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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 142


Dr NELSON (4:26 PM) —Whilst I hope that the member for Bass loses some of her ideas, I hope she never loses her idealism. It is something to be admired.

It is a privilege to speak to the address-inreply for a number of reasons—firstly, because of the high esteem in which I hold the incumbent Governor-General; secondly, it is a privilege to be a member of a government which is embarking upon an economic and industrial relations reform program that is as difficult as it is necessary; thirdly, it is a privilege to speak at a time when our country is changing, when much that is so familiar is leaving us; finally, but not least, it is a privilege to be able to again represent the people in the electorate of Bradfield in the federal parliament. That is something that I should not nor will never take for granted.

Australia is a different country today from what it was three years ago, but we are also different today from what we were prior to 3 October when the tide of economic and social change sweeping the nation was threatened not only by the return of a Labor government but much more so by the symbolism and substance of a prospective One Nation electoral success.

Nations, like people—like any of us—face moments of truth. They are periods in our lives when we wonder whether we are going to survive. I believe that Australia has been through just such a period that has challenged our economic, social and political survival. But it is also one, like all moments of truth, that will redefine our values. How we are led over the next three years will determine whether we emerge a stronger, more resilient people. Ambivalent equivocation on the issues that were set out by the Governor-General yesterday will do this nation lasting damage. Whatever occurs in this parliament, we are being propelled into what is in many ways an uncertain future.

One of my constituents—and one of the problems with this job is that people cease at times to be human beings and become constituents—sent me a book last year authored by the German physicist and philosopher Bernhard Philberth. The book is about change and it is called Revelation. He said:

Progress leads to chaos if it is not anchored in tradition. Tradition becomes rigid if it does not prepare the way for progress. But a perverted traditionalism and a misguided progressivism propel each other toward a deadly excess, hardly leaving any ground between them.

That is precisely what has been happening. We have had some people in political life who, for questionable ends, have sought to distort the traditional values upon which the nation has been founded, and then we have had another section of society which wants to change, seemingly for its own sake—whether that is economic change, constitutional change or anything else.

Unless we people who profess to lead are able to instil in Philberth's traditionalists the importance of and the need for change and give them an understanding of why change is so necessary, and unless we are able to bring progressivists to a respect for and understand ing of our past, then we may well be a people who will be done lasting damage by what we currently are going through.

Whatever the good things it had done, particularly, I believe, in its first two terms, the previous Hawke-Keating Labor government failed Australia in two ways. The first was that it spent more than we earned and it used debt and asset sales to prop up consumption and to finance essential social infrastructure. Apart from exposing us to constant exchange rate depreciations and giving us an intractable balance of payments problem so that every time we got near four per cent growth the Reserve Bank had to increase interest rates to stop money being borrowed from offshore, it created an unsustainable expectation of what governments can and will provide. It related to a second failing, some of which we have actually just heard. That is that we became in many ways a very selfish people. People in my generation especially seem to have become far more concerned about rights than responsibilities, the value of things has become more important than values and we are much more concerned about what happens to us today or tomorrow than what sort of country we will be 10 or 20 years from now.

At the same time, another section of the electorate that was questioning globalisation, competition policy, multiculturalism and minority specific spending programs found their concerns ignored, patronised and trivialised by a Prime Minister in the form of Mr Keating who seemed more concerned with the republic, Berlin's architecture or Australia's place in Asia. Our past colliding with our future gave birth to Pauline Hanson.

Mrs Hanson is, and was in this parliament, like many Australians. If they held a mirror to themselves, they would say, `She talks like me, she thinks like me, she says a lot of things with which I would agree.' Mrs Hanson has been a lightning rod for grief and anger that many Australians feel about changes in our country they neither understand nor want. But the issues that were raised by One Nation go to the very heart of the challenges that lie ahead of us in this parliament and will determine the kind of country that we will become. Those issues are why, despite impropriety and waste, do we do anything at all for Aboriginal people? What is so unique about the conditions under which these people seek to live that contemporary governments establish specific programs for them and to meet their needs? Similarly, in relation to immigration, the real question is why we run an immigration program at all, and for whose benefit it runs, and how we decide how many people should live in our country.

Mrs Hanson and her party said that we should stop sending money overseas in the form of foreign aid, particularly while we had 8½ per cent of Australians unemployed. Again, the real question is: do we want to become a country in which we give money to the poorest people in the world despite having significant problems in our own country? Why is it important that human beings can always be measured in terms of the care, concern and compassion that they show to those whose needs are greater than their own? Mr Oldfield, who had become the alternative spokesman for One Nation, said on two occasions at least that we should not contribute to the United Nations, that for Australia the UN was a one-way trip, that it was all give and no take. Again, the real point is that surely we want to be a country where we contribute, whatever our own problems, to the humanitarian and peacekeeping work of the UN, and that we are grateful if we live in a country that is not in need of its services. In the same way as you give to the Salvation Army or World Vision or any other charity when they knock on the door, you do not say to them, `I am not getting anything out of it this year. I am not going to give you anything.'

Similarly, the pain and the hand wringing about trade protection really go to the heart of what sort of country we want to become. We have 0.6 per cent of world population, one per cent of world trade and 6 per cent of APEC. At the end of the Second World War there were 100 segmented markets throughout the world, as Tony Blair told the Trade Union Congress in September last year. Now we are coalescing to three major trading blocs. When BHP announces that it is going to close its steelworks or its collieries, when Berlei and other companies announce that they are going to relocate into Asia, when citrus growers are ploughing trees back into the ground or we see Canadian pork hitting our markets or timber workers who are unemployed because of some of the intransigence—and lack of interest, I might add—of the previous Labor government, that is our economic and cultural past leaving us. It hurts; it bloody hurts.

Those industries will continue to be a very important part of this country's economic and social future, but our future lies in other areas. In 1960 we expended 11 per cent of GDP generating 15 per cent of the nation's export wealth. That is the way we pay our way in the world. By 1997 we consumed 20 per cent of our GDP to generate 20 per cent of our wealth. As the Financial Review said last week, that is a losing formula. We have increased the volume of resources, commodities and primary industry exports but, while volume has increased, income has declined because prices have fallen.

In the past decade many of my constituents and many on the other side have quite rightly bemoaned what they see as contraction in Australia's manufacturing sector—three per cent contraction in 10 years. There has been a 50 per cent reduction in employment in electricity and gas and a 10 per cent reduction in employment in mining, but a 90 per cent increase in employment in the communications sector, a 50 per cent increase in transport, 20 per cent in retail trade and 100 per cent in tourism.

In areas like education, last year we generated $3.4 billion for our nation in educating foreign students and we generated $2 billion in income from information technology and communications. The pharmaceutical industry—which, by the way, is often the subject of derision and ridicule—last year generated $1.4 billion in exports for Australia and was a positive contributor to GDP growth. That is twice what was generated by the wine industry, whose achievements are rightly celebrated.

The point is that my children are much more likely to be working in industries like that than to be digging coal out of the ground in collieries in Australia. Our future lies in knowledge based industries—biotechnology, health, education, multimedia, information technology and emerging industries. I say this to all the idealists who come into the parliament—and I hope that I remain in that category myself—but particularly to those of the Labor side: you cannot have it both ways. You cannot live in a country with two per cent underlying growth and say, on the one hand, `We won't have industrial relations, waterfront, energy, technology, transport, communications or taxation reform,' but on the other, `I do want a fully funded education system, a free public hospital system, everyone to get a nursing home bed when they need it irrespective of income, and everyone to get a pension.' You cannot have it both ways. That is the reality we face in contemporary Australia and in this parliament.

Tax goes to the heart of that. Unless we simplify our tax system we are not going to be able to create more wealth which we can then spend on those whose needs are perhaps greater than those of some of us in this House. Unless we broaden the base it will be impossible to fund essential social infrastructure into the future. The retirement incomes modelling task force report for the National Commission of Audit that was published in July 1997 says that in 1996 dollars we will have to spend, including pensions, $38 billion on the health and welfare costs of ageing above and beyond real growth from where we are currently over the next 40 years just to provide the same level of services that we provide now. That is more than the drain that occurred on the Australian economy during the banana republic crisis in the mid-1980s.

The other problem that we have, whether we want to accept it or not, is that we are trying to compete with the rest of the world and we saddle those people who are trying to manufacture and export from Australia with wholesale sales tax and business transactions taxes which have almost a five per cent impost by the time their goods hit the international market. That is not a market where you can simply jack up your price to offset input costs.

Another significant thing we are going to need to consider in this parliament is the whole debate about unemployment, which I believe is inherently dishonest. During the federal election campaign, the Labor Party said—I think admirably—as it had before, that it wanted a five per cent unemployment rate. The only developed country in the world that has unemployment below five per cent—in fact, running at just under four per cent—is the US, where public utilities are fully privatised, the financial services sector is intensely competitive, the labour market is deregulated and the welfare system is thin. I am not for one minute suggesting we should be anything like them.

The recent National Centre for Vocational Education Research report on youth employment showed that the number of jobs for 15- to 19-year-olds has fallen by 10 per cent to 586,000 over the past decade. The number of full-time jobs for young people has dropped by 47 per cent in the last 10 years.

If we are going to be serious about unemployment we have to have a debate about the things which are potentially politically embarrassing to all of us but which need to be discussed. It is the way the labour market is regulated, as the government has made its intentions clear that it will continue to do; it is the way the education system relates to the labour market; the social security system; the way we tax ourselves, which the government has set for itself in this term; and the way we finance public housing. I do not know if you have ever noticed it, but most people who are unemployed all live together in the one spot. I spent nearly nine years as a medical practitioner servicing a public housing estate and I can tell you that the way we finance the provision of housing for unemployed people contributes to maintaining their unemployment.

We also need to have a discussion about the recent Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research proposal from Professor Peter Dawkins and his four economic colleagues following on the work of Dobelle and Vickery from the Reserve—which is that a real reduction in the rate of growth of minimum wages will contribute to a growth in employment.

It is almost as if many Australians, believing that they will not lose their job or if they do they will get another job, are saying in all sorts of ways, `We would rather pay the social security cost of having 8½ per cent unemployment than embrace the real and indeed difficult policy decisions that need to be made if we want to get unemployment down.' Most Australians in their hearts know that, if we continue to prescribe the policy prescriptions that we are, we will, particularly if we can reform the tax system, make inroads into unemployment. But it is difficult to envisage unemployment getting below five per cent. Perhaps we need to look at some alternative policy options.

One of the other critical things that we need to be looking at is not whether Australia is a republic—whatever the importance of that issue. The real question is: how do we best govern ourselves as a federation in a world that is quite different from what it was 100 years ago? There is the nature of Commonwealth-state relations and the number of politicians we have in a desperately overgoverned country. There is the length of terms that are served by governments. Federal governments govern for about 15 months and then they have one eye on the polls—and what is popular is not always right. There is the structure of this parliament. Whilst I opposed almost every policy prescription put forward by One Nation, I ask myself how one million people can vote for a party and there is no-one here actually representing their views. In one sense I am very grateful about that, but in another I ask whether we should actually have a look at some of these real issues.

When John Glenn made his first trip into space, his then United States President, John Kennedy, identified the real struggles for his generation as being against tyranny, disease, poverty and war. The question is: what are ours? What are our dreams? If we ignore dreams we do so at our peril because within them lies hope.

I pass this on to new members: I have learnt a lot; I have a lot more to learn. One of the best pieces of advice I was given after my preselection in 1995 was from the Western Australian Premier Richard Court. He said, `You are there only once. The saddest thing you will ever see is a politician who served his or her time and then left regretting that they did not say or do what they had the opportunity and the responsibility to do when they knew it to be right.'

The British historian, Kenneth Clark, in the BBC television series Civilisation, having reviewed civilisations long past, concluded that, whatever its complexity, civilisation is fragile. Do you know what he nominated as its greatest threat? He said:

It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusionment just as effectively as by bombs.

To me, what is perhaps most important is that we need to articulate ourselves using words that are both attractive and understandable in terms of what we are trying to create. What kind of nation do we want to become? What are the principles and values upon which it will be based? Then we will understand the strategic policy framework that is required to deliver that outcome. Surely we want to become a country where we value the health and integrity of human life as much as we do achieving our economic objectives; where we nurture the idealism of young people; where everyone feels that their views are both solicited and heard; where every person knows that they will be cared for but, in return, that they are expected to make a contribution to the society from which they derive a benefit; and where we strive to become outward looking, competitive and compassionate, imbued with the values of hard work, self-sacrifice, tolerance and courage. (Time expired)