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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 127

Senator SANTORO (4:36 PM) —Let me say at the outset that it is good to be back and good to see you presiding again, Mr Acting Deputy President. Yesterday, when the Governor-General addressed the parliament and set out the government's agenda, he reflected on the magnitude of the victory that the Howard government achieved at the ballot box on 9 October. It was a great victory. As the Prime Minister famously observed, there are occasions on which some quiet and reflective celebration is in order. I am sure that the Prime Minister has enjoyed his occasion for such sensible celebration, as all of us on this side of the chamber will have done. It was a historic victory—a historic victory for the commonsense and enterprise of the people of Australia.

They were offered two puddings and sensibly chose the one that could actually be eaten. They left the magic pudding alone and sent away those who had confected it to reflect in turn on their monumental misjudgment of the issues, the remedies they offered for imaginary ills and the mood of the Australian people. In particularly spectacular form, those opposite misjudged the mood of the people of my state of Queensland. We returned two additional Liberal members to the House of Representatives in Ross Vasta and Andrew Laming—and I take this opportunity to congratulate them here today—and two additional coalition senators from next July in Nationals senator-elect Barnaby Joyce and the man whose election as the third Liberal candidate on the ticket delivered a Senate majority to the government, Dr Russell Trood.

There can be no arguing that the government won a substantial mandate for further workplace relations reforms, particularly those reforms to small business arrangements that the Labor Party and the minor parties have shamelessly blocked in this place 41 times in the past eight years. If the Howard government has a mandate for health reforms—as Labor's health spokeswoman, Julia Gillard, says is the case—then how much more of a mandate does the government have for small business workplace reforms that have now been to the people repeatedly? If it wants to, the Labor Party can hang in there—or rather, in here—until July. It can continue fiddling like Nero while its dreams—or, should I say, its delusions—burn around it. There is nothing to stop it doing so—nothing, that is, except a determination to ignore democratic reality—and nothing to stop it delaying still further the return to reality that it so desperately needs to achieve.

It would be better if the Labor Party truly woke up to itself. If it has finally done the maths properly—and if having done so it has made the essential connection between private sector union membership levels sunk well below 20 per cent and still sinking and its party's punishing last round with the Australian voter—it should not wait until July to have yet another decision taken out of its hands. It should vote for fairer unfair dismissal rules for little local businesses right now. It should reflect on the fact that this is 2004, not 1904. It should reflect on the fact that the people have spoken—that on this issue the people have spoken repeatedly—and it should act according to the democratic conscience it says it has and which it must have if it is to regain the people's trust.

We can see the positive effects of the Howard government's strong economic policy base and financial responsibility in the latest employment figures. In October we recorded a 5.3 per cent trend in the unemployment rate nationally, the lowest in 27 years. In Queensland unemployment fell to five per cent on a trend basis. Queensland is the primary beneficiary of the Howard government's financial and taxation reforms. No wonder the Prime Minister, in his remarks in his media doorstop interview last Thursday, felt justified in continuing to reflect quietly on his and his government's triumph. He said this:

These are fantastic figures. A great human dividend from good economic policy.

No wonder he went on to say, at that same doorstop:

The figures could go even lower if we could get our unfair dismissal laws through Parliament. We could have a four in front of the unemployment figures if we could get those unfair dismissal changes through. So I hope that all who have opposed those changes in the past will reconsider their position.

There is no denying that the economic news is good for Australia and Australians. People see good prospects for themselves and their families under the sound economic and social management policies of the Howard government. However, we need to guard against complacency—that is the sensible reminder behind the Prime Minister's post-election advice to reflect on the result with quiet satisfaction rather than with a rush of blood to the head. On this side of the chamber we are forever guarding against complacency.

In relation to complacency and the unemployment rate, however, it is worth reminding those opposite of what the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said on the subject on the day the October figures were released. It said:

These good results need to be consolidated and improved upon. There are still 545,900 unemployed people in Australia, and many more are marginally attached to the labour market. We need to ensure that reforms continue to ensure these people obtain opportunities to work.

That is precisely what the Howard government has been trying to do in the small business area. And that is precisely what the Labor Party and the minor parties have stymied every time—the 41 times that those measures to protect small businesses from unaffordable costs associated with unfair dismissal claims have come before them in this chamber.

The Howard government is a government that promotes economic growth, industrial freedom—that is, freedom for businesses to profit and freedom for employees to earn more—and energetic enterprise. The fact is that Labor is suspicious of entrepreneurs. In the election campaign just past, it proposed economic policies that would have weakened Australia's capacity to foster an enterprise culture. Labor has a nanny-state approach that seeks to expand the regulation of our economy and society. It is the exact opposite of what the government has proposed—and of what Australians have endorsed—for the future of our country. The Labor Party would do every Australian a favour by making sweeping changes to its economic policies. It would certainly do everyone in Queensland a favour by taking this small step for mankind and so giant a step for the ALP.

Perhaps the seven Labor representatives from Queensland who featured in the page 2 photo in the Courier-Mail yesterday—it looked like a conga line, but I am sure it cannot have been—and who represent the bulk of the opposition's federal numbers in the state, should seriously consider increasing the firepower of their advice to their leader and shadow cabinet in the area of workplace relations. The fact is that the re-elected Howard government—the fourth term Howard government which comes to office with a renewed mandate and an active legislative program, as well as with some unfinished business, courtesy of those opposite—has a clear mandate to implement changes in the workplace relations arena.

Of course, there is a lot more to governing in the interests of the 20 million people who make up Australia than just workplace relations, important though that is. There is health, particularly the improvements to Medicare that were promised during the election campaign and which Labor, sensibly, indicates should be implemented. Only last week we saw figures that indicated a nationwide lift of more than five per cent in bulk-billing rates. Our 100 per cent policy will lift that even further and help cement Medicare in its reformed condition as a health care system that will guarantee Australians get the services they need when and where they need them.

There is education, where reading competence in school students has put an urgent focus on remedial efforts being so ably led by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson. Under my good friend the Minister for Vocational and Technical Education, Mr Hardgrave, who was returned with a substantial voting bonus in his Brisbane electorate of Moreton on 9 October, this forward looking government is implementing vocational education reforms. Tenders have just been called for initial expressions of interest for 24 federally funded technical colleges to be run independently of the state TAFE systems. There is action continuing to redress the gender balance in teaching ranks, so little Australians get a genuine reflection in their classrooms of the essential—and wholly beneficial—differences between the female and the male of our species. There is to be direct-to-schools federal funding of education infrastructure that will bypass state education bureaucracy and the separate political agendas of state governments.

This is truly a time for looking forward. As the Governor-General said in his address to the parliament yesterday—an event delivered with all the ceremony that such an occasion demands and which is so much part of our heritage, history and evolved practice—the government has an ambitious fourth-term agenda. It is based on the overriding commitment of the Howard government to ensuring that the Australian economy remains strong. Let us not forget that under this government our economy has led the OECD world in growth rates and fiscal responsibility through some otherwise very dangerous and difficult times indeed. Let us not forget that productivity growth remains high and that future prosperity spreads throughout the community.

On that front, I want to say a few words about an issue that I believe is pressing. It is not so much about productivity on the waterfront being held back by inadequate infrastructure or even about the unique constitutional arrangements under which we govern ourselves as a federation; it is a much more practical thing. Federalism works best when it is clear which level of government is responsible for what service is being delivered. Federalism works best when there is a clear division of responsibility. It is counterproductive and, frankly, tiresome to hear—as we do these days ad nauseam—that this government is busy doing things that state or territory governments or another level of government are also doing. Of course it is always hard to divvy up responsibilities between political jurisdictions. It can be a complex matter constitutionally too, given the significant and, I believe, beneficial sovereignty that individual states have within our system of government.

There is no doubt that, even though we are a nation of only 20 million, our geographic extent and climatic and environmental diversity demand a strong system of decentralised government. This parliament legislates for all Australians, the states legislate for their areas and local governments administer communities, but I suggest that we must, and in fact can, do all of this a lot better. We must reach a national compact on how Australians, wherever they live within our borders, are delivered the best and most cost-effective services from their governments. To my mind, that is a great national project that has for too long been hidden away in the too-hard basket. It has become an area of national debate that the colourless self-interest of parochialism has all but strangled. We see it in such sterile politicking as, in the instance of my state, governments claiming credit for results that principally flow from national policy decisions and particularly from national economic management.

Last week the Premier of Queensland made great play of his achievement of a five per cent unemployment rate. He had promised a five per cent unemployment rate when he was opposition leader in Queensland in 1997. The fact that Queensland produced 93,000 jobs in the 12 months to October 2004 is absolutely wonderful, and I go on the record as stating that. But to crow about how this was 44 per cent of all new jobs in Australia and 55 per cent of full-time jobs and to portray this as a political plus for the state and thereby automatically a negative for others is to descend, I would suggest, into crass politics.

Without the strong and burgeoning national economy that the national government—the Australian government, the Howard government—has fostered through sound policy development and implementation over the eight-plus years it has been in office, Premier Beattie would have nothing to crow or to shout about. Without the massive increase in Commonwealth funding flows to Queensland created by the politically risk-free GST—introduced by the Howard government and opposed by every Labor government in Australia at the time, particularly the Beattie Labor government—he would similarly have had no way, short of even more ruinous raids on government owned enterprise reinvestment capital, to hand out hefty pay rises to his public service and put on more public employees.

It is small business that drives the Queensland economy, and I can tell Premier Beattie that small business does not run on hot air. The Howard government has given the states the first genuine growth tax they have had since they ceded income-taxing powers to the Commonwealth in 1942. All the states have benefited mightily—Queensland best of all for all sorts of reasons—and will benefit even more mightily in the future. That was one measure of tax reform we desperately needed. I suggest that we need to debate further measures of tax reform. This is an area of reform that I propose to address when I have the honour of officially opening the World Taxpayers Association conference at the Gold Coast on Friday.

The business community is less concerned with the detail of political arrangements than with the practical side of tax arrangements—and that is fair enough—but just yesterday in the Australian the Chief Executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mr Peter Hendy, contributed an interesting article that said taxation reform is not just desirable; it is necessary. Mr Hendy and other business representatives want to see a second wave of tax reform that builds on the Howard government's 2000 reforms made an urgent priority.

The tax issue, along with other matters of vital importance to the business community in Australia, has been the focus too of a lot of well-thought-out advocacy by the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group. The Ai Group, for example, has recently surveyed regional business and industry and found that, by and large, regional firms outperform their big city brothers. It found that, while regional firms fell slightly behind their metropolitan counterparts on indicators such as financial strength and skills and productivity, they outperformed them on business leadership, investment in skills and employee participation. That margin should be a significant factor in future long-term planning. And speaking of long-term planning, the Business Council of Australia has called on federal and state governments and the private sector to consider a range of measures to counteract what it calls excessive `short-termism' in Australia.

As a nation, we do need to give more weight to long-term returns rather than to short-term gains. Certainly, such a wide debate encompassing many facets of government and administration should help inform how we meet the challenges of governance. We must work out how to make our Federation work better and we must do it urgently. Equally, we need to meet the pressing challenge of demographic change brought about by falling natural birthrates and the ageing of the post-World War II baby boomers. The tax argument is pointedly relevant to discussion about making federalism work in the area of state taxation, the bulk of which is regressive, much of which is antibusiness and too much of which is cumbersome and confusing.

I believe Australians want their communities to be run locally, in the interests of their local community. Of course, this must accord with agreed national priorities and these must be tested regularly on the anvil of the ballot box. How we govern ourselves must also meet the unique requirements of our decentralised communities. It is perhaps said too often but it really is the case that government works best when those doing the governing, of whatever aspect of affairs, are the closest possible to the people.

There is a huge role for local government in managing local amenity and performing basic level services. There is a large and, I believe, growing role for the state and territory governments in delivering services that are beyond the capacity of local communities to provide. Above that, there are clear national priorities that only the national level of government can provide. Among these I would number taxation arrangements and national education standards.

On defence and national security the Howard government has been exemplary both in protecting the home front and in projecting Australia into the newly dangerous world as a force for good and a friend to be counted on. It might go further with reforms and in fact I think it should. We certainly need, in the common market that we created between the new states at federation, nationally applicable business laws and regulations governing workplaces, employment and much more besides.

I began this speech on workplace relations and that is an appropriate topic on which to end because, far more than anything else, it is workplace relations that determine how enterprises can prosper and profit, and their employees with them. I do not say that unions have had their day: far from it. But they certainly need to acquire some actual relevance—outside the realm of the shibboleths with which they and the Labor Party apparently still wish to live—to the modern workplace. It is crucial to have an effective system of workplace representation. The question is whether the monolithic union system of the past is capable of providing this, particularly when, in the private sector, trade unionists comprise only 17.7 per cent of the work force and most awards are effectively safety net awards.

Our philosophy as Liberals is to empower people—to provide them with the means to govern their own lives and to make their own choices. If that is the underlying promise of the fourth Howard Government, whose program was formally set out in this chamber yesterday by our head of state—and I believe it is—then we are well on the way to becoming a freer, more prosperous, more secure and more capable Australia. And that is the best news any Australian could hear.