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Opening of the Women's Conference, The Theatrette, Parliament House, Canberra, 2 July 1999; transcript of address.



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PRIME MINISTER

 

2 July 1999

 

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

ADDRESS AT OPENING OF THE WOMEN’S CONFERENCE

THE THEATRETTE, PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

 

E&OE

 

Well thank you very much, Deirdre; to Jocelyn Newman and Jackie Kelly; t o Margaret Reid, the President of the Senate; to my other Parliamentary colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

 

I’m delighted to join Margaret in welcoming you to what is effectively the first event of the Federal Council Meeting which will span this weekend. I can’t, of course, open this conference without putting it in the context of the end of a truly remarkable week in Australian politics.

 

I’ve lived through some remarkable weeks in Australian politics. I recall some remarkable weeks in November and then December of 1975. I remember every week seemed to be remarkable between May of 1974 and November of 1975. I’ve lived through some remarkable times as a Minister, some remarkable times, remarkable for their difficulty and their desolation in those 13 years of Opposition. But the last week has been, in a sense, one of those weeks that makes it all worthwhile because it was a week all about achieving something long-term for the benefit of Australia and delivering something that everybody knows deep down has been needed for a long time. And delivering to the people on a commitment that was made before the last election to implement a policy that formed the centrepiece of that election and which was embraced at considerable political risk but in the medium to longer term we all know is of enormous benefit to the future of Australia.

 

And that sense of national benefit is the important, central label that we must put on the achievement of tax reform. That is more important than the fact that it’s something I’ve been working for for a long time. It’s more important than the fact that it’s something the Liberal Party stands for. They’re important but the label of national benefit is the most important thing of all because we go into public life to do good things for our country and once we lose sight of that objective we no longer have a useful contribution to make to public life. But it does, of course, nourish the sense of purpose of a political party to achieve things that it’s long been committed to. Political parties are about implementing a set of values. They are about putting into positive action a philosophy of public life that is held dear by the members of that political party.

 

At the end of this year we will celebrate the 50 th anniversary of the election of the first Liberal government in this country. Tomorrow night at our Federal Council Meeting we will honour for a period of time the contribution of Sir John Gorton to the Liberal Party of Australia. And I’m delighted to welcome his wife, Nancy, with us this morning. And December 1949 will mark the 50 th anniversary of his election to the Federal Senate as a Senator from the State of Victoria. And it is very important as Liberals that we treasure and build upon our history and we honour those who have contributed to the history of the Liberal Party.

 

And, of course, women played a special role in both the foundation and the formative years of the Liberal Party of Australia. Without the contribution of women in the early years of the Liberal Party it would not have won office in 1949. That contribution was made at a time when the contribution of women to our community was expressed in a different way, perhaps, than it is in many ways today but a no less valuable way. And one of the important things to remember about the changing role and contribution of both women and men to our society is not so much that one or other role is better or worse than the other but rather to recognise the constant need for change and alteration.

 

And I think we’ve seen a dramatic example this week of the growing recognition of so many men in our community that family and parental responsibilities are responsibilities that must be shared equally between men and women. And the resignation, for the most obvious and best of all reasons, of my very beloved Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer, is a wonderful demonstration of that particular point.

 

I think it is worthwhile, ladies and gentlemen, to reflect for a moment at the opening of this conference on the role that women played in the formative years of our party but also to reflect upon all of the specific things that have been done by Liberal governments to recognise particular need and particular circumstances affecting women in our community. And I’m going to do something for a couple of minutes that I, as you all know, hate doing and that is actually read something while I’m delivering a speech. But I do want to list some of the things that have been done by coalition governments over the years but whilst they are not exclusively for the benefit of women they have touched upon issues that have been very important to women both as individuals, as mothers, as wives, as friends and as contributors to the community.

 

The Menzies Government, of course, was the one that introduced child endowment, national divorce laws, medical benefits scheme and a national health scheme, tax concessions for married pensioners and also oversaw a tremendous growth in higher education which really made it possible for the subsequent generation of women to match the contribution and performance of men within our community. I often tell the example of how that has all changed, that in 1957, when I started at the Sydney University Law School, I may have told this gathering before, there were, what, 10 or 15 women out of a class of 120. And when 35 years later my daughter started first year at the same law school, 52 per cent of the first year were women. And that is a transformation which is a direct policy, direct product of the greater opportunities for higher education which were a cornerstone of the Menzies’ Government period. The whole Holt/Gorton/McMahon era the Liberal Party delivered assistance to deserted wives, lifted the Commonwealth public service marriage bar. It almost sounds ludicrous now when you acknowledge that it used to exist. But it wasn’t until that period that that was actually lifted. They introduced equal pay legislation and they introduced the first Childcare Act in 1972.

 

And the Fraser Government introduced the new family allowance system. Margaret Guilfoyle who played such a major role in many of those policy developments is with us today, which involved payments made directly to careers and they’re still principally mothers; funded the first women’s shelter for the victims of domestic violence; established the Office of Childcare; established the National Women’s Advisory Council; established the Institute of Family Study; extended pension health benefits to single parents and dependents in 1979; developed the family income supplement scheme to help low-income families. That was in fact developed by Fred Chaney and was brought in in our last budget in the Fraser Government.

 

And arguably the additions that have been made to that particular measure have done more to eliminate poverty amongst children of low-income families and I give credit to the contributions that have been made in that area by the Labor governments that followed us after 1983. But the concept of a special supplement for low-income families was first developed by a Coalition government and that has arguably done more to eliminate that poverty than any other individual measure. And we of course signed the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women which later led to the establishment of the Sex Discrimination Office.

 

And under the present government women are benefiting from the economic growth that this country has experienced. Women comprise over 55% now of higher education students. Women represent a third of small business operators and the rate of entry of women into small business is three times that of men. So that one-third will over time grow very significantly. Women's earnings are increasing at a faster rate than men’s. Over the year to February 1999 average weekly ordinary time earnings for women grew at 4.1% compared to 2.5% for men. Now there is a gap to be made up. I immediately say that and acknowledge it but it is an indication that that gap is being closed.

 

I mentioned those things not because I believe that speeches of this kind should be a dull recitation of particular measures and statistical achievements, but rather to put into context the practical achievements of Coalition governments over the years in relation to the role and the status of women within our community. Above all what we seek to offer Australian women is respect and choice. They are part of the community. They contribute along with men to a society. Above all they wish to be seen and accepted and understood as contributors, as individuals within our society.

 

They have a special role to play, just as men in our community have a special role to play. I think we have a more mature debate in our society now. Some of the more strident stereotypes have sort of... .are beginning to look a little passe and we’re beginning to have a far more intelligent debate where the right of parental choice is increasingly seen as paramount to the implementation of policies.

 

I’m very proud of the fact that in 1996 in particular which saw the change of government that we’d all worked to for so long finally realised, I’m very proud of the large number of women who came in under the Coalition banner on that particular occasion. And that ratio has essentially been maintained and we did it without the stultifying patronage of quotas. We did it because we had a large number of very talented well-qualified women offering themselves in both marginal and safe seats. And women are making an increasingly important contribution, not only at a Cabinet and ministerial level, but also at a parliamentary party level.

 

Our taxation reforms which of course have been very much in the news over the last few weeks and finally become law and do represent the achievement and the milestone of which Margaret Reid spoke. Our taxation reforms are very much about underwriting choice within the Australian community. They are about recognising that the modern society is a society that increasingly gives, especially to its younger member, a greater range of options than existed in earlier generations. Men and women both want choice, they want choice in relation to their careers, they want choice in relation to their family associations. They don’t want a government telling them whether their young children should be in paid childcare, or either mum or dad should be at home full-time looking after them. What they want is the economic capacity to decide for themselves which is a better arrangement for their own individual circumstance. And the goals of our policy have always been to afford and to promote that choice.

 

I’ve frequently said that in the time that I’ve been in public life the two singular and most lasting changes that I’ve seen I guess in politics and in society firstly being the perman ent change in the role and the status of women within our community, and of course in more recent years and quite unrelated but nonetheless momentous event the collapse of communism and the removal of the old Cold War ideological divide that defines politics in this country for so many of the early years of the existence of our party. And, of course, society is very different now from what it was in 1949 when we first won office and, of course, what women do in our community is different. Their aspirations are different. They’re broader, their horizons are greater and our responses as a community must always be attune to that. But, of course, there’s a certain constancy about some of the values of our society. I spoke recently in an address about how I defined our philosophy in relation to social policy and economic policy and I spoke of the twin pillars, I guess, of economic liberalism and what I call modern conservatism in social policy. Not an old-fashioned approach to social policy of which I am occasionally accused to of no end of amusement to me that I am, but rather a recognition in the expression modern conservatism that there are certain enduring values in our community, they are no different those values than what they were 40 or 50 years ago but we express them in a different way.

 

We still, as a community, value above everything else our family associations. I saw a recent survey reported in the Melbourne Herald Sun of the attitudes of younger people and it showed interestingly enough and not surprisingly to me but nonetheless interestingly enough that stable and enduring family associations is still the most sought after thing in our society. But we express it differently. Relationships between men and women are different now than they were 50 years ago. Relationships between parents and children are different. They do different things together, they talk to each other differently but they don’t talk to each other any less lovingly and the relationship doesn’t mean anything less to them now than it did 50 years ago, it’s just expressed and played out in a different way. And that as best I can express it is what I mean when I speak of a modern conservatism. The value is there, the enduring importance of that family association remains. A stable and loving relationship between a mother and father providing the foundation for a happy home life is still very important but it expresses itself essentially in a modern and different manner and a different fashion. We as a community have to build policies that recognise that we as political movement have to do that.

 

Politics in the 1990s is very much about delivering practical outcomes. We are a political party which is operating in not a non-ideological age but we are operating in an age where attitudes are defined less sharply by ideology than was the case 50 years ago. There are fewer people who are rusted on to one or other political party. I call it the process of de-tribalisation of Australian politics. There are fewer people who automatically vote Liberal because Dad did and correspondingly few people automatically vote Labor because Dad did.

 

When I first started working in the New South Wales Division of the Liberal Party I believed that politics was defined by what I call the 40-40-20 rule. And that is 40 per cent voted Labor, 40 per cent voted Liberal and the rest were in the middle. I think we are, sort of, closer now to a 30-30-40 rule where you have 30 per cent automatically voting Liberal, 30 per cent automatically voting Labor and 40 per cent perhaps sloshing around in the middle. Now, that might be a slight exaggeration but it conveys the point that I wish to convey that we are living in a more politically fluid community. People’s political attitudes are less defined by class, the school they went to, the way their parents voted, the job they have. You have blue collar workers voting increasingly Liberal, you have people making a fortune on the stock exchange occasionally voting Labor. And so it should be. That’s a better society. It’s a society that is less defined by any kind of privilege or any kind of class. We won in ‘96 because we did attract a lot of battler votes. we held office in 1998 because we hung onto a lot of them and we continue to relate and appeal to a lot of things that are deep in the Australian psyche including the aspirations of so many of our younger people in the middle income bracket.

 

So, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to have the opportunity today of opening this conference. I want to thank Jocelyn Newman in your presence for the tremendous work that she does as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. Jocelyn has a great capacity to relate to different generations and different attitudes towards the role of women within our community. She doesn’t bring a prejudiced stereotype to the job she has a capacity to point me in the right direction on all sorts of issues. I sometimes agree with her, I basically agree with Jocelyn, but occasionally I don’t. But she advocates in an appropriate way the focus that ought to be on women on issues that come before the Cabinet. But we are not always talking about that subject and the reason we are not always talking about that subject because it is not necessary to do so because the great bulk of issues that come before the Government have equal application to men and women because they affect the well-being of the entire community. I think that is what most women want. I think women want a society where there is an assumption of equality. There’s a recognition that most issues affect them equally. From time to time there will be issues where a particular women’s focus is needed and that is why it is important to have at a senior position somebody such as Jocelyn who can bring that focus.

 

Thank you Jocelyn and I want to thank all of the women, Members and Senators, of which there are a very large number now in the Coalition ranks for the contribution they are making first and foremost as representatives of the entire community. But also se rving to remind me and to remind our party of the enormous changes that have occurred in the different and equally significant role that women continue to play in our party organisation. I declare the conference open. I look forward to seeing all of you over the next few days. It’s a wonderful end to a first-class week. It’s one of those weeks that really makes it worthwhile being in politics. Thank you.

 

[Ends]

 

 

jy  1999-07-06  11:52