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Tuesday, 31 May 1994
Page: 1080


Mr ABBOTT (5.25 p.m.) —On the corner of Castlereagh and Hunter streets in Sydney stands a monument to mark the site of the first Christian service in Australia. The preacher, the Reverend Richard Johnson, took as his text: `What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me?' It is just a small stone obelisk hardly noticed by the thousands of passers-by and dwarfed by skyscrapers, yet its message of faith and hope is fundamental to our nation's success and the key to Australia's future.

  The congregation at that first service was poorer, sicker, and less trained than any conceivable group of modern Australians, yet there was nothing small about what they were to achieve. Our challenge, 200 years later, is to have hearts that are just as big. So at this opening of my time in parliament, I place on record my deep conviction that, nourished by the past and inspired by our great ideals, there is no limit to what Australia can achieve.

  Also, I want to record my deep conviction that our Australian story should fill our hearts with pride and our eyes with tears. It is a story of the dispossessed and the outcast, redeemed through the innate goodness of humanity—a society challenged by nature, tested by war, enlarged by other cultures and blessed by such peace, prosperity and tolerance that we are now the envy of the earth.

  Almost 100 years ago, the founders of our constitution echoed Richard Johnson's sense of gratitude when they instituted this mighty Commonwealth, yet they declared themselves, in the words of our constitution, to be` humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God'. We have so much, yet almost everything we have we owe to someone else. If I can achieve anything at all in this place, I will owe it to the people of Warringah who have sent me here. If I can amount to anything at all in our national life, I will be indebted to my great predecessors whose shoes I struggle to fill: Michael MacKellar, who stood for the humane and the decent; Edward St John, who never shirked a fight in a good cause; and Sir Percy Spender, one of our greatest statesmen and international public servants.

  Bounded by water on three sides, boasting some of Sydney's largest tracts of urban bushland, containing a significant concentration of high technology industries, often set in green and open parks, Warringah is almost a Garden of Eden. Mackellar might be God's own country but Warringah is God's own garden. So it is my job to make more perfect what is already one of the best places in the world to live. In particular, it is my job first to help Warringah's 13,000 families with children who are heavily burdened by government policies and, second, to help find a solution to our transport problems which mean that Warringah is indeed the best place in the world to live, but only until you need to go somewhere else.

  When authority first came to the Warringah district, the inhabitants showed what they thought of government policies by spearing Governor Phillip in the shoulder. I hope I can be a similar goad to government, at least until such time as government serves my electorate better. One of the depressing features of modern Australia is the low esteem in which governments and politicians are generally held.

  Shortly after the by-election, some kind supporter gave me polling data which ranked the ethics and honesty of various occupations. Lawyers rated 30 per cent for ethics and honesty; stockbrokers ranked 15 per cent; and I was terrified to see that federal parliamentarians ranked just 10 per cent. Notwithstanding this, I feel very honoured to be here because newspaper journalists—my previous trade—scored just eight per cent.

  Perhaps we politicians have mostly ourselves to blame because we have neglected what government does well to indulge in what government does badly. The best way to restore politicians' standing is to have governments which meddle less and lead more; to have governments which stick to their traditional job of providing transfer payments and sponsoring national development but which stop playing the busybody in every nook and cranny of society. Above all, we need governments which believe in Australia and Australians as much as in the trappings of office, the dictates of ideology or the minutiae of policy.

  Loss of faith is a social problem extending far beyond politics and far beyond Australia. Throughout the Western world we are living through a pandemic of doubt and introspection in which people are questioning their God, their country and even themselves. Nothing is safe from the corrosive cynicism of modern times: neither political goodwill nor institutional benevolence nor even parental love. Our challenge is to answer uncertainty with conviction and to refute doubt with faith.

  This is not a matter of logical argument. No-one can be persuaded to believe. People must be inspired to believe; they must be picked up and carried along by other people—people who believe with heart and soul that no defeat is final, no unhappiness permanent and no evil invincible.

  Modern Australia is rightly concerned about unemployment, crime, family breakdown and social disintegration. But we are becoming preoccupied with problems and not answers. We must see each problem in its true setting: unemployment together with the new opportunities of a better trained work force; crime against the background of the greater complexity of modern life; family pressure against the higher expectations of people living longer; and social alienation against greater individual rights. It is absolutely vital that we Australians keep seeking solutions to all the difficulties in our homes, workplaces and neighbourhoods. But the real antidote to fear is hope, and the difference between despair and confidence is often just the very decision to try to make a difference—a decision based on a balanced appreciation of our true position.

  For the first 180 years or so of our national life, Australian government was an exercise in nation building. Government directed work gangs, encouraged settlers and rewarded explorers. In more modern times, government has launched the immigration program, which has helped to make our society so diverse and exciting; it has established the Snowy Mountains Scheme, which powers our cities and waters our farms; it has funded the universities, which are the basis of our technological edge; and it has sponsored much of the national development, which is the foundation of our prosperity.

  Yet some time in the recent past Australian government developed a strange affliction. Since Labor came to power in 1983, government has become a means for applying bandaids to social problems rather than an instrument for giving cohesion and purpose to our national life. Our government has policies to bring peace to Cambodia and to keep Antarctica clean. It has policies for unemployment and for making the sick well and the lame walk. But it has only bits and pieces of a policy to ensure that our nation will enter the next century in better shape than it is now. The government is like a householder who keeps fixing walls and mending floors, in a medley of styles often entirely at odds with the original design, plastering up the cracks without working out how the foundations are constantly shifting.

  In the quest to solve social problems, government reaches into our schools, our workplaces and even our bedrooms. Government tells us what we should think, whom we should like and how we should feel. But it has by and large given up trying to touch our hearts and make us realise that we Australians are a great people with a great destiny. The best that this government can do to lift people's gaze above the humdrum is tear a corner off the flag, undermine the Crown and attack the very constitution itself. This is the opposite, the absolute opposite of nation building, because it is guaranteed to tear Australians apart rather than bring us together.

  Yet there is no mystery in Australia's needs or voters' wants. There is no secret about what governments should do. As Edmund Burke said, governments are human contrivances to satisfy human wants. People expect governments to work—and I hope honourable members opposite recognise these lines—`for the betterment of mankind, not just here but wherever we can lend a helping hand', as Ben Chifley said in his `light on the hill' speech. There are some things which only individuals can do; there are other things which only governments can do; and there are many things which people can do better, provided governments help. So let people run their own lives and let government do what individuals cannot.

  I stand for active government, not big government. I stand for government which gets off people's backs, not government which opts out of the future because it cannot face hard decisions. I stand for government which backs Australia's families with real policies and not just platitudes.

  This government says that it is in favour of the family, all the time pursuing policies which make family life harder to sustain. At present, for instance, a single taxpayer on $30,000 a year after tax has about $445 a week to live on. A taxpayer on the same $30,000 a year but with a dependent spouse and two dependent children has just $495 a week to live on—and that is after tax, after the dependent spouse rebate and after family allowance. In other words, three extra people to clothe, feed, house, educate and transport and just $50 a week extra with which to do it.

  Family policy needs to begin with a recognition that our existing tax and welfare system turns middle income families with children into Australia's new poor. Families are best helped not by argument over definitions but by policies which help the children—the children who are this country's greatest asset and our most golden hope.

  One way to help families with children is to change the tax system to take account of taxpayers' responsibilities as well as their income. A family-friendly tax system stresses self-help and individual responsibility. But the problem with income splitting, at least in its simplest form between husband and wife, is that it helps high income earners more than low income earners and couples without dependants as much as those with the responsibility for children. While voters have shown an innate mistrust of radical change to the tax system, everyone understands and hardly anyone objects to a cash payment. So one alternative to income splitting is to raise the current level of family allowances to such an extent that they become, in reality, a family wage; in other words, to pay the principal carers of children a substantial sum far in excess of current family allowance, a sum which acknowledges the real cost of raising children.

  Paying the principal carer a family wage of, for argument's sake, $100 a week for the first child would virtually cover the cost of child care, if the principal carer wanted to continue in the paid work force. Alternatively, if the principal carer preferred to be a full-time mother or father, $100 a week would make a big difference to the family budget and quite possibly eliminate the need for both parents to work just to make ends meet.

  Many have a philosophical preference for tax splitting rather than a cash payment. But a family wage is quite different from welfare. It is a recognition of responsibilities, not need. It is a payment for services, not a handout. It means that personal choice could replace economic necessity as a rationale for family decisions. One beauty of a family wage system, unlike a tax rebate, is that it would take one public servant, just one, and a computer to administer. Payments would start the moment a birth is recorded on the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages database and finish 16 years later.

  The budgetary cost of introducing a family wage of $100 a week for the first child and $30 a week for each subsequent child would be about $7.5 billion a year. It is worth remembering that this was the approximate size of Labor's One Nation personal income tax cuts, which were to be funded entirely out of economic growth. The cost of not providing more help for families is more family breakdown, greater call on the welfare system, increased crime and further social instability.

  The vast majority of families would be much better off under a family wage policy. For instance, a family with three children on $30,000 a year now receives just $30 a week in family allowance. Under a family wage policy, this family would receive $160 a week. The vast majority of families, those with two or fewer children, would be more than $90 a week better off. It is possible to help families in ways which involve no radical surgery to our system, ways which are financially responsible and ways which avoid debilitating debate about definitions. But it takes a government that is committed to the long-term welfare of society to do so rather than a government which is preoccupied with the short-term management of pressure groups.

  Governments which live in fear of tomorrow's headline are incapable of any change—even change which gives the overwhelming majority of Australians exactly what they want. It is abundantly clear, for instance, that the people of Warringah are heartily sick of clogged roads. So I congratulate the New South Wales transport minister, Bruce Baird, for establishing a committee to investigate alternatives and to recommend a solution. It seems that a road tunnel under Military Road with a better crossing at The Spit can be built with just $30 million of taxpayers' money. By contrast, the most publicised mass transit system is estimated to require a taxpayer subsidy of some $600 million and is predicated on higher population densities in the peninsula.

  It would be a tragedy for the people of Warringah if an anti-car mentality stopped development which would help all Warringah commuters, including those who travel on public transport, especially if that development does not require any extension of medium or high density housing to be financially viable and does not preclude the construction of a mass transit system. The government's job is not to lay rails, shift earth and pour concrete. The government's job is to make necessary development happen. Say the word and private enterprise will do the job and very possibly build and operate huge infrastructure projects at no cost to the taxpayer.

  Australians rightly object to higher taxes because they observe that most government spending disappears down a bottomless well. Government often seems like an evening out—it costs a fortune and in the morning there is little to show for all the expense. But it is my hunch that people would be less hostile to paying tax if they were more confident they were investing in lasting assets rather than $200,000 carports, $170,000 barbecues and $63,000 bicycle accidents. For most of Labor's decade, we have enjoyed the day by mortgaging the morrow. The $6.5 billion currently spent servicing the Commonwealth government's own debt could pay for a host of national development projects, including a Warringah mass transit system.

  Mr Speaker, standing before you in this chamber, which is heir to 700 years of parliamentary tradition, I feel like a very small boy in a very big school. To my parents and to my grandparents; to my sisters, who have made me what I am; to my wife, my mainstay; to my priceless friends; to my party, which has given me the privilege to serve, I give my heartfelt thanks. To the Jesuits who first encouraged an ideal of public service; to Bob Santamaria, who sparked my interest in politics; to several editors, who honed my way with words; to John Hewson, who introduced me to this place; and to John Howard, who has been the contemporary politician I admire most, I hope I can be true to the principles you taught. May God and the ghosts of great men give me strength. May those who have laboured greatly to build this nation fortify my resolve to make a worthy contribution in this House.

  Honourable members—Hear, hear!