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Tuesday, 22 May 2007
Page: 5


Mr HARDGRAVE (2:21 PM) —My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. Would the Prime Minister outline to the House how economic reform creates more opportunities for Australians? What are the risks in reversing economic reform?


Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I thank the member for Moreton for his question. He invites me to outline to the House the benefits that economic reform has brought to this country. That, of course, invites me to quickly traverse the experience of this nation over the last 11 years. Rather than going through each individual year and dealing with the reforms of a 12-month period over that time, I say to the honourable member that the net result of the economic reform of this government has been an enormous human dividend. I have frequently said to this House that good economic policy is no end in its own right; it is only a great thing if it produces a human dividend. We now have an unemployment rate which is the lowest it has been for 32 years. We have reached an almost full-employment economy, something which none of us dreamt possible even six or seven years ago and certainly not 11 years ago. That is the greatest human dividend of all. The Westpac-Melbourne Institute consumer confidence index said it all last week when it stated that consumer confidence was at a 32-year high. These are the views of Australians who are experiencing these economic conditions.

Let me say to the member for Moreton and to the House that we are not where we are with this situation by luck; we are not where we are with this situation just because of the resources boom; we are not where we are as a result of this government just sitting in the cabinet room doing nothing. We are where we are because of a series of hard-fought reforms over the last 11 years and we are where we are with no thanks at all to those who sit opposite because on every occasion the Australian Labor Party has opposed the attempts of this government to get the Australian economy into the shape it is in today.

The Australian Labor Party would seek to take political advantage of the current state of the Australian economy, yet at every turn the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues have endeavoured to stop economic reform. They left us with a deficit of $10½ billion, they left us with a national debt of $96 billion, and having left us with those two appalling legacies they then tried to stop every attempt to get the budget back into balance. It is one thing to leave your successors with a budget deficit; it is altogether a worse thing to then try to stop them getting the budget back into surplus.

The Australian Labor Party opposed paying off the $96 billion of debt. They opposed introducing the new taxation system. They opposed reform of the scandals on the Australian waterfront in 1998. On no fewer than 40 occasions, they opposed getting rid of the job-destroying unfair dismissal laws. It was only after the 2004 election, when the coalition secured a majority of one in the Senate, that we were finally able to bring a measure of justice to Australia’s small business sector. One of the reasons the level of unemployment has fallen to a 32-year low is that the small businesses of this country are now encouraged by the new climate, without the threat of unfair dismissal laws, to take the risk of employing more staff. They threatened Armageddon when we introduced changes to the industrial relations system, but we are reminded by the ABS statistics, released last week, that total earnings rose by 4.9 per cent between March last year, when the changes were introduced, and February of this year and that, in particular, total female earnings increased by six per cent over that period. The member for Moreton asks: what would be the consequences of reversing these reforms? The consequences would be deadly to the Australian economy.

If the Labor Party win the next election and reverse our workplace relations reforms, which they are committed to do, that would represent the first occasion in a generation on which economic reform of a major kind in this country has been reversed. I can put it no better than did Heather Ridout of the Australian Industry Group on Friday of last week. When speaking of the Labor Party’s industrial relations policy, she made the very valid point:

The almost exclusive focus on Australian workplace agreements is ignoring the breadth of concerns business has with Labor’s industrial relations policies which, in their current form, carry substantial economic risk.

It may be fashionable at the moment and the Labor Party may think it is on a winner to thumb its nose at the concerns of the business community of Australia, but I remind the Leader of the Opposition and I remind the member for Lilley that it is business risk-takers in this country who make a contribution to our economic prosperity. Business does not operate in a vacuum. Business is not impervious to the economic climate set by the government. If the government introduces policies which are antagonistic to strong forward investment by business, that will have consequences for the growth of business in this country and will lead to a reversal of the greatest human dividend of the policies of the last 11 years—that is, the 32-year low in unemployment.