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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 126

Senator TIERNEY (5:46 PM) —I rise this afternoon to speak in the debate on the address-in-reply to the Governor-General’s speech which opened the Australian parliament at the end of last year. This followed the election victory of the coalition government, a victory which provides tremendous opportunity and cements in place the agenda of this current government. For too long, we have been frustrated in this place by obstruction, particularly by opposition members and smaller parties. We have put forward a very clear agenda over eight years and this has been blocked or watered down. One of the great outcomes of that election was the fact that we won control in the Senate. Following 30 June, we will have the opportunity to put in place that agenda. We have clearly spelt it out and it is so crucial for the future development of our great country.

In his speech, the Governor-General said:

Few nations can claim the special gifts that providence has bestowed on this country—as a beacon of democracy and tolerance underpinned by a prosperous economy and a fair society.

We now have the opportunity to grasp what this last election has given us, to provide for Australia those opportunities and, in this place, to provide the legislative underpinning for those opportunities.

It is a far cry from the situation that existed when I came into this chamber 14 years ago. At that stage, in the early parts of 1991—ironically, the first Gulf War was just wrapping up then, and now, as I leave the parliament, we find ourselves still involved in a gulf war—the economic circumstances were very different. We were in the worst recession since World War II. In the first month I was in this place, unemployment peaked at 11 per cent and the inflation rate had been incredibly high, getting up around seven or eight per cent. We had experienced interest rates of 17 and 18 per cent just a year or two before. For people to build businesses, for families to build prosperity and try and gain employment, it was a very bleak landscape at that time. Because of the abundant natural resources we have in Australia but, more importantly than that, because of the developing intellectual and cultural resources of this nation, the nineties showed us as very resilient people. We have bounced back, but to some large extent we have bounced back because the policies put in place during those years are underpinning our current prosperity. We now have an opportunity to build on that.

We are only a small country, but my time at the United Nations actually demonstrated very dramatically to me what a wealthy country we are in comparison with the situation in many other nations. There are 191 nations in the world, and we actually rank 11th in size of economy. That is quite dramatic when you think of it: 11th out of 191. Mind you, there are some very big economies above us. We are up there as major players, not only in terms of the size of our economy but also in terms of trade.

One thing came home to me very clearly a little after I finished my time at the UN. It was with regard to the tsunami disaster and how well developed our skills and our infrastructure are to help those in need. There was a magnificent response from Australia following 26 December. We were in there very quickly helping. The impressive thing is that we had the equipment and infrastructure to actually help in areas which did not have such assistance. The fact that we could turn salt water into fresh water at the enormous rate of 240,000 litres a day made a difference between life and death in many of these countries, particularly in the Aceh region of western Sumatra. Our ability to do this is because of the strength of our economy, the strength of our society and the spirit of our people. We can drive this forward with the opportunities that now lie before us in putting into place the full program of the government.

One of the areas I want to start with relates to the industrial relations program. This is one that I have been very close to as Chair of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee. After 1996 we started out well, with a reform agenda for industrial relations, and we made some progress—none of it thanks to the Labor Party, mind you. It was due to the Australian Democrats and the way in which they are prepared to negotiate a new industrial reform agenda. We did make that initial progress but then in the last few years it got bogged down.

We have made very clear what we want to do in the industrial relations area, and every three years the Australian people have given us a mandate to do that. But we are also constantly blocked in what we are trying to achieve. The best example of that is the unfair dismissal laws. There will be nothing more important to drive the Australian economy through its main engine room, the small business sector, than reform in this area.

Every time we have put this up to the Senate committee we have had the unions come round and give their point of view. Employers gave their point of view, the government gave their point of view, and then it was blocked. About a year later, we returned and we did exactly the same thing. It was a bit like Groundhog Day: we just kept coming back, and back again, going through the same process and not making any progress. It is absolutely terrific that we will now have the opportunity to do that and to change so many other areas in workplace relations. The Australian workplace agreements that this government have brought in have been very successful in so many areas but have been resisted fiercely by the unions, particularly in the areas of the Public Service and universities.

Nothing will free up the Australian work spirit more than the opportunities that can be provided in a freer industrial relations climate. We now have the opportunity to do that. Our minister has foreshadowed that we will try to move towards one industrial relations system. Over 10 years ago, the Victorians handed over their powers in this area to the federal government, and it works quite well. When the Brogden government is elected in New South Wales, I am sure it will do the same thing. We are moving towards a unitary system. Again, this will create great efficiencies in the Australian economy, because nothing is more dissipating and distracting than two whole different sets of rules, state and federal, cutting across industries and cutting across workplaces. That is about to change with the reforms that will come in under this government.

The second area relates to education, in particular universities. The federal government of course have the major responsibility for this area, but again we have been frustrated in the Senate in the reform agenda that we have put forward. We had to go through quite a number of compromises with the Independents in this place to advance the reforms of the Crossroads review and we did make great progress. Now there is the opportunity to make greater progress.

One thing that is missing from our tertiary education system is a significant private sector. The irony is we have a big private high school sector—one-third of students go to private schools—but when you get to the university sector it is very tiny. When I was in the United States I took the opportunity to have a look at the private universities. I went to places like Princeton, Columbia, MIT and Harvard. These places have built, on private money, a huge university structure. One of the reasons why we have not been able to find places for students over the years is that that part of our system has been missing. But we now have 27 institutions that are moving towards or actually offering degree-level courses. Their students, for the first time, have access to FEE-HELP. We are starting to build this private sector. Notre Dame university, based in Perth, is opening a campus in my own city of Sydney, and that is another private campus of an established university. So, those sorts of developments are now possible.

The way in which, over the last 10 years, we have been able to provide alternative sources of money for our university sector means that it will be able to move towards a properly developed higher education system, with enough students and enough research going on to underpin the modern Australian economy, which is going to be very much an information economy, based so much on knowledge industries. The need for that to be underpinned by the system that we are now developing is incredibly important. Again, there will be opportunities in this place to bring these reforms forward in the next period of parliament.

The challenge of the ageing population is one of the things that the government have to really focus on in this next term. We had some limited success, going back three budgets ago, when a major review was done of where the ageing Australian society was heading and its implications for the Australian budget. The 40-year out projections, in terms of an ageing population, show that there will be an enormous increase in costs and in the burden on the Australian federal government budget over the next 40 years. They will rise in two ways: (1) the sheer volume of people in the retired population will increase and (2) the costs of maintaining quality of life will increase because of developments in medical science, meaning that there will be a whole range of procedures, a lot of them expensive procedures, to help maintain people’s quality of life—and they will rightly demand access to these services.

So, how will that be funded? It cannot be funded totally from the budget. There has to be a cooperative arrangement in our system whereby people pay and government pay. We have moved towards that in some of our reforms over the last few years, and we now have an opportunity to position the country to take into account this ageing population and prepare for it properly. If we wait 20 years and do not have such measures in place, we are going to be in a situation where the budget is going to blow out incredibly rapidly, and that means a much higher tax regime, which will have all sorts of implications for the Australian economy as well as for the budget.

Another area that will change dramatically and where we have been frustrated over the last eight years is communications. The sale of Telstra has been on our agenda for eight years. There is no reason why governments should be in the ownership of telcos. This is a historical artefact. When other countries have moved to a more privatised system their communications systems have become more robust and have developed properly, when some of the disciplines of the market have been brought into the equation.

There has been great concern out in the community about the protection of the services of telecommunications. A lot of this fear, whipped up by the opposition, has been ill founded. We have a Telecommunications Act that has considerable protections in it. It does not matter whether it is Optus, which is entirely private, or whether it is Telstra, which is half government and half private, or whether it is a fully privatised Telstra, these matters can be controlled by a legislative regime. Things have improved dramatically over our time in government, particularly the services to rural and regional Australia. Although these have not been perfect, when I compare the current situation with some of the reports we were getting from the old Telecom, back over 10 years ago, about the level of service providers to customers, the rate of repairs on broken equipment and cost structures, things have improved dramatically in this new information age. They will continue to improve.

The last area I want to deal with relates to the future of Australia’s trading relations with other countries. We are the 12th largest trading nation in the world and we have enormous opportunities, not just with our raw mineral products and crops, which have been the mainstay of our economic development for so long. In this new information economy, there is such enormous opportunity in the skills of the Australian people developing products and services that can be sold overseas.

One of the most dramatic developments and one of the greatest achievements of this government in the last term was the signing of the United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement. We are now working on a free trade agreement with China, having signed one with Thailand. These opportunities for using our skills and niche markets in conjunction with very large economies like China and the US mean that we will not face the problem of unemployment in the future. As a matter of fact, the paradigm has already shifted. When I came into this place, unemployment was the big problem. We now face skill shortages. That will be a brake on the economy unless we can move towards improving those skills.

The creation at the last election of the Australian technical colleges—a federal government initiative to better link the school system into the trade system and provide a lot of the missing skills—will be the sort of program that will help our economy develop, help us continue the stream of goods and help to provide a trading environment where we can improve our balance of payments, which is probably the biggest economic challenge that Australia faces today. As I look to the future from the Australia that we have in 2005 and as I compare it to the Australia of 1991, when I came into parliament, I am very optimistic about how Australia has come through very tough times. I believe the measures that the Howard government has implemented over the last eight years, and what it will implement over future years, will provide Australia with a very bright and prosperous future.