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CEDA/Telstra political and economic overview conference: transcript.

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Transcript from the CEDA/Telstra political and economic overview conference Doug Campbell, Telstra and The Honourable Tony Abbott


I’d like to introduce the Honourable Tony Abbott, the Minister for Employment Services, Workplace Relations and Small Business. Tony Abbott was elected to parliament as a member of Warringah on Sydney’s North Shore in March 1994.

He was appointed Minister for Employment Services following the October 1998 election and was sworn in as Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business just a few days ago on the thirteenth of January 2001.

Prior to joining parliament he had been in turn executive director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, press secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, lead writer with The Australian and feature writer for The Bulletin. He’s the author of two books on the constitutional issue - the Minimal Monarchy and How to Win the Constitutional War.

Ladies and gentlemen let’s give a warm welcome to the Honourable Tony Abbott.


Thanks very much Doug, and thanks very much to CEDA for giving me the chance to say a few words this morning. When I arrived here and was told that I was expected to provide a political and economic overview of the coming year, I thought to myself that there would be many people in this audience who know far more about that than I would.

I then saw sitting next to my state colleague Greg Pearce, those giants of politics, Robert Webster and Stephen Loosley and I thought what can an L-plate minister say to compare to the wisdom and insight that they would have. But still ladies and gentlemen, I will do my best in the brief time I have.

I guess government has two fundamental tasks, first of all to react intelligently and appropriately to events as they unfold. And second, to try to reshape society according to deeply held values. I guess ultimately the challenge of government is not simply to hold office but to make a positive difference to society.

It was the great English political philosopher, Edmund Burke who said back in the 1780s that a political party is a body of men working to promote the national interest according to a particular principle on which they all agree.

And I suppose that the pre-eminent principle of the Liberal Party of a Coalition government is that marvellously attractive and invigorating principle of human freedom. It’s not an absolute principle because human freedom can only exist in a context of order and stability and fairness but nevertheless that is our guiding light.

That is our fundamental instinct whenever we confront a particular political and social problem. And it’s based, this belief in freedom that we have, it’s based on a thoroughly optimistic assessment of human nature. It’s based on a belief that most human beings most of the time in most circumstances will try to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing.

And our challenge as a government is to try to build better structures that bring out the best instincts rather than the opposite in humans and in their behaviour. I’d like to think that over the close to five years of its tenure this government, the Howard government, has demonstrated a capacity to intelligently react to events and increasingly has demonstrated a capacity to put into practice attractive and inspirational values in the policies that it pursues.

I want to mention five broad areas of achievement and then go on to some things that we might do in the coming year.

Almost at the beginning we were confronted with a terrible national tragedy, the Port Arthur massacre, and yet we were able to turn that national disaster, if you like, into a moment of achievement. Gun control had defeated a government state and federal for generations, particularly gun control was supposed to be too hard for the conservative side of politics which was supposed to be terrified of the redneck vote.

And yet John Howard by a simple act of will and determination did something that no one else had been able to do before.

In 1999 we were confronted with a disastrous breakdown in order in East Timor. Again the East Timor problem had been a blot on our national escutcheon for a quarter century and it troubled our conscience for a quarter of a century. There was little, of course, that we could do other than stand on the sidelines and wring our hands.

But finally we did have an opportunity to act and we took it. And I’ve got to say that the expedition that was put together by Australia constitutes, to my mind, one of the greatest and the most glorious moments in our history so far. Because it’s the first time that Australia has even taken the lead like this in a great international question.

I come now to the issue of tax reform. Now, this was the policy Rubicon before which all the political Caesars had hesitated and halted. Tax reform had defeated the Fraser government, it had defeated the Hawke government, it obviously defeated the would-be Hewson government and John Howard succeeded where people who would once of been thought his political betters - the Fraser's, the Hawke's and the Keating's had failed.

A magnificent achievement because we could hardly go on without broadening the tax base so that we could reduce the tax burden.

Something dear to my own heart - Work for the Dole - I think will be seen over time as one of the most important pieces of government policy. One of the signature programs of this government, because it is going to reshape the social architecture of our country. It will change the culture of employment and unemployment.

And it’s based on that fundamental premise deep inside just about every human being that it is better to be doing something rather than nothing and that having nothing to do should never become a way of life.

And finally our workplace relations reforms. Things for which I’ll now have much more responsibility, which are trying to enshrine freedom and flexibility in the workplace. Because we believe that Australia’s workers and managers are not timid craven people. They are more than capable of running their own affairs. They don’t need judges, courts, commissioners to hold their hands as they set out every day to their workplaces.

Let me now just mention four things in my own portfolio area which we’ll be pursuing in the months ahead. Let me say at the outset that it’s not going to be possible between now and the next election to make massive additional change to our industrial system, for the obvious reason that the government does not have a majority in the Senate.

But certainly the first thing that I would like to do as the incoming Workplace Relations Minister, is to talk again to the Australian Democrats to see if we can find some common ground on particularly the unfair dismissal law. I don’t believe that it’s necessary in Australia to have a situation where small business routinely finds itself having to pay, what it indelicately describes as piss-off money, every time it needs to separate some staff.

The second thing I want to do is to try to foster a climate of employee share ownership. Why shouldn’t owning a stake in your own business become just as much a part of the Australia dream as owning your own home?

And if we are ever going to have workplaces which are more like partnerships and less like battlefields, we need to have a situation where workers and managers have a better perspective on each others situation. And I think the best way to do that is through greater employee share ownership.

And this is not, I stress, share ownership for mahogany row, this is share ownership for the shop floor. Share ownership should be as common for people earning thirty thousand dollars a year as it is for those earning three hundred thousand dollars a year.

The third thing I’d like to do is to re-establish Australia as a high wage economy. And the only way we’re going to do that is if we are also a high flexibility, high productivity economy.

The fourth thing I’d like to do is to promote an agenda that was raised late last year by my distinguished colleague Peter Reith. The idea of a federalisation of our industrial relations system. We need to ask ourselves the question - does Australia really want to move through our second century as a nation with six industrial relations systems rather than one.

And this of course, should it become government policy, would certainly not be a matter of taking power from state capitals and concentrating it in Canberra, rather it would be a matter of taking power away from all capitals - the federal capital as much as the state capitals - and devolving it to where it belongs: the Australian workplace, to the workers and managers themselves.

Just a word about the trade union movement. Now, I’d like to say that I see myself as a Minister for employees, just as much as a Minister for employers. But I would see myself as representing workers rather than as representing unions. As a youngster I spent more than enough time amongst the disciples of the late great B A Santamaria to appreciate the work that unions have done historically to civilise the workplace and to establish the dignity of work.

But I’ve got to say that times have changed. And there is no need today for unions to have a place of institutionalised privilege in our system. And the greatest privilege of all that the unions have is the privilege of owning and operating their own political party. And if there is one micro-economic reform that Australia really needs today, it is to break the nexus between the unions and the Labor Party.

And if there’s one thing that Kim Beazley could do to establish national leadership, it would be to follow the example of Tony Blair and end the union block vote and to remove the archaic socialisation clause from the ALP’s platform.

Now, ladies and gentleman obviously it’s an election year and the great challenge is to win. It’s my challenge. It’s Michael’s challenge. It’s John Howard’s challenge. It’s Kim Beazley challenge.

I’ve got to say that I think the government goes into the year in pretty good shape. We have been a government of solid achievement. We have been a government which has presided over significant improvements in the economy. We have been a government of our word.

Now, obviously, there is some doubt now as to how the economy is going. Obviously, 2001 is going to be a harder economic year than its predecessor. I guess I’m very conscious of the fact that governments are but stewards of the people, in particular, we in government don’t have a cent that we don’t in the end take from the people and we have an absolute sacred responsibility not to misuse that which we have on trust from you.

It’s my view that if the economy does turn down, the Australian people will look even more to political and economic managers with a proven record of responsibility.

If, on the other hand, the economy remains buoyant and the revenue remains strong, I believe that the Australian people will look to political and economic managers with a strong sense that what we have, we don’t actually own, with a strong sense that that which we in government have should be spent responsibly and anything that we don’t need to spend responsibly, we should give back to the people because in the end, that’s who it really belongs to.

So, ladies and gentlemen, thanks very much indeed for having me. I’m very conscious of the fact that as the new Minister for Workplace Relations, I’m on a steep learning curve and it’s always a pleasure to be amongst an audience that CEDA puts together because you are amongst the doers and the thinkers of modern Australia.


For further information contact:

Simone Holzapfel (02) 6277 7320