Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Senator Natasha Stott Despoja speech to the National Press Club.

Download PDFDownload PDF

Dated: 1 Nov 2001

Location: National Press Club

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja Speech to the National Press Club

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of this land and restate the Australian Democrats’ commitment to reconciliation, and to a treaty with Australia’s indigenous peoples.

I thank the National Press Club for inviting me to speak and the ABC for allowing me to speak to you across Australia.

It gives me the opportunity to address some issues that have been notably absent during this election campaign, to correct the more misleading coverage, and to outline some of the commitments the Democrats have made.

We have already held, in this campaign, public launches of 22 important policy commitments including employment, environmental protection, health and education. And I will outline some of those today.

When the election was called, the Democrats’ first events were designed to encourage young people to enrol to vote and to be part of the political process, through our 1st time voter’s kit, the youth poll, and the promotion of our younger candidates.

We have candidates of all ages, from 18 to 73 years old, with 68 women and 4 indigenous candidates. The Democrats represent the diverse face of Australia.

Over the last weeks the Democrats have spelt out many of our commitments to the Australian people on: Protecting Endangered Species Balancing Work and Family Life An efficient and clean transport system Minimising the tax burden on charities Supporting small business The importance of investment in Education and Innovation, and the Arts and Cultural life, A fair go for rural and regional communities A well funded public health system an independent well resourced ABC. and an employment policy that will actually create jobs.

Yesterday, our childcare policy was released. In the last few days we have also announced a specific plan to save the Great Barrier Reef and our environment policy on waterways and weeds.

And in the next week we will be releasing more.

You may be wondering why you have not heard more about the many commitments we have made. The Democrats do not get anywhere near the same media coverage as the old parties. Although we are punching above our weight, it is hard to get our message through. We have said from day one, the Democrats should be part of the pre-election debates.

Presently, what we see in the debates, is the Liberals saying, “We’ve done a great job. You have no ticker. This is our policy”.

Then Labor gets up and says, “You are so tricky. You have done a terrible job. This is our policy.”

What should happen, is what actually happens in the Parliament The Democrats come in and say, “We will support that, but that won’t work, and you should consider this.

If the Democrats were not there, every issue would be either a stand off or pass without any real examination.

For instance, during the education debate two weeks ago, Minister David Kemp - actually he did not say

much about schools at all - but the Liberals have said they would not change the way schools are funded.

Labor’s Michael Lee said the ALP will take funding increases away from elite category one schools - even though Labor voted for this at the time.

Now, if Democrat Education Spokesperson Senator Lyn Allison had been there at the debate, she would have said that the whole system for funding schools needs reforming. We must address the growing resources divide between and within the public and private schools.

She would have pointed out the gap between the $5-6,500 spent annually on students in government schools, and the $10-15,000 spent on students in even moderately well off private schools.

Lyn would have talked about the need to do more for the 1 in 10 children with a learning disability, and the gifted students who are largely ignored by our education system.

She would have mentioned that Australia is one of the few OECD countries with declining school retention rates, and that teacher shortages is one of the most serious issues facing schools.

Similarly, there was a health debate between Michael Wooldridge and Labor spokesperson Jenny Macklin. They were very polite. Both agreed extra money needs to be spent on health.

But if the Democrats’ Health spokesperson, Senator Meg Lees, had been allowed into that debate, she would have pointed out how it can be done.

We can find the funds to fix our public health system by capping and means testing the private health rebate. This would free up over $1 billion for the public health system.

According to a recent Australia Institute study, by the end of 2002, the private health rebate will be costing Australian taxpayers $3 billion a year.

And the main beneficiaries of the 30% rebate remain the nation’s highest income earners.

Yet both of the major parties are committed to keeping it.

The Labor Party has called the rebate, “the worst example of public policy ever seen in this parliament”. Well, if Labor wants to do something about it, the Democrats will back you up.

That is where the money is for public hospitals.

We believe access to health care should be on the basis of need and not the ability to pay. You know the Democrats will always protect Medicare.

Last week was the Treasurer’s debate. Peter Costello and Simon Crean, both accusing the other of secret plans to increase the tax rate.

The Democrats are the safety net, in case either Costello or Crean change their minds on ‘never, ever’ supporting a rise in the GST.

Three months ago, here at the National Press Club, I pledged on behalf of the Democrats that we would not support any increase in the rate of the Goods and Services Tax.

And we will not allow any narrowing of the important exemptions for health, education and charities, that the Democrats successfully negotiated.

I have always been committed to removing the GST from books.

While we welcome Labor’s announcement that they would remove the GST from educational books, the Democrats are calling for all books to be exempt as well as book aids for people who are visually impaired.

It will cost $100 million but that can come from reducing the Federal Government’s spending on advertising, to $50 million.

For several years, taxation has dominated political debate in Australia, while there has been relatively little discussion about where we - as a nation - should spend those funds for the greatest rewards.

When the Coalition came to power in 1996 it reduced debt - not through trimming waste, or cracking down on tax cheats, but through massive cuts to income support, labour market programs and the public health and education systems.

Yet, the Government is still obsessed with debt reduction, to the detriment of all other national objectives, including public sector investment.

It is not net debt that matters, it is net worth.

This government insists on paying off debts, but refuses to invest in Australia’s most productive assets, its people and its environment.

Economic growth has not made poverty go away. It has not delivered more money for universities and hospitals, and it has not fixed unemployment.

Over the past decade, Australia’s economy has enjoyed a sustained period of growth. In the last nine years the economy has grown by more than 40% and real private wealth has grown by close to a trillion Australian dollars.

This raises two questions: Firstly, what are we doing to prepare for when times may not be so good? How are we going to plan now to avoid a possible future recession?

The second question to ask (of economic growth) is: If things are so good, why are all Australians not sharing in it?

Has this growth translated into jobs in the regions they are most needed? Has this economic growth squandered our environmental resources, or created something for future generations? And are most of the benefits claimed by the rich?.

The so-called vision of the old parties is jobless, futureless and ruthless. The Democrats are committed to the triple bottom line: environmental protection, social justice, and good economic management.

Presently, Government policy is concentrating on one line (the economy), and pretty much ignoring the other two.

There are many Australians who are richer than 20 years ago and living at a higher standard, with longer life expectancies. But this is a fact for only certain groups in Australian society.

Indigenous Australians, young people and those living outside the major urban areas have missed out on most of the riches.

Too many Australians are falling through the social safety net. One in nine Australians live below the poverty line.

Queensland Senator Andrew Bartlett, has worked hard to protect those on welfare.

And now the Democrats want to start pulling people out of poverty.

When I spoke here three months ago I announced an initiative that would mean a much needed increase in income for one million Australians - half a million unemployed; 400,000 youth and students; and around 100,000 widows and those on sickness, partner and mature age allowances.

We can achieve this over a five-year period. In the first year, we propose that the proceeds of reforming the tax treatment of trusts will fund the bulk of our welfare reform package.

We can reduce poverty.

The biggest single cause of poverty in Australia is unemployment.

It is extraordinary how little the old parties have mentioned unemployment, or for that matter, protection of our environment, during this election campaign.

Economic and employment growth has not benefited everyone. Regional Australia in particular, has been left out.

The Government may boast about a national unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent, but unemployment is two, even three times that in some regional areas. The Democrats would initiate real job creation.

The Democrats have released responsible costed plans to create more than 200,000 jobs by spending $525 million dollars, and thereby reducing unemployment to around 4.8%.

We can create jobs in rural and regional Australia through industry investment schemes, with wage subsidies to the private sector. Jobs that provide community services, and social supports, and such as transport, housing, health and childcare.

Yet, the Minister for Employment Services, Tony Abbott described our employment policy as a recipe for unemployment.

Well under his policy, there are around 670,000 unemployed persons and only one job vacancy for every eight unemployed.

Twenty per cent of the Australian population have only the most basic literacy and numeracy skill and are unable to read sufficiently to understand tables, schedules, maps or be able to perform arithmetic printed material.

That is a recipe for unemployment and poverty.

The employment agenda of the old parties is dominated by the old anti-union versus pro union debate but the real divide today is not between employers and employees but between those who are over worked and those who are unemployed or under-employed.

There are more than 2.5 million Australians who are now working more than 45 hours a week. At the same time, one in five children is being raised in households where no one has a full time job.

We need to have a community conversation about how to spread the work around.

The Democrats have made a commitment to help Australians balance work and family life. A Fair Hours Fund and a maternity leave payment to tackle the twin issues of overwork and unemployment, and help address the pressure on families.

The Fair Hours fund will help reduce the length of the working week to an average of 38 hours.

The paid maternity leave plan would mean all working women in the private sector would have access to basic pay - 12 weeks at the level of the minimum federal wage - when they had a child.

The Liberal plan to give tax breaks to new mothers, announced last Sunday, would least benefit those mothers who need support the most.

The Prime Minister’s plan says babies to poorer mothers are worth $500 and babies to richer mothers are worth $2500.

This is badly targeted.

What women want is paid maternity leave. Seventy five per cent of Australians support paid maternity leave. Women need support to take time off around the birth of their baby and to know there job will be there if they want to go back.

The Australian Democrats’ commitment to women includes not just maternity leave for all Australian women, but also a $25 million violence intervention and prevention program, and a $5 million fund to create new childcare services in regional centres.

We need to make it easier for parents to work and care, and easier for employers to hang on to their productive, highly trained and experienced workers - more and more of whom are women.

All of us benefit from the creation and care of the next generation. That is the flipside of the ageing population issue.

Last weekend the PM announced a $416 million package for aged care over four years. $416 million sounds good until you realise it allocates only 5,000 places per year.

There are more than 12,000 elderly and frail Australians waiting to enter nursing homes and the number of people needing nursing home care is rapidly increasing.

The Democrats are the only parliamentary Party to have consistently spoken out for the value of post secondary education.

Government’s investment in education has proportionately declined since 1992, and public expenditure on education is significantly less than the OECD average.

The Australian Democrats would invest: $670 million into TAFE over 3 years.

There are 1.75 million students in the TAFE sector - three times the number in our universities - yet the Coalition does not even mention TAFE in their statement, Backing Australia's Ability, and the ALP’s Knowledge Nation just makes passing references.

Both the Coalition and the ALP have seem to forgotten that vocational education is a great deal more than just traineeships.

The Democrats welcomed the ALP’s overdue acknowledgement yesterday that investing in education is fundamental to our future social and economic prosperity, but their proposals for our universities and schools still fall short of what is required.

The Democrats would invest $1 billion into universities over 3 years including $500 million in the first year.

And we would abolish differential HECS in science, engineering, maths, computer science, IT and engineering. This would effectively, be an investment in the next generation’s role in the knowledge economy of $161 million.

When I spoke here three months ago, I pledged that the Australian Democrats would raise the level of youth allowance for students and Austudy payments to pension level and pay rent assistance to students - and we believe that needs to be done now, not in 2004, as Mr Beazley proposed yesterday.

The Democrats believe welfare reform is part of this nation’s unfinished business.

Recent studies show that two million Australians do not have enough money to take care of basic, everyday needs such as housing, clothing and food.

For more than a decade, Australians have been promised that economic growth would fix poverty - it has not worked.

We believe we can pull people out of poverty, we can create jobs and we can care for older Australians.

If unemployed people and students have enough money to live on and access to decent housing, transport, education and jobs, they will find employment, and we as a community will be able to look after the aged and frail. Housing is a fundamental need.

If there had been a housing debate during the campaign, the Democrats would be there too, saying: Put

Housing Back on the National Agenda. Invest in public housing to address the growing list of Australians on the waiting list and boost the construction industry.

The Liberals have said they will phase out the First Home Owners Grant. The Democrats say keep it, but target it at disability and environmental considerations. We should consider linking the first home owners grant to enable all new homes to have solar power and be wheelchair accessible.

Labor has said they will offer cheaper electricity bills. The Democrats say why not also invest in making homes more energy efficient so people pay less for electricity?

The Democrats have made these commitments to the Australian people.

The Democrats have always argued against the funding cuts to the ABC by both Liberal and Labor governments. Funding to the ABC is now at an historic low.

Senator Vicki Bourne has long campaigned for an independent and well resourced National Broadcaster.

You know the Democrats will always protect the ABC.

The Democrats recognise the importance of an Australian broadcaster telling Australian stories.

Particularly at a time when our armed forces are serving overseas.

Our immediate concern of course is for the 1550 Australian Service personnel, as well as those of other countries, who are being deployed, and the innocent civilians of Afghanistan. Tragically, it is estimated hundreds have already been killed.

The Democrats believe there are alternative ways to fight terrorism than dropping bombs on Afghanistan.

Australia can assist by supporting stability in the region, through multilateral diplomacy, overseas aid and encouraging democracy.

And you know the Democrats will always oppose conscription. Aside from the moral issues to be considered around conscription and, of course, conscientious objection, calls for conscription do not recognise that today's defence personnel are highly trained and skilled.

The Democrats recognise the special obligation we owe those who serve, and we will support compensation and care where it is needed, just as we have stood up for the recognition of veterans from previous conflicts, and past nuclear tests by Governments.

Some of the issues the Democrats work on are not as well recognised - such as veterans affairs, but also small business and supporting rural and regional areas.

Small business is a crucial element in employment creation, Australia’s cohesion, and in providing services to communities.

The Democrats are working towards reduced red tape, a fairer competition regime and better workplace relations for small business.

The needs of small business are often quite different from those of big business.

The way the GST was implemented for example, was a disaster for many small business people. The Democrats have helped simplify the BAS and the Personal Services Income forms in order to protect small business and we will keep on doing so.

We have committed to raising the threshold for the use of cash accounting from $1 million to $5 million. We will allow a much larger number of small businesses to have access to a simpler way of keeping their accounts.

We also recognise that small business can only compete against big business when the playing field is not stacked against them. The Democrats support tougher powers for the ACCC, including 'cease and

desist' powers to ensure that the ACCC can intervene in a timely manner.

We also support making it easier to prove misuses of market power, like predatory pricing.

Big business do not like a lot of these changes, but they make the system better for the rest of us.

The Democrats also have a proud record in addressing the disadvantage suffered by rural communities, particularly the brutal changes as a result of deregulation.

We are committed to fair farm gate prices, no further privatisation of Telstra, and the end of National Competition Policy reforms.

The Democrats are the only parliamentary party that voted against National Competition Policy.

National Competition Policy has meant farmers are paid less for food but at the supermarket you are paying more .

While the Government blindly pursues competition policy, deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing -and all the other catch cries of ‘small Government’ - the Democrats recognise that, not only are people and communities being hurt by these policies, but economically, they are often just not working.

It is about commonsense and compassion.

The Government’s ideological commitment to smaller Government has meant privatisation and outsourcing. Contracting out the government services, may suit the Government’s preference for ‘free markets’, but the reality is usually reduced services and increased costs.

The old parties have voted together before to sell public assets. In the last few days secret plans have been revealed to sell more of Telstra.

The Democrats will vote against the further sale of Telstra. Our record proves it. We are the only Parliamentary Party that has always voted against the privatisation of public assets.

It was our bank, our airline, our Telstra. They sold them.

Labor may not have voted for the first sale of Telstra, but they have voted to sell public assets before.

And who could have predicted that Mal Colston would leave Labor and give the Government the numbers to sell the first part of Telstra?

The Australian people cannot risk giving the balance of power to a grab bag of independents again.

The Democrats are your only real insurance policy in the Senate.

We are a sensible, balancing force between Government and Opposition when they bicker, and we provide an alternative voice on the many, many occasions when the old parties vote together.

Whether you think the Coalition and Labor sound like two dogs barking or look like the two Ronnies, we know they are just too alike.

We provide a voice for many Australians. Australians who want more resources for public schools and for public hospitals; Who want our unique and fragile natural environment protected; And those who want a compassionate approach to refugees and to the most disadvantaged Australians.

On the immigration legislation, the ALP, abandoned their principles, followed the polls and voted with the Government. They voted to turn away asylum seekers who approached our shores, to say parts of Australia were not really Australia for immigration purposes, and many other initiatives that reflected neither common sense nor compassion.

This left the Democrats as the only Parliamentary Party that voted against the immigration legislation.

While the Democrats could not prevent the passing of these bills, we could keep them honest, we could ensure that parliament does what it is supposed to do, scrutinise legislation.

We were able to reveal their flaws, and ensure that the many arguments against this approach to asylum seekers, were put on the public record.

We are able to give a voice to the many Australians who do not support this, to the many who recognise that it is unworkable, inhumane and unjust.

The Democrats stand for compassion, commonsense and good economic management. The Government’s present approach to asylum seekers is none of these things.

On November 10, many Australians are going to wake up, and think…. “Oh damn, I have to vote”.

Before you vote you might read the newspaper. The editorial will probably contain advice on whether you should vote Labor or Liberal, depending on which newspaper you read.

You go to the polling booth, a local school or community hall. Outside there are large numbers of posters and pamphlets and people trying to hand you pieces of paper.

These are, of course, ‘how to vote’ cards and they reflect the different political Parties’ advice to you, on how to vote.

Usually political parties advise you to put them no.1. After that, they advise where you should put your preferences.

The Democrats will always advise you to preference like minded parties, like the Green Party, before Labor and Liberal. In most seats, we will not make any comment at all on who you should choose between Labor and Liberal.

In a small number of Lower House seats, the Democrats are suggesting who you should preference. There is nothing secretive about it. It’s right there on the How to Vote card, who we are preferencing.

And there is nothing secretive about why we are doing it. We are doing it because it will help get Democrat senators elected. The fact remains, you, as a voter, do not have to follow what is on the How to Vote card.

There is no need to be concerned that anyone is going to get your vote if you don’t want them to have it. You just number the boxes according to your own preferences.

In terms of changing politics, the Australian Democrats are the only parliamentary party to have consistently pushed for openness and accountability from political parties and politicians.

We have always played by the rules and we have always argued for the rules to be stricter.

Politicians and political parties receive millions of dollars in public funding and exercise enormous influence on the lives of all Australians.

We have opposed the suspect fundraising practices of the old parties, and have advocated workable reforms to end secret donations.

We support placing a limit on the amount of money any Party can receive from an individual or organisation.

We have pushed for better political party regulation, an end to secret donations, branch stacking and preselection abuse.

Senator Andrew Murray has championed stronger legislation to tighten accountability.

We have put forward, argued for, and voted for reforms to make political parties democratic and to bring parliamentarians’ entitlements in line with community standards. And we have been largely opposed by

the combined votes of the old parties.

For 20 years now, the Democrats have been calling for the banning of ‘how to vote’ cards. Labor and the Coalition vote against it.

So on election day, yes, you will have to run the gauntlet of party volunteers handing out How to Vote cards.

You might take all the pieces of paper that are offered, either because you are still making up your mind, or just to be polite.

You might take just one or you might take none because you already know how you are going to vote.

Some people will just do a donkey vote - nearly half a million did last election. And I think that is a real pity to waste your vote like that.

It is the great equaliser - no matter what sex you are, what you do, how much you earn, in that polling booth, your vote counts just as much as anyone’s in Australia.

And seats have been won and lost on a handful of votes.

When you are in that polling booth, you have an opportunity to change politics.

And no matter where you live, you have a real and credible alternative this election. Every one of the more than 12 and a half million Australians has the chance to vote Democrat.

We are running candidates in every seat across the nation.

Senate candidates in every state and territory.

And House of Representatives candidates in 150 seats. From Mayo to Solomon, from Kalgoorlie to Cunningham and from Sydney to Boothby.

We may have the momentum to win our first lower house seat and finally break the House barrier.

There is a spot at the back of the House of Representatives, on the left hand side of the curve, that looks just right for the Democrats.

It is even conceivable that - one day - the Democrats could hold the balance of power, not only in the Upper House but the Lower House as well, and that really will change politics.

When you go to vote, you can vote Democrat twice.

You have two ballot papers - one for the Senate and one for the House of Representatives.

You have two ballot papers because you have two choices at this election.

You are choosing, not just a Government, but who will watch over them…. Who will hold the balance of power in the Senate?

Electoral analyst Professor Malcolm Mackerras has predicted that at this election the Democrats will lose two seats.

I want you to prove him wrong, otherwise…

The balance of power would shift towards a collection of independents and minor parties including One Nation.

The balance of power, is hanging in the balance, at this election.

Most Australians don’t want the Senate to be a rubber stamp or obstructionist.

Australia cannot afford a grab bag of minor parties, independents, and One Nation. Instead of coherence, and commonsense, that will be a cacophony.

When you vote on November 10, you will not just be choosing if the Coalition will keep Government, but who will keep Government honest?

The Democrat Senators are expert legislators. For the last 24 years, the Democrats, have negotiated to ensure the fairest laws for all Australians. We want to continue to do so. And I am here asking for your help.

Twenty years ago, one of the Democrat’s most famous founders, Don Chipp posed this question:

"When you decide on a party you'll support, you're not really thinking about yourself... are you? Subconsciously, you are in fact thinking about your children and your grandchildren. You know that somehow or other, you and I will survive the 80s, but what kind of Australia are we going to present to our kids?"

We have that answer now - it is a lot better than it would have been if the Democrats had not ventured onto the political landscape and built our own foundations.

When you are in that polling booth, ask yourself “What kind of Australia are we going to present to our kids over the next 20 years?”

On November 10 you have the power to change politics - and the future - by voting Australian Democrat.