House debates

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Parliamentary Representation


4:33 pm

Photo of Robert McClellandRobert McClelland (Barton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

on indulgence—I appreciate the indulgence of the House and the presence of those members who have come into the House—and indeed Senator Brandis has come across, which I appreciate. In preparing this, my last speech, I went back to the time of my first speech. But it was not my first official speech; it was actually a speech on a condolence motion for Mick Young. Mick, and my father, I suppose, were my political mentors. I had regard to Mick's impact on our nation's history and, indeed, political history and I think it is fair to say that Mick, as much as anyone, was responsible for bringing the Australian Labor Party from the language of class warfare to being a party that aspired to, and was capable of, governing for all Australians. Indeed, Mick proposed what was unthinkable to many in those days: he proposed establishing links with business. The business community then provided advice, established relationships and, in many cases, helpfully provided support. If Mick had not taken that step, the Australian Labor Party, I would suggest, would have remained unelectable.

It was, in fact, by building on Mick's legacy that the Hawke and Keating governments were able to draw together the combined resources of government, employers and the trade union movement to develop the Accord. I think that period of the Accord, from an economic point of view, had as much as anything to do with Australia coming into the 21st century as a modern economy. Indeed, it was during Mick's time that the famous 'It's Time' campaign was launched by Gough Whitlam in Bowman Hall in Blacktown in November 1972. Many of us can recall that famous speech where Gough stood up with his stature and commenced with the words, 'Men and women of Australia'. Those words were, in fact, used by Ben Chifley to launch the campaign in 1943, but Gough has subsequently confirmed in an interview that the use of those words, 'Men and women', was deliberate, conveying an intention of the Australian Labor Party to govern in the interests of all Australians.

I am very proud to be the parliamentary representative of a party of such a tradition of bringing Australians together to act in the national interest, and I agree entirely with statements that have recently been made by the member for Hotham and the member for Batman that that tradition is inherently part of the tradition of Labor that we all have a responsibility to live up to. Indeed, it is a tradition that is very relevant to my electorate. My electorate of Barton is a remarkable area but the people are even more remarkable. It is very old in many ways, one of the oldest electorates in terms of people over the age of 60, but it is also very young, with 42 per cent of the electorate either coming from overseas or having a parent who was born overseas. What we have seen there is a snapshot of a real Australian success story: first-generation migrants coming out and often working in very menial jobs but, through their commitment to hard work, their commitment to family and their commitment to education, we are now seeing second and third generations who are literally leaders in their community—doctors, lawyers, accountants and professionals of all descriptions, very successful tradespeople, local business people and, indeed, political leaders at all levels of government. Can I at this point most significantly thank the people of Barton for their support for me in electing me and re-electing me on five successive occasions.

Obviously the highlight of my political career was the period that I spent as Attorney-General. But I can say that even there my experience as the member for Barton influenced the decisions and actions that I took. For instance, in implementing the Human Rights Framework that arose from the excellent report by Father Frank Brennan, I had very much in mind my constituents as a snapshot of Australia. The framework requires legislation to be assessed against Australian's human rights obligations. Indeed, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by the Hon. Harry Jenkins, the former Speaker, who will also be making his valedictory speech next week, is a committee that very much engages with the community to give them the opportunity of providing input on how their rights have been affected. This is relevant not simply to so-called minority groups but very, very relevant to regional Australia, where in many cases services are still lacking when compared to their city cousins.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the very valued friendships I have made across both sides of the chamber. I know that Dr Mal Washer will be giving his valedictory speech later this afternoon. From my point of view—and I think it is a universally held view—Mal is one of the finest men that I have ever met, and he will be a real loss to the parliament, as indeed will other members.

I also specifically acknowledge the relationship I have had with those members of the opposition I have been a shadow minister to and who, indeed, have been a shadow minister to me. Obviously in a political environment you do not always see eye to eye, but I can say that, on each and every occasion I dealt with them—in this case they were men—they dealt with me in good faith and I never, ever once questioned their motives, and those motives were to act in the best interests of our nation. I think voters expect nothing more from their elected representatives and they are entitled to nothing less than that from their elected representatives.

It is very fortunate that Senator Brandis has come across to the House, for which I thank him. In my capacity as Attorney-General obviously I had most to do with him. We obviously had our disagreements but, on every occasion we had discussion, those discussions were cordial and constructive. Anything said in confidence remained in confidence and matters that could be resolved were resolved and, indeed, many successes from our collective point of view—that is, the parliament's collective point of view—were achieved. For instance, George's support for legislation amending some 80 pieces of legislation to remove discrimination against some same-sex couples was vital, as indeed was his support for introducing legislation to prohibit capital punishment from being reintroduced in Australia, which was potentially controversial. I am proud of the fact that both houses of parliament unanimously passed every bit of legislation in that context. That was in substantial part as a result of the support and decency, I thought, of Senator Brandis during that process.

My colleague the member for Batman spoke the other day of his relationship with state and territory counterpart ministers through the ministerial councils that are a vital part of the effective functioning of our federal system. Could I also add to that—and I am sure he would agree with me—the contribution made by representatives from New Zealand. I am fortunate to say that I have made a lifelong friendships from those associations. I think collectively we can be very proud of our achievements.

If I had had a little longer in the role of Attorney-General—and I must say I did want a little longer—there were several things I would have liked to have finished. One of them—we almost got there but not quite—was the establishment of a national legal profession. I think that is important. I take this opportunity to express my appreciation in particular for the work of the New South Wales Attorney General, Greg Smith, and also the Victorian Attorney-General, Robert Clark, and their stellar support in that project. I wish every strength to their collective arms in further progressing that. I think it is a particularly important step. If a national legal profession is established it can literally be a trailblazer to business throughout Australia taking advantage of the massive opportunities that now exist in Asia.

The second issue that I should place on record is—again, I think it is fair to say—our collective concern as attorneys-general with the issue of Indigenous justice. That includes the rate of victimisation but also the rate of incarceration, particularly of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. If I can have a further indulgence within an indulgence to give an example of that: I toured Kununurra and went on a night patrol with the local police. They took me to the township of Kununurra and standing on the street corners were teams of young people, some as young as eight. They expressed concern that later in the evening there was every prospect that those people would get into trouble. They then took me to the suburbs where these kids lived and you saw the reason they were on the streets. Quite frankly, the suburbs were dysfunctional because of the mayhem that alcohol had caused, and that was the reason the kids were on the street.

The advice of the police as to what they thought would help them was a drop-in centre and being a minister—and people will have this opportunity after this election—it was relatively easy to find the $250,000-odd from departmental resources to establish such a drop-in centre. I visited that centre some 12 months later and saw about 40 kids. Some were playing basketball, some using computers and some watching videos—all in safety. It was pointed out to me, and I think tellingly pointed out to me, that the $250,000 that the department had easily found was the cost of detaining one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child in juvenile detention for a year. I think those figures are telling. That is obviously a simplistic example of a very complex problem, but I think it just underlines what can be done—again on a very limited scale. All attorneys-general really want to focus on that issue and I think the time has come where not only the rates of victimisation but also the rates of incarceration, bringing down those rates, need to be made part of the Closing the Gap targets.

I will not continue on the ministerial councils for too long, but could I also acknowledge the work of the ministers on the emergency management side of the equation, who also made an excellent contribution. One of the outstanding things we collectively did was the establishment of the national emergency warning system, which has now sent out some seven million messages and, in the next few months, will probably become the world leader in its capacity to send out location based warnings for wherever someone's telephone headset is.

Again, by way of indulgence—as I suppose I am entitled to do at this stage of my career—can I compare my experience as Attorney-General, intimately involved in the national security side of the equation in the national security infrastructure, to that of my experience in my role as emergency management minister. I can say, unequivocally, that the capabilities we have in the national security area—the structures, the systems, the infrastructure—is world-class. It is absolutely best practice. Regrettably, I cannot say that in respect of the area of emergency management. The reality is that Australians are going to suffer far greater loss, injury and, unfortunately, loss of life from natural disasters—even greater than we would from a terrorist event—and we have not given enough attention to that area. In particular, we tend to have a focus on showing empathy with individual payments that are made after an event. It is appropriate that we do show empathy and provide some assistance for those who have suffered, but the task, I suggest, should be shifting the resources to the front end—to preventative measures—to prevent them suffering injury and loss in the first place, or at least to mitigate the extent of that. I think that is something that requires a dedicated Council of Australian Government meeting in itself.

Can I briefly express my appreciation to the public servants I worked with. I must say that I found them to be outstanding and, at risk of blurring the separation of powers, could I include court officers and judicial officers in that, as well as the outstanding service we receive in this House through the parliamentary officers who, despite the highly-charged atmosphere, have the universal respect of every member of this House. I think that is very important. It is my view, having observed the public service in operation—and having observed for a long time the parliament in operation—that we are doing so well as a country because of the quality of public servants, despite the shenanigans that can often take place in the parliamentary side of the equation.

I will move to those who have been, at a personal level, vital to the success I have had in parliamentary life. I thank my staff—many of whom are up in the gallery today—and that obviously includes my electoral staff, who have been outstanding. One of them I inherited from Gary Punch and one of my ministerial staff I inherited from Philip Ruddock, and they are both still with me. Among the ministerial staff, I should also specifically acknowledge the departmental liaison officers. There were no distinctions in my office; they were all equally valued and they were certainly all equally dedicated and competent, and I thank them for the assistance that they gave.

As with all members, my friends, supporters and party members have all been crucial to our electoral success. I suppose, like all members, I am embarrassed to reflect that in many instances I only contacted the friends in recent years to invite them along to a fundraiser or to ask them to hand out on holding booths, and I daresay they are going to call me to account with lunches that I need to repay in the coming months—but that is something that I will look forward to.

I will move into what is obviously the foundation for all our work, and that is the family. I have been blessed in that respect. My mother and father are still well and still very supportive. My father does not stop providing me with advice every day, and that is despite the fact that he advised me against going into parliament in the first place and instead advised me to concentrate on a legal career. There have obviously been ups and downs, but I have no regrets. It has been an honour to follow in his steps and, indeed, in his fathers steps, as part of that tradition to which I have referred. My sisters and their partners have also been wonderful. I have my three daughters here today: Caitlin, Jessica and Claudia. That is in descending order of age. I could do the reverse in ascending order of height: Claudia, at 13, is taller. My son David is currently doing an exam and is unable to be here. They have been a tremendous strength, and Michelle and I are incredibly proud of them. They have pointed out to me that, over the last 17½ years, I have been away for about seven of those, and that is something that I will make amends for—at least until they get sick of it.

I also thank them for their humour. My son, David, I must say, is terrible. His political observations are very clever. They are usually directed at me and the office that I do or do not hold—and at my weight—but they are always well meaning. When I get out, I might write a book on some of his contributions. I must acknowledge—but perhaps I should not—that I cringed at some of the tweets he sent to David Speers and some other journalists, but good-natured humour appropriately brings us all down a peg.

My wife Michelle has been my bedrock. In 1996, the only way I persuaded her to allow me to go into parliament was to give an iron-clad guarantee—which are often given in politics—that I would be out by 50. I am now 55, but she has tolerated that. For those who know her, she is a remarkable lady. She is not someone to be crossed, as people have found out, but she has been incredibly loyal to me and she has kept me grounded. If I can give you an example of Michelle, I recall that after the victory that the Labor Party had in 2007—obviously a big night—I woke up and I expected, hopefully, to get a phone call to discuss possible ministries and so forth. The first thing Michelle said to me was, 'Remember that retaining wall you promised to build after the election?' I said yes. She said, 'Well, it's after the election.' So, hangover or not, I was out there with the chainsaw and the sledgehammer building that wall. When she says, 'Do something,' you do it.

On this point, there is also the famous three-day rule that she has. Inevitably, as part of the democratic process, people will lose their seats, and inevitably we will be down as a result of that; the commitment to the work they have been doing and so forth will end. But she gave me three days. Invariably she would say to me after that time: 'Listen. You've been completely obnoxious for three days. Get over it or else.' Those who know Michelle knew that it was time to get over it. From the point of view of the McClelland household at least, she now holds an office that is far more significant than any I have ever attained: she was recently appointed as a director of St George Rugby League. When the coach finds out what a hidden weapon he has, she will be down giving the players a pep talk, and there is no question that we will make the final eight.

In conclusion, can I thank all those members who have paid me the courtesy of coming in. I thank all the friends and supporters. Indeed, I have a friend, Michael Forsyth—who is the General Manager of Kiama Council and who we went to primary school and high school with—who has popped in. Friends I have had throughout my life have been very important to me as well. I thank everyone once again. For those I have not thanked, I simply conclude by saying that I hope I have lived up to the support that they have been so wonderful in giving me. Thank you.


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