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Monday, 4 July 2011
Page: 7561

Mr FRYDENBERG (Kooyong) (21:20): We had proclaimed 1999 as the year of delivery, a phrase that somewhat came back to haunt us. Sound familiar? These are the words former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in his bestselling autobiography, A Journey. But we could be forgiven for thinking that this was the voice of our own Prime Minister, who late last year mimicked the phrase, declaring 2011 to be the year of delivery and decision. Disastrously for the country, ever since the Prime Minister uttered these words her government has lurched from one costly failure to another. Now, having lifted the language of her Labour colleague in Britain, the Prime Minister would be well advised to meet up with Tony Blair on his upcoming visit to our shores and learn some of the lessons as to what a reformist Labour government can actually achieve.

Tony Blair came to office in 1997 as a 43 year old. He inflicted upon the Conservative Party its worst defeat since 1832. He was Prime Minister for more than a decade, putting in place reforms in the areas of health, education and welfare that galvanised the capacity of the private sector at the expense of an over-reliant role of the state. He may not have always pursued the right course of action. His overblown enthusiasm for the euro and his unwillingness to confront Gordon Brown on economic policy being cases in point. But by and large he made a difference. He had sound political instincts and was very much aware of the need for real reform. His successes in government were in large part attributed to the instrumental role he played in modernising the Labour Party, uprooting it from its left-wing, union-dominated agenda. He confronted the unions head on and won.

Tony Blair was not always popular, which is best evidenced by the public backlash over the Iraq war. But at least people knew where he stood. He realised that old Labour was a party of protest and not of government and that its economic policies were hopelessly collectivist and its social policies born of political correctness. He was not prepared to sit by idly while the party sleepwalked to a fifth consecutive election defeat. In 1995 he laid out in a series of articles his fundamental philosophical approach to government and thereafter, with conviction and self belief, he pursued his policy prescriptions for Britain. In his own words:

If you don't have core beliefs as a politician, real path-finding instincts groomed out of conviction, you will never be a good communicator because—and this may seem corny, but it's true—the best communication comes from the heart.

These are the sentiments with which Howard and Keating would instinctively identify and this is the essence of Julia Gillard's political problem. The Australian public do not know who she really is. She has never spelt out her reform agenda—the issues that matter to her and her country. New Julia, old Julia, real Julia, unreal Julia: the titles do not matter, it is her actions that count.

The same person who was the secretary of the Socialist Forum, endorsing its high-taxing, big government, anti-American agenda, is now telling us she is committed to balanced budgets, social conservatism and an 'all the way with LBJ' approach to foreign policy. These are noble sentiments. If only the Prime Minister believed them.

Are we really meant to believe the Prime Minister is committed to prudent fiscal management, when her government is responsible for wasting billions of dollars on pink batts, over-priced school halls and, now, set top boxes, and when a mere three per cent change in the terms of trade will turn projected future surpluses into ballooning deficits. Are we really meant to believe the Prime Minister when she encourages the private sector to be involved in health and education when at the same time she winds back the private health insurance rebate and seeks to cut funding for independent catholic schools. Yet again there is a preference for state control over individual choice. Are we really meant to believe the Prime Minister is in favour of offshore processing for unauthorised arrivals, a policy she was unambiguously against in opposition? Her repeated barbs at the time, 'Another boat, another policy failure', now do not seem to apply to Labor in office. It is an example of double standards if ever there was one. Are we really meant to believe the Prime Minister who said, six days before the election, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,' and, having secured power, promised to introduce the same large-scale economy-wide reform she said she never would—a humiliating policy backflip which can only be explained by the Prime Minister's desperate attempt to accommodate the Greens in order to ensure her own political survival?

Are we really meant to believe the Prime Minister when she said, 'The Greens will never embrace Labor's delight at sharing the values of everyday Australians,' but rigidly adheres to a formal coalition agreement with the Greens, opening the door for them to dictate damaging policy outcomes affecting all Australians? Are we really meant to believe the Prime Minister when she claims she wants to boost productivity in the workplace but at the same time outsources the government's industrial relations policies to her comrades in the emboldened union movement?

And are we really to believe the Prime Minister when she said of Australian foreign policy after the coup, 'Kevin and I will be working together playing those complementary roles,' and then we find just last week that our Minister for Foreign Affairs was off on a personal frolic in Equatorial Guinea and Kazakhstan when our key relationships with Indonesia, Malaysia and East Timor are withering on the vine?

This depressing list of underachievements for the Labor government goes on. No wonder no-one can name a memorable speech from our Prime Minister. There is no problem naming a memorable cliche like 'moving forward', but when it comes to words of real leadership the cupboard is bare. In contrast, Tony Blair has never been afraid to call it as he sees it, and his delivery could never be described as wooden. On the green groups, he said: 'Balance is not in the vocabulary. If you challenge them, they defend fiercely, not usually on their merits but by abusing your motives for challenging them.' This is a timely reminder to the Labor Party as the Greens seek a legislative voice for their deep-seated anti-market agenda.

Of the unions, Blair said, 'In my experience, the only funders who explicitly and insistently link money to policy,' a point never lost on the union bosses who election after election cement their position as the Labor Party's indispensable financial backers. On the public sector, Blair said: 'Whereas the market compels change, there is no similar compulsion in the public sector. Left to its own devices it grows.' The fact that the number of public servants under Julia Gillard is 20,000 more than Labor inherited is evidence that this is the Labor Party's definition of real jobs growth.

On border protection, Blair said, 'The reality was that the system for asylum was broken, incapable, adrift in a sea of storms and required far tougher action.' Try telling this to the Gillard government, who have watered down the coalition's highly effective border protection policy by removing temporary protection visas and the Pacific solution.

On devolving power in the public education and health systems, Blair said, 'I increasingly came to see the centralised systems themselves and the disempowerment of front-line managers and the denial of user choice which they entailed as a fundamental part of the problem.' If it was good enough for Tony Blair to reform the NHS and public school system with a bottom-up, not top-down, approach then why can't Julia Gillard do the same and adopt our policies of giving greater autonomy and authority to local hospital boards and public school principals?

On levels of public debt, Blair said, 'If governments don't tackle deficits, it increases the risk of a prolonged slump.' Try telling that to an Australian Labor government who inherited no government debt but in just a few years are now $107 million in the red and are borrowing $135 million a day just to meet the interest bill.

It does not matter what issue you take from across the policy spectrum, the position of the Blair government was diametrically opposed to what we have seen from Labor under Julia Gillard. Our Prime Minister's intent is to redistribute wealth across the economy, overregulate our workplaces and reintroduce the concept of a state owned national monopoly. This big government model not only betrays the market based reforms of the Hawke and Keating era—privatisations, competitive public service delivery and the floating of the dollar—but puts in jeopardy all the economic benefits that have since followed to the Australian community from decades of hard-won and often bipartisan economic reform.

Tony Blair understood that the modern idea of the state was an enabler, a source of empowerment and not a paternalistic, handing-out, controlling entity that thought it always knew best. While his record is not perfect, he did win plaudits from many quarters for having the courage and vision to take his country forward. Unfortunately it is not a political epitaph that will be bestowed on our current Prime Minister. One only hopes that with Tony Blair soon to visit he has an opportunity to impart some of the lessons learnt at No. 10 to his Labor counterpart now in the Lodge. Julia Gillard may never like to admit that she takes her advice from someone named Tony, but this time I am sure there are many on her own side that fervently hope that she does.