Remarks, Sydney Institute Dinner

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Speech
13 Dec 2021
Pyrmont, NSW
Prime Minister
E&OE

PRIME MINISTER: It is wonderful to be here with you all this evening and to Jane, welcome to the Emerald City, our Emerald City. How good is it to see so many of us here tonight in this one room? It's a sight that we haven't been able to see for quite a while. It's terrific looking out, you all look splendid. Fantastic. 

Can I begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people, of course. Can I acknowledge their elders past, present and emerging. Can I also acknowledge any members of the Defence Force who are with us here this evening or who have served in our Defence Force. I was with the President of Korea today, and we talked about the road from Kapyong to Canberra in the relationship with Korea. And those more than 17,000 Australians, I should say, who served in Korea. And this has been a nation of service that has called on the men and women of our Defence Forces on so many occasions and on each and every occasion, they have not been found wanting, but it was special today to hear them acknowledged in the kind and thankful way by the Korean President. Can I acknowledge, of course, Gerard and Anne Henderson, it's wonderful to be with you. We've had this date set for a couple of years. There's been one or two things that have got in the way that has prevented us from coming together. And so I'm so pleased I can be here with both of you and thank you for the great work you do over such a long time with the Sydney Institute and to Jacquelynne Willcox, of course, and all the board of the Sydney Institute. I've got many colleagues here tonight. I hope they've listed them all. Bridget McKenzie, Paul Fletcher, Michael Sukkar, David Gillespie, Tim Wilson, is here. Stuart Ayres, the deputy leader of the Liberal Party and Minister here in New South Wales, and there are many other state and federal parliamentary colleagues, and I heard Eric Abetz was here as well. It's great to have you up from Tassie. The good news in a couple of days, Eric, you'll be able to go home and that will be terrific. I mean, he can get back across the border, I would love Eric to stay with us. And, of course, to Mr and Mrs Howard, to John and Janette Howard, you are for so many Liberals and so many who have served in the parliament and have had the great privilege to serve in the role I have, the standard. And I mean that for both Jenny and I. We look so much to your example each and every day and you blazed that trail for us. And I'm so pleased to see how, even after these many years since 2007, a room like this, the first person they'll want to shake hands with tonight is John Howard and Janette Howard, and it's wonderful to be in your presence. 

It has been quite a few years, hasn't it? These last three years. Floods. Fires. Drought. Pandemic. Mouse plague. I turned to Josh Frydenberg one day in cabinet, I said, I think it's time we let your people go, Josh. Hopefully that's not too soon. It's that sort of night. But we're on the road back. We're on the road to recovery. We're on the right track. But we know the future remains challenging. We live in an age of disruption, technological, economic, political, biological. And as we turn the corner into 2022, it's timely to reflect on what matters most. As we seek to secure Australia's future in an uncertain world. The pandemic has touched every aspect of our lives, how we live, how we work, how we connect with one another. Each outbreak and mutation from Alpha to Omicron has tested nations, communities, families and each and every one of us. It's been a disorientating time. Yet it's also been a time of uncommon clarity. Underscoring what matters most to us as Australians. Our health, our families, our friends, our jobs, our livelihoods, our communities. How the country's governed. Our national sense of fairness. Our country, our liberty. 

In a truly global pandemic, Australia's response has been a positive standout. We have saved lives. When you weigh it against the OECD average for performance, we've prevented the deaths in this country of around 40,000 Australians. Just reflect on it. We have one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID. We protected our health system with more than $33 billion from the federal government in additional investment, bolstering services for those in greatest need through telehealth, record mental health support and so much more. As Jane has just said, almost 90 per cent of Australians aged over 16 are today double dosed and will be by the end of the week, which is one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. And just last week, Australia was ranked second. Second out of 195 countries in the 2021 Global Health Security Index, which is a measure of countries’ preparedness for pandemics developed by the Johns Hopkins Centre and the health security in the United States. We have saved livelihoods. Our economy has been one of the strongest performing advanced economies in the world through the pandemic. And I particularly want to pay tribute to Josh Frydenberg and his role as Treasurer, working so closely with me on those issues, as indeed Greg Hunt has on the health matters in the pandemic. Jobs and businesses were saved by the single largest economic rescue package in our history. Our economy is now springing back with more than 350,000 jobs created in a five week period after the lockdowns were lifted. And through the crisis, we have maintained that Triple-A credit rating, one of only nine countries in the world to do so, and we stepped up to support our neighbours and our family in the Pacific, delivering vaccine doses and the wherewithal to get those vaccine doses to their people in 14 Pacific and Southeast Asian nations, including up there in Timor-Leste as well, while keeping our economic supports for those countries firmly in place. 

This evening, I want to talk to you about three take outs, my own take outs from this testing time in our nation's history and explore how we intend to apply those lessons and that experience garnered to secure Australia's future as a government. Firstly, the best bet you can always make, especially in a crisis, is to bet on the Australian people each and every time. Australians possess a quiet confidence, it's not boastful, it's a confidence and desire to do better, to aspire to live in peace and safety, to be able to care for others. It's a confidence to think big, but not big note, to be responsible for our own individual actions and those of our families and to strive to be in control of our future. And it's this quiet confidence that has built this country. Established our freedoms, our system of democracy, our economic strength and our ability to thrive as a nation. It's a confidence that enables us to believe that whatever happens, whatever comes our way, we can push through. We can deal with it and preserve our unique and enviable way of life. During the pandemic, our confidence has been put to the test, but it has not been found wanting. Our way of life has been put on hold. While necessary, it is not normal for government to tell Australians where we can go and can't go, who we can and can't invite into our homes, to stay home, to close our businesses. It is not normal to keep track of where we've been. Not be allowed to visit friends or relatives. To go to funerals and to weddings. Or go out to dinner or to the pub. None of these restrictions belong in the lives of Australians. Australians don't like it. I don't like it. Yet for the greater good, we have done it. We have denied ourselves in that way. And we got on with our lives despite the conditions to be as best as we possibly could be because we knew it would be temporary. We knew that on the other side was something that we will never, if ever we did, take for granted again: our freedom. And so Australians kept their side of the deal. And it is now time for governments to keep theirs. To step back. And let Australians step forward. To put Australians back in charge of their own lives, relying on the connecting points and relationships that exist between the state and the individual to bridge the gap. Our communities. 

Edmund Burke, as former Prime Minister Howard would say, I still think of him that way, as John Howard would say, Edmund Burke's Little Platoons, the myriad networks of family faith groups, schools, workplaces, big and small sporting clubs, book clubs, you name it. Why do I stress this? Because I believe that some on the left of politics will draw precisely the wrong lessons from this pandemic. Where it is viewed as a pretext for more expansive government. A greater government role and reach into society across economic, social and cultural domains. They sometimes refer to it as build back better or build back stronger. But that's what they mean. This would be a profound misjudgement. In light of both our liberal democratic inheritance and what lies in front of us as we secure our recovery. The reach of government in this pandemic is not some new norm, and it will not be under our government. It has a use by date. You know, by instinct, more than ideology, Australians support effective, practical, yet limited government. An enabling partner, not a meddling busybody overseer. Government that delivers tangible benefits to people's everyday lives, that empowers people to make and pursue their choices. That opens the door for each generation and each individual to the promise of Australia. Economic opportunity and reward for hard work. A fair go for those who have a go. Can-do capitalism, a strong social safety net when times are tough and a country that always holds true to the best traditions of liberal democracy in an uncertain world and is prepared to stand for it. Where government delivers the essential services that Australians rely on while also keeping their tax burden down as much as possible, enabling Australians to keep more of what they earn. Where the state facilitates rather than dictates. Where it knows its role, but it also knows its place. An important take out. 

The second take out from the pandemic, is you've got to get the balance right. I don't pretend as a government we've got everything right. No nation has through this pandemic. Our institutions are made up of human beings, after all, and a pandemic is a fog of radical uncertainty. There is no guidebook. And nor do I pretend that those of us who have been in positions of leadership and public responsibility were able to agree on everything. It's not how pluralist democracies work, and it's certainly not how federation works. Federations are designed to have appropriate checks and balances on centralised power.

As a federal cabinet, we have made the big calls, and by and large, I think we've got the balance right. We called the pandemic before the rest of the world and shut our borders. National emergency biosecurity orders were enacted. We made it clear that our job was to save lives and save livelihoods. That there was to be a balance struck right from the outset. The national cabinet was established at leader level to coordinate responses at that level as best as possible. It has met a grueling 57 times. The National Cabinet is not perfect, but it's certainly better than what was there before, having experienced both. And we have done better as a nation and our federation than almost any other federated system in the world. The national coordination mechanism was mobilised to deal with supply chain challenges, the COVID commission was established importantly to engage the private sector in the national response. JobKeeper supported around four million individuals and one million businesses, saving an estimated 700,000 jobs. And that was backed up by cash flow boost for business, the COVID JobSeeker supplement and pandemic disaster payments more recently in the third wave. We kept Australians learning when they couldn't be earning. With wage subsidies for apprentices, the billion dollar JobTrainer programme an additional 30,000 university places this year. And we got that vaccination job done. With now one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Now it wasn't easy and we had our challenges and I can assure you we had our critics. But in a crisis, what matters is not that you have setbacks. And we had them. But it is that you can overcome them and you can fix them. And that is what we did, clawing back the ground we lost early on due to the non-delivery of vaccines from overseas and restrictions placed on the AstraZeneca vaccine. We overcame it. Our national plan for reopening was developed based on world leading scientific advice from the Doherty Institute. We are one of the few countries in the world to set scientific vaccine thresholds to guide public health settings. And we followed a disciplined cabinet process. We met constantly with clear decision making principles to guide these big calls that had to be made and the serious investment of public funds. And we brought together the best economic and scientific advice and data. And then we made decisions, not officials, we as a government, as the elected leaders of the country. We made the decisions for our government. We were decisive, but we were also consultative. We kept our heads and we were patient when necessary, while we waited often for sometimes a clearer picture to emerge. But at all times, we were pragmatic. We wanted to defeat the virus, not debate it. As John Howard advised Josh and I, there is no place for ideology in a crisis of this nature. So when the pandemic hit. We had already as a government established our working rhythms. It was not our first rodeo. Most of us had sat around the National Security Committee and Expenditure Review Committee for some years, and I can tell you that when you face these things, that matters, it matters a great deal. And this enabled us to move quickly and with confidence. And so over these past 20 months and indeed far longer than that, the operational tempo that we set as a government, the way we've done things has made us even more experienced, even more prepared, even more resilient, which equips us as a government for the next set of challenges that our nation faces. And there will be many. Many more in the years ahead. And you don't want to leave that to those who'd be learning on the job. 

Thirdly, we must always make our own Australian way. This is a very important lesson. Australia has its own unique geography, governance, capabilities, challenges, relationships. We are a liberal democracy in the southern hemisphere, located in the Indo-Pacific, surrounded predominantly by developing economy nations. And despite shared values, we see the world from a different vantage point to many like minded northern hemisphere democracies such as the UK and the United States. We have developed our own balance between market and state based systems for the delivery of services and health is a very good example of that. And we must always deliver a solution then that works for Australia rather than just do a cut and paste job on responses from other nations operating in very different economic, strategic and even climatic settings, as we've seen in a pandemic. COVID has shown that Australia works best when also public and private realms work in tandem in active partnership to solve problems and meet national challenges. And I've seen this reality every day through this pandemic, from leadership by corporate CEOs, many here tonight, right through to the little platoons in the regional towns, the CWAs, the chambers of commerce, the church communities that have kept our society humming and whole. Just witness the outpouring of neighbourliness across our country. Australians devoting time to deliver meals, to check on the elderly or just listen to someone coping with the stresses of loneliness and isolation. 

I think what's been achieved by a mix of public and private health care providers has also been extraordinary. Flexing and responding in a way that consistently got the job done on the COVID front line. And I thank all of those workers right across our health settings who have done such an amazing job. Our large public and private hospitals and pathology teams sharing the load right through to local GPs, community pharmacies all doing their part. Yes, please give them round of applause. I think of the way many large corporates also worked with our government. Not just to support their employees. And keep them COVIDSafe and their customers, but to actually act in the national interest at a time that demanded it and put aside their own interests in a time of crisis, I saw it so many times. And JobKeeper was the largest of those partnerships. It was a uniquely Australian solution. We didn't go down the path that others thought we should and criticised us for not doing. We went down a very Australian path. JobKeeper was an Australian idea. It effectively nationalised private payrolls and employers to deliver income support, with businesses committing to keep their people on their books, banks providing the cash flow and the government paying the bills. It was a unique solution for Australia that ensured that those queues that you saw outside Centrelink ended and people got the income support that they needed to face the next day. 

And my message tonight to Team Australia is that we still have a job to do. Our goal should be to further develop and strengthen that spirit of partnership between government, the private sector and the community sector as we face the challenges and opportunities that are ahead of us. And yes, government has a vital role to play. We believe that. But we believe so do you. And we want to see all Australians play their part. When I became PM three years ago, I set out three goals. And as we look ahead, they continue to guide me and our government. Keeping our economy strong by securing this recovery so we can guarantee the essentials Australians rely on. Keeping Australians safe in an even more uncertain world, both at home and abroad, and taking our country confidently forward together, keeping Australians together. Indulge me as I just try and move through these fairly promptly. On the economy, the Reserve Bank forecast growth at 5 and a half percent next year. Job ads now at their highest level in 13 years and unemployment is expected to fall to four percent by the middle of 2023. Business confidence is strong and capital expenditure intentions show a positive outlook for business investment. Households and businesses have accumulated a staggering $370 billion on their balance sheets that was not there at the start of the pandemic. So our economy is primed for growth. But securing that recovery in 2022 can't be taken for granted, so we must continue to get the fundamentals right. We must continue our focus on these things. Lower taxes, building the infrastructure that is necessary, less regulation and sound public financial management. Having avoided the labour market scarring feared last year and the year before during the pandemic, we must continue to secure the workers we need for a jobs boom. The good news is this. We currently have 217,000 apprentices in trade training across the country right now. That is the highest level since records began in 1963. That's a lot. So the investments we’ve put into training, we have seen skills as the key economic challenge that we face going forward. And we've backed that in in this budget alone, most recently with $6.4 billion committed to skills and training. 

In addition to that, a couple of weeks ago, at the speech the Business Council identified four economic beachheads that we need to take in Australia to move forward comfortably and recover and reopen to the world. Enhancing links between business and universities. So we turn Australia's great research into successful products and companies. This remains a big challenge, and our trailblazer universities initiative is designed to address that. Embracing the data and digital economy so we can become a top 10 digital economy by 2030. And Jane is leading that charge. By taking our place in the new energy economy through our technology focussed emissions reduction plan and technology partnerships. Another signed today with Korea. And securing the transformation of our manufacturing sector through our government's modern manufacturing strategy. You know there's a million Australians working in manufacturing today? We've restored that. Under Labor one in eight manufacturing jobs went. These are the beachheads Australia must continue to claim and win in coming years to support a business-led economic recovery. The challenge of keeping Australians safe begins at home working with states and territories. Our government is close to finalising the next national plan to end violence against women and children. The most recent budget invested a further $1.1 billion, the largest ever commitment by a federal government in that area. We will continue to introduce new laws to keep Australians safe online, and we will take on Big Tech. One of the greatest fears that parents have for their children, particularly girls, growing up in a completely different digital world than the one we grew up in. Our critical infrastructure assets are more than ever reliant on technology for the delivery of their services and everything from our communications networks to the stable distribution of our electricity grids, the functioning of satellites and financial services essential for daily retail transactions. That's the world we live in. But you know, over a third of all incidents reported to the Australian Cyber Security Centre over the last 12 months have been for critical infrastructure assets. They're targeted, and the potential for massive disruption is very real. And I want to pay special tribute to the leadership and public service of Andy Penn, who's here tonight, who has contributed enormously to the development and implementation of the government's $1.7 billion cyber security strategy as chair of the Industry Advisory Panel. I thank everyone for their role in it. 

When Parliament returns next February, the government will pass further legislation to lift the security and protection of Australia's critical infrastructure. We need the support of industry to get this done. Internationally within our region and further afield, we've been pursuing Australia's interests, standing up to coercion and supporting a world that favours freedom and the rule of law. This involves working even more closely with partners and allies and like minded nations, just like I was today with the President of Korea. In 2021 alone, we have sealed the elevation of the Quad, together with India, Japan and the United States providing an active and positive force for stability and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, driven by leaders including development of critical minerals, supply chains, critical technologies and the coordination of vaccine supply. The landmark AUKUS Agreement, a new trilateral security partnership between ourselves, the United States and the United Kingdom, geared to the emerging security challenges of the 21st century, including accessing the technology for nuclear powered submarine fleet. The only other country to do that was the United Kingdom in 1958. This is essential to our long term security and has been long sought after. The first ever comprehensive strategic partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, based on a shared vision for a free and resilient Indo-Pacific. And the first comprehensive free trade agreement negotiated with the UK post-Brexit. Now the common thread in all this is plain enough. These are big national plays for big strategic stakes where we must protect Australia's interests, and we have been doing so. 

Finally keeping Australians together. A nation, a government must always prioritise national unity and social cohesion. We are the most successful immigration and multicultural nation in the world, and we intend, thank you, we intend to keep it that way with a sustainable migration programme that gets the balance right. Keeping our borders secure. Avoiding population pressures on our infrastructure and services, particularly in our major cities, and meeting the Labor needs of our economy, as well as our family reunion and humanitarian obligations. And we will continue to ensure that our economic recovery strategy places a strong priority on women's economic security that Jane is leading. Our most recent budget committed $1.9 billion over four years to support employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for women, increase retirement savings and improve the affordability of child care. 

From my first days as prime minister, I've made a point of ensuring the interests and everyday concerns of those living in rural, regional and remote Australia are never far from my view or the government's view. First place I went was to Quilpie to go and inspect what was happening with the drought. I've stayed in touch with the family over these past few years. As you know, this year saw our government commit to net zero emissions by 2050, and I won't pretend this was easy. Our pathway to net zero for rural and regional Australia is designed to be a net positive that respects their way of life and protects their economic future. The fact that we found this not the easiest things to do, I think says very clearly to rural and regional Australia, we understand their sensitivities and concerns and we can be most trusted to protect them. You know, we either grow together or we grow apart, and we cannot allow that to happen between our rural and regional communities and our cities. Our pathway to net zero is about growing together. And once again, an active and engaged and durable partnership between government, business and local communities will be vital. This is something our government is very committed to with our major investments in clean hydrogen industrial hubs, carbon capture and storage and renewables projects from Bell Bay in the South to Darwin in the north, from Gladstone, the Hunter and Latrobe Valley in the East to the Pilbara in the West. The right policy settings, I remain supremely confident, I'm sure Bridget agrees, that it's regional Australia will continue to be an attractive, prosperous and vibrant place to live, work and raise a family, for at least one in three Australians, as it is today. 

So friends, over the past three years, we have worked together to bring Australia through some of the most difficult challenges we have ever faced. Our success has been built on the resilience, strength and quiet confidence of the Australian people. It has been supported by the actions of our government that has worked hard to get the balance right and chart a uniquely Australian way through this crisis and into the future. And so as now 2021 recedes into the rear vision mirror, our government's sights are firmly through that windscreen on the road ahead. We know it will take the experience we have gained together over these past difficult years to see Australia through the next set of challenges, to secure Australia's success, to secure our economic recovery, to keep Australians safe in an uncertain world. And to keep Australians moving forward together, stronger, safer, together. Thank you very much for your kind attention.