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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1686

Senator SMITH (Western AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (19:20): In this building this evening a great many people are gathering to mark a historic occasion in the life of our nation. It was on this day 20 years ago, almost to the minute in fact, that it became clear that John Howard had won a very sizeable election victory for the coalition, ending 13 years in the political wilderness. At the time, very few commentators saw the event as representing a seismic shift in the nation's political and policy culture. The election result was generally thought to be the result of an 'It's Time' factor—nothing more than a backlash against a longserving, tired Labor government. Certainly few would have speculated at the time that John Howard would go on to become Australia's second longest-serving Prime Minister, and in the process enact some of the most significant economic reforms of Australia's modern era.

For all the talk of the huge budget deficit and record debt levels that existed when the Howard government won office, few thought the problems could be tackled in any meaningful way. Certainly few believed that either the deficit or the mountain of debt could be eliminated. Yet, that is exactly what was achieved. The Howard government delivered a record number of surplus budgets—indeed, with the exception of the first two budgets, which had to clean up Labor's mess, and one other, all the Howard government's budgets were surplus budgets. That was achieved in the face of a sceptical commentariat, which said it could not be done, and in spite of trenchant opposition from the Labor Party, which just like the Labor Party of today failed to support the government in the task of fiscal repair. A responsible approach to fiscal policy also allowed the Howard government to eliminate the $96 billion in debt that it had inherited from the Keating Labor government. This meant that by the time John Howard left office in 2007, Australia was saving around $8.8 billion a year in interest payments alone—money that could be invested to protect the nation's future.

There are many reasons for the political longevity of the Howard government, and I will not have a chance to touch on all of them this evening. But one of the major factors in the government's success was that it looked after working Australians. That is a fact which is enormously disruptive to the preferred political narrative of the Labor Party. We saw another example of that in this chamber this afternoon with Senator Wong's motion that accused the Howard government of all manner of misdeeds. It was a tired list of the same old hysterical, false charges that Labor made against John Howard over more than a decade in opposition. I was especially amused by Senator Wong's charge that the Howard government had presided over an absence of economic reform.

The Labor Party cannot have it both ways. It cannot have spent 1996 to 2007 accusing the Howard government of declaring war on working Australians or presiding over a day of fundamental injustice by reforming the tax system of debasing decent standards in public affairs and now turn around and complain that the Howard government did not do anything. Of course, there is a reason that Labor's charges do not ring true. They are not supported by the examination of the facts. In fact, between 1996 and 2007, the real wages of Australian households increased by 21.5 per cent. That stands in stark contrast to the 13 years of Labor government that immediately preceded the Howard government's tenure when workers actually experienced a decline in real incomes. That was backed up by the largest income tax in Australian history undertaken as part of the significant tax reform package the Howard government introduced in 1998. This was built upon with further reductions in income tax in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and finally in 2007. For all the sniping we still hear from those opposite, that is not a record they have ever gone close to matching.

There was a more creative and modern approach taken to meeting the needs of the long-term unemployed, helping them obtain the skills they needed to get into the workforce. That started with the abolition of the tired old structures of the Commonwealth Employment Service, and instead building the job network, allowing private and not-for-profit organisations to work directly with unemployed Australians on building skills and identifying job opportunities. Of course, that was helped by the introduction of Work for the Dole, something that brought new levels of accountability to our income support system. All these things were done over the vociferous objections of the Australian Labor Party, the so-called party of the Australian worker.

The shrill attacks from Labor are there on the Hansard from the time. It was a war on workers and a Sheriff of Nottingham approach we were told. But what did we see? Over the life of the Howard government, with the creation by small and large businesses of over two million jobs at higher wages, the nation's unemployment rate hit record lows. It was hovering just over four per cent when the Howard government left office. I have barely scratched the surface. Time tonight will not permit me to discuss a plethora of the Howard government's other economic achievements, especially improvements to productivity on the waterfront, which I know is a favourite topic for Labor senators.

In the few moments remaining, I want to touch on a couple of the enduring lessons from the Howard government's experiences and the leadership of Mr Howard in particular, which I think are of value for parliamentarians today and parliamentarians of all sides. The first of these relates to our general political approach in Australia. Mr Howard's experience shows that the electorate will respect and ultimately reward governments that are prepared to take tough decisions and clearly set out the need for reform. That does not mean the reforms themselves will be popular. Spending reductions were not inherently more popular in 1996 than they are today. What I fear has changed is our willingness—this applies on all sides—to explain the need for those reforms to our fellow Australians and to make the case for difficult changes in the national interest.

This present government has consistently argued there is a need for spending reductions. Honest people within the Labor Party also see the need for those reductions, as recent comments from Paul Keating have demonstrated. John Howard has always been consistent on this point, as his support for the Hawke government's economic reforms when he was in opposition in the 1980s demonstrated. If we are going to solve the nation's fiscal problems, that spirit of cooperation must return.

This brings me to my final point. I believe Mr Howard's long-term political success can be attributed, in no small measure, to his consistent ability to get the tone right and to speak to Australians in a measured, respectful way, even those with whom he had fundamental disagreements. It was not always perfect. Mr Howard himself has acknowledged some missteps early in his prime ministership. He learned those lessons early and learned them well.

Like most political careers, Mr Howard's did not end happily. His government was defeated and he lost his own seat. Despite that, he is still the most respected, conservative political figure in Australia today, and his views on contemporary issues continue to be routinely sort. That would not be the case if Mr Howard was simply the reactionary rabble-rouser that some of his opponents tried unfairly to portray him as. However, Mr Howard is a conservative, not a reactionary. The two things are very different. They are distinct. Perhaps that is best demonstrated by Mr Howard's approach to the issue of burning the flag, which like the republic, tends to crop up every few years and has again this week. When asked about it as Prime Minister, Mr Howard, like most conservatives, said he personally found the gesture offensive. But that was not a reason to ban it, he said. He also said:

I don't think we achieve anything by making it a criminal offence. We only turn yahoo behaviour into martyrdom.

He has also said flag-burning, however offensive, is, 'Part of the sort of free speech code that we have in this country.' That is the difference between a conservative response and a reactionary response. Conservatism is nothing if it is not the consistent application of our principles. Our defence of free speech means nothing if we are unwilling to extend that same defence to those with whom we disagree.