely affected by these immense social and economic changes.
Social Coalition Concept
My Government has consistently championed the concept of social coalitions, of replacing the authority of distant and dispassionate bureaucracies with the empowerment of communities, of supporting local knowledge and local expertise with the resources of government, of understanding that t he simple, single facetted solutions of the past are no longer effective when applied to the complexities of modern social issues.
There is no better example than the establishment of the Job Network – an initiative leading the western world in creatively tackling unemployment.
As has been said many times, the Government believes that people motivated by high ideals, stirred by a sense of vocation, guided by local knowledge of their communities can help job seekers better than a bureaucracy forced to work to rigid regulation.
And so it’s proved. By creating a fundamentally strong economy, by making it easier for businesses to employ and by implementing new ways to tackle seemingly entrenched unemployment – new ways such as Job Network – there are now 200,000 fewer Australians living on the dole than when we came to office.
The Sydney Leadership initiative, it seems to me, is emblematic of the whole concept of social coalitions and the way individua ls and the organisations that support their efforts can pull together to better society.
Social coalitions work because they draw upon the experiences and observations of those on the ground, on practical problem solving and utilising the unique skills, perspective and resources of individuals, business, government, those in the charitable sector and, of course, the wider community.
They work because they tap the volunteering sentiment of individuals and the willingness of business to engage with their communities.
They work because they embrace ideas which seek prevention as much as cure and provide the means by which individuals regain self respect and self reliance and help themselves out of disadvantage.
In its development and the ultimate implementation of its recommendations, the Final Report of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform, known more widely as the McClure Report is another great example. The starting point for the Government was to listen to the adv ice of a number of people expert in this field and I am delighted to acknowledge the contribution made by Jane Schwager, the Benevolent Society’s Chief Executive on that taskforce.
Whilst they were comprehensive and broad-reaching, the consistent theme throughout its recommendations was the concept of social coalition. Whether it be in regard to individualised service delivery, mutual obligation or developing social partnerships, the McClure Report emphasised the power and desirability of a holistic approach involving all of the various sectors and implemented locally.
As you may know, prior to being elected to Parliament, I qualified and worked as a solicitor. The real strength of our legal system –a system we share with many of the world’s other great democracies – is its basis in common law and, as a result, that it responds to the changing needs of those it seeks to serve. Unlike codified law, it is a living, growing thing and adapts itself to issues and difficulties unimaginable even a decade ago.
It seems to me that social coalitions – by involving people on the ground, people familiar with the latest issues affecting Australians in their daily lives – share this capacity for responsiveness and effectiveness.
Backed by the resources of government, supported by the expertise and generosity of the business sector, animated by the passion of literally millions of determined Australians, we can build relationships that are strong enough to respond to entrenched problems but flexible enough to respond to new difficulties as they arise.
I’ve said before that truly great nations find within themselves ways to mutually support and nurture each element of their societies – to seek out common goals, common values and move forward together.
And I give you a commitment tonight that my Government will continue to find ways in which we can do so.
The ideal of shared endeavour, of pulling together, will be maintained as an intrinsic aspect of our policy deliberations. I agree absolutely with the view expressed in the latest Sydney Leadership handbook that barriers between sectors are coming down as new alliances are forged.
And I like to think that this trend, so evident in recent years, is owed in no small part to our willingness to abandon outdated processes and structures in a way that other political parties would find culturally difficult.
Meeting the social policy challenges of the next decade will entail further strengthening of the social coalition concept and I am excited by the prospects before us.
I am encouraged by programmes such as the Sydney Leadership initiative and their capacity to seed the business sector and the community with individuals understanding of social issues and personally committed to their resolution.
But whether or not our society does reach its full potential as something greater than its component parts will very much de pend on the conscious decision of us all.
Those in government, in business, and all within the community must choose whether we continue towards a more inclusive, tolerant society or retreat into a bunker of suspicion and self interest.
I know that those associated with the Benevolent Society have already chosen.
From its inception as Australia’s first charitable organisation in 1813, its workers have given compassionate care to countless Australians facing illness, distress and poverty.
It has a distinguished record of finding innovative ways to address social pressures – a record that continues today with the outstanding success of their three major community based service centres – the Centre on Ageing, the Centre for Children and the Centre for Women’s Health. Our sincere thanks is owed to all involved in their fine work.
In this International Year of the Volunteer, I know that millions of Australia ns have chosen by giving their time and commitment to welfare services, to the environment, to sport, tourism, the arts, rural and emergency services, and so on.
In fact, its estimated that two and a half million Australians, from all walks of life, give well over 400 million hours to voluntary work, valued at a staggering $47 billion.
We all benefit from this reservoir of decency and good will within the Australian community.
I know that businesses are choosing, in ever growing numbers, to pull together with the communities that support them.
As a government, we’ve sought through incentive and choice to encourage greater participation by the business sector. My call has not been that business should give more, but rather that more businesses should give because there are many outstanding examples in the Australian community of the generosity of individual businesses.
Indeed, the Sydney Leadership initiative seems to have attracted many of the corporations that have long and meritorious records of giving, in large amounts, to many charitable, cultural, and other causes deserving of help within our community.
At this point, it is particularly appropriate to recognise that, last year, one of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Community Business Partnerships was presented to the Benevolent Society and the National Bank for the very programme we commend here tonight.
These awards are part of the government’s strategy to encourage relationships across sectors which develop creative solutions to social challenges.
I know that the participants of the Sydney Leadership initiative have chosen. I had the pleasure to meet with last years participants in Moree as we celebrated that community’s journey from racial intolerance to becoming a ‘Centre for Reconciliation’.
As is the case this year, a group of more disparate individuals cou ld not be found. Separated by diversity of background, occupation, age, gender and educational achievement, they have in common only those things that really matter.
Firstly, they’re Australian, sharing a love of this country and a passionate commitment towards its people.
Secondly, they are willing to give of their time and themselves to gain a greater understanding of the great social issues confronting us.
Finally, once armed with that knowledge, they’re determined to do something about them.
I think they all deserve our congratulations and our admiration.
I certainly know that my Government has chosen – chosen to champion a society which advocates collective, community based action and builds stronger bonds within families and within communities.
We’ve accepted the wisdom that no single element of society, particularly government, is able to solve social problems in isolation.
We’ve chosen this route, not only by repudiating the politics of prejudice and division, but by implementing a policy framework which instils the concept of ‘pulling together’ into government process and redirects significant resources into new and more effective programmes operating at the coal face.
I’ve already spoken of the Job Network. I’m also proud of our work in developing the comprehensive ‘Stronger Families and Communities’ Strategy.
The Strategy, backed by meaningful funding, is designed to build family and community capacity, with an emphasis on families at risk and disadvantaged communities.
It is based upon our belief that it is the traditional institutions of family and community that provide the best system of social support.
We think families with strong and stable relationships contribute to strong and healthy communities and the Strategy includes initiatives on early childhood development; the needs of families with young children; st rengthening marriage and relationships; and balancing work and family.
I mentioned earlier our encouragement of business to engage with the broader community and I have been greatly assisted by the body established in 1999 known as the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership.
It advises on ways to promote philanthropy and partnerships across all sectors and its recommendations directly led to taxation changes and a package of measures worth $51m passed by Parliament in May 2000 to encourage corporate philanthropy.
These extent and cost of this initiative is just one example of a commitment that my government, whilst working with others, will not retreat to any extent from its own social obligations.
For instance, I mentioned the Final Report of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform earlier and it’s well known that we will be responding to its recommendations in the context of the forthcoming Budget.
The reforms we announce at that time will not seek to reduce the budget’s allocation for social security – indeed in the short term additional funds may be required – but rather to provide a modern safety net which encourages responsibility and embraces prevention as much as it embraces cure.
We will replace traditional state-centred welfare which has often failed to prevent social problems and has perpetuated dependency rather than re-engagement with work and with the community.
Over recent years, the Government has introduced initiatives which have involved community organisations in the design and implementation of our Tough on Drugs strategy and our Youth Homelessness projects.
At the heart of our focus on practical reconciliation is a desire to achieve meaningful improvement in the day to day lives of indigenous Australians by working with those communities themselves.
We have heard and we are acting on their calls for clean water, access to healthcare, education for their children, basic housing and expanded job opportunities.
I am particularly pleased to learn that indigenous issues form an important part of the Sydney Leadership agenda with projects underway including a community regeneration plan in Redfern, delivering IT training to Moree, mentoring a Aboriginal business in its start up phase and finding markets for an indigenous firm.
Finally, I want to speak for a moment on the importance we have placed on sustaining the vital balance of public and private resourcing of what can be broadly described as human services – notably health and education.
It is a social coalition on a strategic scale and one of the great unsung success stories of our first one hundred years as a nation.
That balance, achieved by successive Australian governments in key areas such as health and education, has contributed much to our social stability.
Australia, through trial, error and experimentation over many decades has achieved a better balance than most other nation s in creating two complementary and high quality systems – one provided by government, the other by the private sector and both interacting with the community.
Over recent years, my Government has sought, through a limited but strategic role, to foster further development of choice in these two vital areas.
In education for instance, we’ve worked at both raising the quality and standards of the public system whilst also making more affordable for ordinary, hardworking parents access to private education – often run by faith based organisations, responsive and accountable to their local communities.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to say how very personally committed to the concept being highlighted here tonight.
The ideal of pulling together, of forthright and shared endeavour to put things right is particularly suited to the Australian character and draws on a remarkable heritage of national pragmatism and sense of what’s fair.
I am proud that over the past five years, we’ve made real inroads towards, in words used to describe the aims of the Sydney Leadership programme – a deepened understanding of society, the addressing of social issues collaboratively, a sense of clear social vision, the building of precious and irreplaceable social capital and influencing outcomes for a better society.
We are so lucky. We have a living standard and a life-style that is the envy of the rest of the world. Our society has not been torn apart by war or civil unrest. We have been, for most of the history of the last 200 years, a remarkably egalitarian society. And for many years we could boast of a relative absence of inequality of income and wealth.
But clearly, huge challenges confront us. Drug abuse, a sense of alienation of those that do not have a fair share of national prosperity, family and community breakdown are real threats and despite the fact that most Australians enjoy a very plentiful and satisfying life, there are many within our community doing it very hard.
How we address those and other pressing social issues is a matter of choice for each one of us – as politicians, as business leaders, as members of our communities.
I congratulate the Benevolent Society and its sponsors but most of all, in closing, I’d like to congratulate the outstanding men and women who have embarked upon this programme.
In doing so, they have chosen to make a difference and this nation will be a better place for their endeavours and those of others like them.