Address to the Food and Grocery Council Annual Industry Leaders Forum, Canberra
Posted on Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Thanks very much, Gary. Thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen. It’s lovely to be here.
It’s good to see the senior representatives of the food industry in suits and civvies, rather than in the fluoro vests, hard hats, hair nets and white coats where I normally see you when I am visiting your premises. When I spoke to this forum in November last year, I reflected on the fact that at that time I had visited 19 food factories, shops and installations as part of my campaign against the carbon tax. Well, since then I’m pleased to say that I’ve added at least a further 25 food installations to the total.
I’ve spent time talking with sugar cane farmers in Mackay, dairy farmers in the Tamar Valley and Gippsland, tomato growers in Port Macquarie and rice farmers. I visited fresh food markets in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. I’ve been to abattoirs in Brisbane, pie-makers in Melbourne, a juice factory in New South Wales and, of course, the legendary Bickfords in Adelaide. I have toured food services companies in Melbourne, smallgoods processers in Sydney and frozen goods distributors in Canberra and naturally, I’ve spoken to the whole range of people involved in those businesses.
So, when it comes to the food sector, I think you could say that I’ve farmed, wholesaled, processed, transported, packed, warehoused, distributed and retailed. So, I think that covers just about every sector of your industry. I’m grateful for the chance to talk to you. I’m grateful for the invitation of Gary Dawson, your new CEO, who I am sure will more than fill the large shoes left by his predecessors. I am extremely grateful to the many representatives of the food industry that have made me so welcome on my trips around Australia over the last two years or so, and as you have made me welcome in your places of work I am pleased to make you welcome in my place of work because you are a vital part of our economy, you are essential to our way of life.
The food sector is about 30 per cent of Australia’s total manufacturing sector. You employ about 300,000 people right around our country and importantly about half of those you employ, you employ in rural and regional areas. So, you are a very important part of our country, of our economy and yet, I regret to say, as you only too well aware, your sector is contracting. Over the last financial year, output is down four and a half per cent, employment is down 2.2 per cent. The contraction in the food sector mirrors the contraction in manufacturing generally right around our country. Manufacturing profits have fallen in seven of the last eight quarters. Manufacturing output has fallen in six of the last eight quarters. Manufacturing employment is down by over 10 per cent, that’s 130,000 manufacturing workers fewer now than in 2008 and this is a contrast with the period between 1996 and 2007 when manufacturing largely retained its share of our economy and its share of employment.
Now, some of this shrinkage is due to tough market conditions, as you know, but much of the pressure that you are under is pressure that has been put on you by government. Much of it is the uncertainty created by new taxes, by greater regulations, by more restrictions on what you can do with your business and I think I can make this remark to a gathering in this Parliament – the Speaker might have gone, but we still have a Government which is in denial about the costs that it is imposing on Australian families and on Australian businesses. We still have a government, which when it is under pressure tends to attack its critics, rather than address its problems. We still have a government which instinctively believes that bosses are greedy, that businesses are polluting and that workers are victims. Now, we all know that there are many imperfections in or world, imperfections that we must change. But these caricatures are wrong and they are unworthy of an Australian Government. Alas, we have a government which plays the class war card when it gets in to trouble and when it doesn’t play the class war card, tends to play the gender card to try to deflect what is legitimate criticism.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me reassure you that as far as I am concerned the job of government is to build a better life for its citizens and in particular the job of government is to foster a stronger economy in which people can work, in which people can prosper, in which people can start a business. That is the fundamental job of government and the commitment that I give to you and through you to the whole people of Australia is that that is what I will be working to do should I form a Government after the next election.
What I want to do now, if I may, is just give you ten important areas in which our country will be changed and better under an incoming Coalition government and all of these, I think, are areas in which your life as business people will be changed and better under an incoming Coalition Government.
First of all, there will be no carbon tax. This is an absolute unconditional commitment from the Coalition. There will be no carbon tax because you don’t help our environment by damaging our economy. You don’t reduce emissions by making the essentials of life more expensive. This carbon tax is not a reform, it is in fact socialism masquerading as environmentalism. It is a reverse tariff that impacts on our businesses without impacting on our competitors. It makes Australian businesses and Australian jobs less competitive while giving our rivals overseas an advantage that, frankly, they do not need to be given by the Australian Government. That’s the first important difference that you’ll notice under a Coalition government.
The next important difference is that there will be no mining tax, because you don’t speed up the slow lane of our economy by slowing down the fast lane. You don’t boost an economy by penalising its most successful sector and you certainly don’t hit that sector when it is already slowing down because of increased production in other countries and falling commodity prices.
The third thing that will be different under a Coalition government is that we will live within our means and a government that lives within its means, means lower taxes and lower interests rates for everyone else including businesses such as yours. Right now, with $120 billion of future unfunded liabilities, programmes such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Gonski changes to education, increased payments to childcare workers, increased border protection costs and Defence equipment. With $120 billion worth of new but unfunded commitments, this government is like a tenant that is trashing the fiscal situation before it is evicted.
Well, that’s not how a Coalition government will act. The Coalition government of which I was a senior member, as all of you would know, inherited a $10 billion budget black hole and turned that into consistent one per cent of GDP surpluses, year in, year out. The Coalition government of which I was a senior minister inherited $96 billion worth of net Commonwealth debt and turned that into $70 billion worth of net Commonwealth assets. The Opposition which I lead went into the last election with $50 billion worth of savings and we have a comparable challenge going into the next election but it is a challenge that we are more than capable of meeting. So, that’s the third important difference: government will live within its means because that means less pressure on you.
The fourth important difference is that there will be less lawlessness in our workplaces. We will fully restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission. All of you who have built new premises lately will understand how much construction costs are going up. The ABCC will be there to ensure that the law of the land is observed and obeyed in our construction sector as well as on our streets.
Fifth, there will be less red tape. I know it’s easy for politicians to promise, not so easy to deliver, but every Commonwealth government agency and department will be given an annual target for red tape cost reductions to the people upon whom it impacts and public service bonuses will depend upon those cost reduction targets being met. So, there will be $1 billion worth of red tape savings for business each year under an incoming Coalition government and there will be a one-stop-shop on offer for environmental approvals. So, there’ll be less red tape and less green tape under a Coalition government.
Sixth, we will have more competitive markets because there will be, for the first time in a decade, a root and branch review of competition policy. There has to be a genuine level playing field where big business and small business can do the right thing by each other and each get a fair go. This is my commitment to try to ensure that all of you get a fair go in your market places.
Seventh, we will have more productive people. We will try to ensure that as far as is humanly possible, people of working age are actually working, preferably for a wage – but if not, for the dole – by reinvigorating a programme that was one of the great successes of the former government. We will give the women of Australia a real choice to have a family and a career, to be economic as well as social contributors with a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme where government will bear the burdens, not business.
Eighth, we will have more productive public institutions. I love and respect the work that our doctors and nurses and our teachers do in our public hospitals and public schools but I know from personal experience how burdened they are by bureaucracy. Schools and hospitals that are more community managed and less run by bureaucrats will be much better at delivering the social dividend that a society like ours so needs and so wants.
Ninth, you will see cranes over our cities under a Coalition government. We will have the modern infrastructure that a first world 21st century country deserves. We will get the East West Link underway in Melbourne. We will get the WestConnex project underway in Sydney. We will get the Gateway Motorway extension underway in Brisbane. We will get the duplication of the Pacific Highway from Newcastle to the Queensland border done by the end of the decade. All of these changes are important to you because your customers need good roads, your suppliers need good roads. Australians, whether they’re families, private citizens or businesses need to be able to get on with their lives and not be stuck in endless traffic jams.
And there will be fair dinkum engagement with Asia under an incoming Coalition government. There will be a new Colombo Plan that will be a two-way street sending our best and brightest to Asia as well as welcoming Asia’s best and brightest here. Forty per cent of high school students will, within a decade, be studying foreign languages, predominantly Asian languages and you’ll never find under a Coalition government disasters like the unilateral suspension of uranium sales to India or the cataclysmic live cattle trade ban with Indonesia.
Everything the next Coalition government will do is designed to make our people and our businesses more productive and to make our economy more competitive because that is the key to building a better Australia with a better life for all its people.
We understand in the marrow of our bones – in ways which many people in this building who should know better don’t – that you can’t have a strong and cohesive society, you can’t have effective communities without strong economies to sustain them and you can’t have a strong economy without profitable private business. Government does not create wealth. Public servants do not produce wealth. In the end, only business produces wealth; only private citizens produce the real wealth which is at the heart of the better society and the stronger country that all of us want to build.
The final point I want to make is that a Coalition government will work with you, not against you. Some of you would know about my time as a minister in the former government. I don’t claim that I was perfect. I would never claim that I was perfect, but certainly one thing I always strove to do was to listen to the people whose lives and whose enterprises my decisions impacted. First, do no harm. That ought to be the fundamental rule of government, as well as the first law of medicine. I understand that. I’m not sure that my rivals in the Labor Party do, but I promise you that should we form a government after the next election we will listen to you, we will respect you and we will try to make your life easier.