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ALP National Conference, Hobart, Tasmania, 31 July 2000: opening address.

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ALP National Conference

Opening Address

Kim Beazley - Leader of the Opposition

Hobart, Tasmania - 31 July 2000

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Check Against Delivery

The ALP National conference is the most important conference staged in this country: it has been for a long time and it will remain so as long as Labor remains the party of national progress in Australia.

What we do here significantly determines what kind of country Australia will be, what kind of society, the kind of lives our children will lead.

It is at this conference that we remember our reason for being the Australian Labor Party -the reason is the future of Australia and its people. It has been the same reason for a hundred years.

We are here because we believe people want strong communities, with care for the aged and ill, and nurturing for the young to help them realise their dreams for themselves and our nation.

We are here because we believe in the dignity of all labour, and in the opportunity to make a living.

And because we believe government serves the people, not the other way around.

We are here because we believe Australia's potential resides in the people. All the people. Every Australian who gets an education, every family and every community that gets the help it needs, makes Australia stronger.

Delegates, unlike our opponents, we say in these things there is a crucial role for government.

People do not elect their representatives just to service capital or private corporations, or to plug the leaks in the market economy.

They elect them to serve the community. And to lead the country. In this age, as globalisation bears down on nations and communities, with the power to make or break them, the need for leadership was never greater.

We are here to address what we know are the most pressing concerns of all Australians: jobs, health, education.

Because if we address these things, we will have made real progress towards bridging the disturbing divide that is emerging in Australia.

Over the next few days, we will be putting in place some crucial building blocks on schools, universities, hospitals, jobs, and balancing work and family. Building blocks which will be part, but by no means all, of the policies we will put to the people at the next election.

This morning I will outline two important initiatives that figure highly in Labor's plans. One will lift disadvantaged schools to take their place in the Knowledge Nation. The other will revive and restore our great health system, Medicare, in partnership with the states.

But first I want to tell you why you won't see initiatives like these from the Howard Government. And I want to tell you about my idea of core Labor values, and where they differ from those of our opponents.

Because I believe the government led by John Howard is a government in retreat from its responsibilities. A government which has lowered our horizons.

In domestic and foreign policy, never has the need been greater for leadership and imagination - but we have had retreat, meanness and, of course, an enormous regressive tax.

To understand why of all our conferences down the years this one is particularly important we need only do this - imagine Australia in four or five years time, unless there is a change of government.

Four or five years is the time it takes for a child to progress from junior secondary school to the workplace or tertiary training; for a young adult to lay the basis of a career, or establish a business.

An awful lot can happen to a person in four or five years. Or to a party, or to a country. It's ample time to make or break a person's progress; or a family's; or a country's.

That's why I ask you to imagine it. And consider the answers to these questions:

In four or five years time will all the children who are now in the early stages of secondary school have received the kind of education they need to give them an equal chance at life and careers in the 21st century? All the children?

Will wealth determine health? Will those who use the public health system and public hospitals suffer no disadvantage relative to those who use the private system? Will Medicare exist?

Will all Australians be guaranteed basic care and dignity in their old age? Equally. Regardless of their circumstances, or their children's ability to pay for it?

Will workers have the right to bargain collectively with their employers? For secure terms of employment, and safe and congenial working conditions?

These questions might have been put a century ago. They concerned the Labor Party then and they've been our inspiration and goal ever since.

Among the political parties only Labor believes in these values now.

But out in the Australian community a lot more people believe in these things. I can say that because I've been talking to them, at length, all over the country.

I can tell you we need be in no doubt that those broad values and ambitions are shared by the majority of Australians.

That is why we must win the next election

To lose would be to fail not only ourselves, but the people of Australia.

Of course, whatever else it might mean, we learned this week that a Coalition victory at the next election would usher in a period of deep uncertainty in Australian politics.

By announcing that he will retire early in the course of what he hopes will be his next term of government, John Howard has set the hares running - and a couple of dogs as well.

Not so many years ago in Australian election campaigns, the so-called Great Debate would consist of the two leaders questioned by a panel of journalists. The way things are shaping up this time around, the Great Debate will feature a panel of potential Liberal Leaders -- and me.

I am prepared to take them all on, if necessary.

John Howard thinks the Australian people owe him a Lap of Honour. A farewell election victory to cap off a career to rival Menzies', followed by a personally convenient early departure.

All I would say is this: if John Howard doesn't want the job, he shouldn't apply for it.

I want the job. I am applying for it. I want to claim it on behalf of all of us who share Labor's values and Labor's aspirations for this great nation.

Our aspirations lead us to those questions that have always been too hard for our opponents:

Will the Commonwealth of Australia be a republic?

Will we squarely face our past, including the worst sides of it, and achieve reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians? So that we can say this country is mature and just. And then move on!

In other words, will the government of Australia have caught up with the people of Australia? With the needs of Australia?

Will we be pursuing our future in the region where we live; will we be playing a part in shaping it? Engaging with the countries with whom it is our destiny - and our extraordinary good fortune - to live?

It is simple enough. If Labor wins the next election the answer is "yes". If our opponents win the answer is "no".

For some Australians this is a golden age of widening prospects - of material and intellectual riches and excitement, of engagement with the world and its culture and resources that no previous generation ever knew, of an extraordinary global revolution in technology and communications.

Some Australians can look forward to the 21st Century with boundless hope. Walk through the Sydney CBD or through many suburbs in any of the capitals and you will see the signs of

prosperity. Some Australians are doing very well from their talent and hard work, and the good fortune to live in this country in these remarkable times.

But what the lucky few often don't understand is that their destiny is tied to the destiny of us all. Where there is hurt without compassion, where there is wealth without sharing, where there is self-interest without social conscience, then every family, every individual will suffer.

Because when you go just beyond the CBDs and parallel to the prosperous suburbs, right across the country, a second Australia is emerging.

You've heard a lot about the outer suburbs of cities, and rural and regional Australia, with their services, their economies and their prospects in decline.

While wealth grows and chances multiply in one Australia, in the other life remains a struggle.

People work longer hours in less secure employment, but they know they will never bridge the gap that separates them from the other Australia.

Remember John Howard's "battlers" - the ones who were promised the world. He was going to come down hard on the so-called 'elites' and look after the battlers, remember?

They are the Australians who say to me now 'how come if the economy is doing so well, and Australia is doing so well, how come life seems to be getting harder?' How come life for our kids is getting harder?

How come they talk about the importance of families and the value of hard work, but they make child care harder to afford?

How come in the last two decades all Australians were asked to carry the burden of economic reform, but only some Australians are getting the rewards?

It was workers and their families who took on longer hours of work, gave up privileges and rights, suffered the job losses that went with higher productivity, the tariff cuts to make Australian industry competitive - and what have they got for their sacrifices?

They got Peter Reith. They got abuse. They got their rights stripped away. They got public investment channeled away from their schools and hospitals. They got training programs closed. They got huge cuts in research and development. They got rundown services. They got a GST - which favours the prosperous, penalises the poor, and squeezes the middle.

The Coalition won't redress these injustices; they won't suddenly change their minds about the direction of their policies.

For the past four years John Howard has imposed upon this country his heart's desire: from the GST, to the republic he snuffed out, to the gross inequities in education and health, to the reconciliation he thwarted, to his plans to destroy Medicare, to the smallness of his national vision.

Labor has opposed the GST tooth and nail. In government, we will do what we can, responsibly and affordably, to make it fairer and simpler.

The GST shifts the tax burden downwards, with the heaviest burden on the poor. This is its gross inequity. Who devotes 100 percent of their income to consumption? The answer is the poor. Who devotes the smallest proportion to consumption? The rich.

We oppose the GST because its burdens fall most heavily on those least able to bear them.

But we also know that the GST, now that it has been imposed, cannot be abolished without putting Australians through the wringer again and asking them to again bear the cost of the exercise. We always said that, like prickly pear and cane toads, once you had a GST, you had it for good.

But we can make it fairer, and we can do it without tearing holes in the Budget. We ought to be very clear about this: a Beazley Labor government will have an absolute commitment to fiscal responsibility.

On these economic standards depends everything we want to do, and we will not deviate from them.

And there is so much we can do. We live in an era of unprecedented change. The application of knowledge to industry and society has created possibilities for individuals and nations most of us never dreamed of even a decade ago - and even now the reality of it often outstrips our capacity to fully comprehend and harness it.

Unless we set out consciously to distribute the power and the benefits, this "revolution" will be no more than the changing of the guard - the replacement of one privileged class by another.

The wider the distribution, the greater the accumulation of knowledge, the wealthier Australia becomes - the stronger it becomes.

It is not an option, this wealth of knowledge - it is a necessity. It's the staple of successful countries.

That's why I have been talking about the Knowledge Nation, and all its parts, education, training, research, development, innovation and industry.

And it's why I say the Knowledge Nation will be a fairer nation - because as never before knowledge is power. The more people with knowledge the better chance for all of us.

And yet, what has happened under this government? Education has become less fair, the chance of acquiring knowledge less assured.

Let any unbiased observer look for themselves - they will see a huge and widening gap between schools in rich an poor suburbs, and the city and the country.

We are all affected by the consequences. From failing schools come the ones who can't get jobs, the ones without skills or confidence, many of the drug users, a lot of the crime. Not all of them by any means, and not a few overcome the disadvantage - but failing schools are a key link in the chain of generational impoverishment, and a key obstacle to the creation of the knowledge nation.

Today I want to announce that a Labor Government will provide substantial additional resources to disadvantaged schools, to make Australian education fairer and give hope to

parents who feel their children are being left behind.

We will create "Education Priority Zones" in areas where retention rates are low, tertiary participation rare, and youth unemployment high. Where necessary, we will re-skill their teachers, raise literacy and numeracy standards, improve science and computer facilities, develop better vocational and extra-curricular programs; we will, in other words, make these schools a priority, not a problem to be quarantined.

We will demand extra effort from staff, students, parents and communities in return for the government's investment. And we will set exacting targets, because it will take a joint effort to lift them out of the cycle of failure and alienation into the knowledge nation. It will be a very sound investment.

This policy represents a major shift in the commonwealth's role in education.

Through the zones the commonwealth will become an active partner with schools and local communities in dealing with local problems which are holding back young Australians.

For well over a century it has been agreed in Australia that education is a universal right, and that an education system that merely reflects and reproduces differences of wealth and circumstance is a travesty. The principle should be enough to persuade us; but even if it was not, we know that in this age of knowledge we are obliged by common sense to promote the right of every Australian to a good education .

I'll be talking more about education in the next couple of days. But let me say this now. If some people find my passion for education a little quirky or obsessive, let me assure you it is not. We are not talking Lasseter's Lost Reef here, it's not pie in the sky. It is the future; if we are to even maintain our standard of living, it's inescapable. But we have to get education right. Primary, secondary, tertiary, continuing. All the way.

In the last two centuries we unlocked the lands and mined the minerals - in this century we must unlock our minds, we must mine our brains.

Our goal is nothing less than an education system for the Knowledge Nation. An education system as good as any in the world.

One of the other vital things I want to talk to you about today is our belief that access to high quality health care is the right of every Australian.

Medicare has delivered this for nearly two decades - and for just as long John Howard has tried to replace it with a two-tiered American system providing first-rate care only for those who can afford it.

The Liberals destroyed the universality of Medibank, and now they are doing it with Medicare. It is an essential part of our social infrastructure. It is one of those hard won rights, and one that must be constantly defended, or they will take it from us. What else in the life of the country contributes more to our being "relaxed and comfortable" than Medicare? And who is determined to rip it apart?

Of course when John Howard says he does not want to kill Medicare, he is telling the truth -he doesn't want to kill it but he's determined to make it dead. So he'll amputate a bit here and a bit there, and perform all sorts of invasive surgery. And when he's finished it will still look

a bit like Medicare and it might even go by that name - but it will not be a universal health system, and the right of all Australians to high quality care will be no more.

With it will go an essential binding element in this country, an essential thread in the fabric of this country, an essential source of confidence.

Medicare is fair, simple and economically sound. But when we come to office we will need to rebuild and refurbish it and give it the strength it will need in the 21st century. Give them another twenty years of Medicare, prove to them that we won't let them destroy it, and eventually the Liberals will accept it - as many of their spiritual ancestors accepted universal suffrage and the emancipation of slaves.

We will rebuild it, so that if the time comes when they want to tear it down again they will find it so much harder. And in rebuilding Medicare we will make it work better.

Today I want to announce that I have reached agreement with Labor leaders in every State and Territory - including the four Labor Premiers - to build a new Medicare Alliance. The Alliance will guarantee patients are always the first priority.

At present there is too much confusion and disagreement over who is responsible for which patient, and the people who pay the real human price are the patients who slip through the cracks.

The Alliance will blow away the false boundaries governments create. Patients will win because they will get appropriate care: not the care that suits government accountants.

To start the process I will convene a National Health Summit of all government and the health professions to agree on a new funding system for Medicare and especially our public hospitals.

We will establish a Medicare Fund for each State and Territory; we'll inject the funds necessary to ease the crisis in Emergency Departments of our public hospitals; and we'll establish a Health Financing Commission to distribute Commonwealth Funds and monitor achievement.

My government and the States and Territories - the Medicare Alliance -- will sign up to an increase in the real level of health funding over the next ten years.

The immediate benefits of the new funding arrangements will be, for example, too help older people stuck in a state-funded hospital who would be better off in a commonwealth funded nursing home or hostel, or in their own home.

It will also go to all those who need GPs or emergency departments after hours, and all those who have difficulty getting medicines on discharge from hospitals. At present these services are hindered by state/federal squabbles.

The increase funding will make patients winners too: new and extra services will be available; emergency departments will offer more services, and waiting times for operations will fall.

Fighting and blame-shifting will finish: the Medicare Alliance will fix the problems.

Labor's values have always been about being innovative today to solve the problems of

tomorrow, and to create a better life for working men and women.

Labor believes job opportunities for working men and women are too important to leave to the whim of the market.

As the revolution in technology and the economy rolls on, governments cannot rely on old habits. They need imagination and they need to be adaptable. As the economy and technology change, work changes; skills change. Ordinary workers and their families bear the consequences, but too often they are the last to know what lies ahead.

This is what Labor's Workforce 2010 study is all about.

It's why Labor will establish a National Workforce Council to give all governments, schools, parents and children the information they need about where the jobs of the future are coming from. It's why we will have Workforce Skills Profiles to identify workers at risk of unemployment and give them the targeted training and re-training they need before they lose their jobs.

And it's why Labor will strive to ensure that, by the end of the decade, 9 out of 10 young people leave their teens with a year 12 equivalent qualification and that all young Australians achieve a formal education or training qualification of some kind.

When we produced Workforce 2010, I gave a pledge to the workers and parents of Australia that if they made a commitment to a higher skill future for themselves and their kids, a Labor Government would be there for them with the education and training opportunities they need. I repeat that pledge today.

You will also see from us at this conference a package of initiatives to help people better balance work and family life. For people on average earnings the struggle is relentless - to meet the demands of work and training in an increasingly insecure job market, and to find time for what everyone knows is the most important thing in life - raising their children, spending time together, being part of a family.

Labor will provide extra assistance for families and make sure it is delivered efficiently. Income support will be more flexible, child care more affordable and accessible; and we will employ industrial relations strategies to make workplaces everywhere more compatible with family life.

This is the role of government in our age. Not to grudgingly plug the social wounds left by a competitive economy - but to find ways to stop the injuries occurring.

And again, it means we must never forget government begins and ends with people.

We must turn Australia towards the possibilities of the new century; possibilities that exist, let us remember, largely as a consequence of efforts in the last century. When governments fail to grasp these chances they betray not only the next generation but the ones that have gone before. It is surely, a process of building one generation upon another - nation building.

Unlike our opponents, we think our society, and our economy, can be organised in ways that make this country a better place for more people.

Call it social democracy or call it Australian Labor, that is the principle that guides us. We are committed to a strong, modern economy. And we are equally committed to a fair society.

We do not believe you have to choose one or the other.

There is a lot to learn from our Labor Premiers - from Steve Bracks, Peter Beattie, Bob Carr and Jim Bacon. They have all gone out to the community with open minds and open hearts.

The latest member of this distinguished band of Labor Premiers Steve Bracks, beat Jeff Kennett, against the greatest of odds by going back to the community and heeding their concerns: by listening to them, really listening to them.

The message is - go to the community, open ourselves to the community, draw down its ideas and its ideals.

And when you go to the people it's their j we embark on the work ahead, remember this, it's because the conservative government has abandoned these essentials the majority of Australians want a new government, and deserve a new government.

By the time of the next election, whenever it might be, the Australian people will know this: Labor is here because we want a future in which jobs, education and health are paramount.

We want a future in which our national institutions truly reflect the spirit of independence --and the spirit of generosity -- at the heart of the Australian people.

Let us spend the next four days showing them just how we will go about it.

Thank you.

Authorised by Geoff Walsh, 19 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600.