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A sense of balance: the Australian achievement in 2006: Australia Day address to the National Press Club [and] Questions and answers.

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25 January 2006



A sense of balance: The Australian Achievement in 2006 Tomorrow, with a simple yet eloquent pledge, about 14,000 people from more than 70 countries of origin will become Australian citizens. This Australia Day celebration of citizenship embodies a profound truth and a simple irony.

The truth is that people come to this country because they want to become Australians. The irony is that no institution or code lays down precisely what that means.

Such is the nature of our free society. No one sits a test of Australianness.

It would, however, be a crushing mistake to downplay the hopes and expectations of our national family. We expect all who come here to make an overriding commitment to Australia, its laws and its democratic values. We expect them to master the common language of English and we will help them to do so.

We want them to learn about our history and heritage. And we expect each unique individual who joins our national journey to enrich it with their loyalty and their patriotism.

Australia is a magnet for people from all corners of the globe not because of what it might become, but because of what it has become. It harvests the hopes and dreams of mankind because of the quality of life it offers the ordinary citizen - lives of opportunity and belonging; of growth and of balance.

This achievement is higher, rarer and more precious than we commonly suppose.


Not so long ago, the Economist Intelligence Unit released a ranking of life in major cities around the world. It found that of the 12 most liveable cities on earth, five of them are in Australia.

Of the top dozen, almost half in one country, this country with only a third of one per cent of the world’s people. This remarkable achievement went largely unnoticed in our public debate.

Yet it evokes what, to my mind, is the secret of Australia’s greatness - our sense of balance. Today I want to locate this nation’s sense of balance at the centre of the modern Australian achievement and to explore its character.

! the balance in our economic life between the public and the private; ! the balance in our national identity between unity and diversity; ! the balance between history and geography in our global strategy; and ! the balance in our politics between rights and democratic responsibility.

Balance is as crucial to a well-ordered society as it is to a full human life. It should not be mistaken for taking the middle road or splitting the difference. Nor does it imply a state that is static or a nation at rest.

Quite the opposite. A sense of balance is the handmaiden of national growth and renewal. It helps us to respond creatively to an uncertain world with a sense of proportion.

Keeping our balance means we reform and evolve so as to remain a prosperous, secure and united nation. It also means we retain those cherished values, beliefs and customs that have served us so well in the past.

Our political economy

The great struggle of Australia’s first century of nationhood was to reconcile a market economy with a fair and decent society. At the start of the 21st century, we have found a healthier balance in our political economy between public and private - one in keeping with the times and the contemporary character of the Australian people.

We encourage individual achievement and self-reliance without sacrificing the common good. We value our independence and chafe against bureaucracies that deny us choice and the capacity to shape our daily lives. Yet we are determined not to let go of the Australian ethos of a fair go for all.

The permanent challenge for Australia is to avoid the extremes of big, overbearing government on the one hand and laissez-faire indifference on the other.

There is much in American society which I admire, but I have long held the view that the absence of an effective safety net means that too many needy citizens fall by the wayside. That is not a path that Australia will tread.

Nor do we want the burdens of nanny state paternalism that now weigh down many economies in Europe.


After more than two decades of reform, our economic performance is better than in the past and better than in most comparable countries.

Fifteen years ago, Australia’s income per capita had fallen to 19th in the developed world. Today it has recovered to be about the 8th highest.

Total household disposable income has grown in real terms by more than a third over the last decade. Over the same period, real private sector wealth per capita has more than doubled.

Broader measures of our national well-being are even more striking. Australia is now 3rd out of 177 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index which takes account of achievement in education enrolment, adult literacy levels, per capita GDP and life expectancy.

And it’s not just statistics that tell the story of Australia’s economic renaissance. A report released last year on Australian Social Attitudes found that Australians are much more confident in the economy than they were a decade ago. Eighty per cent of people surveyed said that they were now proud of Australia’s economic achievements.

Strong economic management has given Australia a government that, in comparative terms, is lean but not mean.

As a share of GDP, this country now has the second lowest level of general government outlays in the OECD (36 per cent); slightly lower even than in the United States and Japan and significantly lower than the average in Europe.

The elimination of net government debt by this Government compares with average government debt across the OECD at around 50 per cent of GDP.

Yet the real genius of modern Australia is an ability to scale new hurdles of reform without leaving behind the most vulnerable members in our society.

Work done at the OECD has shown that the distribution of social benefits in Australia is so progressive - and the level of taxes paid by the poor is so low - that this nation redistributes more to the poorest 20 per cent of the population than virtually any other developed country.

This Government has reinforced Australia’s safety net, but we also believe in the principle of mutual obligation.

By this I mean not only that individuals ought to do something in return for the support they receive from society, but also that in order for society and the government to help people in need, they need to be willing to do something to help themselves.

Far from undermining social protection, policies that promote responsible behaviour and self-reliance are essential pillars of a compassionate Australia.


We strike the right balance between state support and personal responsibility in the provision of human services. Our health and education institutions are not perfect. But by global standards their quality is high and they are well-resourced. In the years ahead, we must continue with reforms that make our hospitals and schools respond to the needs of individuals and not those of bureaucracies.

The great test of our policy balance in coming decades will be our ability to reconcile inexorable demographic change with demands of Australians for even greater choice in education, health, family support and work opportunities.

This will only be done by staying the course with reform to the way we work and to our welfare arrangements.

The first of the baby boomers are now turning 60. This milestone roughly coincides with the beginning of an expected decline in Australia’s labour force participation rate over coming decades.

Today, there are roughly five working age Australians for every Australian over 65. In two generations that figure will have fallen to around 2.5.

To sustain our prosperity in the face of this trend we must ensure that young Australians have skills for a lifetime. And we must reward them when they work.

Our sense of nationhood

The social attitudes report that I mentioned a moment ago also had something to say about what ordinary Australians think of the Australian Achievement. It found that, compared with a decade ago, fewer Australians are ashamed of Australia’s past.

I welcome this corrective in our national sense of self. It restores a better balance between pride in our past and recognition of past wrongs.

Australians have not lost sight of the mistakes and injustices of our past, especially in the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first Australians.

We know there is further to go on the road to Reconciliation with indigenous Australia. As I’ve said before, as a Government we are willing to meet the Indigenous communities more than half way on this road.

By sharing responsibility, governments and communities can help indigenous Australians build better lives, free from welfare dependency and based on solid economic foundations.

If sometimes slow, progress is being made based on indigenous and non-indigenous Australians working side by side. With the 40th anniversary of the historic 1967 referendum approaching next year, our aim should be to deepen this legacy.

At the Centenary of Federation five years ago, I said that Australia’s crowning achievement, borne of its egalitarian tradition, is its social cohesion.


I still believe that.

No country has absorbed as many people from as many nations and as many cultures as Australia and done it so well. The strength of a culturally diverse community, united by an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, is one of our greatest achievements and one of our greatest national assets.

Some have questioned my optimism, especially in the wake of the violence in Sydney earlier this summer.

These events brought shame on all involved. Australians, whatever their background, deserve to be treated with tolerance and with respect.

Racial intolerance is incompatible with the kind of society we are and want to be. Within limits, all Australians have the right to express their culture and beliefs and to participate freely in our national life. And all Australians have a civic responsibility to support the basic structures and values of Australian society which guarantee us our freedom and equality.

The criminal behaviour of last December should be met with the full force of the law. I do not believe it calls for either national self-flagellation or moral panic.

Our response should reflect this nation’s unswerving commitment to racial equality, coupled with an absolute determination to ensure that all sections of the Australian community are fully integrated into the mainstream of our national life.

On these bedrock principles rest both rights and responsibilities that apply to all Australians.

In the 21st century, maintaining our social cohesion will remain the highest test of the Australian achievement. It demands the best Australian ideals of tolerance and decency, as well as the best Australian traditions of realism and balance.

Australia’s ethnic diversity is one of the enduring strengths of our nation. Yet our celebration of diversity must not be at the expense of the common values that bind us together as one people - respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, a commitment to the rule of law, the equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need.

Nor should it be at the expense of ongoing pride in what are commonly regarded as the values, traditions and accomplishments of the old Australia.

A sense of shared values is our social cement. Without it we risk becoming a society governed by coercion rather than consent. That is not an Australia I want to live in.

Again, our goal must be to strive for a balance in questions of national identity and cultural diversity. And for the most part I think we achieve it.


We’ve drawn back from being too obsessed with diversity to a point where Australians are now better able to appreciate the enduring values of the national character that we proudly celebrate and preserve.

We’ve moved on from a time when multiculturalism, in the words of the historian Gregory Melleuish, came to be associated with ‘the transformation of Australia from a bad old Australia that was xenophobic, racist and monocultural to a good new Australia that is culturally diverse, tolerant and exciting’. Such a view was always a distortion and a caricature.

Most nations experience some level of cultural diversity while also having a dominant cultural pattern running through them. In Australia’s case, that dominant pattern comprises Judeo-Christian ethics, the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment and the institutions and values of British political culture. Its democratic and egalitarian temper also bears the imprint of distinct Irish and non-conformist traditions.

Of course, each wave of new settlers to Australia influences our culture and character, helping to forge new attitudes and traditions. From our art and literature to our scholarship and diplomacy, greater cultural diversity has changed how we see ourselves and how we view the world. It has contributed to our more enterprising and entrepreneurial society.

We should have faith in what we have achieved and what we have become.

Quite separate from a strong focus on Australian values, I believe the time has also come for root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history in our schools, both in terms of the numbers learning and the way it is taught.

For many years, it’s been the case that fewer than one-in-four senior secondary students in Australia take a history subject. And only a fraction of this study relates to Australian history. Real concerns also surround the teaching of Australian history in lower secondary and primary schools.

Too often, Australian history has fallen victim in an ever more crowded curriculum to subjects deemed more ‘relevant’ to today. Too often, it is taught without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented stew of ‘themes’ and ‘issues’. And too often, history, along with other subjects in the humanities, has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.

Part of preparing young Australians to be informed and active citizens is to teach them the central currents of our nation’s development. The subject matter should include indigenous history as part of the whole national inheritance. It should also cover the great and enduring heritage of Western civilisation, those nations that became the major tributaries of European settlement and in turn a sense of the original ways in which Australians from diverse backgrounds have created our own distinct history.


It is impossible, for example, to understand the history of this country without an understanding of the evolution of parliamentary democracy or the ideas that galvanised the Enlightenment.

In the end, young people are at risk of being disinherited from their community if that community lacks the courage and confidence to teach its history. This applies as much to the children of seventh generation Australians or indigenous children as it does to those of recent migrants, young Australian Muslims, or any other category one might want to mention.

When it comes to being an Australian there is no hierarchy of descent.

Whether our ancestors were here thousands of years ago, whether they came on the First Fleet or in the 19th century, or whether we or our ancestors are amongst the millions of Australians who have come to our shores since the Second World War, we are all equally Australians - one no better than the other.

So tomorrow let us indeed celebrate our diversity. But we should also affirm the sentiment that propelled our nation to Federation 105 years ago - one People, One Destiny.

Our place in the world

Australia’s standing in the world has never been higher. We are seen as a fair-minded and generous country. We are seen as a country that stands up for what it believes in. We are respected for who we are, for the quality of our ideas and for the unique perspective we bring to our region and to the world.

The divisive, phoney debate about national identity and what it means for our influence in the world has been finally laid to rest.

Australia is a liberal democracy with global political and economic interests and a proud history of defending freedom against its enemies. We do not have to smother or apologise for our place in the Western political tradition in order to build our relationships in Asia or in any other part of the world.

To grasp what I mean when I say that Australia occupies a unique intersection of history, geography, culture and economic circumstance is quite simple. Simply look at what we do.

Last December, Australia was at the centre of the inaugural East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur, a symbol not just of our geographic proximity or trade links with Asia but of the values and relationships we bring to regional engagement.

Two weeks ago, we convened the first meeting of the Asia Pacific Partnership on Climate Change in Sydney, illustrating our capacity to build regional coalitions and to lead on issues of global significance.


In a couple of months time, Melbourne will host the Commonwealth Games - an event that combines our history, our passion for sport and Australia’s unrivalled capacity to stage major events in a friendly and sophisticated environment.

In August, the Trade Minister will host a meeting of the Cairns Group, marking two decades of Australia’s crusade to free up world agricultural trade.

And in November, Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors of the Group of 20 nations will gather in Australia as the Treasurer leads efforts to update and strengthen the world’s financial architecture.

The Government’s commitment to capture and harness the opportunities of globalisation for the betterment of all our people is a major driver of our international strategy.

In the 21st century, for the first time in history, we are witnessing the emergence of a global middle class. Of all the deep trends in global politics, few will match this one.

Previously, the vast bulk of the world’s middle class citizens lived in the industrialised countries - in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan and Australia. This is no longer the case.

It’s estimated that India and China combined could easily produce middle classes of 400-800 million people over the next two generations - roughly the size of the current middle-class populations of the United States, Western Europe and Japan combined.

Based on what we know about the relationship between income growth, health standards, political participation and environmental stewardship, the growth of this global middle class represents an enormously positive development for the world and for Australia. It also illuminates the historic nature of the Australian Achievement as a global pioneer of good government and human development.

Of course, our world is also fragmented and in conflict. This is the fifth year that we have lived under the shadow of global terrorism and nothing suggests that shadow is lifting any time soon.

Terrorism remains the defining element in Australia’s security environment.

Australians and Australian interests continue to be a terrorist target, both abroad and at home. This tests our sense of balance no less than our resolve.

We know what our enemies think and what they are capable of. They hate our freedoms and our way of life. They despise our democratic values. They have nothing but contempt for a diverse society which practises tolerance and respect.

Australia must continue to work with friends and allies in the fight against global terrorism. And in 2006, living with the threat of terrorism also means recognising that national security begins at home.


Our social cohesion and national unity is pivotal in enabling Australia to contribute effectively to the international effort to combat terrorism, and to safeguard Australians domestically.

This Government will do what is necessary to protect the Australian community, but we will do it in a way that does not diminish us as a community or as a nation.

Our democratic culture

This means finding the right balance between the legitimate interests of the community on the one hand and individual civil rights on the other. And inevitably this will be a matter for passionate debate.

Some Australians have argued in recent times that the balance has moved too far. They want to shift it in the other direction, principally through a Bill of Rights. I believe this would be a big mistake for our democracy.

A Bill of Rights would not materially increase the freedoms of Australian citizens. It will not make us more united, indeed I believe it would lessen our ability to manage and to resolve conflict in a free society. It would also take us further away from the type of civic culture we need to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

No matter how skilfully crafted, a Bill of Rights always embodies the potential for misinterpretation, unintended consequences or accidental exclusion. History is replete with examples of where grand charters and lyric phrases have failed to protect the basic rights and freedoms of a nation’s citizens.

The strength and vitality of Australian democracy rests on three great institutional pillars: our parliament with its tradition of robust debate; the rule of law upheld by an independent and incorruptible judiciary; and a free and sceptical press of the sort politicians simply adore.

I’ve called this trilogy the real title deeds of our democracy, a political inheritance that has given us a record of stability and cohesion that is the envy of the world.

I have never been persuaded by those who claim that the road to good government is via taking more and more decisions out of the hands of the people’s elected representatives.

In our parliamentary democracy, politicians are elected to make decisions on behalf of the community. They are elected by the people and, ultimately, they are answerable to the people for the decisions they make.

To draw these decisions away from the legislature and the executive and to invest them in the hands of the judiciary would irrevocably change our democracy. And it would hamper our ability to respond to changes in a way that reflects the realities we now face.



And incidentally, does anyone seriously contend that we can improve the education of our children, raise our national productivity, or better care for older Australians by further entrenching the language and culture of rights in our public discourse?

Together, responsive democratic institutions and an active civil society provide more effective protection for the rights of Australian citizens than any charter of rights could hope to achieve.

Let me again cite the Australian Social Attitudes report on the state of our civil society. Contrary to the pessimism of some commentators, it found that Australians are not losing trust in each other. The voluntary sector - the lifeblood of active Australian citizenship - remains strong and healthy with 86 per cent of respondents belonging to at least one voluntary association.

Australians have lost none of their volunteer spirit or the democratic temper for which they are renowned. Our ability to poke fun at those in positions of power is undiminished. We cannot abide pretentiousness in our public officials and we laugh at those who take themselves too seriously.

Warts and all, I believe in our unique democracy because I believe in the virtue of politics. The political philosopher Bernard Crick put it well when he said that: ‘The moral consensus of a free state is not something mysteriously prior to or above

politics: it is the activity (the civilising activity) of politics itself.’

With all its compromises, parochialism and imperfections, this place of mere politics works as the great balancing wheel of our national life.


Australia is one of only a handful of nations to have carried the torch of democracy through a turbulent 20th century. We began that century the first nation ever to come into being following a people’s vote on a democratic constitution. We ended it staging the most successful Olympic Games of all time.

So far in this new century, we’ve made a good start. Our economy is strong. Our society is cohesive. Our nation is respected around the world. Our democracy is robust.

If there is a lesson I’ve drawn from the last decade it is that Australia’s greatness is not found in its Gross Domestic Product, the size of its defence budget or its international standing - important though all these things are.

It is found in the good and decent and generous character of the Australian people. Tomorrow, let us renew our faith in the Australian Achievement. We have great cause for optimism, if we keep our balance.


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This transcript is taken from a recording, and freedom from errors, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.

NATIONAL PRESS CLUB (Questions and answers only) Wednesday, 25 January 2006

KEN RANDALL: Thank you, Prime Minister, for this first National Australia Bank address of the year, and I’m glad that the Chief Executive Officer of the National Australia Bank, John Stewart, was here to hear it. As usual we have our period of media questions and the first of those, as you so nicely put it, free and sceptical questions today, is from Tony Wright(?)

TONY WRIGHT (The Bulletin): Today’s speech perhaps could be re-entitled by a headline writer Howard’s Australia, and I understand of course that you’re probably not going to enlighten us as to when that era may end. However, we can probably

assume that there will come a time when Prime Minister John Howard is no longer the Prime Minister of Australia.

When Peter Costello was in the United States of America just recently he mused that we don’t honour our leaders in Australia, or haven’t up to this point, in the same way that the United States honours its presidents with things like libraries and great efforts put into museums and all the rest of it. I just wonder whether you might have a comment upon that and whether or not you would be prepared to gather together your papers for a John Howard library some time in the future?

JOHN HOWARD: I don’t have a comment on it. I would, however, remind you that balance in public life is important—and I spent some time talking about that—so is the careful use of tenses when one gives answers, and I always prefer to talk in the present tense.

MARK RILEY (Seven Network): Prime Minister, I know your topic today was National Character, but I wanted to ask you a question about the character of the Nationals. What do you have to say to those increasing number today of National members who are threatening to vote against your government’s policy, particularly what action would you take if a Cabinet minister were to do such a thing?

JOHN HOWARD: Mark, I understand how my colleagues and friends in the National Party feel about Senator McGauran’s resignation and application to join the Liberal Party. I’m quite certain that if a Liberal had done what he has done there

would be equal anger in the ranks of the Liberal Party. That is the nature of politics, and I think we should be frank about that. They are understandably upset. I respect that and I encourage all of my Liberal colleagues to understand that.

So far as the making of government policy is concerned, by definition the National Party is part of that process. It is a coalition government. The Deputy Prime Minister of Australia is the Leader of the National Party. On Friday he will leave Australia to

go to Europe to chair a six-nation group which is dealing with the implementation of

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the agreements that were reached in the context of the World Trade Organisation. I have every reason to be confident that the coalition will continue and I do not believe, difficult and sensitive though the events of the past few days have been for my friends

in the National Party, I do not believe that any permanent damage will be done. It was a decision of Senator McGauran; it was not one that I was aware of until Sunday evening.

I do, again, fully understand the feelings of my National Party colleagues and I ask my Liberal colleagues to understand that. And I just remind everybody that just as the majority party forms the government, or the majority grouping is determined by the arithmetic in the House of Representatives, so it has always been the case that the arithmetic of the two parties in coalition determines the allocation. The actual number of people in the 42 executive positions has not altered. There’s just been a shift because of the numbers between the outer ministry and the parliamentary secretary. Now, that is as a result of Senator McGauran’s resignation, even before any decision is made by the Victorian division of the Liberal Party about his membership.

I understand why my colleagues in the National Party feel as they do. They do feel let down and that’s understandable, and perfectly understandable in the circumstances. I think it’s also important in my position, and it’s a view that others of my senior colleagues have taken, that at the end of the day maintaining our slender majority in the Senate is important and therefore nothing is to be achieved by Senator McGauran being politically stateless. He’s resigned from the National Party, he’s not going to rejoin the National Party, and therefore we have to be common sense about this, but I am optimistic.

I think we will continue to have a very cohesive coalition but it always requires a bit of give and take and a bit of understanding and an acceptance that people do have proper sensitivities and feelings of proper dealings and they’re entitled to have those and they’re entitled to express them. But my responsibility is the continuity of strong and stable coalition government and that will go on and that will continue to be achieved, and I do not believe that there will be any impairment of a significant kind to that task by what has happened.

JIM MIDDLETON (ABC News): Prime Minister, I was interested in your comments on what you see as the defects of teaching of history in Australia, and I think what you termed the post-modernist skew of relativism. Do you see a role for your government in attempting to correct this defect and, continuing that theme, as a significant figure yourself in the continuing narrative of Australian history, Sir Robert Menzies was a very fine prime minister into his seventies. Do you think that you would—not will, but would—be similarly up to the task four years from now?

JOHN HOWARD: Jim, I’m not going to answer that beyond referring to you what I’ve previously said on the subject—that’s the last bit. On the question of history I would like to enlist a coalition of the willing—if I can use a phrase—a coalition of the

willing to bring about a change in attitudes. Now, it’s not something where obviously the Commonwealth has the first and prime curriculum responsibility but I’ve read a few things that the former New South Wales Premier, Mr Carr, had said on this subject. I mean, I don’t know that the balance in the curriculum would be quite as

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heavily skewed to the history of the American Civil War as Mr Carr might like, but I think there is a real case for a lot of people across the political divide to try and tackle this issue.

And what I want is a recognition that you cannot get people to understand the history of a country unless you have some kind of chronological narrative teaching of history. And this idea that we should move away from sort of knowing when the Battle of

Hastings was or knowing when Captain Cook came to Australia or knowing when certain things occurred, simply … that’s an old-hat rote way of learning is ridiculous. You have to have some structure. You can’t learn history by teaching issues. You can only learn and understand history by knowing what happened, why it happened and of course teaching of issues and influences is clearly part of that.

But I would like to see a lot of people who share the view that I do to contribute to this. It’s not something that I just see necessarily as a Liberal coalition versus the rest. I think it’s something that we need to enlist teachers. We’re going to strike tremendous resistance from some of the education bureaucracies because they have been, some of them, responsible for entrenching the approach that I’ve condemned, entrenching it in curricula.

But I think it’s a very important cause. You cannot understand Australian history without knowing more about the indigenous history of this country. Equally, you cannot understand the history of this country without understanding British history, understanding the way in which the institutions we inherited from Britain evolved. You cannot understanding it without understanding fully the political tides in Europe and, of course, you cannot understand it without a proper structured understanding of the history of European interaction with Asia and Africa and all of the things that have shaped our experience in this country over the last 50 years. I just think we have done very badly with this over the last few decades and I sense in the community a desire to do something about it.

GEOFF BARKER (Australian Financial Review): Given the impressive national economic prosperity that you’ve highlighted and the values of tolerance, decency, generosity, fairness and non-coercion to which you’re committed, are you entirely relaxed with the way the government has dealt and is dealing with asylum seekers, including the present group of West Papuans, who seem by default generally to be warehoused either in detention centres or off-shore islands and left waiting for extensive periods wondering about their futures?

JOHN HOWARD: I don’t know that ‘leaving’, ‘waiting for extended periods’ can fairly be described in relation to Australia’s treatment of them, and some have only just come. I think that’s a little unreasonable. The broad answer is yes. The asylum issue is hard. Once again, it’s a question of balance between humanitarian assessment of people’s entitlements—and the people who have arrived are all going to be properly assessed—and also the need that this country clearly and evidently has to send a message that ad hoc illegal arrivals in this country is not something that we encourage, and I think we have struck that balance correctly.

LOUISE DODSON (Sydney Morning Herald): Just continuing on the question from Mark Riley, what’s your message to National Party senators, not ministers, who are

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saying that they may, as a result of all this, withdraw support in the Senate for government legislation? And also another question: I was just wondering what your reaction to the record road toll over the summer period was and whether there was

going to be any move by the federal government on this?

JOHN HOWARD: Louise, in relation to the first question, I’m not going to respond to particular comments that have been made by my National Party colleagues except to observe, as I did, that I understand how they feel. By courtesy of your question I’m not going to get into some kind of response. I don’t think anything is achieved by that and I think we just all get on with life and understand the feelings but also understand the realities of the world in which we live.

The road toll over the summer period has been incredibly distressing. I don’t propose a particular Commonwealth initiative in relation to a particular road toll. I don’t want to sound in any way insensitive. This is not meant critically because I think state police labour very manfully to do everything they can to reduce it, but it is overwhelmingly something for which the state police forces and state governments are responsible. I have to express the view, just watching the news and listening to the stream of reports that over and over again, when you see examples of cars going off the road and single-vehicle accidents on a lot of roads that are not frequently used, you can’t help but conclude that driver error and driver carelessness is overwhelmingly the reason.

And whilst I accept that there’s always a strong case for more government expenditure at both levels on roads, I think the attempts by some people to grab hold of a tragically larger than expected road toll as an argument for more roads expenditure does rather miss the point.

MARIA HAWTHORNE (Australian Associated Press): Going back to the Nationals, can you explain why the departure of one senator altered the numbers so much that the Nationals had to lose a member of the outer ministry, and wouldn’t it have been better to maybe hold off until the next reshuffle, whenever that might be, rather than punishing the Nationals at a time when they were already very sensitive?

JOHN HOWARD: The truth is that prior to Julian McGauran’s departure, in relation to the percentages in the ministry, there was already somewhat of an over-representation and that was balanced out, if you included the 12 parliamentary secretaries and Julian’s resignation took it even further out of balance. And it’s quite obvious if you look at the percentages, and I don’t want to bore everybody with them, but you want them, they’re easy to achieve. I mean, quite plainly you have a situation now where, if you take the 30 ministers, the representation of the National Party is as near as you can get it to their entitlement, and if you take the 42 it’s the same.

They’re just the facts. This is not something I brought about, it’s not something the Liberal Party brought about, I want to make that very plain. And can I also make the point very plain that if the boot were on the other foot, if say at the next election the proportions were to change in favour of the National Party, the National Party would

be entitled to require, and would get in any coalition negotiation, greater numbers. This is not the first time an adjustment has been made. There was an adjustment made after the 2001 election.

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PAUL BONGIORNO (Network Ten): Is it not a fact that if Senator Julian McGauran was run over by a bus tomorrow that the Constitution would require the Victorian State Parliament to fill his vacancy with another National Party senator, and does this fact not feed into the feelings of the very mild-mannered MP from Maranoa, the Nationals Queensland President, Bruce Scott, who believes that you’ve treated the National Party shabbily?

JOHN HOWARD: I haven’t treated the National Party shabbily. I think I have a long record of treating the National Party in a very collegiate mood of mateship. In fact, some people in the Liberal Party have suggested over the years that I’ve been too generous to the National Party so I must have got that elusive balance about right now, and I think I probably have.

Now, what you say is true but what you say is hypothetical—it didn’t happen. We often talk in answering questions about being run over by buses but we all try to avoid those buses, don’t we Paul? The truth is that the man in question has resigned from the National Party. I did want him to do that, I did not encourage him to do it, but he

has done it. He’s resigned now. The realistic thing is to move on. I know it’s good fun for you fellows not to, but I just think that is the realistic situation. There’s nothing we can do about that.

I might also gently point out to you that he was elected as part of a coalition ticket under an arrangement that I am very familiar with because I negotiated it during the dying days of my previous leadership of the Liberal Party back in 1989, so I am very, very familiar with all of the history and all of the circumstances that brought about the arrangement. It’s happened and it wasn’t our fault. You can’t ignore numbers in politics. And can I also make the point that Mark Vaile and I met on Tuesday night, had dinner in Sydney on Tuesday night and all of these arrangements were agreed. They were agreed in an amicable fashion.

We’re both realistic men, we both understand the force of numbers in politics and we reached the conclusion we did and it’s a fair balance, because you have to take into account the desires, obviously, of a large number of Liberals who have been in parliament for a long time who feel they might be entitled to some kind of promotion as well. You just have to achieve, once again, a balance between their interests and the sensitivity of their colleagues. And I guess the other point I’d make is that the real decision-making body in the government is the Cabinet. There are three National Party ministers in the Cabinet, including the Deputy Prime Minister. And if you want to be pedantic about it, in percentage terms, that’s much greater than the entitlement but it’s something that I adhere to very strongly.

That’s the body that takes most of the decisions and three out of those 17 are National Party ministers and will remain National Party ministers barring some really major alteration in the numbers between the two parties.

SAMANTHA MAIDEN (The Australian): You’ve made the call today for greater reform in the area of health and education and yet critics within your own government argue that regulation and red tape have grown after the last decade and calls for a

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greater simplification of the tax system, for example relieving more families from the burden of putting in tax returns if they make few, if any, deductions, have gone unanswered. What practical reforms can the government introduce in those areas: red tape, tax? What changes would you like to see next year?

JOHN HOWARD: I think red tape is an issue that the government has to come to terms with. I expect to have in my hands quite soon a report from the committee headed by Gary Banks which I set up, you remember, two or three months ago and it has to report I think by the end of this month or early next month. I think business has a legitimate complaint about the volume of red tape at the present time. I think what’s happened is that the economy’s been going so well and things have happened and laws get passed and changes are made and regulation is piled upon regulation and not much notice is taken of it because everybody’s so busy employing people and making good profits.

But there comes a time when you do a bit of a stocktake and you say: Gee, this has all got a bit out of hand. And I think there is a case there and I think we do have a responsibility as a government to try and do something about it. Once again, you have

to achieve that elusive balance between recognising you can have too much red tape, yet on the other hand also understanding that there is a public interest in ensuring that errant corporate behaviour is dealt with. But, in the end, if you over-regulate the place the consequences are far more serious sometimes than some of the corporate behaviour.

KEN RANDALL: Prime Minister, I’m sorry, and to all those potential questioners, that time has caught up with us. Thank you very much for that.