House debates

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Bills

Social Services Legislation Amendment (Interest Charge) Bill 2016; Second Reading

4:41 pm

Photo of Bruce BillsonBruce Billson (Dunkley, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

As my friend and colleague Broughy says, this year we are approaching 50 years since then. There were still Vietnam veterans in the soils in Vietnam whom we had not found. We were alongside the diggers who fought in Operation Hump—they could tell me the day they were there working with, I think, the 457th airborne. I cannot quite recall, but it was an American contingent. One of our great, courageous Vietnam soldiers died that day and it was so hot that we could not recover his remains. As a nation that wanted to do the right things, we could not give the family somewhere to grieve and to talk to their dad or relative. We did not know where they were. We said, 'We're going to open that box.' I was not even born when some of those men lost their lives, but I knew what I would want if it was my family member, and that was do everything I could to find their remains. And do you know what? We did. We found them all and we brought them home. Operation Aussies Home and the leadership there—what a great piece of work, but it took some courage at a government level to say, 'We're not quite sure what's going on here, but let's have a red-hot go at it.' We had Australian tourists looking very much like they had military haircuts doing things in Vietnam, just asking questions and quietly going about their business. What a moment is was to be there at Richmond Air Force base when the remains came back. What a moment it was to be on the tarmac in Vietnam, with the military leadership of Vietnam, knowing that we were combatants way back then but were collaborators today. To see the dignity and respect for our fallen—what a moment. You can do that stuff as a minister. That is why being a minister is a great opportunity and a great honour.

HMAS Sydneywhere was it? No-one knew. We knew we had to find it. Six hundred and forty five men lost their lives on that ship and no-one knew where it was. I thought, 'That's not good enough. Let's find it.' We put in train those changes and brought about the very discovery that brought peace and comfort to the families whose loved ones had given their all for our country, and all of it with the great support of Prime Minister Howard.

Western Front commemorations are pretty big now. They were very informal, but, as minister, I changed that. We focused on the Australian experience on the Western Front, got an interpretive centre going and got Defence recruitment and retention right. Through-life care is a concept we know for our air frames and our tanks and our ships. We need through-life care for our people.

I got some firsthand insights about that while working alongside Defence long before I was a minister, but I also learned that the correlation and collaboration between Defence and industry was key through the white paper, which was some of my work, that profiled the Defence family as being a key part of the team. I have great admiration for the defence forces, both the people who are serving and those before them.

I was the face of overseas tragedy for a while, which was not quite what I had anticipated. After driving home one Boxing Day my phone started going off. I was Alexander Downer's parliamentary secretary; I looked after consular operations. Something big had happened in the Indian Ocean—something really big. I did not know the extent of the tragedy that was unfolding, what it looked like, but I knew that we could help, and to carry so much of the response of our nation to that tragedy for our region was an extraordinary honour and privilege for me. I had about 32 media interviews a day. Alexander said, 'You can do all of them unless it's a BBC domestic, because some of my mates might be listening'! They were long, hard and demanding days but they were nothing like the days that our military personnel and Foreign Affairs people faced.

We pinched the Prime Minister's jet to fly to Banda Aceh, which was the scene of a civil war at that time. Just to land and have no-one shoot at us was an achievement to begin with. We picked up Pak Untoro, an incredible, trusted Indonesian administrator, knowing that we had to do all we could to guard against corruption. We saw our Defence personnel going into the Ulee Lheu port, which did not exist because the tectonic plates had disappeared; we saw them go into the hospital up there and lift newborns' bodies off the wall—and you wonder why I think we have to look after those people.

We did our very best as a nation to help look after those who needed our help. We went further towards achieving one of the greatest things in our lifetime, which is the alleviation of poverty in our region. Hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of poverty in our time, on our watch and with our help. I even engaged Tony Jones, and paid him—sorry about that! Some of my colleagues thought that was a bad idea. As we worked through the aid white paper process and had public consultations, I double-teamed with Tony. Those consultations were tough, but explaining to some of my colleagues why I had picked Tony was tougher. We focused on economic opportunity in our region; that was our point. When Millennium Development Goals were being discussed, that was crucial. But the simple message I took to the floor of the UN in New York was that there is no antidote to poverty as durable and sustainable as economic growth. Our region was the story that gave that message meaning and life and persuasion. To have that run through the halls of the aid community was an interesting conversation.

There have been many highlights. Working in the Trade portfolio, they were trying to get the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations working, trying to revitalise the agreement with New Zealand—we are supposed to be one economy but, gee, it needed some work to streamline that; getting discussions going about trade opportunities in the gulf, knowing so many Australian companies were doing terrific work there; and working alongside our AusAID people.

Among the highlights as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration, Indigenous and Multicultural Affairs was being able to work alongside great ministers, and making sure migration agents and others were not ripping off hopeful and often desperate people. It was countless requests for ministerial interventions coming my way before going to Minister Vanstone on a trolley. It was seeing the humanitarian frame, inspired by this man as well, the man seated behind me in the chamber, a great humanitarian ridiculed unfairly. Philip Ruddock, I salute you; you are a very honourable person. It was knowing that there is a story of refugees and hardship that no-one hears about and that we as a bighearted nation stand up for them. They might not be on the front of the newspaper, but there are refugees who cannot leave a camp because they will lose their lives. Contrast that with the idea of paying a people smuggler when you feel like it, of moving freely whenever you choose and coming in and out of countries with no problem. Contrast that with the hardship of the people we do not hear about. I dedicated my work to them.

Another highlight is working with the Indigenous affairs community and learned much from Mal Brough, 'Broughy', who is also in the chamber. He is my cultural adviser. He called me 'goona'. I will not say what it means in his language. He was 'neejet' to me, and I will not say what that means either. It was understanding the role sport can play in the Indigenous community, seeing the appetite and hunger for economic opportunities, understanding that the greatest form of self-determination for Indigenous people, as they described it to me, was the chance for their own livelihoods and to make their own decisions. This was some of that work.

In multicultural affairs it was an interesting time. We saw in other countries that people's values and principles, which had helped build that country and make it great and a magnet for people from around the world, were being challenged or set aside in these very countries, which had relied on those foundations to make them so appealing. I remember proposing the concept of 'in our hands'. I put forward the simple thesis that if we are to maintain the great appeal of our country we should not be shy about what has made it great. We need to acknowledge the values and principles, the social norms, the respect, the freedoms, the pluralism—the fact that we have won life's lottery because we are Australians. It has not just happened by chance. There have been foundations and principles that have helped build that. I argued we should have a little thing going around the country, a sort of glorified sewing experience where we would have four frames. In one frame would be: 'We will put our heart into this country.' Another one would say: 'We share democratic beliefs here.' The third one would be 'the rights and liberties I respect'—we know that is the citizenship pledge. The last frame of that four-cornered square would be about respecting our laws: 'We will uphold and obey them.' The point was that you could bring your thread from wherever you had come. Whatever its colour, its creed, its cultural orientation or its ambitions for the future, you could bring that thread and you could either let it dangle outside the frame—and good luck to you—or you could add it to the fabric that we all provide, and you would be strengthened and nourished and supported by it, just as we would be. I thought we needed to do that and I still believe that to be the case.

Speaking of the honour of working with great ministers, there were also great prime ministers. Being in the cabinet of the Abbott government was an extraordinary honour and thrill, and I loved every minute of it. I apologise to my colleagues who thought I went too hard on the things I believed in, but, down my way, you go hard or you go home. The encouragement of Prime Minister Howard—he was designated as my mentor; I just liked talking to him—the wisdom, the insights and the personal feng shui—beautiful.

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