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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10398


Mr BEAZLEY —My question is to the Prime Minister. I refer to the Prime Minister's statement today that he has plenty of talent on his front bench, such as Alexander Downer and John Moore. Prime Minister, is the Treasurer indispensable?


Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I have got to give the Leader of the Opposition full marks for a surprise question. I really do have to give the Leader of the Opposition full marks. That came like an Exocet missile on an unsuspecting Prime Minister, that is all I can say. Mr Speaker, having been caught utterly unprepared and having been caught totally by surprise by this question, cunningly devised at the opposition tactics meeting this morning, let me take a moment to reflect upon the capacity of those who sit on the front bench of the government. I look immediately behind me and I see the Treasurer. The Treasurer has had the major responsibility for presiding over a remarkable transformation, to the great benefit of the Australian nation, of the books of account of the Commonwealth. He inherited as Treasurer of Australia—

Opposition members interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —The House will come to order. I appreciate the fact that much of the exchange is good-natured, but I suspect—


Mr HOWARD —Yes, it is, and I would like to prolong the humour, Mr Speaker.

Mr Zahra interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —The member for McMillan is defying the chair. That was not a good-natured exchange. I appreciate the fact that much of the exchange is good-natured, but as we would all be aware most of Australia watching the debate will not be aware of that. The Prime Minister is entitled to be heard in silence, and I call him.


Mr HOWARD —Mr Speaker, the Treasurer has presided, in a quite remarkably skilful fashion, over the transformation of the books of account of the Commonwealth—inheriting a deficit of $10½ billion and, a year ahead of schedule, turning it into a surplus. In that respect, I cannot think of a performance that has been surpassed by any other Treasurer, and I give him full marks for that remarkable achievement.


Mr Beazley —Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order.

Honourable members interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —The House will come to order.

Mr Hatton interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —When the member for Blaxland exercises sufficient courtesy to allow the Leader of the Opposition to be heard, I will call the Leader.


Mr Beazley —My point of order goes to relevance. My question on this matter was quite specific. Is the Treasurer is indispensable? That was the question.


Mr SPEAKER —The Prime Minister is responding to the question.


Mr HOWARD —`Indispensability' goes to quality, and he is quality. I move on and look further behind me, slightly to the right, and I come to the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. Of all the difficult issues that my government has had to handle over the last 3½ years, none has involved more sustained pressure on the responsible minister than the remarkable transformation of the Australian waterfront. I want to pay tribute to the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business for the tremendous job that he did.

Mr Bevis interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —The member for Brisbane!


Mr HOWARD —He displayed both strength and grace under great pressure, and I pay him an unstinting compliment. Then I move to the Deputy Prime Minister, the now Minister for Transport and Regional Services. If ever anybody was responsible for beating off the scourge of One Nation, it was John Anderson. John Anderson beat off that scourge. John Anderson stood there against those unacceptable attitudes in the Australian bush, and I give him full marks. Then I go to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Mr Albanese interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —The member for Grayndler!


Mr HOWARD —The Minister for Foreign Affairs has been an absolute ornament to that position.

Opposition members interjecting


Mr Beazley —Mr Speaker—


Mr SPEAKER —The Prime Minster has the call.


Mr HOWARD —Gee, I like question time. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has been an ornament.

Opposition members interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —The House will come to order.

Mrs Crosio interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —The member for Prospect!


Mr HOWARD —Not only did he play an absolutely indispensable role in putting together the international peace force but, Mr Speaker, if you go back over the 3½ years that the minister has been occupying that position, you will find that he was also responsible in a very major way for the ban on landmines. He played a very major role in relation to the ban on landmines. He has played a very major role in rebalancing Australia's foreign policy.


Mr O'Keefe —Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. Under standing order No. 145, the divide and conquer strategy to defend against the stiletto has nothing to do with the Treasurer's capabilities.


Mr SPEAKER —The member for Burke's point of order does nothing to address the Prime Minister's answer.


Mr HOWARD —I have previously spoken very warmly of the skill, tact, diplomacy and ability of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I want to say to the House that he has done a remarkably fine job in that position over the last 3½ years. And his colleague the Minister for Defence: we are able to play a lead role in East Timor because of the foresight of the Minister for Defence. If the Minister for Defence had not come to us and given us advice to get that brigade into a state of greater readiness, we would not have been able to respond immediately. We would not have been able, to the great pride of Australia, to assume leadership of that mission. Then I go to my colleague the Minister for Finance and Administration.

Mr O'Keefe interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —The member for Burke.


Mr HOWARD —The Minister for Finance has presided over a most remarkable program of privatisation. He is responsible for the fact that we now have the second largest share-owning democracy in the world. Next to him is the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs. He has been responsible for bringing back apprenticeships to Australia. The Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs has rebuilt the Australian apprenticeship system. Along with his colleagues Senator Vanstone and the Minister for Employment Services, he has played a major role, an absolutely major role, in designing a world first—that is, the market based employment services of Australia. That is a world first.

Then we have the Minister for Aged Care sitting next to him. I tell you what: one of her remarkable achievements has been to put the member for Lilley in his place on numerous occasions. Then there is the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. Amongst the things that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs has done is to carry on, in an extremely dignified way, representations in the interests of veterans in Australia and also Defence personnel. I might remind the House that only last Friday this government increased, by almost 50 per cent, the tax-free operational allowance of the men and women of the Australian Defence Force who are serving in East Timor. That has happened under the authority of that particular minister.

I move then to my colleague and friend the Minister for Employment Services. The Minister for Employment Services, in his engagingly laconic style, has played a major role in selling to the people of Australia the great benefits of the new deregulated labour market in this country. He has demonstrated, in a short period of only a year in that job, what a great grasp he has of that portfolio and his great concern for the young unemployed of this country.

Then we have the Minister for Forestry and Conservation. There is no minister in this country who is a greater friend of blue-collar workers than the Minister for Forestry and Conservation. If the blue-collar workers of Australia want a friend, Wilson Tuckey is their man. Then there is the Minister for Financial Services and Regulation, who is carving out a new horizon, leading the charge to make Australia a world financial centre, already attracting investment from firms like Merrill Lynch and many others.

His colleague the Minister for Sport and Tourism I think is bringing great skill and great charm to a very important portfolio—that is, the portfolio of the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Sydney 2000 Games. As for the Minister for Community Services, of all the people that I have seen cut their teeth early as a minister on a series of allegedly difficult opposition questions, none has come through with more flying colours than the Minister for Community Services.

Opposition members interjecting


Mr HOWARD —I would not like anybody over here to be left out. Mark Vaile has, in the two jobs that he has held in this government—particularly in the grasp that he has quickly acquired in relation to the Trade portfolio—demonstrated a great understanding of the diverse trading interests of the Australian community.

I now turn to the Minister for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation. The Minister for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation did have a short period of time on the interchange bench, but he has come back with tremendous skill and flair. The Minister for Health and Aged Care has presided over some of the major reforms in the Australian health system and I am immensely proud of him. The Attorney-General personally led the Australian case before the first major decision of the international tribunal testing the provisions of the law of the sea treaty and he won a resounding victory in relation to the Japanese incursion in relation to bluefin tuna fishing.

Honourable members interjecting


Mr SPEAKER —Order! The Prime Minister will resume his seat. I ask the House to come to order. I call the Leader of the Opposition.


Mr Beazley —Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order on relevance. Since he is going to go through each one of them, can we have a break down on the numbers also?


Mr SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition is well aware, as I suspect he may have been when he asked the question, that this might be the response. I need to reassure both watchers and listeners that almost all of the interchanges are good natured. I call the Prime Minister.


Mr HOWARD —I move with very great deliberation and seriousness to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. I think even those who might disagree with the minister politically will acknowledge the self-evident decency and compassion that the minister brings to a very important portfolio.

Finally, that brings me to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, who was another one who faced an overwhelming assault from the forces of One Nation in rural Queensland at the last election. He took a brave and principled stand in relation to the allocation of preferences. He is bringing very great determination and skill to his job. The answer to the Leader of the Opposition's question is: they are all indispensable.


Mr Martin —What about the Senate?


Mr SPEAKER —The member for Cunningham is not assisting the debate.