Jan 25, 2012

Speech to National Press Club – “Government with a purpose”

National Circuit, Canberra


It’s a great pleasure to have this opportunity to address the National Press Club on the eve of Australia Day which commemorates European settlement.  Given this, it’s particularly important that I acknowledge the traditional owners of country and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

The origins of Australia Day commemorations are the annual dinners organised by former convicts and the sons of convicts to celebrate their love of the land we are all privileged to live in.

I believe the Labor movement can take great pride in knowing that the Australia of 2012 reflects many of the reforms it has championed and its elected representatives have implemented in government.

While many of Labor’s transformative reforms were hard won, often against strident opposition from the conservatives both inside and outside the Parliament, they have nonetheless proven to be profound and enduring.  Indeed without them, the modern Australia we are celebrating tomorrow would be a very different nation.

Pensions, workplace reforms, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Medicare and universal superannuation, are just some examples of Labor reforms which have become part of the permanent Australian landscape– and all subsequent attempts to remove or undermine them, as Workchoices tried to do, have been rejected by the Australian people.

At the heart of Labor’s philosophy is the Australian concept of a fair go.

Labor believes that there is indeed such a thing as society.

We acknowledge that the state has a role in determining the nature of that society.  That’s why we seek to govern – to make a difference.  A simple belief that opportunity enhanced is better than privilege entrenched.  And that we have a basic responsibility to future generations to leave the planet better than how we found it.

Modern Labor rejects state control from the top, but accepts that government can facilitate participation in decision making, in the economy and broader society by the many, not just the few.

We serve for the long-term national interest, not short-term political interest.

Our light on the hill is a nation every bit as good as the Australian people.

As Labor enters our fifth year of government I am proud that in the triple bottom line of assessment, our performance on the economy, social policy and the environment has been, to date, pretty impressive.

THE ECONOMY

A strong economy not only creates the opportunities for working people to get ahead and prosper financially, it’s also the foundation upon which sustainable social and environmental progress depends.  And on any objective measure, Labor’s economic stewardship to date has been highly successful.

When the Global Financial Crisis was causing 30 million jobs to be shed across the developed world, Australia was creating jobs. As a direct result of our recession-busting Economic Stimulus Plan, the Australian economy has emerged positively from the worst global downturn since the Great Depression.

The OECD has even gone as far as predicting that ours will be the fast growing major advanced economy in 2012.

What’s more, unemployment, interest rates and taxes are all lower than what they were during the Howard era, and over 750,000 more Australians are in work compared to when we came to office in late 2007.

We have also managed to reverse the lack of infrastructure spending, with investment in the nation’s roads, railways, electricity assets and water facilities now 40 per cent higher than it was during the last full year of the former Howard Government – a result largely driven by greater Federal investment and the reforms we’ve instituted through Infrastructure Australia.

The National Broadband Network is significant infrastructure.  It will overcome the tyranny of distance which has so often been a disadvantage and enable us to compete with the world, while transforming the provision of services such as education and health.

Our public finances are in good shape.  We have very little public debt, a budget returning to surplus, and for the first time ever, a triple-A credit rating from all three of the world’s leading rating agencies.

In a clear sign of investor confidence in our nation’s future financial stability, the yields on 10-year government bonds have never been lower than what they are today.

SOCIAL POLICY

A strong economy is not the end point. It is about enabling more people to enjoy higher living standards and improved quality of life.

This Labor Government has used our strong economic performance to fund the biggest one-off increase to the pension; to cut taxes for low and middle income earners; to put in place an Education Tax Refund to help parents with the cost of schooling; to provide up to $4,200 a year to families with older teenagers; and to deliver more generous child care assistance along with the first ever paid parental leave scheme.

We’ve also doubled the education budget, initiated the largest ever school modernisation program, delivered a historical funding boost for mental health and increased hospital funding by 50 per cent in order to recruit more doctors and nurses and provide additional beds.

But the list doesn’t stop there.

We’ve also delivered the long overdue apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’ and are working to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; we’ve begun work on a national disability scheme; and we have provided millions of Australians with greater security and independence in their retirement by legislating an increase in the superannuation guarantee to 12 per cent.

SUSTAINABILITY

On the third assessment area of our triple bottom line – the environment and sustainability – we have also taken action, most notably on climate change.

There is a cost to carbon pollution, but until now, we’ve sent the bill to future generations. We have acted on the science and from 1 July this year, there will finally be a price on carbon pollution.

We have introduced complimentary measures such as the renewable energy target and have a whole of Government approach to tackling climate change. 

THE PARLIAMENT

We have achieved this in spite of the added difficulties brought about by the outcome of the 2010 election and the presence of an Opposition engaged in the longest dummy spit in Australian political history.  We have worked with the Parliament that Australian voters elected.

In the sixteen months since the last election, we have not lost a single legislative vote and at last count, passed 254 bills – more than double what the former government passed during a similar period in its first term.

Throughout this period Tony Abbott has done for political discourse what the vuvuzela did for World Cup soccer. The vuvuzela got your attention.  It appeared interesting at first with its very loud sound, but over time it just didn’t have anything but that monotonous noise to offer.

In the face of relentless negativity, it would have been easy to wind back our agenda but we have not done so.

What has been most satisfying is the big Labor ideas and long-term reform embodied in much of our legislation: a price on carbon, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, the National Broadband Network, structural separation of Telstra, health and hospital reform and our Budget bills.  We have done a lot, but there is more to do.

THE FUTURE AGENDA

We must continue to focus on long-term reform whilst dealing with immediate concerns.

In order to secure long-term prosperity we must plan and invest in infrastructure and skills as well as position Australia for a carbon-constrained future.

Labor has a strategy for each of these nation building agendas.  Our opponents have a strategy of wrecking.

Builders versus wreckers is a new divide in Australian politics.

Today, I wish to briefly outline some of our infrastructure agenda. 

NATION BUILDING PROGRAM

First and foremost, we will continue – and where possible accelerate – the roll-out of our six-year National Building Program, an unprecedented $37 billion capital works program which is renewing and expanding the nation’s road, rail and public transport infrastructure.

This year alone our infrastructure spend will top a record $7 billion.

Indeed in our Nation Building Program we’ve doubled the roads budget and increased investment in rail ten-fold.  We have re-engaged with our cities and have committed more investment to urban public transport since 2007 than all of our predecessors combined since Federation.

We are rebuilding one third of the entire interstate rail freight network.

All up, we’re delivering more than 160 major projects.

The Hume Highway will be fully duplicated over the next year.

We have committed $4.1 billion for the Pacific Highway where today 1600 people are working towards the target of duplication by 2016.

We have record funding for the Bruce Highway and have worked with Queensland to repair thousands of kilometres of road damaged in last year’s floods.

According to figures I released late last year, our Nation Building Program is an investment which will pay for itself nearly three times over, generating benefits such as less congestion; faster, more reliable supply chains; cleaner air; fewer carbon emissions; and higher productivity.

However, even with Labor’s unprecedented capital works budget, modernising Australia’s infrastructure is a task too big for government alone.

That’s why we introduced reforms in the last Budget to encourage private sector and superannuation funds investment in infrastructure.

The Infrastructure Finance Working Group we established at Budget time last year will make further recommendations to the Government in coming months.

MICROECONOMIC REFORM

Infrastructure provision is just about investment. It’s also about better regulation and microeconomic reform.

It’s about the provision of smart infrastructure. It’s about breaking down the silos approach that the Government’s development of the National Ports Strategy and the National Freight Strategy are doing.

One of these major reforms is close to realisation.

After more than a century of failed attempts and false starts, Australia will have one set of modern, nation-wide laws covering maritime safety, rail safety and heavy vehicles and administered by just three regulators as opposed to the current 23.

Once it takes effect in 2013, this vital microeconomic reform will improve safety, simplify the compliance task for transport operators and boost national income by $30 billion over 20 years.

We have also introduced safe rates legislation to remove pressures for unsafe practices by heavy vehicles and ensure our roads are safer for all who use them.

SHIPPING

Labor’s nation building agenda doesn’t stop at the coast line.

Following more than a decade of neglect under the former government and four years of extensive policy work and industry consultations under us, this Government is determined to revitalize the Australian shipping industry.

We are at a tipping point. Australia has just 22 ships, less than half what we had a decade ago.  Only four of which operate internationally; all of them in the LNG industry.

There are sound economic, environmental and national security reasons, why an island continent needs a viable shipping industry.

Based on the bipartisan recommendations of an earlier parliamentary inquiry, our historic package of reforms will simplify licensing arrangements for those operating in the coastal trade; establish an Australian International Shipping Register to ensure local shippers are on equal footing with their international competitors; and establish a Maritime Workforce Development Forum to attract and train the next generation of Australian mariners.

And as a further measure to level the playing field and attract new long term investment into the local industry, our package will also deliver a zero tax rate for Australian shipping companies.

This bold package of reforms has the support of industry and unions – without reform we won’t have an industry.

SECOND SYDNEY AIRPORT

Another persistent and complex challenge which we’ve redeemed from the former government’s ‘too-hard’ basket is the matter of a second airport for Australia’s largest city: Sydney.

The bottom line is this: Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport is rapidly reaching its capacity.  Spare landing and take-off slots are rare during the morning peak periods and pressures are already building in the afternoon peak too.

Further underscoring the need for urgency is new analysis conducted for my Department which for the first time puts a price tag on inaction and further delay.  It estimates a failure to secure the additional aviation capacity Sydney so desperately needs will reduce direct expenditure in NSW by $35 billion a year by 2060, and cost the NSW economy some 70,000 jobs.

This is an unacceptable economic price to pay.  But it’s avoidable, if governments are prepared to act in the national interest and acknowledge the inescapable reality that Sydney will need a second airport sooner rather than later.

The national interest dictates how we go about making that a reality will be guided by the report currently being finalised by the independent taskforce set-up by the Federal and NSW governments to consider and evaluate all the options.

HIGH SPEED RAIL

An example of this Labor Government actively planning for the future is our study into a high speed rail network for the East Coast.

For many Australians, high speed rail would be an attractive alternative.  Imagine boarding a train in Canberra – no racing to the airport, no delays, no lost luggage – and then being whisked at 350 kilometres per hour, arriving just an hour later in the heart of Sydney or four hours if your destination was Brisbane.

Indeed, the potential benefits of this technology are hard to ignore: better integration of our regional and metropolitan communities, less congestion on our roads and at our airports and fewer harmful carbon emissions.

The fact high speed rail could be a game-changer is precisely why, at the last election, Labor put it back on the national agenda with our promise of an exhaustive study into its merits, the early results of which I released last August.

The preliminary work showed it was possible to build a network within relative close proximity of two-thirds of Australians with the potential to attract up to 54 million passengers a year by 2035.

The second phase of the Study is underway and by the end of the year will produce a report setting out the ideal track alignment and station locations, robust costings and patronage projections, financing options and possible governance arrangements.

TONY ABBOTT AND THE TORIES

Where Labor sees government as an opportunity to make a positive difference to people’s lives, it’s as if our opponents see government as their birthright.

Tony Abbott has turned the Coalition of yesterday, into the Noalition of today.

In 1944, Robert Menzies foreshadowed Tony Abbott’s character when he said:

“on far too many questions we have found our role to be simply that of the man who says ‘No.’”

Menzies went on to say:

“There is no room in Australia for a party of reaction.  There is no useful place for a policy of negation.”

Indeed Tony Abbott is not a conservative, but a reactionary who is determined to wreck what he cannot control.

When asked to visit a factory he says “yes”, but when it comes to vote to support manufacturing jobs, he says “NO”.

When asked does he support fiscal discipline he says “yes”, but when asked to support big miners paying more tax, even when they say that they support it, he says “NO”.

When asked if climate change is real, he sometimes says yes, but he has said NO to action.

When asked does he support offshore processing he says yes, but NO when asked to vote for it.

When asked to sign off a written agreement to pair the Speaker and Deputy Speaker he said yes, but when asked to put it into practice he said NO.

Prior to the formation of government after the election, he said yes to a kinder, gentler political culture.  He said he would respect the Parliament that had been elected.  Since then he has spent every day trying to tear it down.

In order to become Prime Minister, he is prepared to make any claim no matter how untruthful:

…offer any promise no matter how outlandish;

…discard any principle no matter how dearly held;

…vilify any person no matter how well-meaning their motives; and

…betray any loyalty no matter how longstanding.

In Australia we have serious challenges to solve and we need serious people to solve them.  Unfortunately, Tony Abbott is not the least bit interested in fixing anything. He is only interested in two things: making Australians afraid of it and telling them who’s to blame for it.

Tony Abbott rarely plays to the community’s better angels.

In 2012 I expect more of the same from ‘One Trick Tony’.   More negativity, more nastiness, more obstructionism, more policy inconsistencies – and certainly nothing approaching a positive idea or plan for Australia’s future.

CONCLUSION

The society we inhabit is far from a permanent state of affairs, with the political forces within constantly struggling with each other to shape the future.

There is no “invisible hand” guiding us to a preordained destination.  That’s why Government matters.

The labour movement – Australia’s oldest, continuing political force – has engaged in that struggle with vigour and purpose for more than a century, firstly in the workplace and then in the nation’s parliaments.

We have never accepted the status quo as the best our nation can do.

Of course, while it won’t be possible to judge the extent to which the current Federal Labor Government advanced our movement’s transformative mission until long after we have leave office, one thing is already certain: we have and will continue to be a good Labor administration which governs with a purpose.

There is one thing Tony Abbott has said recently which I agree with: at the next election the Australian community will have a clear choice.  Indeed it’s been a very long time since the differences between the progressive and conservative side of politics have been so stark and so profound.

Like none other in recent times, the 2013 election will define the type of nation Australia becomes in the Twenty-First Century.

[ENDS]