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LANDMARK SPEECH THE COALITION’S PLAN FOR STRONGER COMMUNITIES

 
John Howard was onto something when he said that he wanted Australians to feel more “relaxed and comfortable” about our country. People naturally seek the reassurance that their job is safe, their doctor is available, their children go to a good school, their neighbourhood is friendly, and their country is secure.
 
As a Liberal, the former prime minister readily appreciated that the more people can personally participate in the things that matter to them, the more likely they are to have a well developed sense of belonging to strong and cohesive communities.
 
As John Howard saw it, a big part of his mission was to end the confused sense of self that afflicted Australia at the end of the Keating era, exacerbated by the then prime minister’s insistence that we couldn’t be a real country unless we changed our symbols and repudiated much of our history.
 
These days, there’s an even deeper sense of public unease about where we’re headed, only the uncertainty is more economic than cultural. The Rudd/Gillard government is less than five years old yet its incompetence and untrustworthiness has engendered a profound sense of disappointment even amongst people who normally vote Labor.
 
This government looks like it’s deliberately trying to set Australian against Australian with its class war rhetoric and insistence that families earning more than $150,000 a year are the undeserving rich. It’s almost the polar opposite of Bob Hawke’s search for consensus and striving to bring the nation together.
 
The current government plainly fails to understand what its Labor predecessors knew, namely that a cohesive community depends upon a strong economy that, in turn, depends upon profitable private businesses. Wealth, after all, has to be created before it can be redistributed. For all his fierce partisanship, not for a moment did Paul Keating ever treat business as the enemy of the people.
 
The next election is set to be more than usually significant for Australia’s future: it will confirm that we are now set on the continental European path of higher taxes, growing debt and bigger government; or it will restore the Hawke/Keating/Howard consensus that government should operate to empower individuals and communities rather than itself.
 
Based on the carbon tax broken promise, the poker machine backflip, the dumping of Speaker Harry Jenkins for Peter Slipper and the never-ending defence of Craig Thomson, voters quite understandably suspect that the current Prime Minister is more interested in her own welfare than in theirs.
 
Hence, my purpose today is to explain how our society would be different and better under a Coalition government. I want people to understand some of the important respects in which their lives would be better should the government change.
 
Of course, to political partisans there’s always a purpose to winning elections: it’s to keep out the other side who are self-evidently a threat to all that is decent and good. That’s not how the public see it, though. They normally think there’s strength and weakness on both sides of politics and want to be sure that the people they support have voters’ best interests at heart.
 
If it is to be more than a dispiriting struggle between competing ambition, politics cannot simply be about power. There has to be a purpose to the exercise of power and to the quest for it. Otherwise, it differs little from a boxing match only for much vaster stakes.
 
I was brought up to think that a good part of life’s purpose should be to leave our country and the world a better place than we found it. Australia should be such an exemplar of freedom, fairness, mutual respect and economic opportunity that much of the rest of the world would gladly live here.
 
My fear is that current government policies are badly letting our country down: not only making it much harder for Australian businesses and Australian workers to compete but eroding the confidence that we should have in ourselves and the rest of the world should have in us.
 
Australian suburbs and towns are almost unique in the range of community organisations they spawn from service clubs to charities, the school and hospital auxiliary, the volunteer bush fire brigade and the local land care group. It’s these volunteer associations, the “little platoons” of life as Burke described them, between the individual and the state, that give people a sense of wider purpose and belonging. Government can’t create them but it can certainly hinder them especially if it habitually assumes that the official knows best.
 
Unlike the current government, which seems to think that the resources boom will continue regardless of how many new taxes are imposed upon exporters and regardless of how hard it becomes to do business here, my expectation is that the Asian century will belong to those who are most efficient at taking advantage of it. That’s why the commitments that the Coalition will take to the next election are so focussed on giving more Australians a more realistic chance to be economic participants and on making our institutions more responsive to the needs of the people they aim to serve.
 
Today, I’m outlining the Liberal and National parties’ plan for stronger communities. It complements the plans for a stronger economy, for a cleaner environment, for stronger borders and for better infrastructure that I’ve already delivered. It completes the plan for a stronger Australia that I first outlined at the National Press Club in January.
 
Today, I announce two new commitments: first, an incoming Liberal National government will renew reconciliation by adopting more imaginative ways to include Aboriginal people in the mainstream economy; and second, an incoming Coalition government will restructure an element of the Council of Australian Governments to deliver more seamless law enforcement given that criminals don’t respect state or national borders.
 
Andrew Forrest’s Australian Employment Covenant is based on the insight that the key to employment is an employer. Rather than train Aboriginal people for jobs that might not exist or provide training that employers might not want, his method is to identify willing employers, ear-mark suitable jobs and guarantee Aboriginal people ongoing employment provided they do the training and take the job.
 
Forrest’s plan starts with the job rather than with the jobseeker. Once the job has been identified, it guarantees employment to someone who wants the work enough to do the training. It addresses the key weakness of existing Aboriginal employment programmes: namely that people without much employment history tend to regard training as a waste of time, as training for training’s sake, unless it’s more-or-less certain to lead to a relevant job.
 
Working with Forrest’s Australian Employment Covenant and GenerationOne, an incoming Coalition government will fund four trial sites for two years (at a cost of about $10 million using funds from existing indigenous programmes) to train 1000 unemployed Aboriginal people for guaranteed jobs.
 
Success rates would not have to be very high to be a big improvement on existing programmes. So far, even working with very disadvantaged people, Covenant employers report a 70 per cent plus retention rate after training and six months employment.
 
With almost 6000 Covenant jobs pledged to become available over the next 12 months in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, this is a nothing-to-lose bid to break the cycle of unemployment and exclusion. It would also be a sign that government is prepared to match the commitment of civic-minded employers in an intelligent experiment where so much else has failed. If it works, and the signs are very encouraging, this methodology could be extended to employment services more generally.
 
An incoming Coalition government will invite its COAG partners to merge the two existing attorneys-general and police ministers councils into one new council on law, crime and community safety that would bring together lawmakers and law-enforcers. Importantly, state and territory police commissioners as well as the heads of Commonwealth agencies such as the Australian Crime Commission and ASIO would attend this council.
 
The new council would report back to the prime minister within 12 months on five priority tasks: border security arrangements within Australia; a national approach to crime gangs; co-ordination of community crime prevention; new ways to ensure cyber-safety, especially for children; and best practice approaches to the harmonisation of laws about working with children.
 
This should help to close the gap between those who make the law and those who enforce it. Policy-makers have to take the insights of uniformed police more seriously. Governments have to recognise that criminals don’t become law abiding citizens just because they’ve crossed state boundaries. People are sick of self-evidently absurd situations, such as the now notorious flight of Captain Emad, where the computer at the airport gate could identify a people smuggler but the government couldn’t stop him.
 
These two new commitments complement those that the Coalition has already announced to produce more productive citizens living in more cohesive communities. We want the institutions that matter most to people to be more effective and responsive. We want individuals and communities more often to come closer to being their best selves.
 
Government cannot live people’s lives for them. It cannot abolish all the disappointments and failures that are part and parcel of even the best lives. If it tries to, it ends up diminishing people, not empowering them, because it takes away the element of striving that allows people to own their achievements. The risk, when government tackles problems that are best addressed in the community, is that people are denied the chance to achieve something for themselves.
 
The Coalition is much more interested in an empowered community than we are in an empowered government. We don’t necessarily want government to do less for people but we certainly want people to have the capacity to do more for themselves because that’s the way that stronger communities are built.
 
A community that invests its own time and money in its local hospital or school will have more social capital and a stronger social fabric than one which doesn’t. Parents who have more choice to combine family and career are likely to be more personally fulfilled and ultimately to be more effective parents and workers. Welfare recipients who are working for the dole should have more self-respect than those who are getting something for nothing.
 
The next Coalition government will work closely with the states to try to ensure that public schools and public hospitals are locally-run rather than controlled by distant bureaucracies. Our objective is not a Commonwealth takeover of public hospitals because, as John Howard frequently pointed out, Canberra public servants might be no better at running hospitals than their state counter-parts. Rather, it’s to shift the epicentre of public hospital decision-making from head office to the local hospital.
 
Hospitals would be funded on the basis of what they did rather than what they received last year plus or minus an allowance for inflation or head-office’s priorities. A local hospital board would appoint the CEO and, together with the CEO, determine how the hospital’s budget is spent. Hospitals would keep any private money that they raised or earned without any adjustment in their government funding.
 
It would be much the same with public schools. More engagement between parents and educators should mean more community appreciation of the vocation of teaching and less pressure for teachers to be loaded up with non-teaching duties. Empowered principals and school communities should also have more capacity to invest in and retain the best professional staff.
 
A Liberal National government in Canberra will work with the other states to promote changes similar to the independent public schools initiative put in place by the Barnett government in Western Australia. We would try to ensure that the system that the Kennett government adopted for public hospitals in Victoria with activity based funding and local hospital boards was taken up by the other states. Additional Commonwealth support would depend upon changes along these lines.
 
The Coalition won’t take further the Rudd/Gillard government’s attempt to reinvent the funding system Victoria already has at national level and would rationalise the extra bureaucracies the government has created to do so. We are sceptical of the Gonski recommendations because to implement them, even on what’s supposed to be a “no losers” basis, would mean spending an extra $5 billion a year that governments simply don’t have.
 
Empowering local communities would allow hospitals and schools to make more of the government funding that they currently receive. It would liberate schools and hospitals to do more themselves rather than simply look to government for the resources they want.
 
The Coalition’s fair-dinkum paid parental leave scheme – giving mothers six months to be with their babies at their full wage – is an acknowledgment of contemporary social reality. Modern women expect to work when they leave school or university. They expect to continue working, albeit often part-time, even after they become mothers. They expect to make a financial contribution to the family budget. Most want some financial independence. Few accept that career and family should be an either/or choice.
 
Most households can’t afford to lose a substantial part of their regular income. If that’s what having a child means, then fewer families will have children and they will have fewer children. As well, fewer women will have careers because it will be less easy to combine serious work with involved parenting. 
 
At present, the only families that can have more children without damaging their financial position are those on welfare. It’s one of the reasons why the birth rate tends to be higher among people of lower socio-economic status. People who are doing it tough undeniably deserve financial support when their families grow. But every family’s budget comes under strain as it grows which is why all families deserve the support that a fair-dinkum paid parental leave scheme provides.
 
Paid parental leave ought to be paid at a person’s wage rate, like holiday pay and sick leave, because it’s a workplace entitlement, not a government benefit. It’s only paid through government because making it a responsibility of the individual business would inevitably lead to small businesses not hiring younger women.
 
In the Abbott family, childcare has been a significant topic of discussion for nearly 20 years. When our children were young, it was how we could best access occasional care or family day care for the times Margie was working. More recently, it’s been how government policy is impacting on the community-based occasional care centre that Margie runs.
 
Like so many mothers with a family budget to manage, Margie once had to juggle the costs of childcare against the benefits of working. Now, she strives to run a quality service while keeping childcare affordable.
 
Childcare enables more parents to participate in the workforce but it’s also an important means of providing early childhood education. Higher quality is important but so is greater flexibility to accommodate contemporary work patterns with irregular hours. A Productivity Commission review is the best way to investigate the ultimate economic impact of our investment in childcare and how it might be improved with fairer access to in-home care as well as to traditional eight-through-six institutional care.   
 
Given the fiscal situation that that Labor has created, the Coalition’s priority has to be measures that make our people and our economy more productive. In Sir Robert Menzies’ words from his famous “Forgotten People” speech, we want to encourage more “lifters not leaners”.
 
As at the last election, it’s again our intention to offer very disadvantaged jobseekers additional incentives to take work and to keep it, along the lines of the seniors’ employment incentive that the government has recently announced.
 
As employment minister in the former government, I was responsible for a massive expansion of work for the dole and mutual obligation under which every long–term unemployed person under 50 was expected to give something back to the community.
 
The next Coalition government will fight the tyranny of low expectations by again requiring a mutual obligation activity from long-term unemployed people. The vast majority of prime-of-life people should be working, preferably for a wage but, if not, for the dole.
 
Our focus should always be on what people can do rather than on what they can’t. Continuous, mandatory work for dole (or work for the dole-like activity) will help to distinguish the genuine unemployed from those who are fussy about the jobs they’ll take. It should ensure that people don’t get lost in the system while also reassuring taxpayers that people are fair-dinkum when they need support.
 
Unemployment benefits should never be the “conscience money” that society gives to those it otherwise ignores. Because mutual obligation requirements are a way of keeping the rest of society engaged with unemployed people, far from “blaming the victim” they’re actually an element in maintaining a strong social fabric.
 
Suspending dole payments for fit young people in places where unskilled work is readily available, as advocated by former Labor national president Warren Mundine; and extending more widely the welfare quarantining for long-term unemployed people now operating in the Northern Territory would be further means of discouraging a “something for nothing” mindset.
 
Part of building a more inclusive society is fostering more economic and social engagement among people who tend to be excluded from the mainstream. Insisting that Aboriginal children attend school and that adults attend work programmes, for instance, is a much more effective means of promoting social inclusion than adding the term to a minister’s title.
 
The next Coalition government will tighten access to the disability pension and consider a different benefit for people whose disabilities need not be lasting. Our objective will be to work with people to maximise their potential, not to park them on a benefit that often excludes them from meaningful participation in the economy.
 
The Coalition supports the National Disability Insurance Scheme that aims to give everyone with a serious disability the same access to treatment, rehabilitation and support that’s currently provided to people injured in traffic accidents or at work.
 
The Productivity Commission’s landmark report provides a timetable and an outline for reform but it’s a long way short of a detailed blueprint. The hard work of designing the scheme and, more importantly, paying for it has yet to be done.
 
As the principal providers of existing disability services, the states need to be fully engaged. The logistics of moving from government-run services to a government-funded contestable market are far from worked out. Highly sophisticated assessment tools and defensible eligibility requirements will need to be agreed.
 
Our worry is that a government which couldn’t successfully insulate people’s roofs is unlikely to get right a reform as complex as this. That’s why the Coalition has offered to help design and build the new system through a bi-partisan parliamentary committee co-chaired by senior representatives of both the government and the opposition and comprising MPs with a vested interest in making it work.
 
A Coalition government is more likely to deliver an effective NDIS because it’s more likely to produce the strong surpluses needed to pay for it. The danger, now that Labor is more a welfare class than a working class party, is a government that builds in expenditure but takes revenue for granted. There has to be a national emphasis on productivity lest ever more people end up receiving ever more benefits paid for by a shrinking workforce.
 
The Coalition wants an Australia that is prosperous, united and respected; where families’ choices are taken seriously by government; where pensioners and carers are regarded as people who have served and are serving our country; where officials understand that the public are their masters not their servants; where migrants are welcome but borders are secure; where people’s taxes give them decent hospitals and proper highways; and where the armed forces represent our country’s best values. But we also know that government can’t solve all problems and that over-promising and under-delivering politicians are the cause of so much cynicism about public life.
 
From our experience of participating in our own local community, whether it’s serving on the local school parents and friends’ committee or in the RFS, Margie and I know the importance of what people do for love rather than money. It’s the things people choose to do, rather than those they have to do, that are the real measure of personal worth.
 
More capable and more contented individuals living in stronger and more cohesive communities is the goal of the five policy plans that the Liberal National Coalition has announced this year. After all, the ultimate purpose of good government is better people. Everything should be a means to this end.
 
A stronger economy means stronger communities with more jobs and better services. It means more scope for lowering taxes so that families are better off and for increased social spending so that communities can have more of the facilities they need.
 
Stronger borders mean stronger communities because people will have more confidence in immigration when they know it’s run by the government rather than by people smugglers.
 
Better infrastructure means stronger communities because people will spend less time in traffic jams and have more time for the things they need or want to do.
 
A cleaner environment means stronger communities because people will be more confident that their children and grandchildren will have a good country to live in.
 
Lincoln’s famous description of democracy was government of the people, by the people, for the people. Politicians shouldn’t worry so much about who’s in government. We need constantly to re-focus on what government is for. Government is not for politicians’ benefit. It’s for the people’s benefit. 
 
My life, my record and the policies of the Liberal National parties I lead demonstrate that I know this to be true and will strive to serve the community in accordance with this belief.
 
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