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Liberal Party of Australia (Tasmanian Division) State Council dinner, Wrest Point Hotel/Casino, Hobart, 23 August 1996: address


Thank you ladies and gentlemen for that very, very kind welcome, to Tony and Carolyn Rundle, Bill Gatenby, the President of the Tasmanian Division, to my long- standing friend and the former Premier of Tasmania, Ray Groom and his wife Jill, to Jocelyn Newman, the senior Tasmanian Federal Representative and the Minister for Social Security, Madam Lord Mayor of Hobart, my other Parliamentary colleagues, both State and Federal, ladies and gentlemen.

It is for me a tremendous delight to be here tonight to address you for the first time as Prime Minister to an Annual Dinner of the Tasmanian Division. And I want to thank you Tony for the very warm words of welcome that you've extended.

I have had a long association with Tasmania. I think I understand some of her passions and idiosyncrasies and when I've shown signs of not understanding them I've been sharply reminded of them. And I am delighted of the symbolism that my being here tonight coincides with the announcement by you Mr Premier, with John Sharp, of the Bass Strait Highway, thus fulfilling the central, specific commitment we made during the election campaign to the people of Tasmania.

As I talk to you at the end of quite a momentous week in national politics in Australia - the first Budget of a new Government, particularly a Government that has come in after 13 years in Opposition, is always a defining moment. And we did face a very special challenge - we had two objectives: we had to get the economics right; and we also had to get the politics right. You never make Budgets with blind obedience to economic theory nor do you make Budgets being completely contemptuous of economic realities. You have to achieve an appropriate distillation of both political and economic considerations.

We did inherit a much worse fiscal position than we were told - it's as simple as that - and no amount of obfuscation by my Labor opponents or some of their apologists amongst the commentators could alter that single unassailable fact. And one of the things that we have done in our first Budget is to commit ourselves to the introduction of a Charter of Budget Honesty - and that simply means that when the next election is called, whenever it may be, the Secretary of the Federal Treasury will automatically publish a set of accounts. He won't ask my permission or Peter Costello's permission - he'll just publish them and both sides of politics will know what is the background against which commitments are made and the Australian people will never again be treated to the charade that we experienced in the lead- up to the last election.

The day after the election when I staggered rather bleary- eyed up from the Inter- Continental Hotel in Sydney to my office in Phillip Street with all I suppose the adrenalin affects of the previous night - and was presented with the Blue Book by the then Head of the Prime Minister's Department - it had right in the centre of it a statement of where the Budget sat. And that statement had been available to the just defeated Government throughout the entirety of the election campaign. And that sort of thing shouldn't happen again. So one of the commitments we've made, one of the promises that we have delivered on is that we're going to have this Charter of Budget Honesty.

But we did face the twin challenge of getting the politics right and the economics right. When we campaigned in the lead- up to the March election we made a number of important commitments. And I'm very proud to say as Prime Minister that those important commitments have been delivered on. I've spoken of the specific commitment to the people of Tasmania but we made a commitment of a family tax policy to all of the people of Australia, and I'm happy to say that that has been delivered to the very last dollar that was committed during the campaign. I'm very happy to say we promised tax incentives for private health insurance and that has also been delivered. We promised capital gains tax roll- over relief for small business and that has been delivered. We promised taxation justice for self- funded retirees and that has been delivered. We promised many other things and those commitments have also been met. And if the Senate wills it the very important commitments we made in the area of industrial relations and investing one billion dollars in the environmental future of Australia, out of the proceeds of a sale of one- third of Telstra, will also be delivered.

And when you bear in mind the enormous fiscal challenge that we faced it is quite remarkable that such a high number of the essential commitments that we made during the election campaign have been kept. Because I do place an enormous amount of store on retaining trust between the elected representatives of the people of Australia and those people. And it is important, as your President said, that Members of Parliament retain contact with the grassroots not only of our Party organisation but the mainstream of the Australian community.

We faced a challenge of putting together this year's Budget that we would either respond to in this our first year of Government, or put aside never to be again confronted and therefore condemn ourselves to being recorded in history as yet another Government that failed to meet the important challenges of being in office. It's never easy to say no. It's never easy to take subsidies away. It's never easy to take payments away. It's never easy to limit the expansion of benefits. It's never popular to take away tax concessions. It's never particularly attractive to lessen the generosity of an existing tax concession. But in the long run what is even less attractive and what is even less courageous is of course to do nothing about a problem that you know will simply get worse year by year. And that was the situation, that really was the situation that we faced.

We've now had three or four years of recovery after a very deep recession, yet we still have a very large Federal Budget deficit and if you have a large deficit after four or five years of economic growth just imagine the size of the deficit you will have if you happen to have a few years of economic downturn. And therefore it's in the years of economic growth that you must take advantage of that growth, reduce the deficit and build some surpluses. And whatever the former Government may have said in praise of it's economic management, it can't be denied that after all those quarters of economic growth it was an appalling failure, that it should leave the Budget deficit so heavy and so apparent. And that was the challenge we faced and we decided that we had to do something about it in the first year. And we knew in our hearts that if we didn't do it in the first year we would never do it. So therefore we committed ourselves to achieving savings of between seven and eight billion dollars over a period of two years. And we have done that. And if the Senate has the good sense and has at heart the future of the people of Australia they will pass that Budget without amendment.

It is a strong Budget. Some would say it's a tough Budget but it is above all a fair Budget. It delivers on our central commitments but it also maintains the essential social security safety net of this country. There is a tradition of compassion and fairness in the Australian community. We don't believe that people who through no fault of their own are without means of support, should be left without care. It has always been the Australian tradition to care for people who through no fault of their own need help. And it will always be the Liberal tradition to do that.

And there was never any doubt in my mind or in the minds of the Cabinet that we would preserve that basic social security safety net. But having committed ourselves to that and recognising the importance of meeting the main commitments we made in the election campaign we did face a very big task. Not all of the decisions are popular but in aggregate I can look every single interest group in Australia in the eye and say that the decisions that we have taken have been fair.

We have quarantined some areas. And I make no apology for the fact that I quarantine Defence expenditure from any further reductions. Defence expenditure has already been cut in my view very, very heavily. And what we have done is to rearrange priorities within the defence area to take money away from administration and give more of it to soldiers, sailors and airmen, which is what you ought to do in a Defence Budget. That we've quarantined a few areas, we've maintained the essential social security net and when you go to other areas you can justify each and every one of the decisions.

We've been criticised for some of the decisions that we've taken. We've been criticised for the decisions that we've taken in relation to funding of Aboriginal Affairs. I want to say something rather specific about that - because I find it very hard to accept the smears and the unreasonable, unrestrained criticisms that have been made of us. The questioning of our motives, the overtones of racism, the claims that we are in some way insensitive to the original citizens of this country, I find all of those accusations utterly and completely repugnant. I've always believed in an Australian community where we are one people and one nation. I said in my policy speech in Sydney, back in February of this year, that I believed in an Australian nation in which people irrespective of their background should be united under one body of law to which all of us are equally accountable and from which all of us are entitled to an equal dispensation of justice. I therefore reject the claims that have been made that we have treated the Aboriginal community of Australia unfairly and in a punitive fashion.

The reductions in expenditure that have been imposed on ATSIC are not unreasonable, they're not unfair, they're not

disproportionate, they don't represent a bias or a prejudice. Indeed it may surprise all of you to know that in the first four years of a Coalition Government from now that we will spend $428 million more in 1996-97 dollars on specific programmes for Aborigines than the Labor Government did over the last four years. It may surprise you to know that we're going to spend $97 million more in those four years than did the Labor Party over the last four years. It may surprise you to know that we're going to spend $26 million more on housing and infrastructure programmes, and $337 million more on community development employment programmes, and $147 million more on labour market and training programmes and I could go on. But the point I simply make to you is that this sleazy attempt by some of our critics to brand us as being in some way insensitive because we have looked to most areas of Federal Government expenditure for savings is a charge that I completely and utterly repudiate. It is a baseless charge and it is completely unworthy of those people who have made it.

But is difficult to get that kind of argument across in some quarters because there is a determined attempt by some people to brand us as being socially insensitive. We are not socially insensitive, but we are very much a Government for the mainstream of the Australian community. We are a Government that believes that the average Australian, that the families of Australia, the hardworking small business men and women of Australia, the people who care about their communities all around this country - they are the groups that have been ignored for too long. We are not a Government that ignores minorities but we are a Government that will not be coerced by minorities. We are a Government that believes that the most important obligation that any Cabinet can ever have is to govern for the mainstream of the community. There are groups of people in Australia who are disadvantaged and nobody who understands the nature of our country can deny that in terms of things such as health and education and housing the Aboriginal community of Australia, as a group is the most disadvantaged, but to suggest for a moment that the changes that we have sought to make represent some kind of discriminatory treatment of that section of the population is a totally false and erroneous proposition.

Ladies and gentlemen we won a magnificent victory in March of this year. It was a victory for which so many people in this room had waited such a long time. I wondered on occasions myself if it would ever come. We lost a few elections we probably should never have lost but finally when the victory came it came like a torrent. The victory that we won in March of this year in terms of its geographical spread is probably the most comprehensive victory that any political party has won. It may have fallen a little short of the landslide victory of 1975 but given the economic circumstances and the political circumstances in which the two elections took place it was a quite astonishing victory.

As the ultimate beneficiary I suppose of that victory, and the person who has the privilege of leading the new Coalition Government, I do want to thank the Liberal Party organisation all around Australia. I am a child of the Liberal Party organisation. I owe my seat in Parliament to the Liberal Party. I owe what opportunities I've had in politics to the Liberal Party. I owe my occupancy of the Prime Ministership of Australia to the Liberal Party. And I've never forgotten what the Liberal Party organisation meant to me when I was an active member of it and I've never forgotten the importance of the link between Members of Parliament and members of the Party organisation. And I want to pay a particular tribute to the way in which Bill Gatenby has gathered together the resources of the Party in Tasmania. I want to commend him and others on rebuilding the finances of the Party here in Tasmania and I want to thank all of you for the way in which you have kept the face, you've stayed with us through good years and bad. As I look around the room I see many friends who I've known over such a long period of time and we've shared some good times and some bad times.

It is appropriate on an occasion like this to reflect with some satisfaction and some enjoyment and some pleasure on having finally achieved office again after 13 years. I think there was an occasion, and it was probably the Annual Dinner in 1982, when you last had in Malcolm Fraser and Robin Gray a Liberal Prime Minister and a Liberal Premier of Tasmania together. You had to go back a long time before that to have that happy conjunction and there's been a long time since then when you haven't had that happy conjunction. So it is an occasion for celebration. It's an occasion to reflect on what we've achieved. It's an occasion to honour the history of our Party.

One of the things that I'm determined to do amongst many others during my Prime Ministership is to remind myself, and through my office to remind the Members of the Party, of the great history and the great inheritance that our Party has. We have been all together too defensive on occasions about our past, we've been all together too reluctant to extol the virtues of what previous Liberal Governments have achieved in this country both State and Federal. It is important always to engage oneself in the battle of history in political debate in Australia. Winning the political argument is not just about winning the argument on the issue of the day, it is also about winning the argument about the historical contribution of your side of politics to the development of this country.

One of the more insidious things attempted by my immediate predecessor, in the office of Prime Minister, was the way in which he sought to rewrite the history of this country, to marginalise the contribution of the Liberal and Conservative traditions of politics to the development of the character and the institutions of Australia. And one of the things that we must do as Liberals is to throw back in the teeth of our opponents this idea that in some way Australian history began in November 1972. That in some way all that had gone before it and all that had occurred during some years subsequent to there was some kind of conservative aberration. In reality the history of this country owes much to those two great traditions of Liberalism and Conservatism of which the Liberal Party uniquely is the trustee. Because most of the great progressive breakthroughs in individual liberty have been achieved by Liberal Governments.

It was of course a Liberal Government that defended individualism in so many ways. It was a Liberal Government that ended the White Australia Policy. It was a Liberal Government that pioneered many of the great social welfare entitlements of this country that are now taken for granted. It was a Liberal Government that guaranteed for the first time the right of Australian parents to choose without financial penalty the school in which their children were educated and so the list goes on. And we do have a great inheritance and we should be inordinately proud of it and on occasions like this we should take the opportunity of reflecting upon it.

We have seen of course over the last week some of the uglier sides of aspects of our political opponents. We have seen the totally disingenuous attempt of the leaders of the Trade Union movement to disassociate themselves from those incidents that occurred in Canberra on Monday. Let me say to you that the right of lawful, vigorous, robust dissent and public demonstration is part and parcel of our democratic fabric and it's something that I will always defend. But the use of physical violence to put across a political point of view is something that is utterly unacceptable to the mainstream of the Australian community. And when you organise a demonstration you have a responsibility to control it and to pretend that you don't even know it's getting out- of- hand is not only disingenuous but it's insulting - there's an argument to be used.

We have over the last week seen a surge in I believe, the confidence and the self- assurance of the Government. We've seen the delivery of a Budget in difficult circumstances which has been widely acclaimed as both fair and balanced and responsible. It's a Budget that has won very wide respect in the international financial community but it's also a Budget that has not been lacking in compassion, social understanding and political reality. And I want to take this opportunity tonight of expressing my pride in the performance of the Deputy Leader of my Party and the Treasurer, Peter Costello, for what he has done in the delivery and the presentation of the Budget.

As we are politics is a team game. I said a long time ago when I became Leader of the Party that I didn't regard myself as a one man band, that I am but first amongst equals, I am the Chairman of the Board, it's my responsibility to give the general, philosophical direction, but I am very proud of the team that I lead. And I look back now with increasing contempt on all of those insulting remarks that were made before the election, about the quality of the team. Remember those ads that they ran during the campaign? I mean they had those terrible ones that said - it's got to be Keating - and so forth. And then they had those ads that were saying well you know when you look at the team there's no argument. And every week that goes by I come to the view that there certainly is no argument. And I thank very warmly my Tasmanian ministerial and parliamentary colleagues. I thank Jocelyn Newman, I thank Warwick Smith, I thank Chris Miles. For their particular contribution as Ministers and Cabinet Secretary and all of the other Members and Senators. We have a very strong team, we have great depth. I watched with great pride the performance of the Ministry yesterday at Question Time and I wondered at the political wisdom of an Opposition asking complicated questions at Michael Wooldridge about health policy. And they asked him four of them - not one - and his answers got better each time. And it's just but an example, of the quality of the Ministry that we have and it's a group of men and women of which you in the Liberal Party can be particularly proud.

I don't underestimate the challenges that lie ahead of us. We live in a very volatile political climate. We don't control the Senate and we don't have any immediate prospect of that situation changing. But we do retain the great goodwill of the majority of the Australian people. They emphatically changed their Government on the 2nd of March. They were tired of the other mob and they wanted a change - and they were warmed by what we had to say - and I don't believe that in the months that have gone by that we've let them down.

I thank Tony Rundle for the reference that he made to the particularly tragic circumstances of the 28th of April that had such a traumatic affect on this State and on the whole of the Australian community. I know ladies and gentlemen that the uniform gun laws which I championed and which, with the tremendous support of the State Premiers of this nation we have achieved. I know those laws are causing some inconvenience to some very law abiding citizens in this State and throughout Australia and I regret that and I apologise for that. There are occasions in the circumstances of any nation when the interests of the overwhelming majority must take precedence over the particular convenience of some. It's regrettable but I hope you understand the priority and the reasons for that priority established by the Government.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, can I just say two very simple things to you. The first of those is that I regard it as the greatest honour, without question that has come to me in my life to be the Prime Minister of our country. It is a privilege to be the Leader of the Liberal Party and it's a tremendous honour and opportunity at this time in the history of our country to be Prime Minister. I'm very conscious of the debt I owe to you and I'm very conscious of the obligation I have to all of the people of Australia. I don't have any false illusions about the nature of the task ahead. I know that co- operation is important and I value very much the very strong working relationship that I've established with your Premier, Tony Rundle and with all the other Premiers of Australia. You can't do it alone, you've got to do it in co- operation and I know how very important it is for me to retain contact with the grassroots of the Party organisation.

In the first address I gave to the newly- elected Parliamentary Members after the election, I warned all of the them to avoid the affliction described by the Greeks as hubris - in other words I warned all of them to avoid getting the impression that they had been elected by some process of divine selection. They were elected because enough people in their electorates were tired of the other crowd and were willing to give us a go because they liked what we were saying and they liked what we said we stood for. But you're only ever elected in a conditional way, you're elected for so long as you deliver the goods, you're elected for so long as you keep contact with people, you are elected for so long as you express the collective aspirations of the people that you represent. And that is the guidance, that is the watch word of the way in which I approach my job.

So to all of you ladies and gentlemen can I express my tremendous thanks, can I remark upon the pride I have in what the Liberal Party has achieved? It has been a long journey. The Liberal Party has not only regained Government, but it has regained its sense of pride, its sense of proper satisfaction in its history and its regained its role, as once again, a decisive influence in the affairs of our nation.

Thank you.