In the time that I've been Prime Minister I've had three broad national goals. The first of those is that of national security. The second is that of economic strength and the third is social stability.
With our economy more competitive and stronger than it has been for decades, we as a nation are better placed, than at anytime since World War II to embrace a new era of national achievement.
This bright economic outlook can't be taken for granted. It's only going to maintained by consistence and discipline and sensible policies. Too much of the current debate in Australia takes it as a given that it will continue irrespective of the policies that might be applied by governments.
A new era of national achievement depends not only on continued hard work, but also on sensible decision making. The Government that I've led over the past eight years has pursued a distinctly Australian brand of liberalism.
Our governing ethos is grounded in the priorities and values and aspirations of the mainstream of the Australian people. Our belief in self-reliance and individual responsibility means that we favour private initiative, competition and choice over government direction of resources and society. Our belief in national unity and social cohesion means that we embrace that deeply held Australian sense of fairness through a commitment to mutual obligation and support for those most in need. Our belief in a private sphere separate and autonomous from the government means our bias is towards helping Australians achieve their own goals rather than prescribing collective ends through bureaucratic means.
From the time that this Government was elected, we began to put in place the building blocks that have and I hope will continue to deliver Australia's prosperity and security. We firstly restored Australia's public finances. We did face very large national debt and we faced successive deficits inherited in earlier years. We've now repaid about two thirds of the $96 billion of debt that we inherited and Australia's national debt is just under four per cent of GDP compared with an industrial world average of 50 per cent.
Our second great building block is that of industrial relations reform. We have led the way in simplifying the award system and our framework for agreements at the workplace level has provided greater flexibility for both employees and employers. This greater labour market flexibility has flowed through to greater productivity. The really good news for Australian workers over recent years is that because of higher productivity, they have been able to enjoy higher real wages whilst observing a fall in unemployment.
One of the other great building blocks put in place was taxation reform. The New Tax System introduced in July of 2000 not only provided the largest personal income tax cuts in our history, but replaced many inefficient indirect taxes with a broadly based Goods and Services Tax. Fundamental to that reform was that all of the proceeds of the Goods and Services Tax goes to the state governments of Australia.
Another building block for the future has been the Government's sensible approach to trade liberalisation. Our Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and those already concluded with Singapore and Thailand, have further advanced Australia's involvement with the international economy.
I've always given credit to the former government for two things that it did, the floating of the Australian dollar and tariff reform. Those two changes were very important elements of opening up the Australian economy. They received the very strong support at the time of the then opposition. It's against this backdrop that I find it perplexing that the current Opposition is threatening to vote against the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. This Free Trade Agreement is a once in a generation opportunity to link Australia into the most powerful economy the world has ever seen. It would remove all United States tariffs on automotive products. The potential gains in areas of government procurement, goods and services, are enormous. Australian firms under the Agreement will in future be able to bid on United States Federal Government contracts that are worth about $200 billion a year.
I enter a very passionate plea in the national interest for the support when it comes to legislation in the Senate of all parties for the Free Trade Agreement.
Australia is a more competitive and prosperous country as well as a fairer one. The average Australian's standard of living has risen by 19 per cent over the last seven years. For the first time in 35 years we have unemployment below six per cent and inflation below three per cent. Real wages have gone up by 13 per cent since 1996. We've got 1.3 million new jobs. The average mortgage costs $500 a month less than it did almost eight years ago. Tax cuts in 2000-03 together mean that somebody on male average weekly earnings is today about $2,500 better off in income tax terms. Through reforms to the Australian waterfront, its productivity has risen by 75 per cent. We've not neglected areas of proper social provision, real spending on healthcare's gone up 50 per cent and Federal Government funding for schools has gone up by 63 per cent. We've lifted aged care funding by 50 per cent. We've created 200,000 extra childcare places. When we came to government there were only 141,000 people in apprenticeships, that figure is now 407,000.
This is an edited extract of an address to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia given at the Hilton on the Park, Melbourne, 25 February 2004.
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