House debates

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010

Second Reading

11:00 am

Photo of Petro GeorgiouPetro Georgiou (Kooyong, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I was in the chamber to hear Kim Beazley’s brilliant valedictory speech. One of the distinctive things he did was to thank people at the beginning rather than at the end of the speech. Expressions of gratitude are too often truncated by time constraints, so I will emulate Kim’s example.

One of the nice things in my case about getting older is that the black list shrinks while the white list, the debts that cannot be repaid, grow. I thank my mother, Anastasia, and my late father, Costandino Georgiou, for their enormous affection and commitment to their children despite the pressures and anxieties of migration. I thank my children, Costandino and Alexia, who, while still very young, felt the impact of my involvement in politics. Dino is in the gallery today; Alexia has unfortunately been caught in the fog in Melbourne. They are admirable young people. I thank Roxanne, who is everything.

I thank my friends who have held me to my true compass through their support and by administering frequent and systematic beatings. I am grateful to have too many friends to thank them all individually, but they include Jo Szwarc, whose towering intellect has been totally committed to defending the vulnerable; Michael Kapel, a truly remarkable political talent; Ted Baillieu, whose devotion to the public good is unsurpassed. I also thank Alister Drysdale, Peter Wilkinson, Tony Staley, Giancarlo Martini-Piovano, Colin Rubenstein, Bret Walker, Brian Burdekin and Anna Cronin.

Friends embrace staff: Andrew Manton, whose enormous capacities helped me to survive my first years in parliament; Helen Morris, my long-suffering secretary, for whom I worked for 21 years; Eleanor McKinna; Kelly Sexton; and Tony Conheady. These people and all my other staff over the years have enabled me to perform far beyond my capacities.

I thank my colleagues in the coalition, the Independents, third parties and those on the other side of the House. I thank Russell Broadbent, Judi Moylan, Judith Troeth and Bruce Baird. We have lived through some interesting times together. I will miss seeing them regularly. They embody the Liberal Party’s traditions of strength, independent thinking and compassion.

There is a special portal in the parliament. It makes people patient, sensitive, trustworthy, objective advisers and true defenders of the parliament. Unfortunately, passage through that portal is restricted to the clerks of the House of Representatives. I thank all the clerks I have known over 35 years. I thank the Parliamentary Library, Parliament House staff and Comcar drivers. I thank them for their indefatigable efforts to make an unruly parliament work.

I thank the Liberal Party and the electorate of Kooyong. Kooyong is the birthplace of the Liberal Party. I have worked for the Liberal Party for most of my working life. As state director, as policy adviser and as a member of parliament, I have worked in pursuit of the Liberal Party values of enterprise, opportunity, incentive and social justice. I am grateful to the party in Kooyong for their support,  and I thank Haddon Storey, Bill Clancy and Paula Davey for their work as my electorate chairs. The party in Kooyong is one of the powerhouses of liberalism and I wish it well.

I have been genuinely humbled by the support I have received from the Kooyong electorate. Occasionally, some try to dismiss Kooyong as one of the ‘leafy suburbs’, populated by doctors’ wives. I note in passing that leafy suburbs have been the backbone of the Liberal Party and that ‘doctors’ wives’ have always been at the heart of Australia’s rural and urban communities. Not to recognise this is to disregard our historic traditions and our current realities. Kooyong is an open-minded and forward-looking electorate. Our people are active and socially responsible, with real insights on local and national issues. They are forthcoming in expressing their views, needs and values. It has been a great honour and a great privilege to have been able to serve them as their parliamentary representative.

I would like to thank the press gallery. In the interests of transparency, I wish to disclose the following: my first media interview was with Laurie Oakes in, I think, 1975, for the Australian Playboy. I was a total novice. He was very fair to me. But I can truly say that I only bought Playboy for the articles.

Journos, like politicians, can be good, bad or indifferent. They face imperative challenges, deadlines, the complexity of material and occasional misbriefing by interested parties. The good ones are full of insight and have a capacity to communicate with Australians and make politicians accountable.

This is my 16th year in the parliament as the member for Kooyong and it is my 35th year in politics. I first sat on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1975 as an adviser to Malcolm Fraser, having brought some of the Khemlani telexes to Canberra as the coalition was blocking supply. Gough Whitlam’s brilliant parliamentary skills defending a government that was weakened was mesmerising, as was the remorselessness of Malcolm Fraser’s attacks. The fact that the supply crisis did not harm Australian democracy attests to the resilience of our political system. The fact that Gough and Malcolm reconciled years ago is a tribute to their stature as national leaders. To those who have sought to denigrate Malcolm Fraser, I just want to say one thing: Malcolm’s fusion of political toughness with compassion and social conscience is simply beyond their comprehension.

I have been enormously privileged to have worked personally for Liberal parliamentary leaders over the last 30 years: Malcolm Fraser, Andrew Peacock, Jeffrey Kennett and John Hewson. Some have broken through; others have not. My respect for their commitment to creating a better Australia is boundless. Nobody forces people to be leaders but, nonetheless, the responsibilities they volunteer to shoulder and the pressures they are subjected to are almost inconceivable. It is unfortunate that our political culture takes partisanship to the point of corrosiveness. I think our political leaders deserve more respect than we give them, regardless of which party they belong to.

I came into the parliament at the age of 47, having been at the sharp end of partisan politics and also having contributed to public policy through the establishment of SBS Television and the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs. I was strong in my view of what the Liberal Party stood for and confident in the common sense and fair-mindedness of the Australian people. I believed that politics was a tough business. There were two dominant parties, they were in conflict, they had power and they had resources. They were strong and evenly matched. They punched and they counterpunched, and sometimes low blows were landed. In my view, however, scapegoating the vulnerable was never part of the political game. I still believe this.

Not all politics is confrontation. Main force clashes, negative advertising and attempts to score lethal blows at question time—all too often unlethal—do dominate. But there are some less confrontational arenas. In parliamentary committees, the focus is on working cooperatively to inquire into issues of national significance and to scrutinise the executive. In my time on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, for instance, the committee, which included Senator Robert Ray, whose knowledge of the electoral system is as legendary as his lack of political tender-mindedness, managed to bring down three unanimous reports on the electoral system. This sort of cooperation provides some relief from a political landscape that is, generally, bleakly partisan. It should be highlighted more often.

Eleven years of my term was as a member of the government under John Howard. With Peter Costello as Treasurer, its economic achievements were remarkable. We enjoyed strong economic prosperity and record low levels of unemployment, and Australia was left with an enormously strong economy. These achievements should not be belittled and I do not think that they can be denied.

During my time in parliament, a number of developments caused me grave concern. The emergence of the pernicious influence of Hansonism stirred up racial prejudice; multiculturalism, one of Australia’s unique accomplishments, was denigrated; asylum seekers were subjected to increasingly harsh measures; our civil liberties came under challenge after September 11; and the proud Australian tradition of inclusive citizenship was, without sound justification, reversed.

My experience in politics leads me to value party discipline highly. On some issues, however, I was unable to support the position of the party majority. A Liberal member of parliament has the right to do this. The Liberal Party has changed over the decades, but the right of Liberal parliamentarians to differ from the majority of their colleagues on matters of individual principle and conscience has endured. The belief that party discipline does not override individual principle is built into the very foundation of, and is the very reason for, our party’s existence. In recent months there has been efflorescence within the party of the right to dissent—dissent over climate change and alcopops spring to mind. I may have differed with my colleagues on their position, but I unequivocally endorse their right to dissent. Hopefully, we will never again hear a member of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party brand colleagues ‘political terrorists’ because they took a stand on principle.

I have not differed from the majority without considerable reflection and deliberation or without speaking with my colleagues and my party leader—and I have always known the consequences of my actions. Ultimately, however, being a member of parliament, especially a member of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party brings the responsibility of speaking with one’s own voice on matters of principle. I am grateful to the many members of the public, and in particular Liberal Party supporters, who have expressed their respect for my actions, even when they have disagreed.

It is my conviction that public policy is served when members of parliament feel able to speak publicly about deeply felt concerns, even when their views do not conform with those of the majority of their colleagues. I believe that the public good was promoted by the attempt by myself and others to have the Commonwealth intervene to override the Northern Territory laws which jailed children for minor infractions such as stealing a bottle of spring water—laws which fell particularly harshly on Indigenous children. We did not succeed in getting the laws overridden; we did achieve the establishment of diversionary programs which effectively displaced jail.

I believe that Australia benefited from the reforms that flowed from the attempt of a number of us to introduce private member’s bills reforming the treatment of asylum seekers. Children and families were taken out from behind razor wire. The Ombudsman was made responsible for publicly reporting on people being detained for prolonged periods. Thousands of people on temporary protection visas were given permanent protection.

I believe that the resistance to draconian aspects of the anti-terrorist laws and the introduction of a private member’s bill to establish an independent reviewer of terrorist laws—which was in essence taken up by the Labor government, with much reluctance—served liberal principles well. I do not pretend that our efforts had anything like total success. The Northern Territory laws were not struck down. The policy of mandatory detention was not abolished by either the Howard or the Rudd government. What happened, however, was that the compromises achieved made a significant difference to the lives of thousands of vulnerable men, women and children.

For most of my life I have believed in the inevitability of progress. The reality is that many of the things that I believed were embedded parts of our polity—multiculturalism, the inclusiveness of Australian citizenship and the protection of civil rights—have been rolled back. Also rolled back has been a more decent treatment of asylum seekers. Until a few months ago I believed that the reforms made by the Howard and the Rudd governments meant that we had irreversibly turned the corner. I wrote that we were closing a dark chapter in our history. This chapter had seen men and women who were seeking refuge in our country incarcerated. It had seen innocent people imprisoned for longer than convicted rapists, robbers and kidnappers. Escapees from persecution were demonised and detention centres traumatised—not just the detainees, but their guards.

This chapter, I am afraid, has been reopened. Regression has become the order of the day. With an increase in boat arrivals, asylum seekers are being subjected to increasingly virulent attacks. The Labor government has frozen the processing of Afghani and Sri Lankan asylum seekers and is reopening the Curtin detention centre. Historically, Curtin is the most notorious of the detention centres, which have all been places of despair and self-harm. Opposition policies would turn back boats, process asylum seekers in undisclosed third countries and restore the destructive temporary protection visas. These policies are cruel. They do not have my support.

This regression does not reflect credit on either side of federal politics. Vulnerable people are again being made into a football to be kicked around in the interests of partisan politics. This is despite the facts and the best values of our society. The fact is that Australia’s punitive approach did not deter people coming to Australia. Mandatory detention, the charging of asylum seekers for the costs of their detention, the introduction of temporary protection visas and the Pacific Solution did not deter them. After mandatory detention was introduced, boat arrivals increased. After temporary protection visas were introduced, boat arrivals increased. Most of the people subjected to the Pacific Solution were found to be genuine refugees and resettled in Australia and New Zealand.

I do not believe that we have lost control of our borders. I do not believe that people smugglers determine who comes into Australia and who does not. We can support orderly processes, we can warn people against people smugglers and we can warn them not to risk their lives on unseaworthy boats. We have to realise, however, that escaping from persecution is not an orderly process. Desperate people do take desperate measures. But beyond the arguments about deterrence, and what causes what, is a more fundamental point. It goes to our obligations. I believe that we have a fundamental obligation as a nation to, at the very least, not further harm those who bring themselves into our orbit of responsibility by seeking a safe haven. We should not, as Australians, compound the persecution of genuine refugees by delaying their processing, locking them up in unnamed third countries or keeping them in insecurity on temporary protection visas.

I once said to journalist Michael Gordon:

In life there are many things that you’d like to walk past and not notice. Lots. But sometimes you do notice and when you notice, you have to do something.

I have noticed some things, and I have tried not to walk past.

Progress is not inevitable. It requires commitment, and it requires effort. There are setbacks and there are regressions. But I leave this place still optimistic that Australians will seek and find in their representatives, declarations and deeds that elevate hope above fear, and tolerance above prejudice. I am optimistic that they may be proud of the laws made by their parliamentarians and the contribution they make to help build a fair, decent and civil society for quickly coming generations. We here each bear a responsibility for our nation’s calling and our nation’s standing.

It has been a profound honour to serve the nation as a member of the Australian Parliament. I am proud to have been part of this place during this time. Thank you.


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