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Tuesday, 12 February 2008
Page: 2

His Excellency the Governor-General entered the chamber and, being seated, with the President on his right hand, commanded that a message be sent to the House of Representatives intimating that His Excellency desired the attendance of honourable members in the Senate chamber.

Honourable members having come with their Speaker, His Excellency was pleased to deliver the following speech:

Honourable senators and members of the Parliament of Australia:

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today. I also acknowledge their traditional wisdom and enduring history and culture.

Introduction

On 24 November 2007, Australians voted to elect a new government.

As one of the world’s oldest democracies, it is easy for us to take elections for granted and to fail to appreciate how fortunate we are to live in a nation where governments change hands peacefully as a result of the free expression of the will of the people.

We have just witnessed a change of government, an event that has happened on just six occasions in the past 60 years.

Regardless of any partisan affiliation, all Australians can celebrate the success of our democracy when such changes can occur so seamlessly and with such goodwill.

The new Australian government that was sworn into office on 3 December 2007 is committed to a plan to build a modern Australia equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century.

This plan includes the following priorities:

  • strengthening the nation’s long-term economic prospects by prosecuting a new productivity agenda, together with a comprehensive strategy to combat inflation, built on a strong budget surplus and a plan of action on skills and infrastructure; a plan for a ranging program of reform to build over time a world-class education system through early childhood education, computers in schools for all year 9 to 12 students, investing in trades training centres in schools and rebuilding our universities;
  • national leadership in infrastructure development coordinated through Infrastructure Australia;
  • a comprehensive plan to respond to the threat of dangerous climate change that includes ratifying the Kyoto protocol, establishing for the first time a national emissions trading scheme and an ambitious national renewable energy target; long-term measures to begin dealing with urban and rural and regional water supply;
  • reforming our national industrial relations laws to reflect an appropriate balance between fairness and flexibility;
  • a plan to reform the health and hospitals system;
  • increasing the availability of child care as well as increasing the childcare tax rebate;
  • a plan of reforming the Federation by forming partnerships with the states and territories to tackle the legitimate demands of working families for the delivery of better services from all levels of government;
  • strengthening Australia’s national and international efforts to act on emerging and continuing threats to our security, as well as articulating an independent voice in the councils of the world;
  • tackling the growing problem of housing affordability and homelessness; and
  • acting on reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples through an apology to the stolen generations and developing a plan of action to help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

Economic management

In recent months the world economy has entered a period of greater uncertainty.

Although Australia has in recent years benefited from favourable global economic conditions, in particular the rise of China and the global resources boom, the future is uncertain, with downward revisions in global economic growth arising in part from recent developments in the US financial market.

At the same time, on the home front, inflationary pressures have been building over the past several years, creating a further threat to our long-term economic growth.

The government has been mindful of these conflicting economic currents in developing its five-point plan on inflation.

The plan is focused first on fiscal restraint, with the government aiming to deliver a budget surplus of 1.5 per cent of GDP in 2008-09.

Second, the government is examining options to improve private savings.

Third, it will tackle the chronic skills shortages that have been driving inflationary pressure in many areas of the economy for some years.

Fourth is a plan of action on infrastructure bottlenecks.

And, fifth, the government aims to act on the workforce participation rate by providing practical ways of helping people re-enter the workforce.

The government is committed to maintaining a strong budgetary position by adhering to a medium-term fiscal strategy that keeps the budget in surplus, on average, over the economic cycle; by reprioritising existing expenditure; and by maximising public sector efficiency.

Economic reform

The government is also committed to improving the quality of government by focusing on outlays that boost the long-term productive capacity of the economy—rather than consumption.

Building long-term productivity growth following many years of declining productivity growth is a core priority of the nation if we are to have improved living standards for working families into the future.

The government’s productivity agenda includes reforms to education, infrastructure, innovation, workplace relations and reforming the Federation.

Central to the government’s productivity agenda is its commitment to building a world-class education system. The government’s long-term ambition is to produce the best-educated workforce in the world. The rest of the world is not standing still, as they invest billions into human capital.

The government is committed to a plan of action to prevent Australia falling further behind against critical global benchmarks. That is why the government is committed to an education revolution.

Advanced infrastructure is critically important to raising Australia’s productivity in the long term.

The government, in cooperation with the states and territories, will focus on better coordination of infrastructure planning and investment—both public and private.

Nationally consistent public-private partnerships will be critical in this regard.

Infrastructure Australia will be established to improve planning and coordination of Australia’s transport, water and energy infrastructure.

The government will also work with the private sector to build a high-speed national broadband network—the critical infrastructure platform of the 21st century, with the capacity to fundamentally transform business, to overcome much of the tyranny of distance and to boost productivity growth.

Innovation is another key driver of productivity and economic growth. The government aims to foster a culture of innovation by strengthening investment in creativity and knowledge generation.

It will establish the Enterprise Connect Network to link business with new ideas and technology. Incentives for business research and development will be focused on lifting investment and competitiveness.

The office of Chief Scientist will once again become a full-time position.

The Commonwealth is establishing a new framework for cooperative Commonwealth-state relations in order to take practical steps to rationalise intergovernmental responsibilities and achieve better outcomes in areas of national priority.

The Council of Australian Governments, COAG, recognised at its meeting in December 2007 that there is a need for greater cooperation between Commonwealth and state governments and this should be an immediate priority.

Commonwealth-state funding arrangements will focus more on outputs and outcomes, underpinned by a commitment from the Commonwealth government to provide incentive payments to drive reforms.

At the December COAG meeting, Australian heads of government identified the regulatory burden on business as an impediment to efficiency that needs to be lifted.

Priority areas for action that have been identified include occupational health and safety regulation, payroll tax administration, building codes, trade and professional recognition, simplified accounting methods for the hospitality sector and simplification of the business activity statement.

The government is therefore committed to a significant agenda of economic reform across the spectrum of human capital, physical capital and regulatory reform—with the overriding agenda of building long-term productivity growth.

Work and family

Workplace arrangements should deliver flexibility for employers and employees, fair wages and conditions, productive work practices and a balance between work and family responsibilities.

To meet these objectives, the government will be introducing a new workplace relations system.

In its first legislative act, the government will abolish the capacity to make Australian workplace agreements.

The new workplace relations system will provide a strong safety net of minimum conditions, the right to bargain collectively for wages and conditions and fairness for both employers and employees if an employee is dismissed.

These elements will ensure that employees can fully participate in the benefits of a growing economy, while fostering productivity growth and low inflation.

The government is committed to further measures that will relieve the pressures on working parents and help them to get the balance right as they juggle their work and family responsibilities.

The government’s initiatives in this area include:

  • more flexible parental leave;
  • an increased focus on high-quality early childhood education and child care; and
  • assistance to small businesses wanting to develop family-friendly practices.

Ensuring that parents have access to affordable, high-quality child care that helps them to balance their work and family responsibilities is a high priority for the government.

To further assist parents with the cost of child care, the government will increase the childcare tax rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of out-of-pocket childcare costs.

The government will also improve access to quality child care through the establishment of up to 260 new childcare centres on school, TAFE, university and community sites, and through the introduction of a five-star quality rating system.

Families will also benefit from the introduction of universal access to early childhood education for all four-year-olds for 15 hours per week and 40 weeks per year, and the national rollout of the Australian Early Development Index, which will help communities throughout Australia understand how children are developing by the time they reach school age.

Education

The government was elected on a platform of implementing major changes to Australia’s education system, with the aim of achieving higher standards and better results at every level of education from early childhood to mature age.

The government believes that lifting the quantity of investment in education and the quality of educational outcomes is highly important to Australia’s long-term productivity growth and economic prosperity.

The government will provide universal access to high-quality early childhood education for Australian children so they can build foundations for lifelong learning.

In schools, there will be a major focus on reforms to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes and lift year 12 retention rates.

The development of a national curriculum in the key areas of mathematics, science, English, history and Asian languages aims to ensure high, nationally consistent standards for all students across Australia.

In partnership with the states and territories, the government will work to enhance schools’ educational infrastructure.

Funding of $2.5 billion will be provided for secondary schools to build or upgrade trade training centres over the next 10 years.

The government will invest $1 billion in the provision of computers for year 9 to 12 students and faster broadband connections to schools.

The government will also create an additional 450,000 training places over four years, including 65,000 extra apprenticeships, with the first 20,000 places to be available from April 2008.

These initiatives will enhance employment prospects for young Australians and address critical skills shortages.

In higher education, the demand for graduates in maths, science and early childhood education will be addressed through incentives for graduates in relevant occupations, including the teaching profession.

To help attract and retain the best talent, the government will improve and expand the Commonwealth Scholarships Program for both undergraduates and postgraduates and offer new four-year fellowships valued at $140,000 a year to 1,000 leading researchers.

Domestic undergraduate full-fee-paying places at public universities will be phased out.

Health

The government is committed to ending the blame game between Canberra and the states and territories on health and hospitals.

The government believes the Australian people deserve better than a culture of buck-passing between levels of government.

That is why health and hospitals form such a vital part of the COAG reform agenda for 2008.

The government understands that this reform task will not be easy and success is far from guaranteed.

Working closely with the states and territories, reform will focus on funding for improving performance and health outcomes in key areas across the health system, including:

  • pressures on emergency departments;
  • elective surgery waiting lists beyond clinically acceptable time frames;
  • the intersection between aged care and the hospital system; and
  • better integration of preventative health care to tackle challenges such as obesity and chronic disease.

This includes funding to the states and territories to act on elective surgery waiting lists, funding for GP superclinics, increasing the number of operational aged-care places and providing additional nurses for our healthcare system.

Importantly, more support will be provided to health services in rural communities.  

Beyond these programs, the government will re-establish the Commonwealth Dental Care Program.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians have been waiting years to have the most basic dental work done.

That is why the government will commit $290 million to fund up to one million extra dental consultations over three years.

Failure to act on dental health is bad for general health, bad for self-esteem and bad for those seeking to break the unemployment cycle.

Climate change and water

The government considers that climate change represents one of Australia’s greatest long-term economic and environmental challenges.

Scientific evidence continues to underscore the seriousness of the threat of climate change and the urgency of action that is needed at a global, national and local level.

In one of its first actions, the Australian government ratified the Kyoto protocol and so joined the community of nations in the truly global challenge facing our common humanity.

The government intends to play an active and significant role in the post-Bali negotiations to develop a comprehensive new agreement on climate change.

The government has committed to reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent on 2000 levels by 2050.

A major study to help Australia set robust shorter-term emission reduction targets will report in mid-2008.

To help Australia meet its emissions reductions goals, a national emissions trading scheme will be established by the end of 2010.

The government will also set a 20 per cent target for renewable energy by 2020 to expand the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

The Commonwealth will work cooperatively with the states and territories to tackle the water crisis and respond to the impacts of climate change, including in the Murray-Darling Basin that supports over 40 per cent of Australia’s food production.

The government will invest in modernising irrigation infrastructure and purchasing water entitlements from willing sellers to put our river systems on a sustainable footing.

A $1 billion fund will be established to invest in new and reliable water supplies for urban Australia—including desalination and recycling—and rebates will be available for families to invest in water conservation at home.

The prolonged and severe dry conditions in parts of Australia have had a serious impact on the livelihood of rural Australia.

While recent weeks have seen rains in many parts of Australia, long-term water shortages remain an acute concern.

The government will implement climate change adaptation programs to help support farmers in adapting farming practices as they face the changing climate.

The government’s drought policy will ensure that farmers receiving government assistance are better prepared to deal with the increasing frequency of dry conditions predicted for the future.

Housing

The government plans several measures to address challenges relating to housing affordability and homelessness.

Homeownership is out of reach for many Australian families, and many Australian cities are experiencing large increases in rental costs and a shortage of rental stock.

This is of particular concern because the current shortage of housing supply affects the most disadvantaged people in the Australian community.  

The government will establish first home saver accounts—accounts that reward disciplined savings with government contributions.

These will help people save a larger home deposit and will improve affordability.

The government will also increase housing supply and make houses less expensive—by releasing Commonwealth land for housing, by investing $500 million in housing-linked infrastructure and by providing financial incentives to encourage private sector investment in affordable rental properties.

The government understands there is no single solution to the crisis in housing affordability.

Any attempt at improving affordability needs to involve the three levels of government working together with the community and private sectors.

A national housing strategy will be implemented. Working with the states, territories and local government, a National Housing Affordability Agreement will be developed which incorporates measures to improve housing affordability for home buyers, renters and public housing tenants.

Social inclusion

The government will implement a new policy agenda focused on social inclusion. The focus on social inclusion aims to improve the opportunities for all Australians to participate fully in Australian economic and social life.

In working to advance social inclusion, the government will work in close partnership with state, territory and local governments, business and the not-for-profit sector.

Policies that aim to improve social inclusion and address disadvantage include the government’s commitment to halve the number of homeless people turned away from homeless services each year, for the next five years; universal access to preschool for four-year-old children; a national action plan on literacy and numeracy; establishing a dental health program; halving the gap in mortality rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children under the age of five within a decade; achieving a 90 per cent year 12 retention rate by 2020; and developing a national employment strategy for those with a disability or mental illness. 

Indigenous policy

The government is committed to advancing reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, beginning with a formal apology to the stolen generations and extending to a range of initiatives aimed at closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in health outcomes and educational achievement.

Across the Australian community, there is a strong sense that we have more work to do to bring about reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

One of the great privileges of serving in the office of Governor-General is the opportunity to see and experience so much of our nation’s rich Indigenous cultures.

Serving in this role also makes one more acutely aware that, while we have made progress, we still have a distance to travel.

The richness of Indigenous culture is often under-recognised, and as a nation we have much to learn about the history of Indigenous Australians—a history that stretches over 60,000 years.

The government’s intention to develop a national curriculum in history offers the prospect that more of this history could be incorporated into our education programs.

The apology to the stolen generations that will go before the parliament tomorrow represents an important further step towards reconciliation, and I commend the intention to you, honourable members and senators, and indeed all Australians, as worthy of your support.

The government acknowledges Indigenous affairs as a key priority.

The government will seek to rebuild the relationship with Indigenous people and communities based on respect, and involve Indigenous leaders and communities in important decisions.

Working with COAG partners, the government intends to focus on closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage, focusing on three specific areas:

  • closing the 17-year life expectancy gap within a generation;
  • halving the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade; and
  • halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements within a decade.

National security and international relations

The government intends to strengthen Australia’s relationship with both traditional allies and regional partners, while also re-engaging with Australia’s tradition of active middle-power diplomacy to address the range of transnational challenges that will define our future, including the threat of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, new threats to border security, human security, as well as the impact of climate change.

Australia’s alliance with the United States will remain central to Australia’s strategic interests.

A stronger working relationship between Australia and the United Nations is also a priority.

The government’s support for the United Nations and multilateral approaches recognises that cooperative engagement is a core means of securing long-term peace and development.  

The government will also work to strengthen relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific region in light of its importance to Australia’s economic prosperity and regional stability.

The government recognises that there are both immediate and potential longer term threats to Australia’s national security.

The government will develop a national security strategy statement to guide our military, police, diplomatic and international assistance efforts as we face the security challenges of the 21st century.

The government will commission a defence white paper to guide defence capability and ensure that defence expenditure provides the Defence Force that Australia needs.

In consultation with the United States, the United Kingdom and Iraq, the government will withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq at the end of the next rotation, due for completion in mid-2008.

To contribute to a secure and stable Iraq, Australia will enhance its humanitarian and development assistance to Iraq.

Australian troops will continue to be deployed in Afghanistan as part of the international force in that region.

The government is also committed to stability and security in our immediate region, where the Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police perform crucial stabilisation and support roles in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

The government is committed to strengthening Australia’s export performance.

The multilateral trading system and the World Trade Organisation Doha Round negotiations will be placed at the centre of Australia’s trade policy. Australia will continue to support regional and bilateral free trade agreements which are compatible with, and enhance, multilateral outcomes.

Measures will also be taken to lift Australia’s export competitiveness.

During recent years there has been a growing recognition that, with coordinated international efforts, major progress can be made on reducing global poverty.

The government will lift Australia’s contribution to these efforts in support of the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals.

The government will increase the level of Australia’s overseas development assistance to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015-16.

Australia’s aid program will play a critical role in promoting economic development, reducing instability and improving governance in the South Pacific. 

Governance and transparency

The government will implement new measures to help make government more accessible to the community and more transparent in its decision making.

The government will hold regular community cabinet meetings in capital cities, regional towns and remote communities across Australia.

The government began this in Perth in January.

These meetings will give Australians from all walks of life the opportunity to talk to government ministers on a broad range of national and local issues.

The government is seeking to prepare Australia for the challenges of the future.

To do so, it has stated its preparedness to listen to the ideas that Australians have for the future of our country.

On 19 and 20 April, the government will convene an Australia 2020 Summit.

This summit will bring together 1,000 of Australia’s best and brightest minds to discuss and debate Australia’s long-term future.

The government is committed to then examining the policy ideas that arise from the summit and reporting back on them later in the year.

The government wants to leave no stone unturned to ensure Australia is on the right track for the future—and that means listening to Australians to hear their ideas for our country’s future.

It is important for the nation to lift its planning horizon beyond the three-year electoral cycle and to begin serious planning for the decade ahead and beyond.

Laws relating to government information will be enhanced by promoting a culture of disclosure and transparency.

This includes enhanced budget transparency by providing greater disclosure of accessible and useful government financial information.

A Freedom of Information Commissioner will be appointed to take overall responsibility for access to government information and improve review processes.

Conclusion

The Australian government is committed to building a modern Australia capable of meeting the challenges of the future.

It is committed to bringing a fresh approach to governing.

It is committed to being a government that listens to the Australian people, that consults with the Australian people and that is upfront with the Australian people on the problems it can solve—and the problems that lie beyond the powers of any government to solve.

The Australian government has a vision for Australia’s long-term future.

The government wants to seize the great opportunities that lie before us and make Australia competitive on every level with the rest of the world, with the aim of making this great country of ours an even greater place in which to live.

Sitting suspended from 3.48 pm to 5.00 pm

The PRESIDENT (Senator the Hon. Alan Ferguson) read prayers.


The PRESIDENT —I inform the Senate that I have received a copy of the opening speech which His Excellency the Governor-General was pleased to deliver to both houses of the parliament.

Ordered that consideration of the Governor-General’s opening speech be made an order of the day for the next day of sitting.