Speech: Howard - Post Cabinet Lunch

Published: Wed 4 Aug 1999 03:39 PM
4 August 1999
3 August 1999
Well thank you very much Paul.á To Sue Napier, the Leader of the Tasmanian Opposition and Parliamentary Liberal Party in Tasmania, my Lord Mayor, my Cabinet and Parliamentary colleagues, and citizens of Hobart.á Can I say how grateful I am Lord Mayor that youÆve made this magnificent and elegant old building available for our meeting.á
I understand this is probably the first time in 20 years or more that Federal Cabinet has met in Hobart, and we are doing so in furtherance to the policy I adopted when becoming Prime Minister of making certain that when Parliament was not sitting Cabinet met on a regular basis outside the triangle of Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. And as a consequence over the last three-and-a-quarter years weÆve held meetings not only in the State capitals but also in major regional centres such as Longreach in Queensland, all around Australia to drive home the point that we are in every sense of the word, a government for all sections of the Australian people and to try and express some understanding and sensitivity towards the particular challenges and the particular problem of different parts of Australia.á And itÆs on that basis that my colleagues and I are delighted to be here today to have the opportunity of continuing the normal pattern of our meeting, and also to respond to and deal with a number of issues that I know are of particular concern to the people of Tasmania.
But before I come to one of those which is salmon, and I do want to deal with that issue, I want to say something generally about the health and strength of our nation.á AustraliaÆs economic position generally speaking at present is stronger than itÆs been for more than 30 years.á We have the lowest levels of inflation, the lowest levels of interest rates.á We have in just over three years turned a deficit running annually at more than $10 billion into a very healthy surplus.
Of all the economic statistics that I can quote with pride, thereÆs none that IÆm prouder of than the one that says that of the 24 nations of the OECD, that is of the 24 industrialised nations, Australia has the lowest government debt to GDP ratio of any country in the OECD.á In other words government debt is less of a burden to the Australian taxpayers than it is in any of the major industrialised countries.á Now that is a pretty important statistic because it means something for the future.á
It means that we are bequeathing to future generations of Australians a society that will be free of net Commonwealth debt.á And I can say to you that if we were able to sell the remaining just over 50% of Telstra, by the year 2002 this country would be completely free of net debt at a Federal level.á And when you bear in mind the level of accumulated debt that existed when we came to office we think that is a pretty significant achievement.á
And I have found in the time that IÆve been Prime Minister and IÆve travelled around different parts of the world, and I was recently in Japan and the United States, that the attitudinal change towards this country over the last three years has been quite marked.á The first visit I paid to the Asian Pacific region I felt as though Australia was the anxious outsider seeking admission to the rich club of the Asian Pacific region.á And in three and a bit years thatÆs changed.á We are now seen as a very strong performer.á We are seen as having achieved the remarkable feat of staring down the worst downturn the Asian economies have seen since World War II.á Our performance surpassed that of many of our critics and it also surpassed, I have to say to you, some of the best predictions that were available to us in government.á We in fact performed a lot better on that front than people expected, and I think many of us expected.á
But in mentioning those things I do say them with a deal of pride and satisfaction but in no sense of smugness or complacency.á ItÆs not just a question of good luck.á You make your own luck in government as you do in life, and weÆve worked very hard as a government and as a community to bring about those changes.á
And we havenÆt just focused on economic issues, and I know that today brings together a lot of representatives of the major welfare organisations of the city of Hobart.á And one of the many things that IÆve endeavoured to do over the last three years is to build what I describe as a social coalition in Australia.á IÆve endeavoured to use the best talents of the government, the business community, the welfare organisations, and the willingness and the resources of individual Australians to tackle social problems in a cooperative way.á I donÆt see great organisations such as the Salvation Army and the Society of St Vincent de Paul merely being the dispensers of charity and human compassion and understanding, priceless though they are in performing that kind of role.á I also see them as valuable contributors to policy making within our community.
And itÆs no accident that IÆve had as head of a number of the major welfare activities of this Government, the development of welfare policy by this Government, representatives of organisations like that.á The chairman of my advisory council on drugs is a Major in the Salvation Army.á The chairman of the Youth Homelessness Task Force like wise is an officer in the Salvation Army.á And IÆve had many representatives of organisations such as Anglicare and the Society of St Vincent de Paul involved in an advisory policy role.á We need as we seek answers to these problems to work in a very cooperative spirit, to recognise that you canÆt as a government do it all on your own.á You canÆt as a government ask welfare organisations to shoulder a greater financial burden, and nothing that I say about the social coalition implies that for a moment.á You canÆt leave it all to individuals and you canÆt leave it all to the business community.á But if you can get each of them involved according to their own particular capacities through a social coalition you can build a very effective result and a very very effective outcome.
And weÆve been able to achieve the economic goals that I outlined three years ago, and weÆve been able to see Australia stare down this Asian economic downturn without a abandoning the social security safety net.á All of the things that were said when we came to government, about how we were going to abolish all sorts of social security benefits have naturally of course not materialised.á We are not a government that ignores our social obligations.á WeÆre a government that believes that itÆs always been the Australian way to provide a decent social security safety net to those in our community who through no fault of their own need some help and assistance from their fellow Australians.á That has always been the Australian way and it will always be the Australian way under this Government.á The only rider I would add to that is that in accordance with the principle of mutual obligation we believe very strongly that if people are provided with assistance, if they are able to do so they should be asked to provide something back to the community in return for that assistance.á And that of course underlines the principle of Work for the Dole.á
And IÆm very interested to see over the recent months the emergence within the community, not necessarily from within the ranks of the Government parties, but from other parties and from other groups in the community, a recognition of the importance and the value of this particular principle.
Ladies and gentlemen, I know that many people are here today, and a number of people in the State of Tasmania are concerned about the decision of the independent body AQIS regarding the importation of Salmon.á Can I say that IÆve had some discussion with a number of you as IÆve moved around the hall today.á We discussed the issue at Cabinet this morning and IÆve asked the new Minister for Agriculture, Warren Truss whoÆs with us today, and the new Minister for Trade, Mark Vaile, whoÆs also with us today, IÆve asked both of them to have a meeting with representatives of the industry and others who are concerned about this issue within the next week at a time of their convenience.á Because I believe that there are some aspects of the decision that has been taken by AQIS which have been the cause of misunderstanding, but equally I recognise that it is an issue where legitimately, strongly held different points of view can exist.á
I want to make a couple of, I hope, objective observations about the background of this decision by AQIS and the context in which it should be seen.á The first point I should make to you is that each year Tasmania alone exports nearly $500 million worth of agriculture and seafood products.á Now therefore itÆs a very important source of income and sustenance to this island State.á It is very important that whenever we talk about the conditions under which something comes into Australia, be it into Tasmania or any other part of our country, we must also have in mind the circumstances under which our exports go into other countries. It is never never real life in this country to look at trade as a one-way traffic.á There is always a reaction.á For everything we do there can be an opposite reaction in other parts of the world.
YouÆve had examples in Tasmania recently of the value of opening up new markets.á I was in Japan recently and I heard with great pride the officers of Austrade and other representatives of Australia telling me about how Fuji apples from Tasmania for the first time this year had obtained access into the Japanese markets.á And in recent years as a result of our trading efforts, and inviting the disciplines of the World Trade Organisation, we have been able to not only get apples into China, weÆve been able to get live cattle to China and Mexico, weÆve been able to get pig meat to Taiwan and Singapore. And can I say something more about pork?á You may remember last year when Cabinet met in Queensland there was a very noisy demonstration, not from people involved in the fishing industry, but there was a very noisy demonstration from people involved in the pork industry.á And we were told that the assistance and the response that we gave to that industry was woefully inadequate.á And we were told by people in that industry that what we had to do was to stop imports of pork coming into Australia.á But we were also told by people at the same meeting that if we stopped imports of pork coming into Australia then the Canadians would stop imports of sugar and beef and other things going into Canada.
So we resisted those entreaties a year ago, or less than a year ago.á And we provided on [tape break] export capacity.áá And now you have the remarkable situation of where that industry has been turned around in less than a year, and that in fact some of the pork exporters from this country canÆt fill their export orders.á And I ran into a couple of them, ironically enough at the sheepvention in Hamilton in Western Victoria which is a great gathering of the people in the wool industry of Australia, and two or three of these pork producers came up to me and saidá look, we canÆt fill our orders.á ItÆs terrific the way the industry has turned around.
Now I tell you that little story to make the point that trade is by definition and in reality a two way thing.á I have only one objective, and I said this to my colleagues this morning and I donÆt mind repeating it, I have only one objective when I apply my mind to international trading issues.á Not [tape break] of convoluted economic theory, about free trade or protection or this or that.á I have only one criteria and that is what is in the national economic benefit of Australia.á That is the only thing that will ever govern and instruct the decisions that the Government I lead make on these issues.
It so happens that in my sincere view expanding world markets are of benefit to Australia.á And the reason they are of benefit to Australia is that we are a small country and itÆs in our interests because we have a small domestic market and flowing from the fact that we are a small country we have to export to survive.
We learnt that from lamb.á I mean, the American decision on lamb was absolutely indefensible on trading grounds.á The President didnÆt even try and offer me a detailed economic justification of what the American administration had done.á They decided for domestic political reasons that they could slam an import tariff on our lamb.á And because they are big enough and strong enough to get away with it and theyÆre big enough and strong enough to get away with it with every country in the world not just Australia they went ahead and did it.
Now, that is the brutal reality of trading with the Americans.á The other side of it I should mention is that last year although we had trouble with lamb we increased our exports to the United States by 34 per cent.á And I actually had a couple of beef producers at the same sheepvention in Hamilton yesterday morning come up to me and say: hey, donÆt complain too much about the lamb they might knock off some of our beef.á And I said, I donÆt think that is very likely and that wouldnÆt be defensible.á
But I simply make the point is that what we are doing in all of these things, and itÆs relevant to the issue of salmon, and its the sort of thing that my colleagues are going to talk to your people in your industry about is that in the long run you have to ask yourself the question what is the best way of handling these things that promotes the overall benefit of Australia.á And if we are seen by the rest of the world as blocking things coming to this country without any valid reason at all, if we are just doing it for a particular local industry advantage they are entitled to do the same thing to us.á And all the complaints in the world are not going to stop them.á They are not, I promise you.á You can have all the fancy theories under the sun but if domestic political pressure is applied in markets that we sell to now that block out Australian products.á The Canadians demonstrated it last year in relation to the debate over salmon.á There was a retaliation there, they would never admit it but it seemed to have a remarkable coincidence in relation to our beef industry.á And we have always got to bear that in mind.
And in the long run it is not in the interests of Australia to have a contracting market for agricultural products.á And the reason for that is that we are a very efficient agricultural nation.á We have a very efficient industry, not only agriculture but the seafood industry as well.á And it is in the long term interests of this country that we open up markets.á And we have had a lot more success than the critics would suggest.á 30 per cent of the imported beef into Japan now comes from Australia.á And I can go around the world, particularly in Asia, and give you example after example in order to support the proposition that I am putting.
And I make the point that we export four times as much agriculture as we import.á We export 80 per cent of our agricultural produce because we donÆt have a big enough domestic market to consume it and unless we export it, we just wonÆt be able to get any return on the investment and the sweat and the hard work of our farmers and of our producers.
So I mention those things, ladies and gentlemen, not to think for a moment that they directly answer some of the concerns that people in your industry have.á But I do mention them because they are relevant to the way in which a national Government has to behave in relation to these issues.á
Now, there has been a decision taken by an independent body.á And that decision that has been taken, according to all the advice IÆve received and all the information IÆve read, will apply in relation to all fish imports greater stringency than now applies in relation to them under present arrangements.á And I understand that the decision is being seen by those whoÆve taken it, by those who try and look at these things independently, as having been based on proper scientific grounds.
Now, there are people who will disagree with me and the purpose of my MinistersÆ meeting you is to listen to those points of view.á IÆm not going to make any wild promises about what their responses will be.á That would not be fair of me.á It would not be honest of me.á Because I think itÆs very difficult to ignore the findings of a body such as this, particularly against the background that IÆve endeavoured to outline because if we can put aside the finding of a so-called independent body that is independent then other countries can do the same thing.á And in the long run, if we sell overseas four times more than we import from overseas itÆs a matter of common sense that in a tit-for-tat, blow-for-blow, retaliatory exercise we will suffer four times as much punishment as the benefit we have from such an exercise.á Now that, in the end, is what world trade is all about.á Because donÆt think Australia is the only country that looks at the impact of imports on its own domestic industry, other countries do the same thing.á If the balance were the other way around, if we were a nation of 200 million people, it might be different.á
Now, this is not an easy message to get across because people quite understandably look at a situation as it affects our own community, our own country and our own industry.á I understand that and IÆm very sympathetic to that.á But IÆve got to look at the aggregate outcome for Australia.á And the aggregate outcome for Australia is that if we get into a trade war on agriculture and seafood we will get murdered.á That is the brutal reality of it.á We will be punished far more severely than we will gain from that.á And we should understand that that is, when you strip of it all the verbiage and all the fine talk about this or that argument, on a tit-for-tat basis we will suffer far more from a trade war and retaliatory trade action in relation to agriculture and seafood than we will gain from it.á Now, I know thatÆs not a message that some people want to hear but sometimes, in my situation, IÆve got to try and outline it as best I can and as candidly as I can and with all the good will in the world, and with a profound sympathy for the particular challenges of industries in different parts of Australia.á
Now, there are some things that we can talk to you about and I would like Mark and Warren to have a discussion with the representatives of your industry and I know that thatÆs going to take place at a time of your convenience in the next week or so.á And weÆll approach those discussions with a great feeling of good will and a great sense of trying to come to terms with your particular problems.á
Finally, ladies and gentlemen, can I say that one of the real delights of being in government and one of theá because it is much better than being in Opposition and those 13 barren years of being in Opposition were pretty ordinary and weÆre very happy to be backá but one of the real delights of being in government is the opportunity that is afforded to us of moving around different parts of Australia, of talking to people in their local communities rather than seeing government as just sort of an endless procession of representatives of an organisation or industry going to Canberra and sitting in a sterile office and putting their point of view to a Minister or to a Parliamentary committee.á And itÆs very important that all of us practise what we preach when it comes to going out and meeting people and reaching people.á And weÆve certainly endeavoured to do that.á
And, very finally, may I join Eric in expressing to you, Jocelyn, the profound affection and admiration of all of your Parliamentary colleagues for the difficult days through which youÆve passed in recent times, the very fond memories we all have of Kevin and also and most particular the tremendous contribution you make as the senior Parliamentary representative for the Government from the State of Tasmania.á You are a magnificent Minister and youÆre doing an absolutely first class job for the Australian community as a member of the Federal Cabinet.á And I know all of your colleagues feel that way and would want me to say that on their behalf.á
And also to my other Senate colleagues from Tasmania, IÆm sorry itÆs only Senate colleagues at present, and IÆm delighted to hear from Eric that youÆre working hard on making certainá now I know this is not a political gathering so I wonÆt say any moreá but youÆre working hard to see that there is a greater sense of balance in the representation from the House of Representatives here from the State of Tasmania.á And I look forward to the fruits of that hard work, Eric, whenever it may manifest itself.
But, ladies and gentlemen, my colleagues and I are delighted to be amongst you.á We find these gatherings of enormous benefit and once again to you, my Lord Mayor, our thanks for your gracious hospitality in this lovely old building.
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