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Transcript: address to South Australian Employers' Chamber of Commerce & Industry

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Leader of the O pposition

21 October 1995 jwh/ljd/ab




Well Robert thank you very much for that subtle and ambiguous welcome. To you as President o f the Chamber, to the Premier o f South Australia, Dean Brown, his wife Roslyn, to the Lord Mayor o f Adelaide and to my many Federal and State parliamentary colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to say how delighted I am to address this very large gathering in such a

representative cross-section o f the business community o f Adelaide and o f the entire State o f South Australia. Now I want to take the opportunity at the commencement o f my speech to pay tribute to the great spirit o f co-operation that has existed over the past several years between the Government o f South Australia, led by Dean Brown, and the business community

o f this State. In many respects the co-operation that has existed between the Government o f South Australia in that time and the business community o f South Australia is a model for the kind o f co-operation that ought to exist between any government and the representatives o f the private sector o f a State or o f our entire nation.

O f the many things that I am very deeply committed to in public life none is more important, none is more personally held with great passion and none is more enduring than my commitment to the importance o f business, particularly o f small business in the life o f Australia. If there is one thing above everything else that can deliver to Australia higher levels

o f employment; that can deliver to Australia a world class competitive economy; that can deliver to Australia those rates o f growth which will stop us falling into this chronic problem every few years when we have a little bit o f economic growth, that we have a problem on our current account deficit - if there is one thing above everything else - that can deliver that kind


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ο ί Australia and that kind o f Australian economy - it is a total revitalisation o f the small business sector o f the entire Australian nation - and to the extent that this Chamber as I know is very strongly committed to that goal. I want to congratulate the Chamber on what it has

done - particularly over the last 12 months.

I want to say a couple o f things in response to what your President said and I also want to touch on a number o f other issues that are o f specific importance to South Australia as well as to the entire country. As your President said - there is a political battle which has really

commenced in earnest - I dont know how long it will last. I do know that it will have its culmination on the day o f the next Federal election and it is an important political battle and it is an important political contest. But its more than a contest than a battle - it ought to be an opportunity for the entire nation to make a judgement about the sort o f direction in which they want Australia to go and the sort o f people they want to lead this country over the next few years. It oughtn't to be trivialised by debate about things that are irrelevant to our future; it oughtn't to be diverted by manufactured disputes in policy areas where there are no real differences - and above everything else it oughtn't to be laden with excessive personal abuse and denigration. It ought to be a debate about the values and the attitudes that are important to all o f us as Australians. It ought to focus as far as possible on those things that unite us as Australians rather than those things that divide us as Australians and we ought over the next few months to try and isolate the things that are really different in the policy approaches o f the two parties and to have a proper debate about those.

I want to say that I find deeply offensive some o f the personal attacks that have been made on the business leaders and other sections o f the Australian community by my Labor Opponent particularly over the last few days. I find his rather wilful, intemperate, undisciplined attack on

investment fund managers and particularly on the AMP, the rather dignified use o f the word donkeys - 1 mean we are here listening to the Leader o f our country - we're not listening to somebody who's engaged in some bar-room slanging match. We are talking about an industry which will control billions o f dollars o f the funds o f Australian employees over the years ahead. I find it very puzzling indeed that the man should set out by his wilful behaviour to undermine

confidence in people who are managing funds that his own Government is forcing the people o f Australia to contribute to. Its a very, very strange exercise in leadership - it's an extraordinary exercise in logic. I think it is illustrative o f somebody who is reacting in a very intemperate fashion to events and circumstances that he didn't find to his liking.

Equally, I found particularly disturbing last week - his failure to show national leadership on a very important issue and that was the decision o f the ACTU to blockade an entire State - and the first time that I can remember in the history o f this country - at the very best the Prime Minister o f this country - sat on his hands and said that he would neither condemn nor endorse the blockading o f the State o f Western Australia. To me ladies and gentlemen it doesn't matter

how strongly you might feel about a piece o f legislation - the fact is that its the responsibility o f the Leader o f this country on all occasions to act in the best interests o f all o f the people o f this country. The idea that the Prime Minister o f this country should stand idle and sit on his hands and this is at the best interpretation that I can put on it and allow the ACTU and other

unions to impose a blockade and to inflict economic harm and social dislocation and inconvenience on 1.3 million o f his fellow Australians - 1 think it is a deplorable demonstration in a lack o f national leadership. I think it also has to be said that the piece o f legislation - and different people have different views about it - and I haven't come here tonight to go into it in detail - 1 think it has to be said that the legislation in question about which the unions went on

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strike and imposed the blockade - doesn't in anyway affect the working conditions o f employees in Western Australia; it doesn't affect their health or their safety or their basic working conditions - it really relates to the role in the place o f union officials in the industrial relations system o f that State. It is certainly in no sense o f the word a justification for that kind o f blockade.

That leads me to say something about the important issue o f industrial relations and it was one o f the issues that your President raised tonight - and I think it goes to the very heart o f the liberalisation and the invigoration o f the small business sector o f the Australian economy. As many o f you know I have argued for a very long time that reforming the Australian industrial relations system is critical to our economic future. I believe the changes that have been made here in South Australia, under Graham Ingerson and Dean Brown, have been very important changes - but what we need are changes o f that type at a national level and until there is national industrial relations reform we won't liberate and unleash the energies particularly o f the small business community o f Australia.

The first thing I want to say about industrial relations reform tonight is that it is a reform based upon the proposition that we believe not in lower wages for Australian workers, we believe in fact in higher and better wages and conditions for Australian workers based on better

productivity and higher competitive performance by individual firms. The Government over the past couple o f weeks has indulged in this attempt to spread the lie and I call it that very deliberately - that the goal o f our industrial relations policy is in fact to reduce the wages o f Australian workers. Although along the way they get into a little bit o f difficulty. Yesterday in the Parliament, Simon Crean said that the problem with our industrial relations policy was that you wouldn't be able to control wages - in other words in one breath he was saying that under our policies wages would go up too much and yet a couple o f minutes later his Leader was

saying that wages would be cut. But let me make it very clear to you that the goal that we have is higher wages based on higher productivity. The only way that you can lastingly increase the wages o f the generality o f the workforce is to increase productivity. If you pay higher wages without higher productivity that inevitably leads to higher unemployment and those that are thrown out o f work pay very dearly indeed. So that is the first principle; that is the great

overarching goal o f our industrial relations policy - to lift the productivity o f all the firms o f the nation and through that to lay the basis o f higher real wages for Australian employees.

There are four principles that underlay our policy - behind that great goal. Those principles are that we want to give people a choice between staying in the Award system or going into a workplace agreement and under our policy no Australian worker will be forced against his or her will out o f the Award system. The second principle is that we want to give people a free

choice as to whether they join an organisation or don't join it and under our policy Australian workers will be guaranteed the right to join a union without victimisation or not to join a union without victimisation and that is a very important Australian principle. It is a very important Liberal principle as it goes to the heart o f the free choice o f the citizen. The third principle is that we believe that the ordinary courts o f Australia should have control over certain industrial matters. We believe that the secondary boycott provisions o f the Trade Practices Act, Sections 45D and E, that were introduced by me as a Minister in the Fraser Government ought to be re­

instated in the form in which they existed until two years ago. The fourth pillar o f our industrial relations approach is that those Australians who choose to join unions should have the right to join the union o f their choice; be it a craft union, an industry union or an enterprise union. Finally on industrial relations can I specifically say that one o f the first acts o f a Coalition

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government will be to repeal the ridiculous anti-employment, unfair dismissal provisions o f the existing Industrial Relations Act. We are going to replace those provisions with a provision which is fair to both employers and employees. I'm not going to leave employees exposed to unfair dismissal by capricious employers but I'm not going to leave in place a law which is actually discouraging and intimidating many small firms around Australia from taking on new employees through fear o f being caught up in costly litigation that in many cases could have a serious impact on those firms. That particular law more than any other that I've seen over the past few years is an example o f laws being passed by a Government composed o f people who have had no hands-on business experience; who have had no background at all in business; advised o f people who've had no hands on business experience, who've had no background at all in business, advised by people who are increasingly remote from the business community of this country and based upon the idea that somehow or other the average small business operator who employees tw o or three people has got the time or the capacity to digest complicated Commonwealth legislation - when in reality that person is in no such position to digest that kind o f legislation.

So ladies and gentlemen industrial relations reform is important to me; it is important to the Liberal and National parties at a Federal level; but more importantly than that it is essential to the economic future o f this country. Because the reason why we keep having a current account deficit problem; the reason why we have just a few quarters o f economic growth and then we are sucking in too many imports is that we have major supply bottlenecks in the Australian economy - and you can't do anything about those major supply bottlenecks unless you tackle the problems o f the micro-economy; unless you reduce the cost o f doing business in Australia and one o f the ways o f doing that is to tackle our rigid out-of-date industrial relations system.

Another way o f tackling it is to do something about the appalling inefficiency on Australian waterfronts and in Australian ports. It is notorious that despite all the talk from the Government about reform in this area - our ports are still monumentally inefficient compared

with those o f other countries. It is no good saying that they're more efficient now than they were 30 or 40 years ago. World competition is like a race; you don't compete against your past, you compete against those who are in the race today - and when you compare the through-put o f our ports and our waterfronts with those in Asia, those in New Zealand, those in Europe, you find that according to any benchmark we are a very long way behind and there

are so many areas like that that go directly to the cost o f doing business where major reforms to the Australian economy are still necessary.

Now I don't dispute that there have been some changes and some reforms carried out by the present Government and I have always been willing in my political life to give credit where credit is due - but over the past two-and-a-half years indeed since my Labor opponent became Prime Minister, at the end o f 1991 - the reform process has hit a brick wall. We were told after the last election that there was going to be reform to the industrial relations system - Laurie Brereton gave us an Act which is more rigid and more regulatory than the system we had before 1993. So a lot o f reform does remain very much in front o f us but it is important that in the process o f economic reform, in the process o f tackling these issues that there be co­ operation and there be exchange between government and the business community and when I

said at the beginning o f my speech that I saw the co-operation that exists between the Chamber here and the business community in South Australia and the Brown Government I saw that as very much a model for the kind o f thing that will happen if a Coalition government is elected at the next Federal election. Because it is never possible, no matter how many people, we may

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have in our ranks and we have many who've had hands on business experience; unless that is constantly nourished by contact and advice from the business community the chains o f communication are going to break down.

Now I know as I address this audience tonight that there are particular challenges ahdad o f the economy and the people o f South Australia. I know many o f the difficulties that were inherited by your present Government; I know some o f the difficulties faced by the South Australian economy and I want to touch upon a few o f those things. But before I do that I want to touch upon a matter which is o f particular significance to South Australia that is also o f great natural

significance. That is the question o f the Murray-Darling Basin. That basin is a natural resource o f great national significance. It comprises one-seventh o f the continent and produces one-third o f the output o f our rural industries and the state o f the Murray-Darling Basin which is o f such importance to South Australians is one o f the major environmental issues facing this nation - and can I say as the alternative Prime Minister o f this country, the Leader o f the Liberal Party and the Coalition, that I regard concern for environmental issues as being something o f prime political importance in the future o f this country. Environmental issues are now very much in the mainstream o f political concern and political response in Australia. One o f the challenges of governments is to find a balance; to find the basis o f sustained development; to look at the environment not in the sense o f buying one interest group off against another which is why the present Government has got itself into such an un-Godly mess over the woodchipping industry and they deserve every bit o f the political pain they are suffering as a consequence. But the need to recognise that a balance can be struck between the legitimate concerns o f Australians o f all generations o f all political shades and o f all backgrounds about the future o f our environment but also the need to recognise that we must as a nation continue to generate and produce enormous amounts o f wealth.

Some 500 000 hectares o f the Murray-Darling Basin are now badly affected by dry land salinity and rising saline ground water has turned large areas o f previously productive agricultural land into marshy wastelands. It is estimated that the Murray is now flowing at between one-third-and-a-quarter o f its natural rate and in recent years the Darling has actually ceased to flow for the first time since 1902. Tonight I wish to make it clear that I am a firm believer in projects which could best be described as delivering a clean Australia and that

means there must be a focus on the Murray-Darling Basin and I would like to take this opportunity to commend the work o f the Premier o f South Australia, Dean Brown, who has lead the way in ensuring that his Federal and his State colleagues have been made fully aware o f the need to address this problem. It was Dean Brown who first put the proposition, o f the Centenary o f Federation Committee, that the regeneration o f the Murray-Darling Basin was a nationally significant project; the completion o f which should be an important part o f Australia's Centenary celebrations. Since that time Mr Brown has continued to be a very active advocate o f the project at both a State and Federal level. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the professionalism o f the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. The Coalition recognises and strongly supports the central objectives o f Murray-Darling 2001 - obviously these objectives will form the basis o f any comprehensive rehabilitation program. It is abundantly clear that at current levels o f Commonwealth funding it will be impossible even with all the best ideas and intentions o f the Commission to achieve sustainable land management in the Basin within the next 30 years if at all. Let me reassure you tonight that the rehabilitation o f the Murray-Darling Basin will be one o f the key initiatives in the Coalition's environmental policy for the forthcoming election. You can be certain that we remain totally committed to this absolutely essential and nationally significant infrastructure project.

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I also take the opportunity o f reaffirming a commitment I have given previously when I visited South Australia. Recognising the enormous importance o f the wine industry - not only to the State o f South Australia but to the international reputation o f the entire country and the enormous contribution that it makes to the export earnings o f this country - that we as a Coalition remain very strongly opposed to any increased taxation burdens on the Australian wine industry. It is an industry that has brought great growth and great credit to the people involved in it and it's an industry which is playing a very important role in the distinctive character and projection o f this country overseas.

Robert raised the question o f the Darwin-Adelaide Railway and I've been, over the past few months receiving a steady stream o f representations; I understand the importance o f that project to many people not only here in South Australia but in the Territory and in the broader context o f the development o f this country. Whilst I'm not in a position for reasons that you will understand to make specific announcements in those areas or to formally indicate, or to indicate at all, which direction we'll be going on that. Can I say to you Robert that I am very

conscious, very conscious indeed o f the importance that is attached to it. I've received a lot o f detailed representations as a political leader I know the importance to the Australian community o f long-range visionary infrastructure projects and that particular project will continue to receive, and the representations you've made will continue to receive, the sort o f attention that we've been giving it over the past few months.

Ladies and gentlemen I want to conclude my remarks where I began and that is to say to all o f you how important it is to the economic future as well as the social stability o f this country that we have a very strong business sector. All o f my political career I have been an unapologetic supporter o f what I call the decent capitalist system and that is a belief that providing

incentives for wealth generation; providing incentives to business men and women to employ Australians; providing opportunities and incentives for people to make reasonable profits and to enjoy the benefits o f those profits has always been part and parcel o f the Australian way. All o f my life I've believed that part o f the Australian dream, if I can use that expression, has been

the notion that you start with nothing and work your heart out to build up a business through your working life in the hope that you might sell that business and retire on the proceeds without the tax man having taken too much along the way. I think that is part o f the Australian dream and if I have the opportunity o f having the responsibility o f the most important post in

this country I will count it as one o f my principle goals to ensure that the maximum number o f Australians have the opportunity to live out that part o f the Australian dream - because business endeavour, business activity always recognising that it must be conducted in an ethical and proper fashion and recognising that in a community such as ours we have responsibilities

as well as rights, and if you do have privileges you carry concomitant responsibilities. But the incentives for a climate where people can play out that part o f the Australian dream is a very important and a very enduring goal o f the kind o f Australia that I want.

Thank you very much.