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Ladder Of Opportunity: Latham Responds To Election Announcement

The Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham, has welcomed John Howard’s announcement of an October 9 election.

Latham said, “Australian needs a change of government.” He said Australia needs “a new generation of national leadership” and “a government that’s willing to invest in the education of our children and the health care of our families”.

Latham said this was what he calls “the ladder of opportunity”, a combination of hard work, good family and community, and an important role for government.

  • Listen to Mark Latham’s press conference (7m)

Transcript of Mark Latham’s press conference in Sydney.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I welcome this election campaign because Australia needs a change in Government. Australia needs to move to a new generation of national leadership. Australia needs a Government that’s willing to invest in the education of our children and the health care of our families.

This is what I call the ladder of opportunity. It’s powerful combination of hard work and good family and community, and the very, very important role of Government services to ensure that people have got opportunity in life. I want all Australians climbing the ladder of opportunity, working hard and having a government, a Federal Government, that’s on their side, when it comes to the fundamentals of life, investing in health and education, in particular.

The Howard Government in recent years has been taking the rungs out of the ladder of opportunity. I want to put those rungs back in. I want to put the rungs back in so as people work hard and they climb the ladder they’ve got a Government that’s providing the services that give them the very best opportunities in life. That’s our determination – I want to put the rungs back in for bulk-billing. I want to ensure that we get the national rate of bulk-billing back to 80 per cent, where it used to be, so we’ve got the availability of bulk-billing doctors – one of the foundation stones of Medicare – right around this country. I want the put the rung of the good Medicare system back into the ladder of opportunity. I want to ensure that we save Medicare from the attacks of the Howard Government.

Earlier this week, we had the Deputy Prime Minister saying that the Government endorses a two-tier health system. That’s not the Labor way – when we established Medibank and then Medicare – and I don’t see it as the Australian way. If you’re in the second-tier and you’re left behind, you’ll end up with a second-class service. We don’t want to go down the path of the Howard Government’s second-class safety net. We don’t want to go down the path of the user pays health system. We want to restore the basics of Medicare: universal public health care for the benefit of all Australians, not some, not those in the first tier, but all Australians enjoying the benefits of a world class health system through Medicare.

I want to put rungs back into the ladder of opportunity when it comes to education. I believe that so much more needs to be done for early childhood development in this country, recognising that learning doesn’t start the first day of school; it starts the first day of life. Whether it is reading to our infant children or quality child care and pre-school programs so much more needs to be done in this area that has been neglected by the Howard Government and, then, when our little ones go on to school, let’s have fair funding of the school system. Let’s have needs based funding so we can give that guarantee to Australian parents, the most important guarantee in life, that their child is going to go to a school that’s got good results, good teaching capacity, good and fair resources, and gets the results for the next generation of young Australians.

Then when the students go on to post-secondary education, let’s build up opportunity. I don’t want a country with $100,000 university degrees. To me, that’s not the Australia we need for the future. We need an Australia that’s got affordable higher education opportunities. Labor has got a plan for 20,000 extra university places, 20,000 extra TAFE places and also reversing the Government’s 25 per cent increase in HECS. So let’s get rid of the $100,000 university degrees and go back to the principles of affordable education for all. That’s the Australian way that we need for the future. And then it goes on, other rungs on the ladder of opportunity, basic community services. We’ve got our plan for the Youth Guarantee, providing opportunities for young Australians, our plans for mature age workers. We’ve got so many areas where we want advanced opportunity for all Australians and we’ll be outlining those through the course of this election campaign. We’ll be releasing our plans over the next six weeks. They’ll be fully costed and fully funded and they’re consistent with our budget pledge to keep the budget in surplus and put downward pressure on interest rates.

It is clear from the Prime Minister’s comments a short time ago that his scare campaign on interest rates is going to be one of great furphies of this campaign. Well, Labor has a plan. Labor has a pledge to keep the budget in surplus and ensure that we’ve got lean and efficient government, reducing expenditure and taxation as proportions of GDP so we can put downward pressure on interest rates. Downward pressure on interest rates is the Labor way. What we’ve had in recent times, through the Government’s $52 billion spending spree, is upward pressure on interest rates. We’ll be turning that around with more responsible financial management in the future.

I make another pledge to the Australian people, a very important pledge, and that is truth in government. We have had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government. The Prime Minister said that this election is about trust. That is something that I can agree with him. I can agree with the Prime Minister in saying that election is about trust. If people don’t trust this Government anymore, it’s with good reason. It is a Government that’s been dishonest for too long. It is a Government that has acted deceitfully for too long. It’s a Government that deserves to lose the support of the Australian people on the 9th of October, election day.

If the Prime Minister was serious about trust, he’d bring the Australian people into his trust. He’d let them know fully the plans that he has after this election. He failed to give a commitment to serve the full term of the next Parliament. We all know that is code for handing over to Prime Minister Peter Costello, if the Coalition manage to win this election. The Prime Minister should be honest and open with the Australian people. He must know in his own mind what he plans to do. He’s been around for so long. He almost gave it away 12 months ago. He must know in his own mind what he plans to do. He should bring the Australian people into his trust and let them know very clearly is it twelve, eighteen or twenty-four months before he hands over to Prime Minister Peter Costello in his own plans.

It is another act of dishonesty, another act of deceit – in failing to tell the Australian people the honest truth about the Prime Minister’s own plans in this position, if the Coalition was to win the election. So I say we need trust in government. We need a government that comes clean under all circumstances of the Australian people. We teach our children to tell the truth. We need a government that is willing to do the same, for the benefit of the Australian people.

In this campaign Labor will be highlighting the failures of the Howard Government, the dishonesty, the attacks on Medicare, the loss of affordable education, the way in which it has made Australia less safe in the war against terror but, overwhelmingly, our campaign will be positive. We’ll be putting forward positive solutions for the benefit of the Australian people. This is a campaign that should be about the future, not the past. It should be about hope, instead of trying to scare people, instead of being about fear. It should be about opportunity, instead of negativity. It should be a campaign about positive solutions and Labor will be advancing those, particularly in the all important areas of health and education but also the environment, in the key areas of national security and economic growth and Australia’s national prosperity.

I say to the Australian people that Labor is ready to govern. We’ve got the policies, the team, the drive, the determination to get things done for Australia. Our nation can be so much better than the Howard Government. We can be better than a Government that has been dishonest, that’s attacked Medicare, it’s attacked education and it’s attacked the environment. We can do so much better for the future of our nation.

I look forward to this campaign. It’s an opportunity to put the alternative to the Australian people and seek their support. I believe in this country and I want to serve it as Prime Minister and work as hard as I can to get things done for the benefit of the Australian people. I believe in an Australia that is forever young and forever fair, and I want to achieve that through the election of an Australian Labor Government. I seek the support and endorsement of the Australian people. Happy to answer any questions.

JOURNALIST:

What’s your response to John Howard’s comments on the influence of the trade union movement under a Labor Government?

LATHAM:

The trade unions are Australia’s largest community based organisation. They’ve got two million members, and I think any Prime Minister who just dismisses two million people as somehow irrelevant or a threat to the national interest, we’ve got to take the more inclusive approach and work with people. Labor in the past has had a good working relationship with the business community. That will continue in Government. Labor has a good working relationship with the trade union movement, and we believe in harmony and cooperation in the workplace. So there is no threat from the trade union movement. They are people who have two million members around the country, hardworking Australians, people who deserve our respect, and I think it is just plain wrong for a Prime Minister to try and sideline two million Australians and somehow present them as a threat to the national interest. Let’s pull together as a country and have a cooperative working relationship with both the union movement and the business community.

JOURNALIST:

The Prime Minister says that interest rates have always gone up a Labor Government. Why won’t they go up under a Latham Labor Government?

LATHAM:

We’ve got our budget pledge to keep the budget in surplus to ensue that we’ve got lean and efficient Government and put downward pressure on interest rates. I mean, the Prime Minister makes a lot of claims and in recent times not many of them have been true, and this is mounting as another dishonest tactic by a dishonest Government, a scare campaign that is not relevant to the truth but rather as a political interest for the Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] going to bring down the pressure on interest rates, that implies you are going to have a bigger surplus than the Howard Government. Is that correct?

LATHAM:

We’ve got to have a look at the spending commitments that the Government makes through the course of the campaign. We’ve got to look at the financial details that will be released in the next couple of weeks. Our commitment is for the budget surplus, for lean and efficient Government and putting downward pressure on interest rates and ensuring that we continue Australia’s pattern of economic growth and we add to it with Labor’s program of reform, taxation incentive, [inaudible] Education [inaudible] is a very good way of growing the economy, trade practices reform, ensuring that we’ve got private sector competition, and also our various plans for helping the small business sector. That is a very, very responsible and effective package of economic reform and we’ll be advocating it through the course of the campaign.

JOURNALIST:

Can you give the assurance on that by producing your tax policy?

LATHAM:

Yes, it will be produced in the first part of the campaign. There’s an assurance.

JOURNALIST:

When will that be?

LATHAM:       

The first part of the campaign.

JOURNALIST:

How do you define the first part?

LATHAM:

Mathematically.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

LATHAM:

No, it’s not. This is the day in which the election has been called. We’ve got six weeks ahead of us and obviously Labor will be advancing its policies in a structured way through the campaign, and the first part of the campaign of course is the first half of it and you’ll see our campaign, our tax and family policies, in the first half of this election campaign.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard says we don’t really know what you stand for?

LATHAM:

I stand for the ladder of opportunity. I stand for those who [inaudible] work hard and they want a government that is on their side, a government that invests more in the education of our children, and the health care of our families. I believe passionately in hard work. That’s why I believe that taxation relief shouldn’t be quarantined to those above $52,000 a year. If you are on 30, 40, $50,000 a year working hard you, too, deserve taxation relief and incentives for getting stuck in and having a go. That ladder of opportunity is about hard work and its also about the civilising role of Government services and, when it comes to building up bulk-billing, saving Medicare, restoring universality of public health, a National Dental Program, which is so important for our senior citizens, and when it comes to education affordability and opportunity, these are the things that I passionately believe in.

I have believed in them all my life and I’ll be advancing them through the six weeks of this election campaign and, if I am honoured to be elected by the Australian people, implementing them in Government. There are so many things that need to be done. I mentioned that National Dental Program. It really is a national scandal that we’ve got more than 500,000 Australians, most of them elderly, waiting on lists just to get their teeth fixed up. This is not the mark of the Australia that I want in the future. We can do a lot better than that and the provision of basic services is a fundamental part of Labor’s values, Labor’s beliefs and Labor’s policies.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard says that the children overboard affair has been done to death. Will that be an issue again this election?

LATHAM:

I think honesty should always be an issue in public life. We teach our children to tell the truth; we should expect that from the Prime Minister of the country. And someone who started his term talking about core and non-core promises, someone who said there would never-ever be a GST, someone who said there would never be $100,000 university degrees, someone who has obviously mislead the Australian people in the days leading up the last federal election with kids over board, he can’t be trusted. Someone who won’t now level with the Australian people, bring them into his trust and say whether or not he is going to serve three years as their Prime Minister after this election or as we all know hand over to Peter Costello. He should make that transition very clear and be honest.

In a democracy, people have got the right to know. That’s what honesty is all about. Knowing what people are voting for is a very important principle in a democracy and this Prime Minister won’t even level with the public about his own plans. To me, it shows a lack of commitment to health and education. If you really cared about the education of our children, the health care of our families, you would commit to three years. You would say I’m there for the long haul. I want to get these things done. But he can’t even give that commitment. He can’t even be honest and open with the Australian people about his own future.

JOURNALIST:

He says he is going to give us the 10-year vision for this country.

LATHAM:

What’s the point of a 10-year vision for a Prime Minister who will only stay six months? What is the point of a 10-year vision when he’s got no intention of being there for the full term? It is about commitment, isn’t it? I’m committed to the Australian people because I want to serve as best I can as the Prime Minister of this country in the next term of Parliament. And Labor has a 10-year vision – it’s also got a leader who’s willing to see it through and get it done for the benefit of the Australian people. That, quite frankly, is one of the big differences in this campaign. People can talk about vision but you haven’t got the commitment unless you are willing to say you’ll be there to implement it.

JOURNALIST:

Labor ran that line last time and John Howard served three years.

LATHAM:

Well, you’ve got a Prime Minister today who hasn’t given a commitment to the Australian people for serving three years. If you plan to serve three years, you can bet your bottom dollar he would be saying that today. We know what all this means in terms of the transition to Peter Costello and it’s another example of the Prime Minister being less than honest and frank with the Australian people. I think the Australian people deserve better because, in his own mind, an experienced politician, someone who has been in the Parliament for more than 30 years, he knows exactly what he plans to do in the future.

JOURNALIST:

How can you convince Australia to vote for you on the issue of experience? Are you worried about your lack of experience compared to Government in this campaign?

LATHAM:

The Australian people can look at my experiences over the last nine months and, quite frankly, I feel like I’ve been an experienced and effective legislator on their behalf. The Government wasn’t saying I was inexperienced when they implemented my reforms of the parliamentary superannuation scheme. The Government wasn’t saying I was inexperienced when they implemented our baby care payment. They weren’t saying that there was any problem with my leadership when they implemented our policy for the pneumococcal vaccines. They weren’t saying there was any problem with experience when they implemented our policy for the abolition of ATSIC or the temporary protection visas, as they’ve done in recent times. And in the last sitting of the Parliament they said there was no problem with my stance, because they took it, in adopting our amendments to the Trade Agreement with the United States.

So in the six key areas that I’ve listed, plenty of experience, plenty of benefits to the Australian people and in my own mind it gives me confidence to say that if we can get six things done from opposition that’s so important for the nation imagine how much we’ll get done in government. Imagine all the things we can achieve for the nation based on those positive experiences out of the parliamentary legislation in the last nine months.

JOURNALIST:

Are you up for a long campaign, Mr Latham? How are you feeling?

LATHAM:

Fantastic! Absolutely wonderful.

JOURNALIST:

Why do you think he has chosen to have a six-week campaign?

LATHAM:

It is obviously part of the Prime Minister’s determination not to the see the Parliament sit for the coming week. He could have announced this in a week’s time. We could have had a week of parliamentary scrutiny about the kids overboard, about Mike Scrafton’s information and the duplicity of the Prime Minister. This is one of his tactics to avoid accountability and try and avoid his responsibility in this particular matter. It has also left us with what I think in a democracy is the bizarre situation where the people’s House is not going to sit but I understand there is a good chance the Senate will sit on Monday and Tuesday. It also has left us with the unusual and unsatisfactory public expense of MPs having come into Canberra, having to fly back out – or at least House of Representatives MPs while the senators will stay and do their business. I would have thought one day of democracy and parliamentary scrutiny is better than nothing but the Government has moved in a different direction and I think that is a great shame.

JOURNALIST:

Is the Prime Minister trying to avoid personal scrutiny in the House of Representatives?

LATHAM:

Yes, of course. That’s what I’ve just said. That is obviously part of his tactic because the election campaign could have been five weeks, called this time next week but he’s chosen this extraordinary circumstance. It has never happened this way, to my understanding, in the history of our democracy. I think it’s a shame that the Parliament which had its chance to scrutinise this Prime Minister that chance won’t be there but we’ll be doing it through the course of the election campaign and getting on with the job.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

LATHAM:

My understanding is that the Senate is heading in that direction but it’s all, in these unprecedented circumstances, subject to advice. I’m sure the Senate leadership will be having more to say about that later today.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Latham, some Liberals are saying that medical specialists have told them that a pancreas attack like the one you had takes six weeks to properly recover from. Is that the medical advice that you’ve been receiving?

LATHAM:

No, it is not. It’s another instance of you really shouldn’t believe Liberal MPs. You’re better off listening to your own doctor and that’s what I’ve done.

JOURNALIST:

One of Labor’s weaknesses in previous campaigns has been its lack of policies. Are you worried about that being an issue in this campaign or have you got enough policy up your sleeve to keep you going for six weeks?

LATHAM:

We’ve announced a lot of policy over the last three years in all the key areas and we’ve got more to come. I think we’ve got the balance right and we’ve certainly got established ideas there for the benefit of the Australian people and we’ll be advancing more substantial policy announcements through the course of the campaign. I assume the Government will also be trying to make some policy announcements. It’s appropriate in the campaign to have all your material out there and advocate the best you can for the interests of the public.

JOURNALIST:

Would you like to debate the Prime Minister?

LATHAM:

Yes I would. I think one of the many aspects of the campaign is to get the public involved as much as possible. I think in recent times campaigns have been too stage-managed. We haven’t had enough direct interaction with the public. As I’ve moved around over the last nine months as Labor Leader a lot of people have said that they are disillusioned with politics because they don’t get to talk face to face, how about putting a question to the political leader and getting a straight answer. That’s what they want to restore the trust in our democracy. So I think it would be good to have the televised debate in the standard fashion with a media moderator, but it would also be good to have a community forum debate, a town hall style meeting, in one of the electorates where the public can come along and put questions to me, put questions to Mr Howard and have that direct interaction that used to be a feature of our democracy and so many people would like to see it come back. And that of course could be a debate also broadcast nationally. The old town hall style meeting has a lot to commend it. I make that challenge to Mr Howard that, if he wants to get down to some real grass roots democracy and get the Australian people involved in this campaign, then we should be doing one of those debates at least.

JOURNALIST:

How much of an issue will national security be during this campaign? There doesn’t seem to be much mention from either you or the PM this morning.

LATHAM:

The current government has made us less safe in the war against terror. That’s a consequence of its policies in Iraq and we’ve got a lot of work to do in this country to get national security right. Labor has a policy for a Coastguard. We’ll be advancing policies for regional airport security, for our Department of Homeland Security and also in this campaign, while we are talking about debates, I’d like to see a debate between my national security team, Kevin Rudd, Kim Beazley and Robert McClelland versus their counterparts on the Government’s side, because our team of Beazley, Rudd and McClelland is so much superior to Downer, Hill and Ruddock, particularly on issues of trust and accountability to the Australian people. So if we are going to have debates in an open democracy then I think that debate between the two national security teams would be very much a good feature of the campaign.

JOURNALIST:

The Prime Minister has said that he is the underdog; do you think that you are the underdog too?

LATHAM:

I heard during the week the Prime Minister talking about his internal Liberal Party polling which he said was very strong and it made us sound like the underdog so I suppose that’s the way it is, and that’s how we go into the campaign.

JOURNALIST:

And that doesn’t worry you?

LATHAM:

No, we’re there fighting the campaign as best we can and doing it for the reasons we’ve outlined: to build the ladder of opportunity, to have all Australians climbing the ladder and ensuring we’ve got good community services available for the benefit of all the nation.

JOURNALIST:

In terms of the economy, interest rates are already on the way up [inaudible] possibly it appears.

LATHAM:

Possibly, it appears? That’s not all that definitive a judgement.

JOURNALIST:

The Reserve Bank has suggested that they are likely to up them. The petrol prices are going up. Is this a good time to pick up the ball?

LATHAM:

Pick up the ball?

JOURNALIST:

In terms of taking responsibility for the economy?

LATHAM:

I think we can do something about petrol prices by having greater competition in that market and we’ve announced a strategy for ensuring that the independent wholesalers and retailers have got access to product and they remain a viable part of the market providing the competition that delivers benefits for the consumers. We can do things in that area. We’ve announced policy. Overall, I think Labor has got a good economic strategy for the future and we’ll be keeping the strong. If we invest in education, we keep private sector competition strong, we improve the prospects of small business and we provide more incentive in the taxation system for the hard workers, I think you’ll find under Labor we have good economic growth and with a fair distribution around the country and all importantly incentive for the hard workers.

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