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Tuesday, 12 November 1985
Page: 1987

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce)(5.37) —in reply-I was not anticipating that the debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 1985 would conclude so precipitately. I thought Senator Townley was going very well in the earlier stages of his speech. I want to say a few things by way of reply to a debate, half of which, of course, I have not heard. In this place one can normally predict what might be said. I often feel it would be a very good thing for politicians perhaps rather than making a speech to send a brochure of what they would have said if they had been here. I have not heard all honourable senators who have spoken in this debate but I have seen their brochures and I have a fair idea of what in fact was said. The burden of much of the discussion from honourable senators opposite has turned on their latest little flutter of joy arising from the relatively poor trade balance figures published this morning. It is a sad fact that we have come to an era in Australian history when when the dollar goes down the morale of the Opposition goes up.

Senator Archer —Nothing of the sort. That is not fair.

Senator BUTTON —It may not be fair, but it is perfectly obvious. Not only does Opposition morale go up but quite a few people spend quite a bit of time trying to talk it up. That has been quite apparent in the conduct of the debate in the Senate in the last week. I want to begin by setting these things in some perspective if I might because the Government is disappointed with the trade figures published this morning, although it is not entirely surprised.

Two things were published this morning: The trade figures were published and the Australian Financial Review carried an interesting interview with Sir Roderick Carnegie of CRA Ltd. I was reminded of that interview published in the Financial Review when Senator Townley was speaking because he referred to what is sometimes called the South American syndrome-the possibility of this country going down the South American route. That was an expression which was coined, I suspect, in the language of Australian politics by Sir Roderick Carnegie when he talked about the possibility of this country becoming the Uruguay of the South Pacific. That was some years ago. I think he said, at the height of the success of the Fraser Government, that that was a distinct possibility. Of course, what he is reported this morning as saying is that he sees that possibility as considerably diminished, that he sees a much greater and more realistic acceptance of the tasks facing this country and that he sees a greater will to deal with such tasks than he has seen in the last decade. He is reported to have expressed the profound belief that many of those problems which would normally lead to a degree of gloom can be overcome, given time. It is a view which the Government shares. It particularly shares the view that a realistic approach to many of the problems of this country which are endemic in the situation of the dollar at present is a very important starting point for an assessment about the road which has to be taken in the future.

When one looks at the political history of this country one sees that the Fraser Government set about the task-admittedly, it was a matter of pride-of dampening expectations in Australian public life, of getting politics off the front page. A variety of activities such as that adequately describe the gloomy souls of the Fraser Government. It was singularly unsuccessful in that. It perhaps reduced a few anticipations but it did not engender in the Australian people the sense of realism which is absolutely necessary in approaching some of the tasks with which we are confronted and the sense of realism to which Sir Roderick Carnegie referred in the interview in the Australian Financial Review this morning.

I think that anybody approaching the question of the overseas trade balance for a country such as Australia, who approached that question with a degree of realism and looked at the political performance of governments in this country over the last 30 years, and particularly of the Australian economy over the last 30 years, would realise, first of all, if I might put it in somewhat technical terms, that the J curve inevitably operates in a slightly different way and at a slightly lower rate in the Australian environment than it might in those European economies, and particularly North American economies, where the idea was invented. The reason is simple. For years this country was led to believe that the road to El Dorado lay in exports of agricultural products. In the 1960s the principal area of export of agricultural products, Europe, gradually began to be closed off to us. Throughout the 1970s, in spite of that fact, which had been absorbed by most people-I think most intelligent observers-the road to Europe was beaten by various Ministers for resources and Ministers for trade flying straight over the South Pacific countries. No trade Minister visited Singapore or Thailand in the seven or eight years of the Fraser Government. I would not like to count the number of ministerial visits that were made to Europe, all of which were in pursuit of something which had gone in terms of a market for major Australian agricultural exports.

Later we were told that the El Dorado for this country lay in mineral developments and exports. I remember the former Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Anthony, telling us that the development of uranium mining in Australia would lead to the creation of 500,000 jobs. I remember the late Sir Phillip Lynch telling the people of this country in 1980 and 1981 that $28 billion was committed in terms of developing mineral projects in Australia. These were the sorts of figures which were given to the Australian Parliament and the Australian community to lead people to the belief, as I said, that the El Dorado lay no longer perhaps in agricultural exports but in mineral exports. These were the things which were continually said to sustain lazy policies, incompetent policies and lack-lustre policies perceived by our predecessors in government.

At the same time as those things were being said about the agricultural sector and the mining sector, little attention was being given to the problems of the manufacturing and service sector in this country. When a solution was provided, it was provided in terms of the old model of higher tariffs to protect the weakest industries. That introduced great distortions into the tariff structure in Australia. We had that bizarre spectacle of a government actually negotiating a motor vehicle plan in 1981 with a single major company. We had the bizarre spectacle of the managing director of that company sitting outside the Cabinet room to be consulted about whether it was making the right decisions about the future of the motor vehicle industry in Australia. A range of decisions was made about the manufacturing industry which ignored what was happening in the rest of the world, which ignored the particular needs of the Australian manufacturers and which led to that crass imbalance in sectoral development of the Australian economy. The consequences of all those policies will not be got over by any government in one week, one month, one year or one term of government. That is why we will be looking for another term when the next election comes around. It requires persistence and determination to overcome these sorts of consequences of poor government which this country has suffered over many years.

I read speeches made by Liberal Party politicians at their national conferences. The rhetoric at the last Liberal Party National Conference was extraordinary-indeed, flamboyant. Speaker after speaker discussed industry policy and pointed out-to put it in Senator Townley's terms-that this country had been going down the Argentinean route for 30 years. I agree with that. I think that is pretty right. For twenty-six of those years we had Liberal-National Party governments in Australia. I think that the analysis which is given in the confines of the Liberal Party conference about those things is pretty right. I share the views which were expressed on that occasion, I think, in May of this year. I think that the question of the current trading situation of Australia, the trade balance, the floating of the dollar and the recent fall of the dollar, are all issues which have to be seen in that sort of perspective.

This Government will not be deterred from what we regard as the essential policy tasks by honourable senators here bouncing up and down with mock horror about the level of the dollar, interest rates levels and so on, in this month of November 1985. If we are deterred from the course which this Government has set itself upon by this mock horror and the flamboyant little speeches that have been made in the Senate, we will fall into the same trap as our predecessors; that is, ad hoc government, reactive government responding to the pressures of the day, rather than proactive government with some sense of direction. Of course, the latest thing which has been engendered into the debate is the view that as a result of the current level of the dollar, the Government should renegotiate the accord with the trade unions. That has the same degree of ad hockery about it. It is quite legitimate in political debate to attack the accord and to say that one would have done it differently. I shudder to think how one would have done it differently. We saw a bit of how the Opposition did it differently in 1981 and 1982. The consequences of that were disastrous for this country.

Senator Crichton-Browne —Would you do it differently if you knew what you know now?

Senator BUTTON —I do not think so. Perhaps there could be a few refinements-everything has rough edges-but, basically, no. The reason is that one cannot govern or engage in politics in fits and starts by responding to each pressure with a change of direction. What a government has to do is to achieve differences and results for this country over time. Over time it has to achieve, as we have achieved, lower unit labour costs. Over time it has to achieve a much better industrial relations record, as we have done and will continue to do. Over time it has to achieve much better co-operation between industry and unions in relation to changes and restructuring of industry. Over time it has to establish community awareness about the importance of these things. That is the task which must be pursued vigorously.

Senator Lewis referred to his favourite company, the McDonald's hamburger company. I do not think that he said anything about the quality of the hamburgers, which is a good thing-he would not want to hang his reputation on that-but he said something about its employment of young people.

Senator Archer —You will get a letter now. You will get a free sample.

Senator BUTTON —I am sure I will get a letter. As long as I do not get a hamburger! That is the thing that worries me. The interjection is important, because if the Fraser Government had received a letter from McDonald's it would have changed its policy the next day. That was the reactive style of politics in which it was engaged. The point I am seeking to make-I had better get to it quickly or I might lose it-is that Senator Lewis referred to his favourite company, the McDonald's hamburger corporation. I invite him to read the corporate motto, the corporate credo, of that company. I cannot remember the exact wording, but it says something to the effect that the world is full of highly educated senators who are fools. That is perhaps a bit of a corruption of what it says; it is to the effect that the world is full of highly educated fools. What is important above all else is continuity and persistence in what one is doing. That leads me back to what has almost emerged as the theme of my speech, I like to think, which is that one has to embark on consistent courses of policy and must stick to them.

As I said, I did not have the benefit of the wisdom of many honourable senators. Some honourable senators are aggrieved about the tax package and prophesy doom as a result of it. Some, like Senator Michael Baume, are concerned about the trade deficit. I have already referred to that point. Senator Bjelke-Petersen was concerned about the severe difficulties being suffered by the rural sector, and I agree with that observation. I do not see any simple, quick fixes to that problem. I do not think she suggested any, either. Senator Lewis was concerned about access to tertiary education institutions. One thing he did not give us was the figures which point to the vast improvement in participation rates in higher education in Australia since this Government came to power. I do not for a moment claim that our participation rates, our levels of access to tertiary education, are satisfactory. What I say is that they are much better than they were three years ago and they will continue to get better. Senator Lewis has fufilled a function in chiding us along the way about the importance of this process upon which we are already embarked.

Senator Townley, with I thought unusual prescience and sophistication, made the point that when a government introduces a tax package, as he put it, it must live with it, which is something of which we are quite aware and which we are prepared to do. He made the point that one cannot oppose some bits of the package and accept the others. I would like to close on that note because it indicates a new sophistication in the Liberal Party which I have not seen until today. I am surprised--

Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle —You should come in here more often.

Senator BUTTON —I might say that Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, as distinct from her colleagues, has what I would describe as an old, mature sophistication, an elegant sophistication. Senator Townley displayed a new level of sophistication when he simply made the point that one cannot pick the eyes out of these things and say that one will keep the good bits because those constituent groups, such as McDonald's, the car dealers and the restaurateurs, are currently agitating the Opposition on some of their grievances. He said that one cannot pick out the good bits and say that one will keep them and throw out the bad bits. He said that that would lead the Government and the economy into grave difficulties. That is a position which is very much advanced on what we have heard in the past few weeks. It is a very responsible view of the world. I think that this debate has been helpful, if for nothing else because it has revealed Senator Townley's view, and I think that is encouraging. We must do a lot better and try to grapple with some of the real issues-I concede there are many-rather than devoting too much time to many of these ad hoc interest group type arguments that have been put in an important debate on the Appropriation Bills. I thank the Senate for its consideration.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.