The Hon Julie Bishop MP
First Speech in the House of Representatives
23 November 1998
Mr Speaker, during the life of this 39th Parliament we will celebrate the centenary of Federation. It is timely that we should reassess our expectations of our system of government. Since Federation, there have been many social, economic and cultural changes producing new problems and new issues for this country, and there has been a consequential demand for government solutions.
The first half of this century tested our federal system with two world wars and the Great Depression—an economic crisis of unprecedented scale. At the end of the Second World War, some argued eloquently that federalism had no future in postwar Australia, that it had outlived its usefulness, that the circumstances and conditions giving rise to a federation as a necessary stage in the evolution of Australia’s nationhood had passed away.
As a consequence of the enormous pressures on the federal government to finance the national defence effort during World War II, the federal government took over income tax collection from the states, giving it a virtual monopoly over income tax. Further centralising of powers followed.
On the world scene, the Keynesian challenge of macro-economic management and the implementation of the modern welfare state did lead to considerable expansion of central governments in many federalist systems, and Australia was no exception.
There is no doubt that over more recent decades expectations for the central government have risen. The federal government has claimed, and is now granted, much responsibility for the state of the national economy and is responsible for welfare, health care, pensions and benefits, education and the like. It is an agent for multiculturalism and reconciliation.
Many argue that the scope of government has expanded too much and that it has intruded into areas better left to private life. It is possible that we hold inconsistent views about what we want from government. Of course we want the security of a strong and stable economy and we want the budget balanced, but not at the cost of cutting large social programs.
Australians alike share a number of basic goals for our society: steady economic growth and prosperity with low inflation and unemployment; a quality of life that includes a clean environment; a dynamic program in the arts; reasonable opportunities for everyone to succeed according to their abilities and efforts; protection from the major hazards of violence, poverty, sickness and disease; and respect for basic values, individual freedom and concern for the legitimate interests of others.
But there is a view that governments just cannot get it right. Some think the government does too much; others think that it is not doing enough. But, whatever government is doing, people are far less sure that it is right. Coincidental with our expectations of government, there seems to be an increasing sense of disillusionment with its politicians and an increasing level of mistrust of government. It seems to be a hallmark of political life today that politicians are viewed, collectively, as simply not measuring up to the standards set by the community. Although it seems often the case that, while expressing dissatisfaction about politicians in general, many people have a high personal regard for their own elected representative.
I expect that everyone who seeks to enter public office is asked, `Why are you doing this? Why would you want to be a politician?’ During the campaign I lost count of the number of times I was asked, almost incredulously, why on earth I would be seeking to give up a relatively secure, professional career and a private life for the very insecure, much criticised and very public world of federal politics.
My short answer was, and is, that I was in fact brought up to believe that entering public office should be one of the highest callings and that being able to direct your energies and abilities to the betterment of your state or your country is one of the greatest contribu tions of all. And I have always had an intense conviction that individuals can make a difference to the life of their times.
Some people would nod and say, `Well, I’m pleased to hear you say that.’ But, overall, I have been left with a sense of increasing scepticism and frustration that people have about politicians and governments generally. If this is a widely held view, should we be concerned? After all, Australians have always had a healthy scepticism about concentrated power and a healthy cynicism of politicians. Perhaps a certain level of mistrust of government is a good thing, but is there an optimum level? Are we in fact witnessing a deeper malaise not just with the performance of our politicians and government but also with our fundamental system of government? Whatever the position, we as parliamentarians must confront it.
Of course, satisfaction with government is not just a function of how government performs relative to the expectations that people have for it; it is a function of perceived performance. Federal government is the most distant from most people’s daily experience. It is thus the most dependent on indirect perceptions mediated by the press, particularly television. The media does play an important part. It provides most of the political views that people hear, and the views have become increasingly negative. The obvious rejoinder would be that the media does no more than hold up a mirror to political reality.
If people are unhappy with what they see or hear, don’t shoot the messenger. It behoves us all to maintain standards that people should be able to expect of elected representatives, irrespective of whether the media is reporting objectively or is having a distorted, subjective effect—the mirror held up being much like one found in a sideshow alley where the figures are recognisable but appear in distorted, perhaps entertaining, shapes.
Governments often have to make hard decisions. They must impose unpopular costs in order to produce popular benefits. If people feel less likely to assume that the participants within government who make these decisions are acting in the public interest, there is a decline in trust. A deficit in trust can be made up not only by improved performance but also by greater public participation in the decisions.
Are we asking the federal government to solve problems it cannot solve? Are we asking the government to do more things and solve more problems but without being willing to accept the reforms necessary to finance the efforts that would produce such solutions?
Alongside an increasing dependence upon government there has been a lowering of individual and family responsibility, and an increasing culture of entitlement has emerged in Australia, which also gives rise to increasing expectations of government and its performance. At a personal level, people know that they cannot have what they are not willing to pay for. This knowledge encourages them to think through very carefully the implications of their choices and to ask themselves what they most want.
I suggest that as we head into the 21st century we should, as a community, as a nation, reassess our values and, more particularly, our expectations of the life we want to lead and the life we expect for future generations.
Should not the Australian people and their families decide what responsibilities are theirs and what responsibilities the taxpayer should pick up by funding programs which make a difference? I believe there are many issues upon which Australians need to take a view in terms of what we are prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and within our own families and what we expect the government or taxpayer responsibilities to be. This, of course, goes to the heart of the burning issue confronting the modern welfare state. If the state has obligations to individuals, what obligations do individuals owe to one another and to the state?
Our government must devise and deliver pragmatic, responsible solutions that address the concerns of average Australians. The growth of entitlements, including the burgeoning cost of health care and social security benefits, means that governments of the future will have fewer and fewer resources to meet greater and greater expectations of the people.
It will be incumbent upon each one of us, as elected representatives, to find ways for government to be sufficiently resilient, competent and just, to respond in ways that the public will trust as being in the public interest.
Will our federal system of government be able to cope in the new world framework of the 21st century? I believe it will in fact endure as the most desirable form of democracy. We are in a changing world and our system of government must again adapt to change. Like other western democracies, Australia finds itself in a transition stage—on the way from the national industrial to the global digital society.
We are experiencing a revolutionary societal change in time, space and power. The digital revolution makes it possible to run our economies all day every day through the coordination of economic activities on a global scale. It makes it possible for us to move people, goods and symbols faster through space. Production is changing from industrial goods to the production of knowledge, information and services. Knowledge will become of growing importance as a basis of power.
The challenge is to ensure that Australia is ready and able to compete in this global information economy of the future. We will need to compete for investment capital in a global economy where capital moves to the most favourable climate—hence, the urgent need to reform our taxation regime.
We need the skills for the information technology age for the next generation jobs. We need a national skills base as a critical component of a national comparative advantage. We need to equip our people with an enhanced knowledge base through education, as intellectual capital will be the key to prosperity and stability. Flexible and transferable skills will be the great human resource in our society.
Governments cannot meet every expectation, but they can create environments in response to the changing world. In the coming century, it will be incumbent upon us to provide an environment that gives equality of opportunity. Central to this sense of opportunity must be the role of education and training. Capacities for lifelong learning will be absolutely vital for a dynamic, quality and spirited civilisation and culture. The new jobs of the future will be increasingly in new industries, and we need to ensure our people can both engage in those industries and develop them for us as a nation. And because the individual matters in communities, education is about giving individuals a capacity to live with the world of change in their own lifetime.
Globalisation hands us a much more fundamental challenge to our form of democratic government. A nation state could lose its capability to govern the economy and society within its borders. As a result of globalisation, national society and economy are very much dependent on and intertwined with the entire global network of societies and economies. There has been no lack of prediction of the withering of the nation state under economic globalisation.
From global capital markets to the growth of unrecorded intra-firm trade across borders and the emergence of a global economic marketplace on the Internet, market players could potentially bypass the nation state altogether. The engine of globalisation, the information technology revolution, challenges our system of government in ways our founding fathers could never have imagined.
In recent decades, it was believed that computers would have the Orwellian effect of enhancing central government control. It is true that through central databases and the like computers can enhance some central government functions. But the current hypotheses tend toward the fact that information technology diffuses collective actions. It enables global production strategies and markets. It decreases the relative importance of commodities and territory. Geography is of less importance. The Internet makes borders permeable and jurisdiction less important. The exponential rate of technological change makes it difficult for governmental institutions and regulations to keep up. It creates virtual communities which may develop interests and power independent of geography.
The potential erosion of the sovereign nation-state does not mean that our system of federalism is unable to cope: quite the contrary. Federalism, in the sense of being a system of diffuse power centres with overlapping jurisdictions, is compatible with this new world of globalisation and digitalisation. I believe that our federalist system remains even more relevant today and will continue so, whether we retain a constitutional monarchy or choose to become a republic. Our democracy depends upon the dispersal of power that state parliaments inherently provide as a counterweight to the federal parliament.
A healthy federal system must balance a principle of fiscal equalisation with fiscal autonomy so that elected state governments have broadly sufficient revenue to meet their constitutional responsibilities. To date, one of the greatest drawbacks to a healthy federal system has been vertical fiscal imbalance, which is not simply bad for state governments but bad for democracy and bad for equity in our taxation system. It is an unintended effect of our constitution and gravely distorts the concurrent design of Australian federalism.
The current tax reform proposal of this government is a significant step forward in improving Commonwealth-state finances and will reduce a major degree of dependence and uncertainty affecting the states. This historic step forward in federalism is entirely consistent with the steps we must take in meeting the challenges ahead of us in the globalised information age economy.
Importantly, federalism ensures that power is exercised as close as practicable to the people. It enhances local democratic action through providing an additional level of government with powers closer to the people than national government. It ensures diversity and flexibility. It is more responsive to local communities and allows for a greater sense of involvement and participation. For us, as federal parliamentarians, to remain effective we must keep close to our constituents. We must be part of our local communities, not remote; be in tune with our communities, not out of touch.
Nearly 50 years ago Sir Paul Hasluck took his seat as the first member for Curtin and a distinguished career followed. His successors, Vic Garland and Allan Rocher, also served the parliament in the electorate of Curtin well. I pay tribute to all three of my predecessors for their commitment to public office in their combined 49 years of service to the Curtin electorate and to this country.
The electorate of Curtin is bound by the Indian Ocean to the west, the Swan River to the south, the edge of the central business district of Perth to the east and the burgeoning suburbs to the north. It is essentially a residential electorate comprising a number of older, established suburbs, some of which have always been regarded as affluent and others far less so. There are riverfront mansions but also areas of public housing.
There are many business and professional people, students, many young couples buying their first home, and a large population of retired people. In fact, there are many electors of Curtin who need the support of the community through health care and welfare—people who are brought up with a self-help attitude but who now find, through age or circumstance, that they need a helping hand provided at least in part by governments. Curtin is an electorate that boasts many fine learning institutions and research institutions, including the University of Western Australia, Edith Cowan University and the Princess Margaret, King Edward and Sir Charles Gairdner hospitals.
I thank the Western Australian Liberal Party for its undivided support, particularly the Curtin division of the Liberal Party, and to all the campaign workers, supporters, my family and friends. The risk in singling out any specific supporters is that others who are deserving of a mention are not so recognised. I thank them all.
I am here to represent all the people of Curtin—to be the voice of the people of Curtin in the national debates on the national issues that will affect their lives, their fami lies, their futures—whatever their beliefs or political philosophy. My aim is, wherever possible, to give the needs of the electorate my priority in all that I do and all that I say as a federal member of parliament and to represent the people of Curtin with all the vigour, courage and ability I have to offer; to represent them with honesty, with decency but, above all, with their interests paramount to my own.