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The opening of the Thirty-Ninth Parliament, 10 November, 1998: speech.



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SPEECH BY

HIS EXCELLENCY THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL

ON THE OCCASION OF

THE OPENING OF THE THIRTY-NINTH PARLIAMENT

10 NOVEMBER 1998

Honourable Senators and Members of the Parliament of Australia:

Introduction

On the third of October, the Australian people re-elected the Government and

renewed its responsibility for managing the nation's affairs in the interests of all

Australians.

The Government presented the Australian people with a clear set of goals for

Australia into the next century, and a detailed strategy for achieving them.

The Government's priorities for its second term derive directly from those goals

and that strategy.

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They are priorities aimed at realising Australia's unrivalled potential in the

twenty-first century through building a stronger Australian economy and a fairer

Australian society.

They are priorities which provide incentives for individuals and enterprises to

succeed within a framework of a strategic but limited role for government.

They are priorities centred on stronger families, stronger workplaces and stronger

communities.

The Government's priorities balance fairness and incentive - promoting

innovation, choice, opportunity and competition at the same time as ensuring

compassion and care for those in genuine need.

They are priorities which maximise the potential of Australia's position at a

unique intersection of history, geography, economic opportunity and cultural

diversity.

They are priorities clearly focussed on delivering practical and beneficial

outcomes for all Australians.

Above all, the Government is committed to implementing the priorities for its

second term on the basis of its unequivocal commitment to the Australian values

of decency, openness, tolerance and a fair go for all.

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Economic challenges

The Government is committed to enhancing our national economic performance

and providing a policy framework in which more jobs are created and the living

standards of Australians are improved.

The Government’s sound economic policies have been crucial in minimising the

impact of the Asian financial crisis.

The Australian economy has continued to grow rapidly in the last 12 months

despite the financial turmoil in our region and the slide into recession that has

been experienced by many of our major trading partners.

The Australian economy is forecast to remain one of the best performing in our

region, and is expected to grow faster than most of the world's major advanced

economies over the next two years.

The financial turmoil that initially affected a number of Asian economies has

spread more widely in recent months. It directly affects Australia's interests.

That is why the Government has been an active participant in international efforts

to contain the crisis, minimise its impact, and provide support for countries in our

region afflicted by it. The Government will pursue these objectives in APEC and

other international forums to advance Australia's broad national interests.

Australia's interests are also affected by the recent high level of instability in

international financial markets. The Government has therefore assumed, and will

continue to assume, an active role in efforts to reform and strengthen the

international financial system.

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To ensure the best possible input from both the public and private sectors on

what is a vital national interest for Australia and the greatest economic challenge

facing the international community, the Government has established a task force

on international financial issues which combines the expertise of senior public

and private sector representatives. It will report by the end of 1998.

The stability of the Australian financial system is testimony to the underlying

strength of our economy and the world-class reforms to the financial system

introduced by the Government in its previous term.

The Government will continue to actively develop and promote Australia as a

regional financial centre. The demonstrated stability of our financial system and

the incentives created by the Government's new tax system will be important

factors in achieving that objective.

A new tax system

The Government has made it clear that reform of Australia's taxation system is

the single most important item of unfinished business in building an economic

infrastructure that will enable Australia to compete and prosper in an increasingly

competitive world economy.

The Government has strengthened Australia's economic foundations and

enhanced our international competitiveness through a policy framework that has

delivered sound fiscal management, low interest rates, low inflation, effective

workplace relations reforms and high levels of business investment.

Tax reform will build on, and complement, these achievements.

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The Government went to the Australian people in the last election with a plan for

a new tax system that will provide the basis for stronger, more sustainable

economic growth, higher productivity, more jobs and higher living standards.

The Government will move quickly to put its bold new plan in place.

The new tax system will dramatically reduce the taxation burden on Australians.

It will slash business costs, thereby creating scope for more jobs growth. It will

reduce fuel excise by around $3.5 billion a year. It will ensure that tax cheats and

tax avoiders pay their fair share of taxation by reducing opportunities to operate

in the cash economy. It will improve incentives to work and save. And it will be

simple and transparent.

Under the Government’s new tax system there will be:

• personal income tax cuts totalling over $13 billion from July 2000;

• cuts in income tax rates for about 95% of all individual taxpayers so that

around 81% of all taxpayers will face a marginal tax rate of no more than

30%, compared with only 30% of taxpayers now;

• reductions in business costs of over $10 billion a year, and in particular

reductions of $4.5 billion a year in the costs facing Australian exporters;

• a $2 billion family package, including a simplification of the assistance

provided to families to make it easier for them to understand and access their

entitlements;

• abolition of provisional tax; and

• an up front increase in income support payments so that the aged and other

pensioners are more than compensated for the price impact of tax reform.

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The Government’s new tax system will modernise the financial basis of

Australia's federal system as it prepares to enter its second century. The states

and territories will receive all of the GST revenue to replace the most

burdensome and inefficient state and federal taxes, as well as the existing

Financial Assistance Grants. As a result, the states and territories will have a

secure and growing source of revenue to fund essential public services in the

future.

The end result of the Government’s reform plan will be a world class taxation

system which delivers fair and equitable outcomes for all Australians, and which

enhances Australia's economic prospects into the next century.

Reform in a community context

While the Government is determined to maintain the impetus of economic reform

to expand Australia's opportunities in an increasingly competitive world, it will

continue to be sensitive to community concern, particularly in regional Australia,

about the impact and pace of change. It fully recognises the need to ensure that

the benefits of reform are fairly shared and that adjustment costs are taken into

account in framing policies.

Reforms are not ends in themselves. The Government’s commitment to strategic

objectives such as a more productive economy, more effective markets, greater

competitiveness and fiscal responsibility is a means to achieving faster jobs

growth, more opportunities, rising living standards and a more competitive and

dynamic Australia. This commitment is underpinned by the Government’s

strong support for a fair and decent society, including an effective social safety

net.

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Jobs and the workplace

The Government will maintain its efforts to generate strong and sustained jobs

growth through sound economic policies and fiscal management, workplace

relations reforms, and initiatives to support small business and strengthen the

competitiveness of Australian businesses generally.

The creation of the Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business

portfolio emphasises the importance of the right workplace relations framework

and a dynamic small business sector in securing future jobs growth.

The Workplace Relations Act will be amended to include the promotion of youth

employment as one of its objectives, and provide for junior wage rates on a

continuing basis to protect youth employment.

Legislation to reduce the burden of unfair dismissal laws, including the

exemption of small businesses from the unfair dismissal provisions of the

Workplace Relations Act, will be introduced in the Parliament at the earliest

opportunity.

The Government's workplace relations reforms will continue to build on the

principles of a direct and simplified relationship between employers and

employees, a fair go for all, and genuine freedom of association.

The Government will also continue to pursue a better system of delivering job

services for all Australians. The provision of assistance for the long-term

unemployed will remain a priority along with ensuring appropriate assistance for

young people, indigenous people and people in rural and regional areas.

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The Job Network is an important and successful initiative, focussed on

performance and results, for helping disadvantaged unemployed people to

compete effectively for jobs. It will continue to be developed to achieve better

outcomes for job seekers.

Measures to remove barriers to self-support and create work incentives through

the income support and tax systems will be implemented. The Government will

build on the success of its mutual obligation programmes including an expansion

of the Work for the Dole programme. Ensuring that young people remain

connected to the community and develop job skills continues to be a key priority

for the Government.

Our future generation

Education and training are fundamental to achieving our vision for Australia in

the twenty-first century. Skills and knowledge of the highest order are essential

to maximise job opportunities for Australians in the future and to underpin

innovation, technology and competitiveness in Australian enterprises as they

compete in the global economy.

The Government will work to ensure that all young people, whatever their career

aspirations, will have access to a strong basic educational grounding and a

quality pathway from school to further training and employment.

The Government will provide additional resources to improve literacy and

numeracy standards in all schools and to boost the National Asian Languages

Programme. It will upgrade funding for schools within the Catholic education

system to address identified cost pressures. Furthermore, the Government will

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support a Quality Teacher Programme to improve teachers' skills and lift the

status of teaching in schools.

The Government will build on the reinvigoration of the traineeship and

apprenticeship system achieved during its first term by boosting new

apprenticeships in rural and regional small businesses.

Higher education policy will focus on expanding access and improving the

quality of teaching and research.

Families and the community

Families will again be a key priority for the Government in its new term. This is

particularly reflected in the $2 billion package of enhanced family measures in

the Government's new tax system.

The Government is committed to increasing opportunities for families to build on

and strengthen their own resources and networks of support. The new Family

and Community Services portfolio, by drawing together - for the first time - the

many different programmes of assistance provided to families, will play an

important role in achieving this outcome.

The new portfolio recognises the central role of families within communities and

will assist in developing partnerships between communities, community

organisations, business and governments to tackle problems identified at the local

level and to strengthen networks of support within communities.

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Helping families under pressure before they reach the point of crisis is important

for the quality of life of families, and for avoiding the consequential costs of

family breakdown including youth homelessness, drug addiction, suicide and

crime.

In its second term, the Government will maintain its momentum on the fight

against illicit drugs, and will continue to implement its Tough on Drugs

initiatives which attack the demand for drugs through education, rehabilitation

and active community involvement. These efforts will be backed up with great

vigour by effective law enforcement measures to reduce the supply of illicit

drugs.

The Government will build on its achievements for women, with special focus on

opportunities for economic independence. It will work to assist women

re-entering the workforce after a break for parenting or caring responsibilities,

and address the health needs of women, including those in rural and remote

areas.

1999 is the International Year of Older Persons. This will heighten recognition

of the enormous contribution older Australians make to the community and the

economy. Through the National Strategy fo r an Ageing Australia, the

Government will continue to consult the community about the policies and

programmes which will help older Australians to meet their needs into the next

century. The Government has made important reforms to ensure the long-term

sustainability of aged care services and to improve choice and access to services,

including allowing people wherever possible to be cared for at home if they wish.

Where residential care is the best option, the Government will ensure it is

affordable and of a high quality.

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The Government will continue to strengthen the security of veterans and war

widows by heightening recognition of their service and improving health and

financial assistance. The commemoration programme will be boosted to ensure

that veterans’ courage and sacrifice are honoured and that our proud history is

celebrated.

Health

The Government will work to improve the health and medical care of all

Australians under the Medicare framework.

The Government is committed to a balanced health system, and to strengthening

both the public and private sectors. It is moving quickly to promote the role of

private health insurance with the introduction of a 30% rebate on insurance

contributions as part of its tax reform package. This initiative - designed to take

effect in just over seven weeks on 1 January 1999 — will be supported by

measures to help funds to keep costs and premiums down, while offering a

broader and more attractive range of products to private health insurance clients.

The Government will work with the states and territories under the new

Australian Health Care Agreements to continue to improve the efficiency and

quality of services in public hospitals. A major focus will be to ensure that

Australians living in rural and remote areas have access to high quality health

services.

Addressing the huge disparity in the health of our indigenous people will

continue to be a priority for the Government. Indigenous people need to be able

to access good local primary health care services at a level more commensurate

with their high level of health need.

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Regional Australia

The Government is strongly committed to rural and regional Australia, and

recognises the hardships which country people have endured in recent times.

The new ministry now has a Transport and Regional Services portfolio, headed

by a senior cabinet minister, to focus specifically on the needs and concerns of

country Australia.

The Government's new tax system will contain significant boosts for regional and

rural Australia, particularly through the $3.5 billion per year reduction in the cost

of fuel.

The Government will help strengthen the economic and social fabric of rural and

regional areas. Priority will be given to establishing Rural Transaction Centres in

smaller rural towns as a means of restoring access to services lost over more than

a decade. An injection of funding for road, rail, telecommunications and

environmental infrastructure, and for flood mitigation, will also deliver

substantial benefits to regional Australia.

Transport and industry policy

An efficient and integrated transport sector is vital to underpinning economic

growth, creating investment and export opportunities, and providing services to

people in both urban and regional Australia. The significant reduction in the cost

of fuel to all businesses provided under the Government's new tax system reflects

that priority.

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The Government will continue the revitalisation of the rail industry, including by

facilitating major projects such as very high speed train links, and is providing

additional funds to improve our road network. The Government will maintain a

strong, efficient and safe aviation sector, and will address the issues of a second

airport for the Sydney region and management of aircraft noise. It will also

continue to address issues in the maritime sector to deliver the benefits of a

viable Australian shipping industry and a more productive waterfront.

The Government is committed to the development of industries of the future.

Partnership with industry will be strengthened through the development of action

agendas in key industries, including biotechnology.

Communications and information technology

Improved communications and continuing advances in information technology

are fundamentally changing the way we work, live and socialise. To ensure that

Australians fully realise the extraordinary potential of these advances in terms of

job-creating and other opportunities, the Government has established a new

portfolio of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts to secure

effective information technology cohesion and co-ordination within the Federal

Government, and maximum co-operation with other levels of government and

industry.

In the area of communications, the first priority is the sale of a further share of

the Government’s equity in Telstra. This will bring benefits to Australian

taxpayers by paying off public debt and reducing interest payments. There will

also be other benefits through initiatives funded by the further sale to improve

communications infrastructure and reduce disparities between services to urban

and non-urban Australia.

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The Government will continue to boost competitive pressures in the

telecommunications sector to ensure better services to consumers.

As promised before the election, the Government will establish an independent

inquiry into Telstra's service levels around Australia. Unless and until that

inquiry certifies that service levels are adequate, the further sale of Telstra

beyond majority government ownership will not be permitted.

The approach of the millennium gives pause to consider the critical influence that

information technologies will have on economic performance in the twenty-first

century. These technologies are already an integral part of Australians' lives and

are a key driver of economic and employment growth. Priority will be given to

implementing a national strategy for the information economy and continued

efforts to address the Year 2000 computer problem.

The environment

The Government remains committed to the ecologically sustainable development

of our natural resources for the benefit of all Australians.

The Government will enact the Environment Protection and Biodiversity

Conservation Bill as a matter of priority to put in place a streamlined and more

effective environment approvals process, and to establish, for the first time in our

environmental history, a genuinely integrated approach to biodiversity

conservation.

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The Natural Heritage Trust is now in its third year of operation and represents an

unprecedented national commitment to the continued protection of our unique

natural environments. The Government will build on the proven success of the

Trust, and will provide an additional $250 million from the second phase of the

sale of Telstra.

Australia also has one of the largest and most diverse ocean resources in the

world. The Government will finalise a national oceans policy that will bring

together the interests of all governments, industry groups and the broader

community.

Australia and the World

The first responsibility of government is to provide for the security and defence

of the nation and its people.

The Government will ensure that the Australian Defence Force maintains its

capability during a period of great strategic change in our region.

The Government will strengthen key alliance relationships and expand defence

links in the Asia Pacific in order to contribute effectively to regional and

international security.

The Government’s commitment to engagement with Asia is unequivocal. So is

its determination to strengthen Australia’s profound and enduring links with the

United States and Europe.

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The Government will work hard at all levels - bilaterally, regionally and

multilaterally - to pursue Australia's trade liberalisation objectives and to

increase market access for Australian exporters.

In our region, the Government remains committed to working closely with

Indonesia as that country moves forward with its economic recovery and political

reform programmes. The Government will also maintain strong support for the

Papua New Guinean Government in its efforts to achieve lasting peace on

Bougainville.

The Government's aid programme will continue to focus on poverty alleviation

and sustainable development in the region. The Government will also continue

to promote human rights and democratic institutions, and to ensure greater

involvement of the Australian community in the aid programme.

Australia and the new millennium

The Government will conduct a constitutional referendum by the end of 1999, so

that the Australian people can decide whether or not Australia will become a

republic. As the Constitutional Convention in February 1998 demonstrated, the

nation can debate this issue in an open and constructive manner.

In 2001, Australia will celebrate an historic milestone - 100 years of nationhood.

The Australian achievement is an extraordinary one worthy of great pride and

genuine celebration. It will be a time to recognise the benefits of our unique

Australian values, our economic stability, the rule of law and our proud record in

both defending and promoting freedom. The centenary celebrations provide a

great opportunity for Australians to take stock and look forward to a confident,

harmonious and prosperous new century of national achievement.

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As we approach the new millennium and our Centenary of Federation we also

face the challenge of reconciliation between indigenous and other Australians.

The Government will work to achieve the goal of reconciliation over the next

two years. It will do so in the knowledge that the great majority of Australians

want true reconciliation to be achieved and will support a co-operative approach

to achieve that outcome.

The Government continues to believe in the importance of achieving practical

outcomes for indigenous Australians - particularly in terms of improvements in

their health care, their education, their housing and their job opportunities. In its

second term, therefore, the Government will be looking to secure ongoing

progress in these key areas.

Conclusion

The strategy to which the Government is clearly committed, and the priorities

and goals which it has set, directly relate to the challenges which Australians face

as we prepare to enter the twenty-first century.

In implementing its plan for a stronger Australia, the Government recognises the

clear responsibilities with which it has been charged by the Australian people.

Its driving purpose will continue to be the fulfilment of those responsibilities in a

way that achieves practical benefits for all Australians and that enhances

Australia's national interest in a unifying way.