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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Page: 9094

Mr ABBOTT (5:08 PM) —If the first modern Australians had camped at Sydney Cove and congratulated themselves for arriving at a garden of Eden, they would have starved. If the colonial statesmen of the 19th century had been content with the social and economic progress of that time, there would never have been a Commonwealth of Australia. If the leaders of our country had not mobilised all our resources in the dark days of 1941 and 1942, Australia as we know it might not have survived the Second World War. If recent Australian governments had not tackled the economic stagnation that was threatening our country, we would not be the one developed country that has best weathered the recent international economic storm.

As the former Prime Minister, John Howard, would often say, ‘Today’s reform is the basis of tomorrow’s prosperity.’ But, by contrast, this Prime Minister’s motto might well be: ‘Today’s prosperity means that we can talk about reform without actually providing any.’

I rise today to celebrate the reforms of Australia’s two most recent governments and to applaud the courage of the leaders who drove them. Not for this side of parliament the cheap partisanship and the denial of credit where it is due, which has, in recent times, characterised this government. When Mr Hawke became Prime Minister, with Mr Keating his Treasurer, back in 1983, Australia was in the midst of a deep recession. But those statesmen did not try to spend their way out of a recession; they knew that would not work. Instead, they reformed their way out of the recession. The then Treasurer, with the then Prime Minister’s strong support, deregulated financial markets, reduced and, in some cases, eliminated tariffs and began the process of privatisation subsequently brought to fruition by the subsequent government. The former Treasurer and then Prime Minister even took a small but significant step towards workplace relations reform with his enterprise bargaining changes of 1993.

There are two important points to be made about the reforms of the former Labor government. The first is that they defied Labor Party orthodoxy. That orthodoxy of high spending, high taxing and big government, which had previously characterised the Australian Labor Party, was rejected by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Let me say, it takes guts to reject your party’s orthodoxy. It takes guts to turn your back on aspects of your party’s history, even when it is embarrassing and even when it is wrong, but those two statesmen had the courage to do so.

The next point I make is that those reforms were all achieved with the strong support of the then coalition. In fact, given the divided nature of the Labor Party, those reforms could not have been achieved but for the strong support of the then coalition. Let me stress that point. The Liberal Party, now supposedly obsessed with neoliberalism and now supposedly in the grip of market fundamentalism—whatever that is—strongly supported the reforms of the then Labor government. According to those who now call the Liberal Party neoliberals and market fundamentalists, either there was something wrong with the then Labor government’s reforms or there was nothing really that wrong with the Liberal Party. What you cannot be is a party that is all bad supporting a government that is all good. That is the proposition which seems to have been enunciated by the Prime Minister earlier this week.

When Messrs Hawke and Keating were in power, the coalition was not content merely to criticise the government when it made mistakes or when it did not go far enough. Under John Howard, the former Prime Minister, and also under John Hewson, the former Leader of the Opposition, the coalition developed a program for further economic reform which addressed the real problems that our country faced and which reflected the important and enduring values of the Australian people. When John Howard finally became Prime Minister in 1996, with Peter Costello as his reform minded Treasurer, Australia was just emerging from another serious economic recession. We had had but five minutes of economic sunshine in 1996, as some members of this House would well remember.

John Howard did not commission 100 or more reports to tell him what to do. He did not summon 1,000 of the bright and beautiful people to Canberra to give him ideas. John Howard and Peter Costello systematically and methodically set about the reforms that the previous government had been too politically compromised by its own left-wing faction and its union affiliations to make. Peter Costello made very serious, real cuts in his first budget, amounting to one per cent of gross domestic product. Peter Reith negotiated sweeping workplace relations changes which established for the first time in our country’s history the existence of a statutory non-union contract—subject, of course, to a safety net—and reduced the scope of awards and the role of arbitration. It was on these changes that the productivity increases of the late 1990s and the prosperity that we now enjoy were fundamentally based. Those changes, I should add, were also based on the confidence that the people of this country had moved beyond the old class war shibboleths and stereotypes and were prepared to work together, workers and managers, for more productive, more profitable and ultimately more successful enterprises and that we did not need unions and other third parties constantly to hold our hands in order to make a success of our economic lives.

As well, Peter Reith pushed through reform of the waterfront—a reform that had always been too hard for members opposite when they were in government—which produced a 50 per cent increase in crane rates, an increase previously thought to be impossible. One reform that I should mention is the replacement of the old Commonwealth Employment Service with the Job Network, a network of charitable, community based and private providers which not only helped job seekers but also enabled private businesses to use their expertise to help the unemployed. This in particular is a reform that the Prime Minister should be grateful for and should recognise.

Finally, there was tax reform: the GST, a massive change which had also defeated the former government but which the Howard government was prepared to go to and win an election on. In subsequent terms, the Howard government established the Australian Building and Construction Commission in the teeth of ferocious opposition; commenced welfare reform, including massive involvement of the unemployed in Work for the Dole; launched an intervention into the disgraceful situation of Aboriginal townships in the Northern Territory, where civil society was in virtual collapse; sold the rest of Telstra; and began the process of water reform. There was a further round of workplace relations reform, which was a political mistake, but let us be under no illusions: it was economically advantageous. More than half a million new jobs were created for Australian workers, more than 90 per cent of them full time, while Work Choices was in operation.

There is one point that needs to be made about the reforms of the Howard government in contrast to the reforms that were made in the time of the Hawke and Keating governments. Every one of those Howard government reforms was opposed by the Australian Labor Party. You can say what you like about John Howard—you can say that he changed too much or that he did too little—but you cannot say he was both a neofundamentalist and indolent. You cannot have it both ways, which this Prime Minister is trying to do now.

This week the Prime Minister launched Paul Kelly’s latest book, The March of Patriots. This book studies three prime ministers, Hawke, Keating and Howard, and it suggests—indeed, I would say it demonstrates—that they had a complementary and overlapping vision of economic reform that has permanently changed this country for the better. I should say that it might equally have been titled The March of the Reformers, and the great, screaming question now is: has this march stopped? The fact that in formally launching the book the Prime Minister made the revealing—indeed, freudian—slip of calling it The March of Politics suggests that the time of reform, at least as far as members opposite are concerned, is well and truly over.

The Prime Minister inherited a $20 billion surplus. He inherited more than $50 billion in various government funds. He inherited an economy that was the envy of the world. But, having mimicked John Howard and echoed his policy pre-election, since the election he has been on an ideological crusade to vilify the best Prime Minister since Menzies. I think the Australian people are looking for bravery and generosity in their leaders. They want our leaders to be brave in tackling our real problems and generous in acknowledging that no side has a monopoly of wisdom or merit and generous in being prepared to give credit where it is due. I regret to say that I fear that in the current Prime Minister we have a leader who is at once timid, smug and partisan: timid because he cannot make a decision that does not involve giving people just what they want; smug because he thinks that Australia’s economic strength owes everything to the last 18 months and nothing at all to the previous quarter of a century; and partisan because he has completely failed ever to acknowledge the strengths as well as the occasional mistakes of the previous government. I would like our Prime Minister to be better than that. I say it as a political opponent, but the Australian people deserve a Prime Minister who reflects our best instincts, not our worst, and we have not seen that on display from this Prime Minister.

Men and women of strong conviction can usually appreciate and understand the convictions of others even when they are different. Trashing other people’s beliefs, trashing other people’s achievements, is often a sign of someone who has few real convictions of his own. That, I fear, is the problem with our Prime Minister. The evidence suggests that he still has not worked out what his real political character is. He told the Financial Review that he was an old-fashioned Christian socialist; he told the Age that he was not and never had been a socialist. When he was running against John Howard he said that he was proud to be called an economic conservative. I am a conservative and I know conservatives: he ain’t a conservative. Now he says that he is a social democrat. The truth is he is not a socialist, he is not a conservative, he is not a social democrat and he is certainly not a reformer; he is a chameleon. That is what he is—a chameleon.

Opposition member—An iguana!

Mr ABBOTT —Don’t mention iguanas, please! The Australian people know what they want in a leader. They want someone who is fair dinkum and I ask the Prime Minister to be fair dinkum with the Australian people from this point forward.